The benefits of the Seattle Seahawks selecting rookie play-making safety Earl Thomas in the first round of this year’s draft are many. But one of the key developments for Seattle’s defense should be the ability to generate more turnovers in the back end of the defense.
Over the past two seasons, the Seahawks ranked among the worst teams in the league in collecting interceptions. Seattle corralled only 22 interceptions during that period, fourth-worst in the league behind St. Louis (20 interceptions), Dallas (19) and Detroit (13).
And it’s no surprise that the best in this category over that same time period are mostly playoff teams like Green Bay (52 interceptions), Baltimore (48), New Orleans (41) and Philadelphia (40).
Just three years ago in 2007, Seattle was one of the best in the league defending the pass, finishing tied for fourth in the league with 20 interceptions and only giving up a league-best 15 touchdowns through the air that season.
But things have gone downhill since then. Part of the reason was the team’s inability to sustain a consistent pass rush, with players like Patrick Kerney banged up and at the end of their careers. Cornerback Marcus Trufant, the team’s best cover corner, also has been banged up the past, two seasons, resulting in less reliable play in the back end of the defense. The result of Seattle’s two, main defenders involved in the passing game not playing to their potential was the Seahawks ranking last overall in pass defense in 2008 and 30th last season.
Gone are veteran safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell, now both in their 30s. The Seahawks have replaced them with Thomas and Jordan Babineaux – smaller, more-fleet footed defenders who both could play corner.
Veteran Lawyer Milloy also will compete for a starting job, and gives Seattle a thumper in the back end of the defense. Seattle’s seems poised for an upgrade of play here, but still needs to get a better pass rush.
Seattle’s fix for defending the pass is two-fold. The Seahawks have gotten leaner and more agile at the edge of the defense, and will devise more schemes to disguise what defenders will rush the quarterback to confuse the quarterback. This should help improve Seattle’s third down percentage, an important statistic for defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Seattle ranked 19th overall in third down percentage defensively last season at 39 percent. The New York Jets’ defense led the league with 32 percent.
Gone are the days of dominating defenses like Baltimore, suffocating teams and winning 16-13. The new rules favor the offense, and quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees can put points on the board against anyone. So what you’re seeing now is more defenses like New Orleans, with a reliance on pressuring the quarterback and creating turnovers in order to get the other team’s offense off of the field and limiting opponents’ offensive possessions.
Like several other defenses across the league, Seattle likely will play more single safety this season –or Cover 3 ,Expertly explained by Matt Bowen of the National Football – counting on the corners to play more press coverage on the perimeter. This means the free safety, Thomas, will have to cover more ground in the back end of the defense to help the corners, something that his skill set suggests he can do.
Trufant recently said that Thomas has shown signs in practice of his rangy ability to make plays all over the field, giving the corners more confidence to take some risks because they know they have help over the top.
“I think it helps out a lot when you know somebody always has your back, back there,” Trufant said. “It’s make your job at corner a whole lot easier. You can do things. You can take some chances on certain stuff if you always know the safety’s got your back.”
Indeed, in talking to team scout Matt Barry soon after Thomas was selected with the team’s No. 14 overall pick in April, one of the main reasons Seattle selected the Texas product was his ability to cover slot receivers and make plays in the back end of the defense. Thomas set a school record with eight interceptions his sophomore season and had 32 passes defensed in 14 games last season, an impressive number.
“What he really has a knack for is reacting to the ball and reacting to what he sees,” Barry said. “He’s one of those guys that is rare athletically in terms of being able to see something and then being able to move. He can react. His reaction time from what he sees to his feet getting there is really quick. … He has the ability to change the game from the safety position and have an impact on the ball. That stuff jumps off tape.”
That’s been evident during OTAs, as Thomas has displayed great anticipation and range in getting to plays at the edge of the defense.