As the Seahawks head into the summer, the biggest question regarding schematic differences in 2020 may not be about letting Russell Wilson pass more — though that will surely get plenty of discussion — but about the pass defense.
Specifically, will the Seahawks play more nickel defense in 2020 than they did in 2019, when they allowed more passing yards than all but five other NFL teams?
The easy answer is that they will, since they could hardly play nickel defense less than they did a year ago.
No team in 2019 played more base defense — meaning four linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs — than the Seahawks, who were in it for 68.8% of snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, or roughly 40% more than any other team.
According to PFF, the average NFL team was in a base defense only 27.2% of the time.
It was a drastic contrast from previous years, when Seattle was usually at the league average for playing base and nickel defenses.
The reason had as much to do with personnel as anything else.
When the Seahawks re-signed K.J. Wright and Mychal Kendricks in March, 2019, coach Pete Carroll announced the team planned to use three linebackers as often as it could because it felt all three (including middle linebacker Bobby Wagner) deserved to be on the field as often as possible.
Re-signing Kendricks and Wright dovetailed with not keeping Justin Coleman, who played the nickel corner spot in 2017 and 2018 before signing a four-year contract with Detroit worth up to $36 million with $16 million guaranteed (a deal Coleman signed as the Seahawks were working out extensions with Wilson and Wagner).
That they felt Kendricks was good in coverage for a linebacker allowed the Seahawks to think they could get away with younger/cheaper players at nickel, figuring they wouldn’t be on the field as much.
“We’ve always tried to draw from the strengths of our players, and that was one of the reasons that we did that last year,’’ Carroll said.
The Seahawks still have a potentially loaded linebacker corps, adding first-round pick Jordyn Brooks to compete with Wright at weakside linebacker, which could move Wright to the strongside spot (where Kendricks played last year), possibly splitting time with Bruce Irvin.
Irvin won’t be asked to drop into coverage much, and the Seahawks might not want Wright to do as much of that at this stage of his career, either.
That leads to the Seahawks playing more nickel, as does the fact that they could have more options to play the nickel spot than they had last year.
The Seahawks opened last season with rookie Ugo Amadi playing nickel after releasing veteran Jamar Taylor, in part so the team didn’t have to guarantee his entire year’s salary.
Taylor said the Seahawks didn’t promise him anything when he was released. But after they gave up 418 passing yards to the Bengals in a narrow win in the opener in a game in which Amadi hurt his shoulder, Taylor was re-signed.
Taylor was the nickel for the next 10 games before being released following the overtime win against the 49ers, with the Seahawks going mostly with Amadi and Akeem King at nickel the rest of the way.
Now, Seattle has Amadi back in his second year, and it added cornerback Quinton Dunbar to compete with Tre Flowers at right corner, which could allow Seattle to use one of those two in nickel situations (Dunbar was used occasionally in the slot throughout his career with Washington).
Carroll confirmed, when he talked to reporters via Zoom last week, that the Seahawks could consider using second-year safety Marquise Blair in some nickel packages in 2020, as well.
It’s not a new idea. Blair saw some regular snaps down the stretch last season when the Seahawks went to dime packages (meaning six defensive backs).
With veterans Bradley McDougald and Quandre Diggs back to fill the two starting safety spots (strong and free, respectively) the Seahawks will want to find ways to get Blair on the field in 2020.
“He’s a guy that we’re very interested in finding a role for him,’’ Carroll said. “We’ve already mapped that out. He’s got real special talents that we want to find a spot for him, not just to go along and complement the safety play that he’s going to play. So in the nickel package, he is going to get a lot of consideration to contribute in some additional ways, because he’s unique and got some special stuff.”
That might not mean Blair playing the nickel spot, but having a role in the nickel defense as the Seahawks mix and match of personnel.
Carroll noted Thursday that they were actually better in its base defense than its nickel last year. According to ESPN, the Seahawks allowed 7.25 yards per snap last year in the nickel or dime, the highest in the NFL, compared to 5.68 in base defense.
But between Amadi and Blair having a year in the NFL and Seattle having three cornerbacks on the roster with significant starting experience, the Seahawks have more seemingly reliable options to play more nickel defense in 2020, the safe bet seems to be that you’ll see more defensive backs on the field.
Not that Carroll was willing to give the answer away last week.
“I’m sorry I can’t give you the definitive there,’’ Carroll said. “But all of that has been in discussion, all of that has been in the process of how we’re approaching the season (of how) we can take advantage of the directions we may go depending on how the individuals contribute.’’