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As NFC leans even more into offensive coaching hires, Seahawks mission is clear: be great on defense again

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This week, the three NFC teams with openings at head coach filled those vacancies. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Bruce Arians, the Green Bay Packers went with Matt LaFleur, and the Arizona Cardinals chose Kliff Kingsbury. All head coaching hires are notable for one reason or another, but these three also lined up in a way that is worth recognizing: all three are considered “offensive-minded” coaches, while Kingsbury stands out for his usage of the “air raid” at Texas Tech and LaFleur is the first coach to be considered a leaf off the Sean McVay tree.

If you’re keeping track — and you’re probably not because I certainly wasn’t either until just before I started writing this — that means that of the 16 NFC head coaches, seven are offensive-minded coaches hired since 2016: those three, McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Pat Shurmur, and Doug Pederson. The only recent defense-associated coaching hire in the conference who still has a job is Matt Patricia of the Detroit Lions, and even he was considered to be on the hot seat by the end of his first year.

The Cardinals only had an opening because they fired Steve Wilks, the former defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, after one season.

The rise of McVay is being credited by many as the primary source for this shift in 2019, which is certainly supported somewhat by the hiring of LaFleur in Green Bay; LaFleur worked with McVay for five years — four as a fellow assistant in Washington and one as an employee of his for the LA Rams in 2017. LaFleur also worked with Shanahan for six years.

Shanahan has been coupled with McVay as a part of this offensive revolution despite the fact that the two could barely be farther apart in success over the last two seasons: McVay is 24-8 and turned the #32 offense into a unit ranked 1st and 2nd in scoring over the last two years, while Shanahan is 10-22. He’s 6-2 when Jimmy Garoppolo is his starting quarterback, but went 3-10 in the final 13 games without Garoppolo in 2018 ... this is off the point and surely Shanahan can’t be blamed for all of the Niners failures, but we’ll see how 2019 goes.

The point is that the NFC — with McVay, Shanahan, LaFleur, etc — is much more interested in replicating a certain 54-51 Monday Night Football matchup than they are a 6-6 tie. And there’s merit in that, surely, but sometimes the answer to offense isn’t “offense.”

In fact it would seem that the logical answer to the majority of your conference being focused on their offenses is not to copy them, but to combat them.

That’s what I would expect Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks to do in the 2019 offseason and I wouldn’t fault them for it. Not that the Seahawks should or will ignore potential solutions to a better offense — even if you vehemently disagree with Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer’s philosophies on what a “better offense” looks like — but perhaps the biggest reasons for Seattle’s wild card loss to the Dallas Cowboys, and the fact that they were playing in the wild card round at all, can be blamed on two defenses:

Their own defense that couldn’t get the fourth quarter stops that they needed and the Cowboys defense that did for the vast majority of the night.

As you’re aware, the Seahawks had the number one scoring defense for four years running — 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 — while they were 2nd, 1st, 1st, and 4th in DVOA in those years respectively. They were still 5th in defensive DVOA in 2016, another playoff year, but dropped to 13th in 2017 and were 14th in 2018; Seattle has ranked 13th against the pass by DVOA for three straight seasons.

There are valid reasons to talk about why the Seahawks don’t pass more with a quarterback as good as Russell Wilson at the helm, but it’s just as important for the team to focus on stopping the quarterbacks and receivers on other teams, especially now. Ranking 13th against the pass is only okay and the conference will only reward top-ranked pass defenses moving forward; it is way below the standard for a Carroll defense given his reputation as one of the greatest minds in pass defense history, should such a specific subset of football hall of fames exist.

There are 15 other teams in the NFC and these are their offensive outlooks in 2019:

  • Eagles: Pederson, HC, Nick Foles or Carson Wentz, QB, Mike Groh, offensive coordinator
  • Washington: Jay Gruden, HC, unknown at QB, Matt Cavanaugh, OC
  • Cowboys: Jason Garrett, HC, Dak Prescott, QB, Scott Linehan, OC (potential firing anticipated)
  • Giants: Pat Shurmur, HC, Eli Manning, QB (potential replacing), Mike Shula, OC
  • Packers: LaFleur, HC, Aaron Rodgers, QB, OC unknown
  • Vikings: Zimmer, HC, Kirk Cousins, QB, Kevin Stefanski, OC
  • Bears: Matt Nagy, HC, Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Mark Helfrich, OC
  • Lions: Patricia, HC, Matthew Stafford, QB, OC unknown
  • Saints: Sean Payton, HC, Drew Brees, QB, Pete Carmichael, OC
  • Falcons: Dan Quinn, HC, Matt Ryan, QB, Dirk Koetter, OC
  • Panthers: Ron Rivera, HC, Cam Newton, QB, Norv Turner, OC
  • Bucs: Arians, HC, Jameis Winston, Byron Leftwich, OC
  • Rams: McVay, HC, Jared Goff, QB, Aaron Kromer/Shane Waldon, co-OCs
  • 49ers: Shanahan, HC, Garoppolo, QB, Shanahan calls plays
  • Cardinals: Kingsbury, HC, Josh Rosen, QB, OC unknown

