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Seahawks have hole to climb out of in order to get back on track on defense

NFL: Seattle Seahawks-Minicamp Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Going back to 2012, their first with Russell Wilson and their first of five straight trips to at least the second round of the playoffs, the Seattle Seahawks had finished first in points allowed every year up to 2016. Last season, the dropped to third in points allowed, and fifth in yards allowed, their lowest ranking in that category since finishing ninth in 2011. But while the defense was still very stout, there are areas of concern that popped up for the first time, as well as some that had been lingering since their 2013 Super Bowl win that finally need to be addressed.

The Seahawks finished first in yards per carry allowed at 3.4, their best ranking in that category under Pete Carroll. They finished fourth in YPC allowed in 2015 and second in 2014. Consider that they surprisingly finished 23rd in YPC allowed in 2012, so the improvement with players like Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Jarran Reed, Ahtyba Rubin, and Tony McDaniel all playing at a high level (and Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, etc.) is obvious. Unfortunately, YPC allowed is not as much of an indicator of a success as it used to be since we are now living in a passing era.

Not to poopoo the importance of a good run defense, however, as the running game is still the crux of any Carroll team, offensively or defensively. The fact that the Seahawks were 25th in rushing yards, their lowest ranking since 2010, did not help matters. That’s what Eddie Lacy was brought in for, as well as what they hope Luke Joeckel, Oday Aboushi, Ethan Pocic, and improvements/health from Germain Ifedi, C.J. Prosise, and Thomas Rawls, can chip in with.

Speaking of health and back to the defense, Seattle ranked 15th in net yards per pass attempt allowed, their lowest ranking since 2010 when they were 25th. Every Seahawks fan knows that those issues pretty much boil down to the loss of Earl Thomas in the second half of the year against the Carolina Panthers. After that, Seattle was actually easy to pass on, for the most part. Thomas says that he actually feels younger than he did last summer, way before the broken leg. That can happen when a player is challenged for the first time in his career to rehab from a serious injury.

In the four years prior to 2016, the Seahawks ranked in the top five in n/PA allowed. With Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and the influx of secondary help like Bradley McDougald, Shaq Griffin, Delano Hill, and Tedric Thompson, that area of the defense could be back to where they were prior to Thomas’ broken leg. If not better. It’s an area they need to get back to “the norm” in (given that the norm for the L.O.B. is excellence) but somewhere they need to be better than “the norm” is takeaways.

Seattle ranked 22nd in takeaways last season, the third straight year in which they’ve finished outside the top 15 in that category. Prior to that, the Seahawks ranked first in takeaways during their championship campaign in 2013. They were fifth in that category in 2011 and 2012. What needs to change?

For one, pressuring the quarterback more often would help. Seattle ranked ninth in pressure rate last season per FootballOutsiders, which is good, but given that they have two Pro Bowl defensive ends and a third who had 10 sacks, the Seahawks could do even better. I mean, the Colts were dead last in pressure rate last season and they barely had fewer turnovers forced than Seattle.

Another thing, as cliche and intangible as it may sound, is having more “ballhawks” on your defense. Turnovers are variable, and involve a certain amount of luck no matter who is on your defense, but the number of strip-sacks to Cliff Avril’s credit is no coincidence. It’s not a matter of luck, the guy knows how to get the ball out of the QBs hands when he makes contact. The same can be said for a secondary that has comfortable instincts with one another. Consider all those plays “back in the good ole days” when one player disrupted a pass and another came down with the pick, including one of the most famous plays in Seahawks history: “The Tip.”

We didn’t see that type of play as often last season or the two seasons prior. Hopefully that’s where a player like Thompson comes in, because he was a known ballhawk at Colorado, intercepting 13 passes over the last three years. Griffin had four interceptions last season, while Hill had three. Carroll injected a buttload of youth and energy into the secondary, which could rub off on the “old guys” like Kam and Earl and Richard, and it could be fun to watch. If you’ve ever seen a veteran dog play with a puppy for the first time, then you know what I’m talking about.

(Writer becomes distracted for two hours with animal videos.)

Finally, we would want to address applying pressure up the middle. In 2013, the Seahawks got 5.5 sacks from Clinton McDonald and two sacks from McDaniel. The next year, Jordan Hill was eating QBs from the middle, but only over a very short period of time. Last season, they got 1.5 sacks from Reed and one from Rubin. That’s not enough. Seattle showed (or was rumored to be interested in) players like Earl Mitchell and Terrell McClain. Ultimately, they wound up with Dion Jordan and then drafted Malik McDowell with their first pick, as well as Nazair Jones in the third.

Jordan’s inclusion on the roster isn’t even something I’m considering at this point (if it happens, it happens) but McDowell should be the key. However, that’s a lot of pressure to apply on a rookie who also wasn’t given the highest amount of praise for his work ethic or desire to be any better than he needs to be. I do not expect Rubin or Reed to become premier pass rushers next season. Perhaps if McDowell’s one job is to go in on third down and rush the passer, that is something he will excel at; after all, it’s just one job, and it’s something McDowell has been praised for. He’s the type of athlete who could have gone in the top five if things had broken in a different way for him during his final season at Michigan State.

We also haven’t quite seen yet what Jones or second-year player Quinton Jefferson will bring to the table in 2017, but I wouldn’t rule them out as being heavy-hitters upfront.

Overall, the defense has some work to do if they want to consider themselves elite again. The good news is that we know Thomas is ready to get back out there, and that the front office has made moves to double-down on the secondary and defensive line in ways that should give us more hope for improvement moving forward. We already know that their run defense is great, but can they couple that with a lock down pass defense and can they force opponents into making more mistakes, of which they take advantage?

We will start to find out in about two months.