Mon, 30 Nov 2020

"Our Best Football Is Still Ahead Of Us"

Seahawks
31 Oct 2020, 19:50 GMT+10

This is the Seahawks Gameday Magazine feature story for Week 8 of the 2020 season, presented by CenturyLink. Visit our Game Center for more information related to Week 8 vs. the San Francisco 49ers.

In the NFL, August is nothing if not a time for unbridled optimism.

Everyone is excited about new players and rookies who might make a difference, every big play or impressive practice feels like a sign of great things to come, and just about every team comes out of camp feeling like it has gotten better from where it was a year ago and is ready for a successful season.

And on so many of those August afternoons when the Seahawks practiced on the shores of Lake Washington this summer, Seattle's defense was inspiring a lot of confidence, while exuding a ton of confidence. The defense was, as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll put it, "battling for some swag" with the Russell Wilson-led offense that has gone on to become the league's No. 1 offense through seven weeks in terms of points and yards gained. And while the offense had plenty of success in camp, there were days where the No. 1 defense, led by a seemingly endless supply of big plays from All-Pros Jamal Adams and Bobby Wagner, was clearly getting the better of Wilson and company.

With three Pro Bowlers in the secondary, the Seahawks defense was feeling confident heading into the regular season.

And yes, there were still questions about the pass rush, but Bruce Irvin looked as explosive at 32 as he did in his first tenure with Seattle, Benson Mayowa kept making plays, and rookie Alton Robinson sowed a ton of promise, so there was legitimate hope that that unit could be effective even if it wasn't dominant.

So what happened? How did a defense that looked so impressive in training camp become the 32nd ranked defense in terms of yards, passing yards and first downs allowed, and 23rd in scoring defense? And most importantly for the Seahawks' hopes for a successful 2020, can the defense turn things around and get back to looking like that brash, playmaking unit it was in August?

"We're not where we want to be," a clearly-disappointed Wagner said after the Seahawks lost their first game of the season last weekend. "We have to play better, we have to execute the plays better, be more consistent. We have to find a way to get off the field. We can't put the offense in the situation that we put them, can't make penalties that we had to extend drives, we have to find a way to get off the field. We're not where we want to be. It's going to take some focus. At this point, you've just got to make your mind up and say you want to play good defense, period."

So how did a defense that looked so impressive in camp end up here, with Wagner lamenting a lack of execution and consistency following an overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals?

For starters, the Seahawks haven't had all of what they hoped would be their first-team defense for most of the season. Their starting secondary basically played one game together, the opener in Atlanta, before having to shuffle different players in and out. Safety Quandre Diggs missed almost all of Seattle's Week 2 game after being ejected for a helmet-to-helmet hit; nickel DB Marquise Blair, a star in camp, was lost for the season to an ACL injury in that same game; Adams, a first-team All-Pro who was acquired in a July trade, has missed the past three games with a groin injury; and cornerback Quinton Dunbar, another trade acquisition, has also missed two games with a knee injury. And the injuries haven't only hit the secondary-strongside linebacker/edge rusher Bruce Irvin tore his ACL in Week 2, his replacement at linebacker, rookie Jordyn Brooks, missed two games before returning last week, and defensive end Rasheem Green, the team's sack leader in 2019, went on injured reserve with a neck injury sustained in the season opener.

But for Carroll, for whom "no whining, no complaining, no excuses," is the second of his three team rules, injuries can't be held up as an excuse for the defense's performance through six weeks. Just look at this week's opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, who have dealt with more injuries than perhaps any team in the league, yet still rank fifth in total defense and scoring defense.

"We're not going to use excuses, it's a next man-up mentality," safety Quandre Diggs said, acknowledging that there have been a lot of moving pieces in the secondary, but then adding, "At the end of the day, we've got to get the job done, and we're not doing that right now. But we're finding ways to try to be better, and it's not like we're not putting in the work we're doing what we can... We just need to get that get that situated. At the end of the day, we're six games in with a lot of time to make up for it."

