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Seahawks defense showed promise in first 7 games without Richard Sherman since 2010

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

If Richard Sherman hadn’t torn his Achilles in Week 10, maybe the Seattle Seahawks would not have released him last week. Not just because of him having an injury, but also for a very simple reason that should not be overlooked: If Sherman had played another full season, the Seahawks would be walking into completely dark territory, i.e., life without Sherman.

Instead, Pete Carroll got a look at his defense sans Sherman for seven games and the result was not panic — as it is when thinking of life after Earl Thomas perhaps — but embracement. That’s interesting and noteworthy.

Sherman and Kam Chancellor were both injured in Week 10’s Thursday night game against the Arizona Cardinals, giving Seattle an earlier-than-expected secondary overhaul that we knew would eventually have to happen anyway.

Week 1 without Sherman, Chancellor — AND Shaquill Griffin; A close loss to reigning NFC Champions

In their Week 11 matchup on Monday Night Football vs the Atlanta Falcons, Bradley McDougald started at strong safety and Jeremy Lane, who had been traded and failed a physical just three weeks earlier, started in place of Sherman. McDougald played all 62 snaps on defense, while Lane had 61, and Byron Maxwell, signed off of the street after a two month vacation since his release by the Miami Dolphins, played 59. Rookie Shaquill Griffin, the heir apparent at CB1, was hurt and left the game after two snaps; when judging Seattle’s performance against the Falcons, the ridiculousness of the differences between their secondary weeks earlier and that night can’t be understated.

Earl Thomas was the only player in the unit who was meant to be a starter at the beginning of the season and he was joined by McDougald at strong safety with the Seahawks, Lane after he had been traded and was now forced into a starting role, and Maxwell, who had just re-signed with the team days earlier. And they were facing Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Mohamed Sanu.

The Falcons pulled ahead 21-7, but they started their first drive at their own 48 thanks to a nice kickoff return, their next drive on the Seahawks 35 following a Russell Wilson interception, and their third touchdown came off of a Wilson fumble. The defense had actually settled in quite nicely given the circumstances. Seattle cut the lead to 23-20 before the defense did have some miscommunications that eventually led to a 25-yard touchdown to Levine Toilolo by Atlanta. Other than that, the defense held up as good or better than expected and gave the Seahawks an opportunity to tie the game with :07 seconds left, but as you already know, Blair Walsh missed from 52.

The Seahawks lost 34-31, but the defense was not as bad as 34 points allowed would make you think that they were. And that was with a secondary that was even less prepared for that game than you remembered they were, all because of injuries.

Week 2 without Sherman, Chancellor, and Griffin; easy road division win

The next game came against the 49ers in San Francisco, where Sherman will be playing half of his games in 2018. The Niners started C.J. Beathard and the Seahawks shut them down as much as you would have expected a secondary with Sherman and Chancellor would have, leading 24-6 with the clock running down. In the final moments, Jimmy Garoppolo took over and changed the final score to 24-13, but otherwise, Seattle was dominant in that win. Even for the 1-10 (at the time) 49ers, this was a bad performance for the offense and it was in their own house. Also worth consideration.

This game featured Thomas, McDougald, Maxwell, and Lane, as Griffin was still on the sidelines. Justin Coleman got 49 snaps, significantly up from the previous week, while Neiko Thorpe and Delano Hill both had 15 on defense.

Week 3 without Sherman, Chancellor, and the return of Griffin; Beat the Super Bowl champions easily, shutdown the MVP frontrunner

Week 12 was the home Sunday Night Football game against the soon-to-be champion Philadelphia Eagles, featuring Carson Wentz. The Seahawks started Thomas, McDougald, Maxwell, and Griffin, all of whom played all 75 snaps. Coleman had 62 and Lane was reduced to a non-factor, playing just two snaps. This was the secondary that Pete wanted most of all and if McDougald and Maxwell are re-signed, could be the secondary of 2018.

The Seahawks pulled out to a 17-3 lead going into the fourth quarter and won 24-10. Wentz final stat line: 29-of-45, 348 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, two fumbles, 7.7 Y/A, 86.3 passer rating. And before this, Wentz was the frontrunner for MVP.

Week 4 without Sherman and Chancellor; AM road loss to AFC Championship game team

However, the following week’s loss did remove all the wind from those good-time-vibes sails. In their only road 10 AM game of the season, Seattle faced the Jacksonville Jaguars and saw the Jags defense play as well as you would have expected them to play in those circumstances, if not better. Jacksonville had the best defense in the NFL, the best secondary, and picked off Wilson three times. But the score was just 3-0 at halftime.

