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With Ken Norton Jr. Out, Pete Carroll Needs to Bring Fresh Perspective to Seahawks' Defense

In his previous 12 seasons at the helm, Carroll has primarily had familiar names working under him as defensive coordinator. But with Norton officially on the way out, he must put personal connections aside seeking the best replacement option possible.

In 12 prior seasons as head coach for the Seahawks, Pete Carroll has typically preferred hiring defensive coordinators who previously have worked on his staff, whether at previous stops such as USC or New England or in Seattle.

After Gus Bradley departed to become head coach of the Jaguars in 2013, Carroll brought former Seahawks defensive line coach Dan Quinn back from the University of Florida as his replacement. Two years later when Quinn took his own head coaching gig with the Falcons, he promoted defensive backs coach Kris Richard from within as the successor. When Richard received a pink slip following the 2017 season, he turned back to former linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. to take the reins.

The lone exception to the rule? Carroll decided to retain Bradley, who served as defensive coordinator during Jim Mora Jr.'s lone season as Seattle's head coach in 2009, at the recommendation of friend and coaching legend Monte Kiffin when he first arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 2010.

Regardless of level, familiarity matters when head coaches face the task of replacing assistants on their staff. Carroll shouldn't be blamed or criticized for favoring coaches he has an extensive prior background with, understand his scheme, and share many of the same philosophical ideologies. For the most part, his choices for defensive coordinator have panned out well, as even Norton Jr. finished strong in his final two seasons despite having clear personnel limitations to work with.

But after choosing to dismiss Norton Jr. on Tuesday after four seasons as coordinator, Carroll faces a critical decision finding a replacement for the long-time assistant following a dismal 7-10 season. He needs to hit a home run with this hire if he wants to get the Seahawks back into playoff and title contention, which means he must be open to expanding his reach beyond his personal connections seeking out the best candidate.

Based on early reports, Carroll seems to be doing just that, keeping in-house options such as defensive line coach Clint Hurtt on the table as a candidate while also taking a close look at two assistants from former Broncos coach Vic Fangio's tree - Ed Donatell and Sean Desai - who may be able to bring a fresh perspective to Seattle's defense moving forward.

According to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN and Mike Dugar of the Athletic, the Seahawks have put in requests to interview both Donatell and Desai. It remains unknown whether either team will block those requests, as both remain under contract despite the head coaches above them being fired earlier this month.

Interestingly, the soon-to-be 65-year old Donatell has previous ties with Carroll dating back nearly four decades. After serving as a graduate assistant at Kent State and Washington, he joined the University of Pacific's staff as a defensive backs coach in 1983. At the time, Carroll was the Tigers' defensive coordinator and the two spent a lone season working together before he bolted to the NFL to take a job with the Bills.

The two coaching lifers would cross paths again seven years later when Carroll became the Jets defensive coordinator and Donatell joined the staff as a defensive backs coach in 1990. They spent the next five years together in New York, including during Carroll's one season as head coach before being fired.

Since then, Donatell has bounced around with numerous organizations and held defensive coordinator positions with the Packers, Falcons, and most recently the Broncos. He's been exposed to vastly different schemes and ideologies from Carroll's over the past two-plus decades, including working under Fangio for the past seven years in Chicago and Denver, and likely would bring new ideas to the mix if reunited with his friend in Seattle.

Case in point? While Fangio called the plays with the Broncos, Donatell was involved in the process over the past three seasons while coordinating two top-10 scoring units. This past season, per TruMedia, they ran Cover 6 on 19.6 percent of their defensive snaps, the highest rate in the NFL. They also deployed Cover 1 with man coverage underneath 31.8 percent of the time, the fourth-highest rate in the league, along with Cover 4 "quarters" coverage 11.1 percent of the time.

From an aggressiveness standpoint, an area Carroll reportedly wants to emphasize heading into 2022, Donatell's defense sent five or more defenders on 25.3 percent of opposing drop backs. They won't be mistaken for the "Blitzburgh" Steelers, but that ranked 14th out of 32 teams.

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Compared to Norton, Donatell and Desai leaned more heavily on Cover 4, Cover 6, and Cover 1 with man coverage underneath in 2021. Meanwhile, Gus Bradley stuck with his patented Cover 3-heavy scheme in Las Vegas.

