Clint Hurtt had achieved his career pinnacle of becoming an NFL defensive coordinator after 19 years as an assistant coach at various levels — and it wasn’t going well.
Through five games the Seahawks had sunk to the bottom of the NFL in most defensive categories. People were starting to wonder if Hurtt had already hit the same rut that led coach Pete Carroll to fire his previous defensive coordinator, Ken Norton Jr., after the 2021 season.
Hurtt, however, never lost faith. He knew the Seahawks had far more talent than the numbers indicated. He also knew he had to figure out a way to bring it out.
“I was obviously frustrated and pissed off, to say the least, but on the other side of it I know this: I’ve been through a lot harder things in my personal life,” Hurtt said. “Going through some tough issues in football, we just have to keep coaching our way through it, keep on battling and continue to show the support of the players of, ‘Hey, I’m with you, we are all in this thing together, and collectively we will get this thing done.’
“Even though it’s frustrating, you can’t go in the tank. There is too much football to play, and you just continue to persevere and keep on pushing.”
There are a variety of theories about the Seahawks’ stunning defensive turnaround the past three weeks — at least, the “how” and “why” part of it. The clinical numbers tell a precise story of the “what.” After giving up an average of 430 yards per game over the first five, they have allowed 290 over the past three — all victories. Projected over all games played, that would mark the third-best defense in the league.
Rushing yards allowed per game have dropped from 170 to 92, passing yards allowed from 259.8 to 198. Sacks have gone from six in the first four games to 13 in the past four. And points allowed by the Seahawks — the bottom-line stat — have been cut in half, from 30.8 to 15.0 per game. All of those are elite-level numbers, commensurate with the NFL’s best defenses.
After Sunday’s 27-13 win over the New York Giants, who were limited to 225 total yards — just 78 on the ground — Carroll praised Hurtt’s game plan. But he also had glowing words about how Hurtt had concocted his way out of the defense’s early mess without losing the confidence and buy-in of his players.
“I think he has done a magnificent job of keeping it together and holding the mentality in a position to where we could take advantage of when we start to make our move,” Carroll said.
“It’s not surprising. He’s such a big part of this program, a big voice, and all of that. I keep saying big, because he’s huge. He really did a nice job. It was noticeable. Guys were wondering; they were wondering where this was going. Me, too. We were all thinking that we had to get this rolling. We all just kind of put our heads together, stayed together, stayed connected, and now we are on the end of it, and we are trying to really build something big.”
As Carroll alluded, Hurtt’s girth is the first thing you notice about him. A 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive tackle at the University of Miami who coached Seattle’s defensive line the previous five years, Hurtt looks like he could still be rushing quarterbacks and plugging gaps. But Hurtt, who turns 44 next week, is on the other end of the headphones now, giving insight to linebacker Jordyn Brooks through his helmet speaker in the 15 seconds they are connected before each play.
Some have credited the Seahawks’ resurgent defense to some personnel shifts, such as Ryan Neal taking over as the full-time starter at safety. Others point to schematic changes that include using more nickel and dime packages, and emphasizing a one-gap style that allows linemen to be more aggressive by attacking instead of reading and reacting.
On the emotional side, players credit a players-only meeting after the 39-32 loss to New Orleans in Week 5, and the general frustration from that game, as a prime impetus. The result has been a gradual increase in the “confidence and swagger” that newly reacquired linebacker Bruce Irvin credits with fueling the defense. But in the chicken-or-egg equation, it took the Saints defeat to forge the changes that led to the attitudinal adjustment.
“For us up front, we feel like that was a game that got away from us,” defensive lineman Shelby Harris said. “It was a game that all of us should have played better, so it was a matter of how much is enough is enough. There are only so many games that you can come out of and be like, ‘Damn, we should have won, or we were one play away, two plays away, but when are you going to take that step and fix those one or two plays?’ Eventually, we all had to get together and just get it right.”
Asked for his own bottom-line explanation for the defensive turnaround, Hurtt replied: “Commitment from the guys on the staff to keep coaching hard and keep coaching the details, but obviously it starts with the players. The buy-in from those guys, they never wavered. Obviously, everyone was miserable. Our fans were miserable, the coaches, the players. It was not up to the expectation of any of us. But you could go one of two ways. You could point the finger, blame and say, ‘Well, this person is not doing this, coach is not doing this, or this player is not doing that.’
“That’s not what it’s about. We are all in this thing together and have to stay collective together as a unit. You can hold people accountable but still understand that it’s all of us together. We will fight our way through it. To see guys do that … the end result of that is that you see the unity in it, the confidence that it builds, and just continue to get better. We will see where it goes from there.”
To Carroll, the big question is not how it happened, but the converse: Where was it all along? The Seahawks have had a propensity for slow defensive starts in recent years. The coach was hoping that this year would be stouter from the start.
“I was surprised we were having so much trouble,” he said this week. “I couldn’t imagine it took this long.”
But now Hurtt has the Seahawks rolling. Here’s how Harris describes the big man’s style:
“Clint keeps it fun and keeps it loose, but it’s a tough-love, a tough-loving defense.”
For five weeks it was a tough defense to love. The Seahawks hope the current infatuation is permanent.