But even if the Seahawks won't accept injuries as an excuse for subpar performances, it's impossible to look at all the changes in the lineup and not see how that has had an impact. That's especially true with Adams, who was so, so impressive in camp and in Seattle's Week 1 win, and who was a big part of the pass rush as a blitzer prior to his injury.

Jamal Adams racked up 23 tackles, two sacks and five QB hits in the first few games with the Seahawks before exiting with an injury in Week 3 vs. the Dallas Cowboys.

"I have not felt the continuity of the first couple weeks in our approach," Carroll said. "Because when you have such a special player like Jamal, he just draws a lot of attention, for us in planning and also for the opponent. So that's been different. Not having Quinton in there-those guys have hardly played together. And Brooks too, you can see why we really like him. Jordyn's going to do a fine job for us playing in that spot, but he's just a couple games old. So it feels like it's still coming. I don't like being patient at all, but in this case, before it really gets to its best, it's going to be a bit."

Carroll agreed with Wagner's assessment of the defense through six games, but he also has reasons to believe the turnaround will happen, and can start taking place when Seattle hosts the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

"Going into last week, we really wanted to see if we could make a move here, get going in a direction we really felt better about," Carroll said. "Just because you want to doesn't mean that happens right away; it takes some time. So as we continue, I totally am planning on us turning, and being at the top end of our game. It's out there for us, and we're going to keep battling to get it done. I agree with Bobby, he's on point. Everybody's working at it, we got a great attitude about it, the guys are spending their time studying and all that. We got to get our combinations of guys right and max out and make sure we're really, really clean with our execution. That's coming. How long can I keep telling you that it's coming? But our best football is still ahead of us, there's no question in my mind."

The defense has done some things very well, most notably getting turnovers-the Seahawks are tied for third in the NFL with 12 takeaways, trailing only two teams, Cleveland and Kansas City, that have played an extra game having not yet had their byes-and stepping up in big moments, such as a goal-line stop against Cam Newton and the Patriots to preserve a win, or the fourth-down stop that set up the game-winning drive against Minnesota. The next step, as Wagner put it, is doing those types of things consistently and getting not just more big plays, but more stops on third downs.

"I just think we just have to have a level of focus, really focusing on the details of our defense focusing on the details of what we're trying to get done," Wagner said. "We've got to be more consistent. I'm confident our guys can do that. We have to put that last game behind us and move forward and, focus on what we can do this week... I think the biggest thing is everybody coming together being on the same page. Being positive and understanding that this is going to get changed. And you have to do your part. It's a team game, but it starts with your individual effort to make this defense great, and I think everybody's locked in. And we'll see how it goes on Sunday."

Wagner, Carroll and the rest of the Seahawks believe the defense will get better, for starters because both have seen over the years different versions of Seattle's defense play a lot better in the second half of seasons than the first. As Carroll explained Monday, he, defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., and there rest of the defensive coaching staff continue to evaluate everything to make sure they're putting players in the best position to succeed.

The Seahawks also expect to have a number of players adding to the defense that should make a difference, most notably Adams, who is hoping to get back soon from the groin injury that has kept him out for three games, and Carlos Dunlap, a two-time Pro-Bowl defensive end who the Seahawks added in a trade earlier this week. The Seahawks also have two veterans on their practice squad who should help out at some point, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and linebacker Mychal Kendricks, and Rasheem Green returned to practice this week, meaning he should be back in the defensive line rotation soon.

None of those things guarantee a quick turnaround, but it's enough to give the Seahawks confidence that the defense will at some point get back to being the unit that in training camp went toe-to-toe with the league's highest scoring offense.

The Seahawks are already a very good team with a prolific offense and defense that has, last week notwithstanding, produced just enough stops and big plays to help secure wins. If the defense can make the turn Carroll is envisioning, the Seahawks have a chance to be great.

"The biggest part is just us all coming together all the right time and all meshing together in terms of on the field-we're all meshing together as teammates," Wilson said. "When the whole picture comes together, all at the same time, that's going to be really special when that happens."

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