RENTON — No player, team or position group in the NFL might have made a bigger about-face last season than the Seahawks defense.
Through the first half, the Seahawks defense was not only the worst in the league but on pace to allow the most overall yards and passing yards in NFL history.
But following a 44-34 loss at Buffalo — the most points the Seahawks had ever allowed in the Pete Carroll era — the defense embarked on an immediate and almost stunning turnabout.
Suddenly, a defense that had been allowing 456 yards per game didn’t allow more than 389 in any of the last eight games of the season. A defense that had allowed at least 23 points in each of the first eight games held five of its next eight opponents to 17 or less.
True, it helped that Seattle played by what any measure were predominantly worse offenses in the second half of the year (including all four teams in the NFC East).
But there was no question that the defense also simply got better.
The addition of Carlos Dunlap helped revive the pass rush, as did the return from injury of safety Jamal Adams. Seattle’s 24 sacks in the last seven games were tied for the most in the league.
The question now is whether the defense can pick up where it left off.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., whose future was the subject of much internet and media speculation at midseason, thinks it can.
“I think the guys are really, really confident,’’ Norton said Tuesday when he met the media for the first time during training camp following the team’s first padded practice. “We have some really good football players in the room. So they have a high expectation. And they feel like they are pretty good.’’
What isn’t in question is that the Seattle defense seems a lot deeper and more stable than a year ago.
During training camp in 2020, questions abounded about the team’s pass rush, particularly in the wake of the departure of Jadeveon Clowney, who didn’t sign with Tennessee until the weekend before the regular season started.
There were also questions about the secondary, and especially the cornerback spot, where Seattle was counting on Quinton Dunbar, whose offseason was marred by a lingering knee injury and an investigation into a robbery incident for which he was ultimately not charged.
Fast forward 12 months and while the Seahawks still have questions on defense, many of the answers found a year ago still seem to be in place.
Eight of the primary defensive starters at the end of last season return, all but left cornerback Shaquill Griffin, defensive tackle Jarran Reed and linebacker K.J. Wright.
The Seahawks, though, think they have answers to replace each.
Here’s a quick look:
Cornerback: Seattle signed free agent Ahkello Witherspoon to replace Griffin, who signed with Jacksonville, with D.J. Reed and Tre Flowers each back on the right side, where each played last season. Witherspoon has been an early camp standout, notably turning in pass breakups on consecutive plays in Monday’s practice.
“Ahkello is a guy that has a big body, he wants to pressure you, he’s really confident, and he uses his hands well,’’ Norton said.
Witherspoon and Reed are the presumptive starting corner duo, but Norton says the team won’t make any declarations soon saying, “I think you let it play out. There’s a lot of football left.’’
Defensive tackle: As surprising as any move in Seattle’s offseason was the release of Jarran Reed for salary cap purposes.
Seattle’s only real move to replace Reed was to re-sign Al Woods, who was with the Seahawks in 2019 before signing with Jacksonville and then opting out of the 2020 season.
But the Seahawks aren’t expecting Woods to play as much as Reed, who was on the field for 74% of the snaps in 2020. Instead, Seattle envisions Poona Ford becoming an even bigger factor in the defense as well as Bryan Mone, a third-year player whom the Seahawks kept on the active roster last year rather than Damon “Snacks’’ Harrison.
“We are really fired up about Mone,’’ Carroll said Monday. “He’s off to a great start. He lost a bunch of weight to get to where he is right now, and he’s still huge (officially listed at 345). I have a feeling that Al is going to be a really big factor for us, I’m really excited to have him back and he’s really fired up to be here.’’
Linebacker: The decision not to re-sign Wright also caught many by surprise, especially given Wright’s standout play in dual roles last year — strongside linebacker in the base defense and weakside linebacker in the nickel.
But the Seahawks had a plan that they feel is coming to fruition. The Seahawks are turning over the weakside linebacker spot to 2020 first-round pick Jordyn Brooks on a full-time basis to play alongside Bobby Wagner in the middle.
They also are giving 2020 second-round pick Darrell Taylor a chance to win the strongside job while also appearing to somewhat alter how that position looks. The SLB spot has usually been on the field only in the base defense, which is about 30% of the time in most games, coming off in the nickel in favor of an extra defensive back.
At the end of last season, Seattle often went with what is often termed a “bear’’ defense, meaning three tackles, two ends and two linebackers. In that look, not only could Taylor fulfill what are strongside linebacker roles, but Norton revealed Tuesday that Alton Robinson, Alden Smith and Benson Mayowa also can work there, essentially playing interchangeably as strongside linebackers and rush ends.
“Fortunately for us, they’ve been able to play both sides, the ‘Sam’ (linebacker) and the rusher ‘Leo’ position,’’ Norton said when asked specifically about Robinson and Smith playing strongside linebacker. “They’re like bodies on both sides, one rushes a lot, and one pass drops a lot but at the same time they are doing the same things. They’re smart enough and flexible enough to play both sides.”
What the Seahawks also need is to get Adams back on the field once he signs a new contract, something expected to happen soon.
Norton says the sky is the limit for Adams in Year Two with Seattle, which will only heighten expectations for the defense as a whole.
“He came into a new situation last year where he didn’t know a lot of the defense and had to learn it really fast,’’ Norton said. “We’ve had an offseason with him now, and he’s been able to learn all of the coverages at a slow pace because he hasn’t been out there. You’ll see more of a balanced guy, not just a blitzer. You’ll see a blitzer as well as a cover guy. He’s a guy who play both sides so he will certainly be more well-rounded.”