Outside of Wilson, it would seem the top tier and second tier at QB for the conference is some combination of: Brees, Ryan, Rodgers, Goff, Stafford, Newton, and potentially Wentz if he played like he did for most of 2017. Not to discount Garoppolo, were he healthy, or Dak, Cousins, Winston, and Trubisky, who all present their own unique challenges. With another year of development and certainly a dramatic shift in coaching, who knows what Rosen could be next season. Which really just leaves two NFC franchises with huge question marks at the position for next season: the Giants and Washington.

Even those two offenses have certain advantages.

Shurmur has had his ups and downs, but has also proven that with good pieces in place he can manufacture a capable offense: for the 2017 Vikings that included Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. New York has Odell Beckham, Saquon Barkley, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram, Nate Solder, Will Hernandez, and who knows what else incoming so perhaps with a better quarterback they could be an offensive threat; the Giants even managed to finish 16th in scoring with Manning last year.

Washington appears to be in a really bad position and I have no idea how they’ll go about replacing Alex Smith adequately, but I guess they do have a good offensive line. They might be the team in the most trouble already for 2019, but the Seahawks do not face Washington next season anyhow.

Instead they’ll face the Rams, 49ers, and Cardinals twice, plus the NFC South, AFC North, Vikings, and Eagles. That’s most likely at this stage to be: Goff, Goff, Jimmy, Jimmy, Rosen, Rosen, Brees, Ryan, Newton, Winston, Cousins, Wentz, Ben Roethlisberger, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, and Andy Dalton or his replacement.

Seattle does not need to go toe-to-toe in the offseason focused on matching those quarterbacks because they already have a top-five player at the position. They need to do what they did for most of 2012-2016: make top-10 quarterbacks look bad. I don’t have the numbers at my disposal, but I do remember doing a lot of writing during the 2012-2015 era about how poorly top-tier QBs did and it’s also why I suspected Peyton Manning would struggle in 48, as he did. How do they go about improving from 13th to top-3 again?

Talent infusion and talent development.

The development part is easily understood because it involves the players already in the building. They have a top four:

Bobby Wagner is 28, under contract, a top-10 defensive player, and rumors of an extension are already underway. Jarran Reed is 26, a top-10 defensive tackle, under contract, and an extension is likely. Frank Clark is 25, a top-10 pass rusher at the 4-3 defensive end spot, and it would be shocking if he weren’t a Seahawk next year by way of new contract or franchise tag. Bradley McDougald is 28, a really very good strong safety, and under contract for two more years.

That would be Seattle’s “core four” on defense for me in terms of players that I’m confident will be with the team in 2019. Further development with any or all is possible but not necessary to ensure a significant amount of value. There are others who also have value but I’m not sure they’ll be back.

One of Two Linebackers

K.J. Wright or Mychal Kendricks would seem to be the focus for the outside linebacker position next to Wagner, and I’d lean towards it being Kendricks if his legal problems don’t result in him being in prison during next season. It’s a weird sentence to be typing but I think an accurate one. Wright could be back but the team may let him test free agency and see what his value is to other teams.

The name “Earl Thomas” used to invoke calls of “Hall of Fame!” in Seattle but I’ve seen what I consider to be a surprising number of fans not even want to think about the positive side of Earl. Spurned over a holdout and a middle finger, Thomas may not be welcomed back by a section or two at CenturyLink .... up until he, you know, made a play next season should the team actually come to an agreement with him. Then I think all would be forgiven and forgotten, as it always is throughout sports history. The bigger issue may be that Earl is the one feeling spurned and no relationship exists anymore between the two sides, so for the time being I have to consider free safety to be open.

Let’s quickly review before continuing:

DL - Clark, Reed

LB - Wagner, Kendricks or Wright

S - McDougald

If we’re talking about a starting 11, there’s five spots. What about the other six? Let’s go into younger players under contract who the team would like to see develop further if they’re going to become a top-3 pass defense again, most importantly at the cornerback position.