Compared to Norton, Donatell and Desai leaned more heavily on Cover 4, Cover 6, and Cover 1 with man coverage underneath in 2021. Meanwhile, Gus Bradley stuck with his patented Cover 3-heavy scheme in Las Vegas.

Norton's Seahawks and Bradley's Raiders didn't finish in the top 10 in any notable defensive categories last season, while Donatell helped coordinate a top-10 Broncos scoring defense and Desai's Bears finished in the top five in passing yards allowed and pressure rate.

Norton's Seahawks and Bradley's Raiders didn't finish in the top 10 in any notable defensive categories last season, while Donatell helped coordinate a top-10 Broncos scoring defense and Desai's Bears finished in the top five in passing yards allowed and pressure rate.

In contrast, the Seahawks remained a Cover 3-heavy team, ranking fifth in the NFL using the single-high look 40.5 percent of their snaps. Though Norton did call Cover 6 on 12.3 percent of their plays, they ranked 31st in Cover 1 with man underneath and 24th in Cover 4 "quarters" coverage. Norton also sent five or more defenders against opposing drop backs far less with a 20.7 percent blitz rate.

Assuming Donatell would want to incorporate what he's learned under Fangio into Carroll's system, the Seahawks could check off the familiarity box given their prior ties coaching together while also bringing much-needed schematic wrinkles.

While Carroll has known Donatell for nearly 40 years, he doesn't have a previous connection with Desai, a 38-year old upstart who has survived multiple coaching changes in Chicago. Working his way quickly up the ranks after starting out as a special teams coach at Temple University, he served as the Bears defensive quality control coach for six seasons before transitioning to safeties coach for two seasons. During that time, Donatell and Hurtt both were on the same staff from 2015 to 2017.

Continuing his ascent up the coaching ladder, coach Matt Nagy pegged Desai as the replacement for retiring defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano last January. In his first season calling plays, the Bears ranked 22nd in scoring defense, but that metric didn't tell the entire story. Under his direction, they ranked sixth in yards per game, third in passing yards allowed per game, first in pressure percentage, and fourth in quarterback sacks.

Schematically, Desai's previous connections to Fangio are evident. The Bears dialed up Cover 6 on 18.6 percent of their snaps, second behind only Fangio and Donatell's Broncos. They also ran a fair amount of Cover 1 (22 percent) and Cover 0 (5 percent), two coverages the Broncos ranked in the top five in. If there's one stark difference, Desai leaned much more heavily on Cover 2, calling the middle of field open coverage at an 8.5 percent clip.

Though he didn't do it often compared to some teams, Desai also blitzed more than Norton Jr., falling in the same range as Donatell sending five or more rushers after the quarterback 24.6 percent of the time. That ranks 19th out of 32 teams.

On Wednesday, Tom Pelissero reported the Seahawks also requested an interview with Cowboys secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. The 14-year assistant spent the bulk of his coaching career with the Packers, but he has thrived working for Quinn, helping transform the Cowboys defense into the top turnover creating unit in the league this season.

Tabbing Desai or Whitt as Norton's successor would be quite the departure from Carroll's past three defensive coordinator selections. But an outside the box hire similar to the one made last spring to bring offensive coordinator Shane Waldron in from the Rams as Brian Schottenheimer's replacement may be just what the Seahawks need for their defense to return to top-10 status after a five-year hiatus.

With the ink likely still drying on Norton's pink slip, more candidates should be expected to emerge as possibilities to replace him in coming days, especially as other teams begin to hire head coaches and they fill out their respective staffs. Once the dust settles in that regard, Carroll should have plenty of options to choose from, including possibly bringing Bradley back if he's not retained by the Raiders. That would be far from the worst outcome after he found success with other organizations.

It's also possible the Seahawks could create a co-coordinator arrangement to keep Hurtt, who has been linked to the University of Miami's defensive coordinator vacancy, teaming him up with Donatell or another candidate offering a pass game coordinator background.

Regardless, if Carroll is serious about getting the Seahawks back on track, he has to be willing to embrace new ideas in some way, shape, or form. While familiarity still matters, sticking to status quo won't get his defense over the hump. Early indications suggest he may be accepting that reality by casting a wide net looking for the best coordinator he can find rather than just settling on a candidate he knows well.