RENTON — As the Seahawks look to shore up their increasingly leaky defense, could they reinsert Ryan Neal into the starting lineup at safety in place of Josh Jones?
Coach Pete Carroll didn’t seem to rule it out Wednesday.
Asked during his weekly news conference if Neal will play more and be a candidate to start, Carroll said, “Ryan’s going to play more, yeah. He deserves to play more.”
When asked specifically if that playing time would come at the expense of someone, Carroll hedged, saying “you’ll have to wait and see.”
That was not an answer indicating it won’t happen.
Neal played a season-high 36 snaps in Sunday’s 48-45 win over the Lions in Detroit. He played only six in the first three games combined after missing all of the preseason when he suffered what he said was a Grade 2 high ankle sprain on the first day of padded practices.
Had Neal been healthy, he might have taken over the starting strong safety role when Jamal Adams was lost for the season because of a knee/quad injury suffered in the opener against Denver.
But with Neal sidelined for the preseason, Jones emerged as the No. 3 safety, and took over when Adams was hurt, starting the past three games.
After playing all of the snaps in the 49ers and Falcons games, Jones played just 80% against the Lions (59 of 74), taken off the field during two-safety alignments in favor of Neal in the fourth quarter after he missed a tackle on an 81-yard catch and run by Detroit tight end T.J. Hockenson — one of a team-high nine tackles Jones has missed this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Neal played substantially in a three-safety package throughout.
“He’s officially back,” Carroll said of Neal and his recovery from his ankle injury. “He’s a little sore today, but he’s officially back, and I really liked him on the field.”
All of which means the Seahawks could be considering a change in the starting lineup at safety — with one option being that Jones could take over as the third safety in three-safety sets.
Certainly, the Seahawks have to examine all options after allowing 520 yards against Detroit and 7.9 yards per play on the heels of giving up 7.1 yards per play in a loss to Atlanta the week before.
The Seahawks are allowing 6.7 yards per play, worst in the NFL, and indicative of a defense that has allowed far too many big plays. The Lions had nine plays of 17 yards or longer, including the 81-yarder, which was the longest gain against the Seahawks in the Carroll era and longest since 2006, and a 51-yard touchdown run.
The Seahawks allowed 5.4 yards per play in 2021, 16th in the NFL, a year that resulted in the firing of defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., who was replaced by Clint Hurtt.
When Adams was lost for the season, the Seahawks spoke optimistically of the ability of Jones to step in. But had Neal been healthy, he might have been the choice all along.
“We missed a lot of seeing him,” Hurtt said. “He kind of fell into the shadow with the injuries he had to deal with in training camp.”
Told Carroll had said he was going to get more action, Neal smiled.
“If he says I’m going to get a shot, then I can’t wait to get my number called and just do what I do,” Neal said. “And that’s play fast as hell and make something happen. I’m excited. … I’m back now, and I’m ready to rock and roll.”
Neal has been with the Seahawks since 2019 and has started nine games the past two seasons, mostly in injury relief of Adams.
“Whenever he’s played for us, he’s always been active and kind of in the midst of the action,” Carroll said.
Neal was far from flawless Sunday, beaten on Detroit’s last two touchdowns, passes by Jared Goff of 4 yards to tight end Hockenson and 2 yards to running back Justin Jackson.
“He had a couple big plays down by the goal line that got away that he could have won that would have been really great wins for us,” Carroll said. “But he’ll make those plays. He was close enough to do that.”
Hurtt called each play issues with leverage and said “he’ll continue to clean” those up.
The Seahawks defense needs a pretty deep cleaning at this point, and playing more of Neal at potentially the expense of Jones is far from all the makeover they may need.
But it’s also evidence of the Seahawks trying to figure out how to stop the defensive bleeding, knowing that only an otherworldly effort by the offense and quarterback Geno Smith prevented a disastrous loss against the Lions.
“It reminds me of when we played Buffalo [in 2020],” Neal said of a 44-34 Seahawks loss. “But that was Week 9. At least now we are in the beginning and the division is all tied up [all teams are 2-2] and we’ve still got an opportunity to fix it and get it ironed out. But the thing is, it’s got to be fixed right now.”