To Pete Carroll, the whole point of playing defense is to make things as uncomfortable as possible for the opposing offense.
As the Seahawks wrap up their offseason with the three-day minicamp this week, their new coach is starting to feel more comfortable about his defense’s ability to do just that this season.
“We’re going to be able to do a lot of stuff like we like to and try to make it uncomfortable for our opponents and their offense,” Carroll said. “So at this point, I’m very pleased with that.”
As with the offense, and all the changes on that side of the ball, the real proof for the defense will come once the player put on the pads when training camp practices begin in late July – and especially once the preseason games start.
Will the pass rush be able to generate more than the 28 sacks the Seahawks posted last season, which played directly into the pass defense ranking 30th in the league? Did the club do enough in free agency and the draft to upgrade a unit that ranked 24th in total defense, and lost three starters – defensive ends Patrick Kerney (retired) and Darryl Tapp (traded) and strong safety Deon Grant (released)?
Rather than make the kind of big splash in free agency that often turns out to be a belly flop, first-year general manager John Schneider acquired defensive linemen Chris Clemons, Kevin Vickerson and Robert Henderson in trades. The club also selected free safety Earl Thomas in the first round of the NFL draft and then re-signed veteran safety Lawyer Milloy to mentor, and possibly start opposite, him.
It’s also significant that two of the three coaches that Carroll retained from last season are defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and line coach Dan Quinn.
But even more than who plays this season will be how the Seahawks play – with speed and aggression.
“I think we have a pretty good understanding of what coach Carroll wants to run and how he wants to play,” middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu said.
Line – Clemons, who had eight sacks for the Oakland Raiders in 2007 and played the past two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, was brought in to play the “Leo” end spot that Carroll learned while an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers and used with so much success at USC. But the real “find” could turn out to be the move of 323-pound Red Bryant from tackle to left end.
This tandem provides the ability to pressure the quarterback from Clemons’ side and the bulk to stuff the run from Bryant’s side.
“Personnel placement is so important, getting guys in the right spot,” Bradley said. “Like Red. He was inside, now he’s outside. And he’s doing well outside. That’s a great example of personnel placement to the scheme that we want to achieve.
“And with Clemons, credit our guys in personnel and D.Q. They saw him on tape and felt he could come in and help us, and up to this point he’s doing a real nice job.”
The interior remains the same, with Colin Cole at nose tackle and Brandon Mebane at the three-technique spot.
But versatility could be the key to more productivity this season, especially rushing the passer. The coaches plan to use the pass-rush skills of Aaron Curry, last year’s first-round draft choice, as a blitzer from his strong-side linebacker spot but also as an end in the nickel defense.
“There are going to be roles for guys, and that’s what we’re trying to find out now – who best fits which role,” Bradley said.
The new-look line also includes incumbents Lawrence Jackson and Nick Reed at end and Craig Terrill at tackle, as well as fourth-round draft choice E.J. Wilson (a 298-pound end) and Vickerson and Henderson.
Linebackers – The real key will Tatupu’s return to leading-tackler form from the shoulder injury that ended his 2009 season after only five games, and allowing him to use his instincts to flow to the ball after he was asked to play a delay-before-reacting style last season.
“I like the things we’re doing and it’s just comfortable out there,” Tatupu said of the using some variations of the 3-4 defense and asking the cornerbacks to play more aggressively at the snap of the ball.
One thing that came out of Tatupu’s absence was the emergence of David Hawthorne. After stepping in for Tatupu, Hawthorne led the team in tackles, shared the lead in interceptions and finished third in sacks. With Leroy Hill’s prolonged absence this spring, Hawthorne has moved to the weak side with the No. 1 defense.
The coaches are also expecting – no, demanding – more from Curry, after his performance dropped off last season when Tatupu went down.
They also have depth and versatility in Will Herring, who is capable of playing all three spots; promising second-year player Anthony Heygood and rookie Dexter Davis, who was drafted as an end but has been moved to linebacker.
“There’s strong competition,” Bradley said. “And guys are learning multiple positions. That can help, as we found out last year.”
Secondary – As with the linebackers and Tatupu, this unit was not the same without Pro Bowl left cornerback Marcus Trufant, who was not the same even after returning from the back issue that forced him to sit out the first six games.
The more aggressive style of play being installed by the coaches plays to Trufant’s strength.
“Tru has really taken to it,” Carroll said. “He has no problem at all doing the things we’ve done.”
On the right side, Josh Wilson continues to be the starter. But Kelly Jennings is showing that his role could be expanded from playing the right side in the nickel when Wilson slides inside to cover the slot receiver. Waiting in the wings is fourth-round draft choice Walter Thurmond, who continues to rehab the knee injury that ended his senior season at Oregon.
“Josh is so competitive, and then Kelly Jennings has really done a nice job all through OTAs,” Bradley said. “So there’s another spot where there’s competition, and who knows how that will play out once we get through training camp.”
At safety, Thomas’ range brings an element that has been missing. Jordan Babineaux, the starter at free safety last year, is competing with Milloy to be the strong safety. Also in the picture is fifth-round draft choice Kam Chancellor, a 232-pound strong safety who seems to be getting better with each practice.
“We’ve done a lot of stuff with the defense,” Carroll said. “We’ve made a lot of progress.”