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NFC West Team Breakdown: Seahawks

Seattle Seahawks helmet

Image via Wikipedia

With only nine wins combined over the last two seasons the Seattle Seahawks went to work in the offseason, overhauling both the roster and the coaching staff.  With the NFC West wide open this year the Seahawks are hoping the changes have an immediate impact.

Pete Carroll returns to coach in the NFL for the first time since 1999 and while he put together one of the great college programs of the 2000’s he has his work cut out for him in Seattle.  A big first step toward getting back to the playoffs will be protecting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.  The veteran missed nine games in 2008 was healthier in ’09 but he still missed two games.  Hasselbeck was pressured way too much in ’09 and certainly the protection couldn’t be any worse than the final four games of 2009 when Hasselbeck was sacked 10 times and threw 10 interceptions.  To strengthen the line Seattle drafted tackle Russell Okung and signed guards Chester Pitts and Ben Hamilton.  Certainly the Seahawks don’t lack the weaponry with TJ Houshmandzadeh and tight end John Carlson.  The Seahawks also drafted flashy Golden Tate and are hoping to revive the career of Mike Williams.  Seattle’s once proud running game nearly washed out last year as the Seahawks ranked 26th in rushing and scored just seven touchdowns on the ground.  Looking to add a spark to the Julius Jones-Justin Forsett backfield tandem Seattle acquired Leon Washington in the offseason.

The next step in Seattle’s rebuilding project is to put more playmakers on the field.  Patrick Kerney led the team in sacks with a mere five however he retired in the offseason.  Deon Grant led the secondary with just three interceptions but in the offseason Grant signed with the Giants.  To help fix the secondary the Seahawks used one of two first round picks on safety Earl Thomas.  Seattle will need Thomas after routinely getting picked apart by opposing quarterbacks.  Much of the focus should be on Seattle’s linebackers.  MLB David Hawthorne led the team in tackles, registered four sacks and picked off three passes.  The Seahawks are also looking for more from 2009 first round pick Aaron Curry.  Not surprising, Seattle was much better defending the run.

Hasselbeck is now the dean of NFC West quarterbacks and the Seahawks need a full season from him.  The revamped offensive line should help keep Hasselbeck upright.  On defense the Seahawks need Thomas and Curry to jell quickly.  After two tours of duty in the NFL Carroll needs to prove he can be as successful in the pros as he was at USC.  It’s not far fetched to think the Seahawks can compete in the division if they stay healthy.This could be an eight or a nine win team which just might be enough to win the watered-down West.

The Earl Thomas effect

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).

The Seattle Seahawks rank among the worst teams in creating interceptions in the last, two seasons.

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 Post here) – 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.

Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

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.