Looking back on a 30-24 loss, it’s easy to forget that the defense did have an incredibly good first half. The tone started poorly in the second half when Wilson was called for intentional grounding on the first play, then was picked off on the second. Jacksonville started that drive at the Seattle 42. The Seahawks tied the score 10-10, but then the D allowed a 75-yard touchdown to Keelan Cole on the next play.

It was still just 17-10, but then a 72-yard punt return by Jaylen Mickens minutes later set it up to become 24-10. Not the defense’s fault.

Jaguars led 27-10 early in the fourth quarter, but as Wilson tends to do, he had 61-yard and 74-yard touchdown passes to make it interesting again. The Seahawks again had an opportunity to win, down 30-24 with over two minutes to go, but their drive was a 4-and-out and that was that. The defense did allow an 13-yard run by Leonard Fournette to end their hopes, but had stuffed him before that. I think it’s more important to remember that the defense had a collapse against Keelan Cole, much like their one or two miscommunications against the Falcons a few weeks earlier, more than they just had a bad game. The offense put them up against the wall in both of those losses, and in both losses against playoff teams, they had chances to win or tie at the end.

And I’ll repeat the stretch of games they had without Sherman and Chancellor for the first time all year, and in the case of Sherman, for the first time since 2010: Falcons, @ 49ers, Eagles, @ Jaguars — followed by Rams, then @ Cowboys, Cardinals.

Week 5 without Sherman, Chancellor, and no K.J. Wright; well, it was ugly

Playing at home against the LA Rams, the Seahawks did have their full secondary (well, the “new” full secondary) and lost 42-7. The biggest change was the fact that they didn’t have K.J. Wright that week, with Terence Garvin getting 65 snaps at outside linebacker. They were blown out and defeated and that’s basically the end of story. No excuses for allowing 244 rushing yards. Though to the secondary’s credit, they were not picked apart by the quarterback. It was just a complete failure against Todd Gurley. Certainly a different result than their 16-10 win over the Rams earlier in the season.

Week 6 without Sherman and Chancellor; road win against good offense to stay alive for playoffs

But the playoffs still hung in the balance as they headed to Dallas to face the Cowboys, a team that also needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Wright returned and the secondary was still Thomas, McDougald, Griffin, Maxwell, and Coleman. Ezekiel Elliott started for the Cowboys, a terrifying thought after what Gurley had just done, but rushed 24 times for only 97 yards. Hope then for a defense that may largely resemble the one they’ll have next season. Dak Prescott, a QB who was thrown under the bus far too often in 2017, posted his second-worst passer rating of the year: 51.2. He had no touchdowns, two interceptions, and 5.32 Y/A while being sacked four times. The loss of Tyron Smith early in the game also helped Seattle get to Dak and Zeke, I will say.

Week 7 without Sherman, Chancellor; Blair Walsh’s third loss of the season

Needing to win their final game in order to keep their playoff hopes alive, Seattle only faced a test of Drew Stanton and Kerwynn Williams. Despite falling behind 20-7, they were actually leading 24-23 in the final minutes. Then Walsh missed a 48-yard field goal that would have given them the lead, and likely the win.

The total returns on seven games without Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Cliff Avril, plus two games missed by Shaquill Griffin, one game by K.J. Wright

Without Sherman, the Seahawks went 3-4. They faced four playoff teams, and three division winners. Six of those seven teams were .500 or better, and the seventh ended up winning all of their remaining five games after losing to Seattle. Of their four losses, two came to an end after a miss from Walsh on a make-able field goal, and a third was just a final drive or a final defensive stop from potentially being a win. The Seahawks went 3-4 in those seven difficult games, but 5-2 or 6-1 was very close to happening. If 5-2 had happened, the Seahawks would have finished 11-5 and made the playoffs over a 9-7 Falcons team. Imagine that. It’s not that far off from being a reality that Seattle would be two games better than a franchise that nobody nearly as down on as they are the Seahawks.

It’s not “revisionist thinking” either, it’s just logical reasoning that our perceptions may be influenced way too heavily by looking at the macro picture and not giving enough weight to the micro pictures within. We know that the Seattle Seahawks will look much different next season — but how much different will they really be from what they were in the second half?

