At the end of August, the Seattle Seahawks were preparing for the start of 2017 season with what looked to again be one of the NFL's top defense. Then, on September 1, the Seahawks upgraded that defense, acquiring Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in a trade with the New York Jets.
Three weeks and two games later, Richardson already is making his mark on Seattle's defense, looking like a force in the middle of a loaded defensive line. Richardson's numbers might not jump off the stat sheet—he has six tackles in two games—but he has been a disruptive presence nonetheless, drawing multiple holding penalties, occupying blockers and showing the ability to make an immediate impact despite joining the team just before the season opener.
"Sheldon has been an incredible addition," Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said. "He has helped take some of the stress off Mike Bennett, some of the double teams off Mike Bennett, some of the slides away from Mike B and Cliff (Avril). Sometimes you could just slide the whole line to Mike B and Cliff, but I guess that is how Frank (Clark) got 10 sacks, you can't just leave Frank alone. So it has made them even more dynamic. I think it has opened some things up for Bobby (Wagner) and K.J. (Wright) to be more aggressive. It is just fun. It is just fun, just being out there every down, every play, every game because you know crazy stuff is going to happen. It is chaotic."
As Sherman notes, one of the best things about adding a player of Richardson's caliber isn't the plays he makes, but rather the plays he frees teammates up to make as defenses have to pick their poison, so to speak, when facing a loaded Seattle front seven. Look at that quote again from Sherman—everyone he mentions, except for Clark, who had 10 sacks last year, has been to at least one Pro Bowl. So if an interior lineman as talented as Richardson is causing problems that weren't there before, that will only mean more chances for the likes of Avril, Bennett and Clark to make plays in the backfield.
"I just love his energy," Wagner said. "As soon as he stepped in the building, he kind of just fit right in with us. It's another person out there running around making plays. He's fighting to make tackles, getting off blocks. It's another guy you have to account for. It helps make us unblockable up front, because who are you going to double-team?"
Added Seahawks coach Pete Carroll: "He has been really steady, tough, physical, and smart. He's not making mistakes, he has caused problems for the opponents on a number of plays, made some big hits. He hasn't had a sack yet, but that is going to come. We had a couple of holds two weeks ago that would have been sacks, so he is doing really well. We really like him. We are lucky to have him."
And yet as good as Richardson has looked so far, what might be most encouraging for the Seahawks is the fact that he still has plenty of room to grow.
"It's going all right, going smooth," Richardson said of his first few weeks with Seattle. "Am I where I want to be at? Not right now. I'm still learning the playbook; they're still slowly bringing stuff in for me. So it's a little different, but I'm getting there."
In New York, Richardson played all along the line, and occasionally was even used at linebacker in the Jets' 3-4 front. So far he has been almost exclusively a 3-technique defensive tackle in Seattle so as to avoid an information overload, but as he learns Seattle's playbook and adjusts to playing in a 4-3 scheme, the Seahawks will be able to move him around, making Seattle's line that much more dangerous.
"Sheldon has been a great asset to the team," Bennett said. "He's a really good player. He's still young, but he's still learning at the same time. So you put what he has done in the NFL on top of being around this amount of great players and being able to continuously learn the game, he has just been a special player for us… He's going to continue to learn this defense. He came from a 3-4, and now he's in a 4-3, which is a totally different scheme, and he has done a great job for us now. We'll see what happens for the rest of the year."
Richardson said learning a new defense on such short notice has been "a little different, awkward" at times, but notes that joining such a loaded defense has helped ease the transition. While the Seahawks added Richardson because they expect him to be a playmaker, they don't expect him to be the focal point of what they're doing, which means there's less pressure on him as he learns the defense.
"These guys make it easy," Richardson said. "We've got a good group of guys. I'm not going somewhere where I'm the main factor and I don't know the defense, that would be a different story. So it has been a smooth transition so far."
That smooth transition has allowed Richardson to be a big part of Seattle's defense right off the bat, but down the road, he should be even better, which is very good news for Seattle's defense.
"He's the man," Wright said. "He keeps linemen off of me and Bobby, and we really appreciate that. And like you saw last week, he made a good play on a screen, so he's a real smart guy, instinctive guy, and he's just getting started. This is his first time playing in a 4-3 system, so we've got a lot more games for him to get even better."
Photos of the Seahawks playing the Titans throughout the years leading up to their Week 3 game at Nissan Stadium.