Seahawks first-year defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. comments on the revolving door at weakside linebacker (and why Shaquem Griffin can't seem to crack the rotation), the perception that Sunday might represent a trap game and how the surging Seattle defense can improve against the 49ers.
Bobby Wagner made his evaluation of Ken Norton Jr. perfectly clear.
While the Seahawks’ first-year defensive coordinator was meeting with the media inside the Virginia Mason Athletic Center on Wednesday, Wagner walked by and playfully shouted some encouragement to his long-time coach.
“You’re doing an amazing job, coach,” the four-time Pro Bowl linebacker said. “You’re a great guy. It’s nice to have you back.”
Now that we’ve got one ringing endorsement out of the way, how did Norton evaluate the Seahawks’ defense following the team’s 21-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings? Here are three impressions from Norton’s weekly media availability.
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Calitro gets the call (again)
The only consistent thing about the Seahawks’ weakside linebacker position has been rampant inconsistency.
The team’s established starter, K.J. Wright, has played in just three games with a nagging knee injury. The player signed as a potential replacement, Mychal Kendricks, was suspended by the NFL for eight games and is now out for the season with a broken leg. Rookie Shaquem Griffin started the season opener and then was essentially banished to the special teams units.
Wagner has been a constant.
The player next to him has been anything but.
“It’s been like that all year,” Norton said. “Mychal’s been in and been out. He hasn’t played very much for us, but when he has played he’s made an impact. At the same time, K.J.’s been out. Guys have stepped in. Austin Calitro has stepped in. We’ve played some more dime and some more nickel (packages), different sets.
“But at the same time, all the young guys have really hit the books. When it comes time to play ball, they’ve really shown up and represented themselves and our defense well.”
That includes the 6-0, 240-pound Calitro, who beat D.J. Alexander for a job in training camp and has kept impressing ever since. The second-year linebacker has made 36 tackles in four starts this season, despite training as Wagner’s backup at middle linebacker throughout the vast majority of OTAs and training camp.
Most recently, Calitro started against the 49ers less than two weeks ago and finished with a career-best 10 tackles and two tackles for loss.
So, yes, Calitro is a third option at the position.
But the Seahawks could do a lot worse as well.
“He’s been playing well since the day he came here,” Norton said. “You go back all the way to the preseason, trying to figure out which guys are the best guys on your team. He’s been showing up and making plays throughout.
“So for him to step in and play – whether it’s preseason, whether it’s the Chicago game – he’s been here making an impact every week.”
The same can’t be said for Griffin, who arrived in Seattle with an uplifting story and a lot of promise but has produced just 10 tackles in 13 games. So why has he struggled to crack the linebacker rotation?
“It’s competition. It’s guys really working hard and playing. It’s the rise of Calitro. Mychal Kendricks shows up,” Norton said, listing examples. “So it’s a matter of just showing up and being ready to play.
“We just felt that with K.J. coming back and Mychal Kendricks being here and the rise of Calitro, we have good depth there. (Shaquem) is doing outstanding. Griff is doing fine, but at the same time he’s certainly available for us.”
Don’t call it a trap game
The Seahawks can officially clinch a playoff berth with a win in San Francisco on Sunday.
Still, considering that they’ve won four straight, they topped the 49ers by 27 points less than two weeks ago and a home challenge against the 11-2 Chiefs looms a week later, it might be tempting to overlook the task at hand.
So, might Sunday qualify as a “trap game”?
“They don’t know what ‘trap game’ means,” Norton said of his young defensive players. “You have to be around for a while to understand that. They just love ball. They’re just always trying to find different ways to be coached. We like what we see. The guys are playing at a really high level.
“‘Trap,’ that doesn’t matter. Right now we’re trying to win some ball games. We’re trying to stack up wins. That’s all that really matters right now.”
Oh, and there’s one more reason the Seahawks defense is likely to take Sunday’s game seriously:
Despite the final score, the 49ers exposed Seattle in multiple areas in a 43-16 loss on Dec. 2. More on that below.
A San Francisco challenge
Don’t focus on the final score.
Instead, consider the fact that Nick Mullens — an undrafted rookie quarterback — thrashed the Seattle secondary for 414 passing yards and two touchdowns less than two weeks ago.
Of course, a missed tackle by cornerback Tre Flowers on wide receiver Dante Pettis’ 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown certainly inflated the final number.
“Well, you take out two or three chunk plays and it goes down to 200 (passing yards),” Norton said. “Any game you can do that. We have to be consistent, tackle, make our plays, stay on top, all the things you have to do to be a good defense. We’re working on that.”
They’ll also have to work to contain 49ers tight end George Kittle, who erupted for seven catches and 210 yards — including an 85-yard touchdown — in last weekend’s 20-14 win over Denver. Mullens passed for 332 yards and two touchdowns and one interception, while completing 60.6 percent of his passes.
Kittle — who, along with Pettis, has clearly earned Mullens’ trust — managed a more meager six catches for 70 yards against the Seahawks the week before.
“He’s really good,” Norton acknowledged. “He catches a lot of balls. He’s a threat. He runs well. He catches well. He runs after he catches. He blocks well. He’s a dynamite, sharp, big-time NFL player. So it’s going to be a challenge to hold him down.”