What to make of Seahawks’ defensive effort

Published on August 16, 2010 by     Tacoma News Tribune (Feed)

All NFL preseason observations must be taken with a Cortez Kennedy-sized grain of salt, given the limited game planning, the lack of must-win motivation and the whirlwind of substitutions.

But that doesn’t stop most of us from trying to dissect what we see in the non-counting games, including the coaches involved.

So it’s worth noting that Mr. Positivity himself, Pete Carroll, was concerned with how the Seahawks’ first-team defense performed in the opening drive of Saturday’s 20-18 victory over Tennessee.

“You dream about coming out in that first drive in the stadium and playing great defense and knocking them back and getting off the field,” Carroll said afterward. “But that dream didn’t come true tonight.”

Instead, the Titans’ starters marched 79 yards in 10 plays for a quick score, with quarterback Vince Young keeping the Seahawks off balance while hitting 4-of-4 passes for 70 yards.

Carroll said his defense looked “shaky” at that point, “like we were trying to find ourselves speed-wise.”

The question, of course, is whether that one drive foreshadows serious shortcomings with the new defensive alignment or if it was just an introductory moment for a new group that had five new starters from last year in Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, Lawyer Milloy, Earl Thomas and fill-in linebacker Will Herring, subbing for Lofa Tatupu.

With such limited opportunities for the starters in the preseason, that opening drive will be over-magnified in this situation. That certainly didn’t look great for the Seahawks, but it’s also worth noting the same unit — with Kevin Vickerson replacing Colin Cole at nose tackle — was back on the field for three more series that are getting less attention.

And things looked far better in those situations. Thomas’ speed was on display when he flew up and nearly beheaded Young after the quarterback had dropped the snap and then tried to roll out of the pocket. And on the next play — the third of the series — Clemons was in full-throttle pursuit of Young as the QB threw an interception to Josh Wilson.

The next series was an impressive three-and-out with Vickerson twice stuffing running back Javon Ringer in the backfield and Clemons then sacking backup quarterback Chris Sims for a 13-yard loss out of a nickel package.

The first-unit defense, with Nick Reed replacing Clemons, took the field one last time to start the second quarter and again forced a three-and-out — though the Titans spoiled that by completing a pass on a fake punt.

At that point, the Seahawks sent in an entirely new defensive front and the free-wheeling substitutions began. But in essence, after the first drive the starting defense didn’t allow a first down on the next three series, forcing a turnover and two punting situations.

Of course, asterisks must be applied for the fact NFL rushing leader Chris Johnson came out after just one series and Young was replaced after the second set. Which is why fairly grading anything in the preseason is next-to-impossible.

What we did see for sure, however, was Clemons applying needed heat from the “Leo” defensive end position, a key part of the new plan.

“Coach Carroll wanted pressure,” Clemons said. “That’s the way he wants that position played. That’s what he brought me here to do and that’s what I plan to give him.”

We also saw Vickerson plugging the middle effectively when he got his shot.

“They want me to be a dominating force in the middle and I’m going to work my best to do that,” said the 321-pounder. “This defensive line is a strong unit and we can do something special as long as we play together and nobody gets selfish and tries to do everything on their own. We could be real special.”

We saw Thomas getting his first NFL action at free safety. It’s worth remembering the youngster from Texas just turned 21. He’s going to need time, but he possesses the speed and nose for the ball and willingness to hit required to be a difference maker once he figures things out.

Carroll described Thomas as having a relatively “quiet” debut. He was definitely one who was adjusting to the speed of his new environment.

“This is a man’s game and I respect it to the fullest,” Thomas said. “I found out that first series, it’s nothing to play with. The speed of the game is a little faster than the college level because you’re playing against the best. It was just a great experience for me to get my feet wet.”

Rookie linebacker Dexter Davis continued to show speed on the edge, racking up a sack and a team-high four quarterback hits along with two special teams tackles. Fellow draft picks Walter Thurmond and Kam Chancellor also looked good in the second half.

Those situations are tougher to judge. Reed was a preseason sensation last year at defensive end against second- and third-unit offensive lines, but struggled to make that kind of impact in his limited opportunities in the real games.

The competition gets a whole lot tougher in regular season against first-string opposition with time to game plan and work on rookies’ shortcomings. But the Seahawks appear to have some promising newcomers sprinkled through the defense.

Their secondary appears potentially much stronger with Thomas, a healthy Marcus Trufant and added depth from Thurmond and Chancellor.

The linebackers should get a boost when Tatupu returns this week, while Curry’s maturing process and the development of David Hawthorne make that a stronger group this year.

The defensive line appears a work in progress, one that bears watching closely in coming weeks. The Red Bryant experiment didn’t have time to show much Saturday and Clemons and Co. will need more than one game to show if their speed can hold up.

So this was step one, with 19 weeks to go as we search to see whether that opening drive of a meaningless preseason game was a fluke or a foreshadowing.

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