RENTON — Regular-season openers are always something of a leap into the unknown.
But it hardly needs to be stated that there is more unknown than ever before this year as the Seahawks and the rest of the NFL kick things off for real after an unprecedented offseason.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant all preseason games were canceled, training camp was somewhat curtailed, and little seemed normal.
So, while Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has been his typically optimistic self as the season has approached, and knows he has lots of sure things in players such as quarterback Russell Wilson, linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Jamal Adams, he acknowledged Friday he may have more curiosity about how things will come together this year than in most seasons.
“That’s asking the obvious in this one because we are dying to see where we are,” Carroll said when he spoke to reporters via Zoom Friday about how eager he is to see the Seahawks play. “We’ve been working really hard at it of course, (but) you don’t know until you get out there and start matching up and see what happens. It will be a good gauge for us and we’ll see where we stand.”
Among the biggest unknowns (aside from things such as what it will be like playing in a fan-less stadium): How an offensive line with three new starters will jell, and particularly how the surprise winner of the starting center job — Ethan Pocic — will command things up front; and whether a remade defensive line can apply more pressure consistently than a year ago.
But maybe the biggest curiosity is how Adams and the new-look secondary will perform.
For all the debate for how the Seahawks use Russell Wilson, the offense was hardly the problem for Seattle last season — Seattle’s 5,991 yards a year ago were the third-most in team history and seventh in the NFL.
But the defense allowed 6,106 yards, the second-most in team history, including 4,223 passing, the most in team history.
The conventional wisdom when the offseason began on how to attack that problem was to re-sign Jadeveon Clowney and add another proven pass rusher or two.
As you may have heard, the Seahawks didn’t re-sign Clowney, though they did add Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa as veteran edge rushers and draft Alton Robinson (and the still-injured Darrell Taylor).
What they also did, and to potentially far more impact, was rebuild the secondary, beginning with last October’s trade for free safety Quandre Diggs and then trades this offseason for cornerback Quinton Dunbar and strong safety Adams.
And the lack of a preseason means the first time the Seahawks will see that trio on the field together comes against an Atlanta team that has had one of the best offenses in the NFL for years powered by quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones.
Atlanta has been eighth or better in yards gained in the NFL every year since 2014 and last year threw the most passes in the league (684) and was third in passing yards (4,714).
As Carroll would say, the Falcons “are well-equipped” in the passing department.
Or as Irvin — who played eight games for the Falcons in 2018 — said this week, “It’s a good test for us and I’m interested to see how it’s going to play out.”
So is Carroll, who may not take more pride in anything when it comes to coaching than in assembling dominating secondaries.
He first made his name as defensive backs coach with Minnesota from 1985-89 when the Vikings allowed the fewest passing yards in the league in 1989 and were second in 1988.
His USC teams had a steady stream of standout defensive backs.
And along with Russell Wilson, the pivotal piece of his shockingly quick construction of a Super Bowl winner in Seattle was the Legion of Boom secondary.
That one came solely via the draft and free agency, Carroll and general manager John Schneider identifying promising college players (Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman) or unproven free agents (Brandon Browner).
Carroll went a different route this time with Diggs, Dunbar and Adams, all well-tested acquired via trades, and with the Seahawks knowing that at some point over the next two years they will have to pay up big to keep them.
But the payoff could be huge if the secondary can transform the defense, Carroll noting regularly that sticky coverage can result in sacks just as well as a good rush can.
In practices, Adams indeed proved to be the playmaker the team hopes he can be on the field, both in coverage and bringing pressure, while Diggs has been a steadying influence.
Dunbar has been in and out of practices of late for personal reasons, so his impact hasn’t been quite as noteworthy. But he should step into the right-cornerback spot, teaming with Shaquill Griffin on the left side to give Seattle what on paper should be more consistent play.
Then there is second-year player Marquise Blair, a backup safety a year ago who is now the team’s starting nickel.
Comparisons to the LOB are inevitable, though also far too premature at this point. But asked about the secondary this week, Carroll didn’t exactly tamp down expectations.
“I’m really excited about those guys and just the way the whole group is taking on an identity somewhat, with a real energy about them,” Carroll said of the secondary. “They’re really excited to play together. It’s a good group and they’re going for it and it’s really exciting to me. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the game to bring to life and it could be a real significant part of our football team this year. I can’t wait to see it get going.”