RENTON — No team played more base defense — meaning, leaving all three linebackers on the field — than the Seahawks in 2019.
Seattle had three linebackers on the field for 781 of 1,014 defensive snaps a year ago, according to statistics from ESPN, far more than any team in the league.
That was due in part because the Seahawks felt strongside linebacker Mychal Kendricks was good enough in pass coverage to leave him on the field and hopefully improve their run defense, and because none of the players they tried at the nickel corner spot really emerged.
Coaches have already hinted that the Seahawks will play more nickel and dime defenses this year (meaning, five and six defensive backs) with Kendricks having moved on and Seattle moving promising second-year safety Marquise Blair to nickel.
Thursday, when he met the media via Zoom, veteran K.J. Wright, while saying he didn’t want to “give away the game plan” said what has seemed apparent for a while now.
“I don’t think that’s going to be the case with the emergence of Marquise,” he said when asked if the team would play as much base defense this year. “Got to have Marquise on the field this year.”
The first test of just how much more nickel the Seahawks will play comes Sunday in Atlanta against a Falcons team that for years has had one of the best passing attacks in the NFL led by quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones.
The Seahawks actually played a fair amount of nickel defense against the Falcons a year ago with then-nickel corner Jamar Taylor on the field for 31 snaps, or 41%.
But it wasn’t overly effective as the Falcons threw for 443 net passing yards, the third-most the Seahawks have ever allowed.
Taylor was one of three nickel corners the Seahawks tried last year (along with Ugo Amadi and Akeem King) with varying degrees of success.
The Seahawks had already mentioned trying Blair at nickel this year after he spent last season playing safety (at times used in a dime package) before the trade for Jamal Adams.
But adding Adams to pair with Quandre Diggs at safety means Blair’s only way to get on the field consistently this year, barring injury, was as a nickel.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll has raved about how Blair has taken to the role, calling him earlier “the brightest surprise” of training camp.
That has apparently earned him what could be a fairly regular role on the field this season. The average NFL team last year played in a nickel 60% of the time and in a base defense just 25% of the time, according to FootballOutsiders.com.
The Seahawks were basically in line with usual NFL percentages on using nickel — they were third in the NFL in using a nickel 68% of the time in 2017 via FootballOutsiders — before the arrival of Kendricks, who, at 5 feet 11 inches and 240 pounds, had the Seahawks’ confidence in matching up against receivers.
A year ago, Seattle also felt leaving all three linebackers on the field the majority of the time could shore up a run defense that had been especially leaky in 2018, allowing 4.9 yards per carry.
The plan didn’t really work out, though, as the Seahawks again allowed 4.9 yards per carry in 2019 and gave up the most passing yards in team history.
In replacing Kendricks at strongside linebacker (he remains an unsigned free agent), the Seahawks went a somewhat different route at the position, bringing back 6-foot-3, 258-pound Bruce Irvin, who will play that spot in the base defense but then play as a rush end in the nickel.
Assuming Wright is right, the nickel package may be where Irvin gets much of his snaps.
Irvin predicts big things for pass rush
Irvin also spoke to media Thursday via Zoom about Sunday’s game, which marks a homecoming — Atlanta is his hometown.
Irvin is now 32 and has talked openly of his rough youth years, which included three weeks in jail when he was arrested on suspicion of burglary (the charges were later dropped).
“In my situation, I never thought I would be going back to Atlanta, playing my ninth year, 32 years old,” Irvin said. “It’s a great moment.”
Irvin also said he thinks the game will be a debut of a Seahawks pass rush that will surprise skeptics, especially those who question if Seattle can make up for the loss of Jadeveon Clowney.
Irvin said he knows people doubt the line “because we don’t got a so-called big name. … I’m really excited to go out and prove the people wrong and prove ourselves right.”
Wright says being ‘hardheaded’ delayed surgery
Wright also shed some light on the shoulder surgery he had in the offseason that general manager John Schneider later said helped contribute to the decision to take Jordyn Brooks in the first round.
Wright didn’t have the surgery until a few months after the season, close to the late-April draft. He said he was told at the time that he might not be 100% “until mid-September, mid-October.”
The Seahawks liked Brooks regardless, but thinking they might need an insurance policy for Wright likely eased the decision.
Wright said the delay in having surgery was his fault.
“I was being hardheaded,” he said. “They told me after the season, I should have got it done, but I hate surgeries. It’s not fun. So I thought I could just rehab it after the season. But it wasn’t happening. So I had to get it fixed.”
Wright made what Carroll earlier called “a marvelous” recovery to return to the field far ahead of schedule, on the field from Day 1 of training camp and holding onto his job as the starting weakside linebacker.
“It’s feeling nice and strong, and so I’m happy. I did it,” Wright said. “Should have did it earlier, but it’s all good.”
Duane Brown sits out practice; Will Dissly limited
Seattle’s injury report for Thursday was a little bigger than the day before, with left tackle Duane Brown listed as sitting out practice — he was limited on Wednesday — and tight end Will Dissly added to the report as limited.
Brown had surgery on his knee late last season and the Seahawks could just be limiting his reps with a game approaching.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer seemed to hint that the team was just putting Brown on a maintenance plan when he was asked about Brown after practice, saying Brown “is doing great.”
Dissly suffered an Achilles injury last October and Seattle may also be just limiting his reps.
WR Phillip Dorsett II (foot) and offensive lineman Cedric Ogbuehi (pectoral) were again listed as limited. And offensive lineman Jamarco Jones was listed as limited due to illness.