The Seahawks defense did one thing particularly well in 2019 — force turnovers.
The Seahawks forced 32 en route to a plus-12 turnover ratio, each third best in the NFL. Those numbers, combined with the wizardry of quarterback Russell Wilson, are the biggest reasons they finished 11-5.
Forcing that many turnovers is kind of a conundrum.
The Seahawks forced their most turnovers since forcing 39 in 2013, the year they won the Super Bowl powered by what will forever be regarded as one of the best defenses in NFL history.
The defense last year was pretty much the worst of the Pete Carroll era by any other statistical measure, rivaled only by his first team in 2010. Last year’s defense allowed the second-most yards in franchise history (6,106).
Turnovers, of course, can be a little bit fluky. One key to the Seahawks’ total last year was recovering 16 fumbles, second most in the NFL, which is a stat that can vary wildly from one season to the next. A prime example: The 2014 team dropped to 24 forced turnovers despite having essentially the same personnel.
When last season was over, Carroll wasn’t fooled.
“We were not consistent,’’ Carroll said in his season-ending news conference. “We gave up too many big plays.’’
Carroll and general manager John Schneider set about remaking the defense, a process that actually started at midseason when they acquired free safety Quandre Diggs from the Lions.
When the dust settled (though with the Seahawks, it never really does, does it?), they had a defense that in 2020 figures to feature seven different starters from when the 2019 season began, as well as a different nickel corner.
“Smarter, faster, tougher,’’ Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said midway through training camp in a Zoom interview with media members about how he felt the changes had improved the defense. “… As far as speed and attitude and aggressiveness, we really like our direction.’’
The big question remains whether the Seahawks did enough to improve a pass rush that managed just 28 sacks last season, tied for second fewest in the NFL. That question looms especially large after the inability to bring back end Jadeveon Clowney, the one spot they haven’t made what they could reasonably sell as an upgrade.
The Seahawks appear to be relying on the combination of young players Rasheem Green and L.J. Collier taking over the strongside end spot that Clowney held last year, which may feel like a lot to ask.
But the Seahawks can claim that the rest of the line will be better, helping offset any drop-off from losing Clowney. They added Bruce Irvin, Benson Mayowa and rookie Alton Robinson to the LEO/rush end spot, and at some point, rookie Darrell Taylor will join them.
While the Seahawks are optimistic they’ll play better up front, they think improved secondary play — with the additions of Diggs (for a full season), Jamal Adams and Quinton Dunbar and the emergence of Marquise Blair at nickel — will allow for more man-to-man coverage, more sacks because the quarterback will have to hold the ball longer and a more aggressive scheme.
Norton has said Blair could make a huge difference, allowing the Seahawks to go back to playing nickel defense more than last year’s 30%, by far the least in the NFL.
“When you have a really good nickel who can cover that slot, that makes us a really good man-coverage team and a good blitzing team from that nickel slot,’’ Norton said.
In camp, Adams proved to be everything the team hoped for, on any given day alternately picking off or batting down a pass and making a sack within the span of a few plays.
Adams’ ability to pressure from the secondary will give the Seahawks a weapon they’ve never had in the Carroll era, and a player who may create some big plays simply by causing confusion in the opposing offense.
“He’s a playmaker,’’ Norton said.
Diggs has become the leader of the secondary, tasked with handling an easy-to-overlook role — getting the back end aligned properly. The Seahawks’ revolving door at free safety since Earl Thomas’ Seahawks career ended early in the 2018 season contributed to some uneven play in the back end.
“(Diggs) really calmed the secondary,’’ Norton said.
Then there’s the linebacker spot, where veterans Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright will continue to man the inside spots, and in camp, anyway, are showing no signs of slowing down even they’re at least 30 years old.
The Seahawks think their linebacker depth will be vastly improved with Brooks’ arrival and Cody Barton’s maturation. They could find their way on the field in sub packages, especially the speedy rookie Jordyn Brooks, and with Irvin filling the strongside backer spot in the base defense.
This defense might compel Carroll to do something fans spent the offseason clamoring for: Letting Russ Cook more.
One reason Carroll wanted to play it close to the vest offensively last season was a wariness to put the defense back on the field quickly when it was giving up yards and points in bunches.
Norton said he thinks the secondary could be one of the best the Seahawks have had in a long time. But when pressed to try to compare it to some of the others in recent history, he hedged and said that applies to the defense as a whole.
“They’re gonna have a lot of opportunities to show how good they are,’’ Norton said, again via Zoom. “It’s one thing to talk about, it’s another thing to go out and make plays and be about it.’’
Then and now
Here’s a look at the defense that started the 2019 season opener against Cincinnati and what the starting defense could look like in 2020.
Strongside defensive end
2019: Jadeveon Clowney
2020: Rasheem Green/L.J. Collier
Comment: OK, it’s hard to say this spot is an upgrade. But Green and Collier should each be better than they were a year ago, and expect the Seahawks to also use lots of varying schemes up front.
2019: Al Woods
2020: Jarran Reed
Comment: Reed was suspended for the first six games a year ago and never seemed to find his 2018 form. The Seahawks hope a full season will allow him to do that.
2019: Poona Ford
2020: Poona Ford
Comment: Now in his third season, Ford can be a free agent at the end of the year, which is always a motivating factor.
2019: Ziggy Ansah
2020: Benson Mayowa
Comment: The Ansah experiment was a disaster from the start. The Seahawks won’t just call on Mayowa to fill this spot but also the likes of Alton Robinson and Bruce Irvin, a group that should at least be deeper.
2019: Mychal Kendricks
2020: Bruce Irvin
Comment: Kendricks was solid when healthy, but it seemed telling that Norton and Carroll said several times in the offseason Irvin is the best strongside linebacker they’ve ever had.
2019: Bobby Wagner
2020: Bobby Wagner
Comment: Wagner strongly resisted the idea there was any drop-off in his play a year ago, and seems fired up as ever to show he’s still the best MLB in the game.
2019: K.J. Wright
2020: K.J. Wright
Comment: Not that there’s reason for concern with Wright, who is healthy after offseason shoulder surgery. But should he stumble, first-round pick Jordyn Brooks is waiting in the wings.
2019: Shaquill Griffin
2020: Shaquill Griffin
Comment: He showed vast improvement in his second year on the left side last season. Now he’s playing for a big contact as he enters his free-agent year.
2019: Tre Flowers
2020: Quinton Dunbar
Comment: Dunbar seemed headed for a Pro Bowl berth with Washington last year before a late hamstring injury.
2019: Bradley McDougald
2020: Jamal Adams
Comment: McDougald was solid, but Adams brings a different dimension with his ability to rush and cover, and should give the Seahawks the kind of intimidating presence over the middle it hasn’t had since Kam Chancellor.
2019: Tedric Thompson
2020: Quandre Diggs
Comment: Some might regard this as the biggest upgrade of all. The Seahawks played their best defense last year when Diggs manned the back end, and he’ll be there from day one.
2019: Ugo Amadi
2020: Marquise Blair
Comment: The Seahawks began last season with Amadi playing the nickel spot before bringing back veteran Jamar Taylor, who was cut at midseason with Amadi eventually getting the job back, though mostly Seattle just kept Kendricks on the field. Blair has been a revelation in fall camp, and might give them their best nickel back in years if he plays in games as well as coaches say he has in camp.