Since the middle finger heard ‘round the world in Week 4, 2018, the Seahawks and Pete Carroll’s famous cover-3 defense have seen a revolving door of free safety play, most of which has been about as solid as, well, a revolving door.
Tedric Thompson was the next man up and it was quickly apparent he didn’t have the speed nor the tackling ability to fill Earl Thomas’s Jordans.
Lano Hill saw a brief run and failed to impress, as Carroll experimented with more two-high looks toward the end of 2018.
Bradley McDougald delivered the best performances at the position since Thomas broke his leg, but he repeatedly made it clear he wanted to play strong safety (and when McDougald shifted to free safety, the strong spot became a liability).
Marquise Blair got an opportunity and impressed, but by that time, Seattle had already made a move to address that position.
In acquiring Quandre Diggs from the Lions, the Seahawks found the free safety their defense had been crying out for. Reading and reacting to the short and intermediate routes which have always presented a problem to Carroll’s defense, taking superb angles to the ball and making plays when the opportunities arose were areas Thomas excelled in during his time in Seattle, and they were areas where Diggs quickly proved he could succeed, too.
In Carroll’s defense, underneath and short-to-intermediate area routes are given to the offense in order to prevent explosive plays. Not only does this put the onus on Seahawks cornerbacks to close and make the tackle after the catch (which Tre Flowers and Shaquill Griffin do well), but it requires the middle-of-field safety to read the play developing and have the speed to close from over the top. Diggs’ play speed was immediately made apparent, as was the way in which he saw plays develop in front of him.
When opposing offense’s do try to go over the top on Seattle’s defense, the centerfielder needs to have the range—and again, the intelligence to see the play develop—to get across to either the left or right side in order to provide help over the top of the cornerback. Despite coming into Carroll’s defense mid-season and being played as a single-high safety more often than in Detroit, Diggs operated well in the role and helped to prevent explosive plays.
Among the many frustrating parts of Thompson’s play prior to Diggs’ arrival was his inability to create turnovers. Throughout the Legion of Boom era, they lived by the mantra of “tips and overthrows,” meaning, when the ball is in the air, someone better come down with it—that mantra literally sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. Over nine seasons in Seattle, Earl Thomas had 28 interceptions, second-most among all safeties between 2010 and 2018. Despite Thompson reportedly being a turnover machine in practice, it never translated. The safety has just three interceptions to his name, one of which the result of a fantastic play by Griffin and another a circus play.
Upon Diggs’ debut, his penchant for turnovers and getting to the football was made clear, and not just for himself. In seven games with Diggs in the lineup, the Seahawks’ defense averaged 2.3 turnovers per game. In 11 games without Diggs, that number dropped to 1.7 per game.
As is required when playing over the top of the defense, Diggs has to read the opposition correctly against the run and, crucially, take a sufficient angle to get to the ball and make the stop when required. Too often Thompson would whiff on a tackle or simply get blown by as a result of poor angle. Diggs, meanwhile, comes up to defend like a heat-seeking missile: locked on and no wasted movement once he starts on his path.
Despite battling various injuries after the trade from the Lions, Diggs proved over half a season that he possesses all the traits required to succeed as the free safety in Seattle’s defense. Not only did he flash excellence as an individual, some of the defense and other defensive backs’ finest moments came with Diggs at the back end. The play at the position prior to and after Diggs was acquired proved the Seahawks’ defense requires a true centerfielder to thrive.
A year ago, Seattle was lamenting the impending departure of Thomas in free agency and wondering where his replacement could come from. Now, the Seahawks can celebrate Quandre Diggs, and the way he has solidified the free safety position in Seattle.