The Cornerbacks

Per ProFootballFocus, these were the numbers when targeting Shaquill Griffin, Tre Flowers, and Justin Coleman last season. None of these numbers are a good sign:

Even if the results weren’t horrible, the Seattle secondary sorely missed Richard Sherman this season. Their corners Justin Coleman (90.0 passer rating against), Tre Flowers (111.8), and Shaquill Griffin (100.4) all allowed at least 500 yards and 60-plus percent catch rate on the season.

Now, these stats are rudimentary and a lot more investigation needs to happen, but I’ll repeat the words “not a good sign.” The positive takeaway is that Flowers is only 23 and as of a year ago, was not even a cornerback. For his first year in the league and first year at the position, I think most of us were happy with his play and anticipate a bright future if he stays on his current trajectory.

Matty F Brown detailed the positive steps taken by Flowers in his rookie year here.

Griffin was seen as a disappointment by many fans because he seemed to play so well as a rookie next to Richard Sherman and as the fifth piece of a secondary that did include Sherman, Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and Coleman. Without three of those guys, and more of a focus on his play, Griffin’s results fell below the expectation. Alistair Corp detailed why Griffin’s play might have been stagnated by a switch in sides of the field and a new role on the defense, giving encouragement towards holding out hope for 2019. He’s still the highest-draft Seattle cornerback in the Carroll-John Schneider era, so it’s safe to assume that they view him as ideal for their system and won’t go back on that until they really have to. Ken Norton, Jr. spoke about how he hopes these growing pains do in fact lead to “growing” for Griffin:

“When you have young guys, you are going to get the bumps and scars along with them and it’s going to make him a better player and make us a better defense in the long run.’’

That being said, I would anticipate that in addition to having these two corners, they’ll also draft at least one more and must currently be scouring free agency, waivers, trade options, and all other options for competition. I do not anticipate them to spend big on the position though, as they never have outside of Cary Williams and we know how that went.

Coleman is a free agent and his value is difficult to predict. He might be more valuable to the Seahawks than to other teams. If he’s one of the best slot cornerbacks in the game, and I do believe he’s got an argument, what is that worth? Seattle was bad against number one and two receivers, per FootballOutsiders, but ranked 10th by DVOA against all other receivers. Is that thanks to Coleman? I believe they’ll be looking to re-sign him before free agency, but it’s hard to say if they’ll come to an agreement.

The defense now:

DL - Clark, Reed

LB - Wagner, Wright or Kendricks

CB - Flowers, Griffin

S - McDougald

Is the Safety in the House Already?

If the free safety position won’t be manned by Thomas, we do know of two obvious in-house candidates to start next to McDougald: Tedric Thompson and Delano Hill. Thompson’s abilities and ceiling should be more obvious to Carroll and other NFL teams now after 11 starts at the position, including playoffs. He finished with 57 tackles, three passes defensed, one interception, and one forced fumble. Considered to be more of a “rangy, ballhawking safety” by his draft profile after intercepting 13 passes at Colorado — including seven as a senior — Thompson failed to make very many plays during 2018 that would get his name called by the play-by-play announcers.

And Thompson wasn’t exactly thrown into the fire unexpectedly: with Thomas holding out all summer, Thompson got the majority of snaps at free safety in camp and preseason, but he failed to make an impact in the way that you’d assume Carroll would want given the impact Thomas had, as well as the emphasis the team placed on him. Remember, Thomas was the second pick ever by Carroll and Schneider in Seattle, so you know that a rangy safety with scary cover skills in the deep middle is important to the Seahawks. Thomas’s job when he was healthy was to cover post and seam routes:

“I think they emphasize that every chance they get because they understand who they’ve got back there,” Thomas said. “They just want to beat home in my brain that you’ve got to own seams and posts. And then all the other stuff, my instincts just naturally take over.”

Assistant head coach/defense Rocky Seto added: “That’s a big emphasis. That’s what we ask him to take care of -- seams and posts. And any underneath routes or runs that get out, to make those tackles. He’s a critical player to eliminating explosive plays. If a little slant route or a little dive play gets out, he has to get the guy down.”

Per Sharp Football, the Seahawks allowed 52 explosive runs and 58 explosive passing plays in 2018, with only two teams allowing a higher rate of explosive passing plays: they allowed an explosive pass on 10% of all passing plays, compared to 7% in 2017 with Earl Thomas, and 15% on run plays, compared to 9% in 2017.

Maybe Thompson makes strides in 2019 — ET made a huge leap from his rookie to second season — but I can’t imagine the team is relying on it. More options will be needed should the team not re-sign ET.

For whatever reason, Hill seemed to bring more excitement to the field by season’s end.

