Pete Carroll has coached a lot of great defenses during his career, first as an assistant in places like Minnesota, New York and San Francisco, and most recently as a head coach at USC and now in Seattle where his Seahawks led the NFL in scoring defense for four straight seasons from 2012-2015, a first in the Super Bowl era.
So it's no surprise that after a 2019 season in which the Seahawks struggled at times on defense, that was one of the first things he and general manager John Schneider pointed to when asked about things that need to improve in 2020.
The Seahawks finished 2019 ranked 26th in total defense, 22nd in scoring defense, and their 28 sacks were tied for the second fewest in the NFL. The Seahawks also gave up 130 explosive plays (runs of 12 or more yards and passes of 16 or more), the most allowed by a Seattle defense in the Carroll/Schneider era.
Knowing those numbers don't reflect what a Seahawks defense should be, Carroll and his players are looking forward to turning things around in 2020.
"We're hungry," All-Pro linebacker and defensive captain Bobby Wagner said. "We can look back defensively from last year and really know that we didn't play to the level that we could've played. We don't want to lower the standard. The standard is set, and we want to make sure that we reach that standard and push that standard up. So I plan on being better, our defense plans on being better. I feel like that gives us a lot of optimism."
As for how the defense will get better, some of that could come with scheme changes, but there will also be plenty of new players in 2020 who will be competing to make the defense better. While the status of free-agent defensive end Jadeveon Clowney remains up in the air, the Seahawks still like what they've done to address the pass rush, adding Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa in free agency, and drafting defensive ends Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson in the second and fifth rounds, respectively. The Seahawks will be counting on more speed at linebacker to help make a difference after selecting Jordyn Brooks in the first round.
"Pretty pumped up about it," Carroll said. "Getting Bruce to come back was a big deal. Bruce is such a versatile football player can play Sam and Leo and rush in nickel. That was a really good start to it for the defensive side. To hit it with Jordyn inside, he's going to be an extraordinary football player for us, and he's got flexibility to play around—we'll figure out how to fit him in best. To get both guys on the edges that, I think Darrell and Alton are going to be guys that are going to really give us some juice. We've been fortunate, and we needed to get speed on the edge and we got it. And just the speed that Brooks brings, I mean he flies, man. That 4.4 shows up on film. For years it has shown up. He has been a very well-established football player, being an all-conference guy for four years. You could see him way back when, so its natural, it going to carry right into our game too, so it just makes us that much better. So I think we've made some good moves, and the guys are really fitting in."
The Seahawks also will have safety Quandre Diggs for a whole season after seeing him make a big difference as a midseason trade acquisition, one who accounted for four takeaways and a touchdown in his first four games as a Seahawk before being sidelined by an ankle injury. The Seahawks could still add help between now and the start of the season, and they know they won't really know what they have until they can get together on the field, but even though nothing is certain in June, they feel like they're headed in the right direction. They also addressed their secondary by signing cornerback Quinton Dunbar.
"How things look on paper is just paper, but until we kind of get out there and practice together, be around one another and grow, that's kind of where you get everything," Wagner said. "Having somebody like Q-Diggs for a whole season will change things, and that's just one example. I think we have great leadership. I think we're hungry. Personally, I can't wait to get back out there on the field and do what we've always been doing."
In addition to contributions from new talent added this offseason, the Seahawks also are expecting to get more out of some returning players, including a number of second-year players who could see their roles increase significantly in 2020, be it defensive end L.J. Collier, defensive back Ugo Amadi, safety Marquise Blair or linebacker Cody Barton.
Carroll said earlier this offseason that the nickel corner job was Amadi's to lose, so he certainly could see more playing time, but another option Carroll floated last week was that the Seahawks could look at Blair in their nickel defense. A three safety "big nickel" package wouldn't be a new concept for the Seahawks, who used that package quite a bit in 2017 with Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Bradley McDougald.
"As a matter of fact, he is a guy that we're very interested in finding a role for him," Carroll said of Blair, who started three games last season. "We've already mapped that out. He's got real special talents that we want to find a spot for him, not just to go along and complement the safety play that he's going to play. So in the nickel package, he is going to get a lot of consideration to contribute in some additional ways, because he's unique and got some special stuff."
As for last year's shift to playing more base defense, Carroll said it's too soon to know if they'll stick with that again in 2020.
"Overall we weren't as effective as we've been (on defense), so when we get back on the field and see how things fit together—a big part of that was some of the players that we had," Carroll said. "We've always tried to draw from the strengths of our players, and that was one of the reasons that we did that last year. So we'll see how that goes. It is part of it, it's valuable experience that we've had… We played those packages better than the nickel packages in the years past, but has that complemented all of our game and prepared us for all of our game? That's the decision that we make as we see our players fit in. So, I'm sorry I can't give you the definitive there, but all of that has been in discussion, all of that has been in the process of how we're approaching the season so that we can take advantage of the directions we may go depending on how the individuals who contribute."