The Seahawks' first-year defensive coordinator discussed linebackers Austin Calitro and Mychal Kendricks' performances against the Bears, Shaquill Griffin's continued rise and where the team's pass rush answers need to come from.
The Seahawks’ defense was without Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Tre Flowers and the departed Tom Johnson in Monday night’s 24-17 loss at Chicago.
And yet, the Bears managed just 271 total yards.
Chalk that up as a small victory for Ken Norton Jr. and Co. Here’s what Seattle’s first-year defensive coordinator said Wednesday as the Seahawks prepare for Sunday’s home opener against the Dallas Cowboys.
Calitro fills the void
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No, he isn’t Bobby Wagner.
But in the place of Wagner, who missed Monday’s game with a groin injury (and is expected to return on Sunday), second-year middle linebacker Austin Calitro filled in admirably with a team-high nine tackles to go along with a tackle for loss.
“(I was) really happy with Austin,” Norton Jr. said. “Again, we had a lot of young players playing, and with the young players playing it’s going to make us better in the long run. But Austin really stepped in for Bobby. We didn’t lose much. He worked hard, made his plays.
“Obviously there’s going to be some rookie mistakes, but at the same time the effort, the football knowledge, the ability to make the play, the ability to be able to talk and be able to coach him in those hostile environments, I was very, very impressed with.”
Add that to the fact that Calitro — a 6-foot, 240-pound linebacker from Villanova — made his first career start on Sunday, played a different position (weakside linebacker) the week before and essentially called the Seahawks’ entire defense from the middle linebacker spot.
Still, Norton Jr. didn’t see that as too tall a task for the second-year Seahawk.
“I wouldn’t say difficult. It’s fun. It’s exciting,” Norton Jr. said. “It’s what you always wanted to do, to play football at the highest levels. Sometimes you get what you asked for. He got it, and I think we bring all of our young players up for the opportunity to play.
“Everybody comes here to compete and for the opportunity to play. Nobody wants to back up their whole career. So Calitro got his chance a lot sooner than he thought, and we felt like with his improvement, with his growth throughout the offseason and the preseason, we saw him as a guy that could play. He can play this position and he stepped in very well.”
Kendricks impresses on the fly
Mychal Kendricks signed with the Seahawks late last week, then immediately logged 54 defensive snaps in the loss to the Bears on Monday. The 5-11, 240-pound linebacker — who pleaded guilty last month to a felony charge of insider trading but will not be sentenced until January at the earliest — finished with three tackles, one sack and one costly near-interception that resulted instead in a long reception.
But on the whole, Norton Jr. was impressed with the seventh-year linebacker’s smooth transition to a new team and scheme.
“Very happy,” Norton Jr. said. “He came in (and had) two or three days to really put a lot of defense on him. To his credit, he’s a veteran. He understands ball. He understands defenses and there is a lot of carryover. So there were a lot of things that we do that were just like what he does with a different team that he came from.
“The language was the biggest barrier – understanding the language. I really felt that, for the short time that he had to play and the short time that he had to learn, I was really impressed and really happy with what we got out of him.”
It seems that Seahawks will need more out of Kendricks this week, as veteran weakside linebacker K.J. Wright again missed practice on Wednesday while trying to return from arthroscopic knee surgery. Head coach Pete Carroll said that he has been assured by the league office that Kendricks will be eligible to play on Sunday.
He’ll have more time to prepare this week.
Even so, Norton Jr. said the short turnaround between Kendricks signing and starting wasn’t as big of an issue as one might think.
“I’ve done it before,” Norton Jr. said. “(Linebacker) NaVorro Bowman came in on a Monday (in Oakland last season) and we played him on a Thursday and he started and he got the game ball. So we’ve had this happen before and you just have to teach him the main thing of certain defenses and really do a great job of getting him in the packages that you feel like play to his strengths.
“There are some packages that he’s in, some that he’s not. But the ones that he is in, you really (need to) understand the main thing and his main responsibility and how it works with the other guys. He’s a guy that has played football before. He’s not a rookie. So he understands the concepts of ball. To his credit, he was able to play at a high level and represent himself well.”
No pass rush panic
The Seahawks have managed just three sacks through two games, ranking tied for 25th in the NFL. Defensive end Frank Clark has two of those sacks. Kendricks owns the other.
It’s not an overreaction to conclude that Seattle needs more from everyone else — guys like Barkevious Mingo, Quinton Jefferson and Rasheem Green.
But Norton Jr., for one, isn’t about to panic.
“Just keep practicing, keep developing, keep working,” Norton Jr. said. “It’s still early in the season, but at the same time it’s a matter of just work. In the history of ball, it’s about work, getting better and finding different ways to get the quarterback off his spot.”
One player the Seahawks were counting on to do that is defensive end Dion Jordan, who has played just 29 snaps in the first two games as he recovers from a stress reaction in his shin.
Is it possible that Jordan is ready for a more extended role?
“It kind of depends on health,” Norton Jr. said. “It kind of depends on how players react to the load, to the reps. Dion has a situation where he had missed a lot of camp because, so now it’s important that we work him back in at a good rep count.”
‘No limit’ for Shaquill Griffin?
The Seahawks’ most impactful defensive player on Monday was second-year cornerback Shaquill Griffin, who snagged interceptions on back-to-back first half drives.
Monday’s output represents clear progress for Griffin, who managed just one interception in 15 games last season.
“You can see he’s a guy that really understands the corner play,” Norton Jr. said. “He knows how to go up and get the ball. He’s really fast. He understands his technique, and there’s no limit for how good he can be.
“It’s just a matter of practicing, continuing to learn, continuing to improve and then the good stuff starts to come.”
The Seahawks will need Griffin to produce more good stuff going forward, especially considering that rookie (and converted safety) Tre Flowers is expected to start on the other side. The team’s more established option at cornerback, Dontae Johnson, remains on IR with a hip injury.
The Tom Johnson Era ends
Tom Johnson played exactly one game as a Seahawk.
The team released him late last week in order to promote safety Shalom Luani to the active roster, with the idea that the Seahawks could re-sign Johnson this week once safety Delano Hill and cornerback Tre Flowers returned from injury.
Instead, Johnson signed with his former team, the Minnesota Vikings.
That leaves an unexpected hole in the middle of the Seattle defensive line.
To fill it, the Seahawks will likely rely on veteran Shamar Stephen and a pair of young players — Nazair Jones and Poona Ford.
The Jones-Ford combo combined for just one tackle in the loss to the Bears on Monday.
And yet — at least publicly — Norton Jr. didn’t waver.
“They stepped in,” Norton Jr. said. “They’re on the team because they’re pretty good football players and we have a lot of confidence in their ability or they wouldn’t be here. They can step in and play and we really understand that those guys are going to be in the rotation. We expect a high level from them.”