Starting the final two games of the year — but seeing snaps increase midseason with different defensive packages installed — Hill had 23 tackles, including two TFL, over the final eight games. I’d expect that Hill will get serious consideration to start next season once he fully recovers from the hip injury that landed him on injured reserve.

A third in-house option is Akeem King, a 26-year-old former seventh round pick of the Atlanta Falcons. King barely played as a rookie in 2015, then not all over the next two seasons, but got in one start (in place of Flowers in Week 2) and finished with 21 tackles on the season. He’s got versatility to play corner or safety and seems to be in the mix to be a part of the defensive rotation, if not start, in 2019. King is a restricted free agent. For simplicity, let’s also say that the Seahawks do re-sign Coleman to be the nickel corner.

For now, let’s place the defense as such:

DL - Clark, Reed

LB - Wagner, Wright or Kendricks

CB - Flowers, Griffin, Coleman

S - McDougald, Thompson or Hill

This now leaves us two defensive line spots to address. There’s also the potential presence of Barkevious Mingo as an outside linebacker, but of less importance as Mingo didn’t have a noticeable impact in 2018. Sorry, Bark.

The Sleeper

Who is interesting however is 2018 sixth round pick Jacob Martin. Seeing an increase in snaps as the year went, Martin got more playing time than Mingo by Week 17’s win over the Arizona Cardinals. He also had three sacks on the season, all of which came in the final seven games of the year, a period in which he also had six QB hits.

At 6’2, 236 lbs, Martin ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at his Temple pro day. Here’s a weird comp to consider: 6’3, 231 lbs, 4.62 40-yard dash. Those are the 2010 combine numbers of Kam Chancellor.

Martin had a higher vertical than Kam (34.5” to 32”), longer broad jump, faster 3-cone time, and nearly identical short shuttle time. Does that mean Martin should or could move to strong safety? I’m sure if Carroll had that in mind we would have seen it by now (not that anything can be ruled out as far as Carroll and versatility) but I think it has more to do with Kam’s freakishness in general. I do think that whether it’s as an outside linebacker or a safety or a defensive end, Martin has incredible potential in Seattle’s defense and could be the 2019 in-house sleeper that breaks out above all else and helps the team add a weapon without having to actually go out and find one.

This is not a highlight of his play, but still worth watching:

Listen to me talk to Jacson Bevens about Jake Martin and other young Seahawks players, plus who they could bring in to help.

At the other defensive tackle spot, the team has three names to consider: Shamar Stephen, Poona Ford, and Naz Jones. Stephen played in 15 games and basically started the whole season next to Reed. He finished with 25 tackles and two sacks. Per Carroll, Stephen was also nursing a foot injury for the majority of the year, if not all. He will be a free agent and I could see the team re-signing him, but I don’t think he’s necessarily an impact starter at the position.

Seattle could have that in Ford, however. Finally getting regular playing time in December, Ford had 17 tackles in the final five games. In the loss to the 49ers he also had three tackles for a loss. The shortest defensive lineman in the NFL, Ford doesn’t look like most players at the position, which is a reason he was undrafted, but he’s got potential to be in on 20-40 snaps per game next season as a heavy part of the rotation. Carroll had this to say after the San Francisco game:

“Yeah, he’s been really aggressive,” Carroll said on Monday. “He’s shown really good instincts to get a feel for taking advantage and making plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. He’s going to get some more playing time.”

And after the year:

“Poona (Ford) had a great finish to the season,” Carroll said on Monday. “Poona is legitimately going to play for starting time when we come back, and he’ll be competing to do that.”

For Jones, 2018 feels like a bit of a lost year. While injuries set him back as a rookie in 2017, Jones was a healthy scratch several times throughout this year and even when he was available, he spent a lot of time on the sidelines. Jones finished with just seven tackles in nine games after he had gotten off to such a promising start as a rookie. The reasons for this still seem somewhat mysterious, maybe he just didn’t show coaches what they wanted in practice, maybe he’s lacking energy or it’s a physical ailment, maybe others just outplayed him, but it’s hard to gauge what to expect next year given that we didn’t see what we expected in 2019.

If you’re wondering why Jones hasn’t played more this season, Jones sounds like he’s sort of wondering, too.

“I honestly don’t know,’’ he said. “I’m just, whenever they tell me to suit up and go, I’m going. So I’m just trying to be more consistent in my ability so that (playing) can be more consistent for the rest of the season.’’

Carroll has said several times that the main reason Jones has been inactive is because the Seahawks are playing guys whom they think best match up against their next opponent.

He reiterated that Monday, when asked — once again — why Jones hasn’t been active more often this season.

“Matchups that we had at the time,’’ Carroll said.

