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Why the 2023 Seahawks defense is one of Pete Carroll’s biggest coaching failures

Clint Hurtt will likely be the one to lose his job, but the bulk of the blame ultimately falls on Pete.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Forgive me if I sound like a broken record when harping about the Seattle Seahawks defense, but I don’t even know how you can avoid this topic after what we just witnessed at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers. That was as close to a must-win as you could possibly get, and the defense capitulated worse than just about any other loss I can recall in the Pete Carroll era.

I wrote this on the Field Gulls Twitter/X account on Monday, but since not everyone is on that particular social media app, I might as well share this with our readers.

Here are some more stats that, in the interest of a little uniformity with the accompanying tweet, will focus exclusively on league-wide number from Games 8-16, thus eliminating discrepancies in bye weeks.

The Seahawks defense since the Baltimore Ravens debacle

  • 29th in points allowed (244)
  • 30th in opponent completion percentage (67.5%)
  • 30th in yards allowed per offensive play (5.92)
  • T-25th in sacks (20)
  • T-24th in takeaways (9)
  • 29th in touchdowns allowed (28)
  • 30th in rate of defensive drives ending in a score (45.8%)
  • 28th in rate of punts forced (32.3%)
  • 32nd in rushing first downs allowed (89, a cool 12 more than the next worst team)
  • 32nd in rushing yards allowed after contact (3.1)
  • 31st in third-down conversion rate allowed (48.2%)
  • 32nd in average time of possession (3:09)

(Stats are via Stathead and Sports Info Solutions.)

This is a traveshamockery. There is literally nothing of consequence that this defense has done at a respectable level for two months. It has never, ever been this bad. The defense has sabotaged the season far more than the inconsistencies of the offense, which, I must emphasize, is 11th overall in points per drive (per FTNFantasy). The other 10 teams ahead of them have either clinched playoff berths or are a win away from a playoff spot.

I had no grand expectation for an elite defense with this roster, but I didn’t anticipate being even worse than last year. This is untenable for defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt, who in two seasons is statistically the worst DC of the Pete Carroll era. While it’s true that he didn’t get to inherit the Legion of Boom like Kris Richard, he’s also turned a bad defense into something close to rock-bottom. His promotion in itself was a curious choice when you consider the lackluster results along the defensive line when he was a position coach from 2017-2021. Only once in five seasons as DL coach did Seattle have a pressure rate in the top-half of the league. The run defense was at least good enough in 2020 and 2021 but that’s fallen apart over the two seasons he’s been DC.

The players collectively shoulder significant responsibility for the weekly coverage busts, missed tackles, blown run fits, sloppy penalties, and general execution issues. When they look poorly coached? That falls on the coaching staff. Hurtt is seemingly out of his depth at this level, and I think it’s thoroughly justified if the organization moves on from him and many of the assistants. This defense should not performing this poorly even acknowledging the injuries to the likes of Jamal Adams, Jordyn Brooks, Uchenna Nwosu, and others who have missed the odd game here and there.

With all of that said, this is ultimately a Pete Carroll problem.

I believe Carroll is a great defensive mind and that the Legion of Boom years didn’t spawn exclusively from amazing luck. He also produced plenty of NFL caliber players and All-Pro level talent at USC, too. That doesn’t mean you live up to your reputation in perpetuity. Monte Kiffin is the pioneer of the great Tampa 2 scheme, but almost two decades later he coached one of the worst defenses in NFL history.

Carroll has not produced a top-10 defense in EPA/play since 2017, and the 2020 team (incredibly) is the only one above-average in DVOA since the complete dissolution of the Legion of Boom secondary. It bears repeating that during this timeframe, Seattle has spent a shit ton of draft capital on the defensive side of the ball. Then you have the trades for Sheldon Richardson, Jadeveon Clowney, Leonard Williams, Quandre Diggs, Carlos Dunlap, and Jamal Adams, nearly all of whom were direct results of said draft picks not panning out.

They’ve poured a ton of cash into this side of the ball, to mostly dismal results. Pete’s defenses are repeatedly failing and getting progressively worse despite plenty of investment. And guess what’s going to happen next offseason? More investment! Because he has no other choice. Seattle may have a new safety duo in 2024 and undeniably need more edge rushing depth. It’s more likely than not that Seattle is going to need a minimum one new starting inside linebacker and possibly two. Pete’s Seahawks track record on inside linebackers not named Wagner, Wright, or Smith is almost comically bad. Jordyn Brooks is a good player; he is essentially prime Mike Singletary when his recent peers consist of Austin Calitro, Brock Coyle, Michael Wilhoite, Mychal Kendricks, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Cody Barton, Devin Bush, and the disastrous Shaquem Griffin start that prompted a position switch.

Contrary to popular belief, Carroll isn’t completely running the same schematic stuff like he did ten years ago. Cover 3 remains his predominant coverage scheme, but that doesn’t mean everything else is identical. In 2019, in large part because of the roster, the Seahawks really had to stay in its 4-3 base defense. The emergence of the 3-4 front was established shortly thereafter, but that has seemingly gone by the wayside. Seattle has run more nickel (5 DBs) than all of 2022 and 2021, and they blitz less often than they did under Ken Norton Jr.

The defense has evolved from the Super Bowl teams, it just hasn’t meant progress or a return to greatness. His philosophy about limiting explosive plays, unfortunately, is still about as rigid as can be, even as they bleed them every week.

Depending on how Week 18 goes, this will be the third time in four seasons that the Seahawks have led the NFL in pass plays of 10-19 yards allowed, which to me are “mini-explosives” that Seattle loves allowing. Once upon a time, Seattle used to be the team that could lead the dance and also land brutal counterpunches. The Seahawks essentially play defense like they would rather get jabbed and 1-2’d to smithereens and suffer a TKO than get quickly knocked out by a George Foreman uppercut.

I’m certain that Carroll isn’t leaving unless he retires/steps down from his job voluntarily, but I fully expect Pete to “part ways” from Hurtt when this season is over. Hurtt never should’ve been hired for the job in the first place. Carroll’s Seahawks DCs have only ever been from within his own coaching staff, and while it worked out early in his tenure, it’s long past time for that to change. Alas, I suspect that even an outside hire will have to adhere to Pete’s defensive philosophies, so it may not even matter. Contrast Seattle with the Cleveland Browns, who fired Joe Woods after bad results in 2022 and replaced him with Jim Schwartz. The Browns have the No. 1 defense by EPA/play (up from No. 25 under Woods), and most of the core of the 2022 roster is still on the 2023 squad. Of course, Kevin Stefanski is not also the President of Football Operations.

Carroll’s roster decisions have put all of his post-Quinn defensive coordinators in some sort of bind that they’ve been unable to solve. From a coaching standpoint, while I’m not high on this current Seahawks defensive roster as great, I steadfastly refuse to believe this is one of the worst rosters in the league. Whatever “progress” we thought we saw early in the season was evidently just mostly feasting on the Panthers, Giants, and Josh Dobbs-led Cardinals.

We’re 10 years removed from the Super Bowl-winning team and one of the NFL’s last truly dominant defenses. It was the pinnacle of this franchise’s history and Pete’s coaching career. This year’s defense is unquestionably one of his most brutal failures, so much so that without any immediate substantial improvement, it’ll indefinitely lower Seattle’s ceiling regardless of who the starting quarterback is.