The offensive and defensive coordinators will be different, but Carroll remains in charge, so he’s hiring coaches that he knows or believes will be able to execute the same game plans and philosophies that he’s used over his four decades in football. Ken Norton, Jr played for Carroll in 1996-1997, then coached under him from 2004-2014. He has 13 seasons with Carroll, which does not signal a huge change in philosophy or plan from where it would have been with Kris Richard, Dan Quinn, or Gus Bradley. The only thing left for Norton to do is to grow a solid goatee.

Sherman is gone, but the Seahawks just played seven games without him and while they went 3-4, the defense held up so much better than expected. Maxwell hadn’t played in two months but then started seven games and while he clearly was not Sherman, he was good enough. That alone could convince the front office that they were not going to get their full value out of the $11 million owed to Sherman if he stayed.

Kam may be gone, but Kam missed seven games in 2017, four games in 2016, and five games in 2015. That’s 16 games in three seasons. That’s one-third of the last three years. Basically, they were already in post-Kam mode.

Michael Bennett is gone, which represents by far the biggest change from where the defense was last season. My theory there is simply that either Bennett or the Seahawks or both decided they didn’t want to be together next year; Bennett may have thought he wanted to return but then saw that there was a lot of change happening between Richard/Norton, Kam, Avril, and the rumors around Sherman/Thomas and decided he wanted out. Seattle had years of being publicly called out by Bennett for not paying him fairly and could have decided they were tired of him never being happy — even after a December 2016 extension — and that $2.2 million in savings and literally any return was good enough.

The Seahawks did not get to preview life without Bennett last year, but did miss him for five games in 2016: They went 7-3-1 with Bennett and 3-2 without him, including wins over the Patriots (only team to beat Tom Brady that season) and Eagles, and road losses to the Saints and Bucs. I wouldn’t say that the defense looked hugely different without him and the results were actually quite positive. The biggest thing to monitor will be “Who replaces Mike?” between Quinton Jefferson, Dion Jordan, Branden Jackson, and whoever else they bring in. It’ll be surprising if someone is as complete as Bennett has been over the last five years (even really over the last four, as he was much more of a role player in 2013), but it’s certainly possible that the defense will hold up regardless and the next guy may even get more sacks as that was not a banger category for Bennett.

Avril may be gone, but was hurt in the fourth game of the season, so Seattle has gotten plenty of time to evaluable life after him as well.

We don’t know yet what will become of Sheldon Richardson, but the defense should reasonably be able to expect back: Thomas, Griffin, Coleman, Bobby Wagner, Wright, Jarran Reed, Frank Clark, Nazair Jones, Jordan, Jefferson, and Jackson, plus Tedric Thompson, Hill, Thorpe, and maybe Malik McDowell. They could re-sign Maxwell, McDougald, and DeShawn Shead, and I’d think at least the first two are high priorities. That gives the Seahawks most of the same defense that they had last season, plus the potential addition of McDowell, with expected growth from Griffin, Reed, Jones, Jordan (in expanded playing time), and a full offseason to prepare with the team by Maxwell.

Some people have the perception that the defense was “bad” last season, but that’s arguably an overreaction to what the reality is: That the defense was “worse” but not “bad.” They ranked 13th in DVOA, including 13th against both the pass and the run. With losing Bennett and potentially Richardson, the defense does have work to do on the defensive line, but the secondary is actually the place I’d expect the least amount of change — other than the steadiness that is Wagner/Wright. That’s why I’d not be surprised if their first pick is used on a defensive lineman or a safety, with the reasoning behind a pick of safety being that the 2018 safety class is simply that good that you wouldn’t want to miss out on a great player regardless of position; same would go for the running backs class, if Seattle does trade down considerably.

Other than that, the Seahawks may be bringing back much of the same defense, plus new additions. They’d also be paying their defense less than they did in 2017, when they spent a league-high $93.7 million on that side of the ball; $5.6 million more than second-place Jacksonville. As of Sunday, they have committed just $62.1 million to the defense in 2018 and that’s before saving $7.1 million if and when they release Avril. That gives them just $55 million committed to defense, nearly $40 million less than last season and yet I don’t feel that much less confident in the actual talent on the field as I go through the list of names above and the results last year with those same secondary players.

And that’s with all that dead money put aside for Bennett and Kam, but still with enough left over to potentially push for Sheldon to return.

The Seahawks were not bad last season, they were mediocre. They were also competitive against perhaps the toughest second half schedule in the NFL, while hobbled from injuries to three key stars on defense. They now have a similar product, but significantly more money. This is an optimistic point of view, but a defensible one.