The team is also likely to retain Quinton Jefferson, a restricted free agent. I’m not sure I would qualify him as a hugely exciting option at defensive end, but he could be a valuable asset as a “number three defensive end” a la Red Bryant in 2013. Jefferson finished with 15 QB hits, five TFL, and three sacks.

The defense starts to hash out like this:

DL - Jefferson, Ford and/or Stephen, Reed, Clark

LB - Wagner, Wright or Kendricks, Mingo

DL or LB - Martin

CB - Flowers, Griffin, Coleman

S - McDougald, Thompson or Hill

CB or S depth - King

This leaves few players on the defensive side of the ball in 2018 who I haven’t discussed for 2019, but there are some.

Dion Jordan will be a free agent and I don’t expect him to return unless it was for a very cheap one-year deal. Jordan was not nearly as productive as people hoped he would be after an intriguing 2017 campaign over five games and unless he were around $1 million, non-guaranteed, I don’t see a reason to push for more time to evaluate him.

Rasheem Green was Seattle’s third round pick in 2018, available only because they traded down from 18 to 27 in the first round, but his development unsurprisingly did not catch up enough for him to have a major impact as a rookie. Green does not turn 22 until May and we can’t judge much on his nine tackle, one-sack season to open his career. Injuries held him back a little bit, including missing four games in the middle of the year with an ankle issue, but he was impressive in the preseason and I think not worth forgetting as we move into preparation and planning for 2019. Green is potentially the answer to “Who can be the third pass rusher on the defensive line?” next to Reed and Clark.

There is also linebacker Austin Calitro, restricted free agent defensive end Branden Jackson, and defensive tackle Malik McDowell, who remains under team control even if it is unlikely that he’ll ever officially join the team. My apologies to anyone who I did not name, but I’m really trying to identify the areas on defense that will command attention in free agency and the draft. Let’s take one more look at a potential starting 11, if no outside moves were made:

DL - Green, Ford, Reed, Clark

LB - Wagner, Kendricks

CB - Flowers, Griffin, Coleman

S - McDougald, Thompson

DL Depth - Jefferson, Stephen, Jones

LB Depth - Martin, Calitro, Mingo

CB Depth - King

S Depth - Hill, Shalom Luani

Biggest Areas of Concern

I think we’ve already seen that even if all these pieces were healthy, it is unlikely to produce the desired “top 5” result that Seattle may need barring massive strides by Green and Martin as pass rushers, Griffin and Flowers as corners, and Thompson or Hill as a free safety. Not to say that one or even three of those things can’t happen, but it does seem unlikely to count on a half-bakers dozen of monumental advancements without also accounting for inevitable injuries.

One possible solution to one of these areas is of course the retention and repair of the relationship between the Seahawks and Earl Thomas. A healthy Thomas on the Seattle defense changes the makeup of everything and we’ve known that for almost a decade.

But either way, there are still two major areas of outside need I see: pass rush at defensive end opposite of Clark and a true number one cornerback.

One player I’ve had my eye on for awhile now in regards to the Seahawks is Ezekiel Ansah of the Detroit Lions. He played 2018 on the franchise tag and missed nine games with injury. Ansah, 30 in May, has now struggled to remain healthy and consistent for most of the last three seasons. That’s not a good sign if you were signing him to a long-term deal, but I think it is also what makes him a candidate for a one-year contract. Just as they did when they signed Cliff Avril in 2013 (which coincidentally opened a spot on the defensive line for Ansah in Detroit), the Seahawks could seek buy-low options at pass rush that hopefully sparks instant one-year solutions that potentially leads to more. I think it’s an arrangement that works for both parties.

I think at cornerback the team would be happy keeping Flowers and Griffin on the outside as competition to start, but new players will need to be brought in as serious contenders for one of those positions, especially as it pertains to Griffin. Remember, the team had plans for pretty much the entire summer to start Byron Maxwell, then it became potentially Dontae Johnson, before injuries forced them into pulling the trigger on Flowers to start. That surprisingly didn’t burn them much, but I expect another one or two notable veteran signings and at least one of their draft picks to be used at corner.

If the Seahawks really wanted to get serious about being a top-three defense again, then retaining Clark, Wright or Kendricks, Coleman, and yes, Thomas, goes a long way towards doing that. Adding a big-upside pass rusher or cornerback is step two and I’d remind folks once again that Seattle does not spend big on the free agent market and that is unlikely to change now even if they do have the third-most cap space in the NFC. They’ll use that to retain their own players.

Many of whom are very good, but if they want to contend for the Super Bowl in 2019, they’ll probably need them to get significantly better. And they can.