First-year Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. talks about linebacker K.J. Wright's return, Seattle's pass-rush prospects on Sunday, the team's surging secondary and more.
The Seahawks defense is as healthy as it has been all season.
Not only that, but Seattle (3-3) will arrive in Detroit on Sunday on the heels of 1.) a bye week and 2.) a dominant display in a 27-3 thrashing of the Oakland Raiders in London. But can that group continue its upward trend against the surging Detroit Lions?
Here’s what first-year Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. had to say about that and more on Wednesday.
Wright’s return benefits Wagner
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After missing the first six weeks of the 2018 season with a knee injury, veteran linebacker K.J. Wright is expected to suit up against the Lions.
How much better will that make the Seahawks’ youthful defense?
“K.J. is a special player. We’ve missed him tremendously,” Norton said. “But at the same time, the guys that have filled in for him did a really good job. Really happy about the (job) they did – the guys stepping in and giving us depth. Now we know we have good depth.
“But now with K.J. back, we’re not expecting a drop off. ‘Be the same guy (as when) you left, KJ.’ Having his veteran presence – just having him in the huddle – it makes everybody better. The communication is better. Our IQ gets better. We’re really excited to have him back on the field.”
The guy who improves most, believe it or not, may be four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Bobby Wagner, who has 18 tackles in four games this season.
“They just play well together. There’s a certain comfort zone,” Norton said of Wright and Wagner. “I think when one of them is in there alone they kind of feel like they have to make up for the new guy in there. When they’re both working together, they really play well together. They really work off each other.
“It’s not often that two guys can play that often and that long together like they have, and it’s a really special bond that they have.”
Preparation precedes the pass rush
The Seahawks managed 10 sacks in their first five games this season.
They had six in their near-shutout of the Raiders inside Wembley Stadium nearly two weeks ago.
So what — other than the Raiders’ deteriorating offensive line, which ranks 17th in the NFL in sacks allowed — precipitated the Seahawks’ sudden breakthrough?
“We always put a lot of value into preparation, practice, really getting the guys ready, really honing in on the value of studying and watching your opponent,” Norton said. “We really felt like, with the plan that week, with the travel that week and the time that they had spent – 10 hours on the plane – they had plenty of time to study their stuff.
“So we expected a lot of them, and they came out and played really hard.”
It won’t be quite so easy to produce again on Sunday, against a Lions offense that has allowed just 10 sacks this season (ranking fifth in the NFL).
That Detroit offensive line has allowed quarterback Matthew Stafford to pass for 1,602 yards (67.6 percent completions) with 12 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
“We have to play well. It comes down to us and how we show up,” Norton said. “There’s leverage. There’s tackling. Stafford doesn’t do it by himself. He has to use his weapons around him. He’s got some pretty good receivers. He’s got some pretty good runners. We have to really take away the running game, put him in obvious situations, and then we have to cover their receivers, who are really good.
“We know what Golden Tate does, so we have our issues and our challenges with him. So it’s a team game. Stafford is a good quarterback. He’s been around. He’s seen a lot of things. He does a great job of getting rid of the ball really fast and they do a great job of protecting him. So we have a challenge. But at the same time he has really good weapons around him.”
Ford looming large for Seahawks
One relatively unexpected performer has been undrafted rookie defensive tackle Poona Ford, who has played in each of the Seahawks’ last three games and snagged two tackles against the Raiders.
Of course, Ford’s contributions weren’t so unexpected in Seattle.
“Poona’s no secret to us,” Norton said. “We’ve seen how well he’s played, starting back in minicamps and training camps and preseason. He’s been a really special person to us. The fact that we’ve had a chance now to get him on the field, with how hard he plays, how smart he is, he’s a shorter guy so he has really good pad level and he has really good leverage.
“He’s a ball player. He loves playing ball. The guys really take to him. He’s a guy that really shows up. When he’s on the field, you know he’s on the field. He makes plays. Any time you surround yourself with good football players making plays, it gives us a good chance.”
Granted, Ford may not look like a typical ball player. The Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year out of Texas is listed at just five feet, 11 inches tall, though he was also blessed with an unusually lanky 80 ¼-inch wingspan.
Norton said the 310-pound Ford’s size (or lack thereof) can actually make him a difficult match up.
“Guys that size have the ability to get under people and play leverage and they’re really strong,” Norton said. “Poona is exactly that. He’s strong. He’s really athletic. He’s a really good football player.
“So you really can’t judge the package. You have to understand what he’s made of, and understand football is about leverage. The low man wins, and he has all of that. Then he plays really hard. So once you add all of that stuff up, he plays harder and has better leverage than most bigger guys.”
Detroit running wild in recent weeks
The Lions ran for 248 yards and 7.1 yards per carry in their 32-21 win over the Dolphins last weekend.
Yes, those Lions. The traditionally pass-happy offense has embraced a running game built around rookie running back Kerryon Johnson, who went 16 picks later than Rashaad Penny in the 2018 NFL draft and churned out 158 rushing yards last weekend. The 5-11, 206-pound 21-year-old has rushed for 444 yards and 6.4 yards per carry so far this season.
“Detroit has been really special in their running game,” Norton said. “I think once they get their running game started you see the whole offense light up. They’ve been really effective and it really turns a lot of things on as far as the offense. It really helps the quarterback. But it’s exciting to see for them.
“The running game is something that we certainly have to pay a lot of attention to. When they run the ball really well, they’re very successful. When we stop the run, we’re really successful. So it’s their strength versus our strength. So it should be a really good challenge.”
What’s that about a strength? The Seahawks currently rank 24th in the NFL in rushing defense (120.7 yards allowed per game) and 25th in opponent yards per carry (4.7).
If that qualifies as a strength, the Seahawks may not have many weaknesses.
Seahawks secondary gains experience
Pete Carroll’s defensive secondary currently ranks third in the NFL in both passing defense (206 yards per game) and opponent passer rating (79.9).
Oh, and three of the team’s four starters — cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers and free safety Tedric Thompson — are first- or second-year players.
Granted, the Seahawks have been blessed by opposing quarterbacks like Derek Carr, Josh Rosen (who was making his first career start), Dak Prescott and Mitch Trubisky.
Not exactly a murderer’s row.
Still, Norton has been impressed by his secondary through six games.
“We’re happy,” Norton said. “It’s fun to watch them grow. Every week they’re learning new things. Confidence is really building. There’s no limits to how good they can be. They’ve done a lot of really good things. They’ve had tough games. They’ve had adversity. They’ve bounced back. They’ve had really good times and they’ve handled it well. Now we’re at this point of the season where we’ve learned a lot.”
That secondary has been led by standout strong safety Bradley McDougald, who touts 36 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles so far this season.
“He’s been really good,” Norton said of McDougald. “We’re very happy. He’s smart. He’s a really good football player. He has great football IQ. He’s all over the place. He tackles. We can put him on certain guys to cover to take them out of the game. So he’s a very valuable piece to this defense.”