Every day between now and the start of Seahawks training camp, Seahawks.com will take a look at some of the team's most intriguing storylines, position battles and players heading into the 2017 season. Today, we continue the Top 10 list by looking at what subtle changes could be made to the secondary. The list continues Tuesday by focusing on how much difference a healthy Russell Wilson could make for the offense.
When Bradley McDougald was considering his options in free agency, Seahawks coaches and general manager John Schneider made an honest pitch to the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting safety.
Yes, the Seahawks have a pair of Pro Bowl starters at safety in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, but as McDougald recalled after signing with Seattle, “They made it clear that talent gets on the field.”
In the past, Thomas and Chancellor have been every-down players, and the results have been outstanding with them on the field, so just how will McDougald, or for that matter draft picks Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson, get on the field if Chancellor and Thomas stay healthy? The answer to that might involve the Seahawks finding ways to "be creative with some stuff" in the secondary, head coach Pete Carroll said earlier this offseason.
Carroll has been coaching successful defenses for a long time, and he strongly believes in the principles he learned in 1977 as a graduate assistant working under Monte Kiffin, but that doesn't mean he isn't also a coach who's willing to adapt and, in his words, "tweak things" as necessary. Sometimes those tweaks can be necessitated by opponents or trends in the league, but they can also take place in order for the Seahawks to get the most out of the talent on their roster. And make no mistake about it, the Seahawks see McDougald as a player who can help them a lot, even if he's not an every-down player.
A starter each of the past two seasons in Tampa Bay, McDougald made 178 tackles over the past two years and had four interceptions, including one in the Buccaneers victory over the Seahawks last season. Talking about the McDougald signing earlier this offseason, Schneider compared it to the signings of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in 2013, two players who, despite having impressive credentials, were available at what the Seahawks viewed as a good value in free agency.
"He's a good football player," Carroll said in March at the NFL Annual Meetings. "Played really aggressive and tough, was excited about coming here to help us out. Shoot, I think he's a great guy to add. He has the kind of mentality in guys we are looking for. Has a chip on his shoulder, wants to prove it, he has always had to do that—make his own way. So he's coming in here to battle with us. It's a great addition.
"He has been good enough in the past to move guys around on their own team. There's a chance we can be creative with some stuff and we'll look forward to figuring that out."
So how will the Seahawks "be creative" to get McDougald on the field? Ultimately that will be decided in training camp, but one possibility Carroll mentioned is playing a bigger version of nickel defense, with a third safety coming on in passing situations instead of a third cornerback. The Seahawks, like every team in today's NFL, played a lot of nickel defense in recent years and will continue to do so going forward, and sometimes it could make sense for that extra defensive back to be a safety, not a cornerback.
"There are ways for us to play a bigger nickel group, and we're wide open to that flexibility and with Earl and with Kam," Carroll said. "We played over 800 snaps of nickel last year, the most we've ever played by far, and there's different opportunities in early-down situations to vary your groups, which we've done sometimes in the past already. We're open to the competition of it and what the players bring. If they can bring something, hopefully we'll identify it and we'll figure out how to tweak things so we can do that. There's a lot of opportunity for us. We moved (former safety) Dewey McDonald, we got him to see if he could swing into the linebacker position, and that's where he has settled for us, knowing he can play safety. There's an opportunity for us to continue to look for kind of a hybrid guy who can do both, so we'll continue to do that."
Of course, when it comes to making changes, Carroll knows he has to be careful not to try to do too much. It's one thing to add a wrinkle that will help get a good player on the field and help the Seahawks be even better in certain situations, but such tinkering can backfire if it overwhelms the defense.
"To me that has always been the most challenging part of coaching—how much is too much?" Carroll said. "I've been through so many things and so many adjustments and schemes and principles and stuff like that. It's fighting the over-coaching part of it, so we've become very, very grounded in our foundation of base defense and those principles to let the players play, then we try to tweak very carefully to always maintain the speed that we play at, the confidence that guys play our scheme at."
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