With Seahawks training camp kicking off next week, Seahawks.com is taking a look at 10 of the most intriguing storylines, position battles and players heading into the 2022 season. Today, we take a look at how the shift to a 3-4 scheme might affect the pass rush. Check back Wednesday when we look at the offensive line and the competition at right tackle.
When Seahawks defenses have been at their best under Pete Carroll and John Schneider, they have been not only stingy when it comes to allowing yards and points, but also opportunistic when it comes to taking the ball away from opponents.
In 2021, however, the Seahawks managed just 18 takeaways, which ranked 25th out of 32 NFL teams, and while there were plenty of factors at play, the one Carroll pointed to at the end of the season was a pass rush that, while productive at times, wasn't able to consistently make life difficult on opposing quarterbacks.
"The lack of turnovers we were able to create, usually those come when you're ahead in games, and if you're well ahead, the ball gets more exposed, and you get more turnovers and that feeds off itself," Carroll said in his end-of-season press conference in January. "Also, you've got to create them, and you create them with pass rush. The quarterback is the number one critical aspect of turning the football over.
"We need to improve our pass rush. That is an area that we need to get better in. You saw how dynamic it is when you get going like we did (in a season-ending win at Arizona), but we didn't have that consistency and that is the important part of it. So many things feed off of that, it is the disruption of the quarterback that leads to all of the issues on the positive side for the defense, so we have to, whatever we can do, we have to work there. That's one of the focal points for me."
Seattle's pass rush produced 34 sacks in 2022, tied for 22nd in the NFL, marking the second time in three years the Seahawks have been in the bottom third of the league in sack production. And while sacks don't always paint a complete picture when it comes to the pass rush, the numbers in recent years haven't been good enough, which is why it doesn't come as a surprise that Carroll addressed that "focal point" by making some significant changes.
Most notably, Carroll overhauled his defensive coaching staff, making Clint Hurtt his defensive coordinator while adding Sean Desai as the team's associate head coach-defense, and Karl Scott as the defensive passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach. Hurtt and Desai have a shared background running 3-4 defenses in Chicago, and as both Carroll and Hurtt have explained this offseason, the Seahawks defense will indeed feature a lot more 3-4 scheme. Carroll has pointed out that this won't just be a copy of the Vic Fangio defenses Hurtt and Desai have run, but there will still be elements of that scheme, meaning more speed rushers on the edge in outside linebacker roles instead of traditional defensive ends, players they hope can add to the team's sack totals in 2022.
"We're going to do our own stuff," Carroll said at the NFL scouting combine. "We're not doing what somebody else is doing. We're going to do our stuff. (Talking with) Karl and Sean, what I'm saying to them was, 'As we continue to work at what we know and what we understand, we're working to find the very best that you guys have ever dreamed it could be, and then find a way to meld this thing together. I don't care about being like some other coach or some other style or some other system or whatever, that has nothing to do with what we're doing.' I want to draw out the best they have to offer.
"We've got to rush the passer better, we need more pressure. We need the pressure on the passer. We did a really nice job defending against the explosive pass and numbers are good there, and that's the discipline that it takes on the back end, but there's not enough things happening to the passer. So we've allowed them to be too efficient, safely efficient, kind of just been dumping the ball and stuff. We need to be more aggressive. So Clint is bringing an aggressive step forward in how we transition right now and really looking forward to him standing up for that."
The change in scheme meant some changes in personnel, swapping out big, powerful defensive ends like Carlos Dunlap and Kerry Hyder Jr., both of whom were released, and adding speedy edge rushers like Uchenna Nwosu, who signed as a free agent; Boye Mafe, who was an early second-round pick and who has already drawn comparisons to Seahawks Legend Cliff Avril by Carroll; and Tyreke Smith, a fifth-round pick out of Ohio State. Those newcomers, along with returning players like Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson give the Seahawks the edge speed they hope can disrupt opposing passing attacks.
"We've got edge speed," Carroll told his players in a team meeting during minicamp. "We've got guys who can come flying off the freakin' edge. The edge is so important to us as we play. That's to get us the heat that we want. It starts in the middle; it gets to the edge.
As Carroll notes, things start in the middle for Seattle's defense, and for the edge rushers to perform at their best, they'll need the interior line to hold up its end of things. And while the Seahawks hope to elevate their pass rush in 2022, the goal when it comes to the run defense will be to do more of the same. Led by the trio of interior line trio of Poona Ford, Al Woods and Bryan Mone, all of whom are back this season, the Seahawks had one of the NFL's best run defenses in 2021, holding opponents to an average of just 3.8 yards per carry, the second lowest mark in the NFL.
That was the second straight year the Seahawks had one of the NFL's top run defenses, having held opponents a 3.9 yard-per-carry average in 2020, the league's fifth-best mark.
With that Ford-Woods-Mone trio leading the way, as well as the additions of players like Quinton Jefferson and Shelby Harris, the Seahawks have plenty of talent and size capable of stopping the run, and if the edge rushers can thrive in a new scheme, then Seattle's defensive front could have a big role in helping the Seahawks defense thrive in 2022.
Check out behind-the-scenes photos of the making of episode two of The Sound of the Seahawks, a new docuseries which will share unprecedented access and stories from the Virginia Mason Athletic Center throughout the season. Watch the second episode, "Extended Family," here.