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What’s different in Seahawks’ new defense? Accountability. Scheme. Linemen not in coverage

Bobby Wagner is gone, sent away to the rival Rams.

For Darrell Taylor, it’s like the Seahawks aren’t in blue anymore.

“Oh, no, it’s crazy! I can’t lie about that. It’s crazy,” Taylor said this week.

Wagner, his mentor his first two years in the NFL, is now an All-Pro long gone from Seattle. The Seahawks dumped their captain Wagner and his $16.6 million cost for this year in March.

“Older guy that we all looked up to and everything. We knew about him even before we got here,” Taylor said. “So it’s crazy.

“But it’s the NFL, and we know how it goes. We’re looking forward to taking steps forward and to make our defense better. We have a new defensive coordinator and we’re all looking to move forward and do what we’re supposed to do to help our team win.

“And that’s it.”

“It” is in the early stages of unveiling, in the Seahawks’ second week of organized team activities that continue Thursday and Friday.

New defense

Coach Pete Carroll is changing his base 4-3, cover-3 zone pass defense with a single high safety he used for 12 years and two Super Bowls in Seattle. In January, soon after the Seahawks’ defense finished ranked 31st statistically in the 32-team NFL, Carroll fired Ken Norton Jr. Norton was the orchestrator of Carroll’s former 4-3 system. It was a relatively simple one. It thrived from 2012-17 when the Seahawks’ players were better than opponents.

That’s not true anymore.

Carroll promoted line coach Clint Hurtt to coordinator to install a new system. It is faster, more varied and trickier for offenses to decode.

Seattle’s new defense is based on more 3-4 principles. There are two inside linebackers, instead of the one, middle linebacker Wagner was in Seattle for a decade. New signal caller Jordyn Brooks, the outside linebacker on the weakside last year, is inside next to Cody Barton. These Seahawks will feature outside linebackers instead of ends as pass rushers — such as Taylor, the team’s second-round draft choice in 2019, Boye Mafe, Seattle’s second-round pick this year and Uchenna Nwosu, signed from the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason.

Asked what he thinks this year’s defense can do that last year’s couldn’t, the 25-year-old Taylor turned coy like the veteran he now is.

“I think that’s a pretty specific question, so I won’t get into detail about that,” he said. “But I definitely think it just allows our outside backers to be more versatile as far as run, pass, whatever it may be. And I think it’s going to help us.”

Carroll hired Sean Desai, the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator last season, to change the schemes and looks of Seattle’s defensive backs. He hired Karl Scott, formerly the defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings and University of Alabama, to teach new techniques and coverages for the Seahawks’ cornerbacks and safeties.

No more linemen in coverage?

What’s it all look like so far? What are the early differences in Seattle’s defense through two weeks of no-contact, no-team-scrimmaging OTAs with the players in helmets, T-shirts and shorts?

“The biggest difference is the front seven,” returning safety Ryan Neal said. “And that’s what I’m most excited about, because we got some hungry young dogs down there. I think what the defense is going to do for them is put them in better positions to play the game that they know how to play.”

Specifically Neal, entering his fourth season with the Seahawks, says to expect a fix to an aspect of the Carroll-Norton defense that galled many. He says ends, tackles and pass rushers will do less dropping into pass coverage and more what they are paid, trained and want to do: rush the quarterback.

Neal says there will be less of huge, inside tackle Poona Ford dropping into short zone coverage against underneath receivers while defensive backs are blitzing. The sight of 90 numbers dropping into coverage away from the line of scrimmage drove many who watched the Seahawks flop to 7-10 and out of the playoffs for only the second time in 10 years nuts last season.

“Last year, we had a couple issues,” Neal said, “but this year I can really see us fixing it and letting people rush who’s supposed to rush, letting people cover who’s supposed to cover.

“And that’s just really the tweak, you know what I mean? Just a simple change.”

Seattle defensive back Ryan Neal (26) celebrates after the Seahawks defense recovered a San Francisco 49ers fumble in the third quarter of an NFL game on Sunday at Lumen Field in Seattle. Referees determined the Seahawks did not recover the fumble but the play forced a fourth down for the 49ers.
Seattle defensive back Ryan Neal (26) celebrates after the Seahawks defense recovered a San Francisco 49ers fumble in the third quarter of an NFL game on Sunday at Lumen Field in Seattle. Referees determined the Seahawks did not recover the fumble but the play forced a fourth down for the 49ers.

There are more changes.

The “Leo,” weakside end in a three-point stance, hand on the ground, in Seattle’s previous 4-3 was Carlos Dunlap. He was the team’s sack leader the last two seasons. He is gone. In the Seahawks’ new system, the “Leo” opposite the strength of the offense’s formation will be a stand-up, outside linebacker in a two-point stance. It will most often be Taylor. At times he will also be a drop linebacker into short zone or man coverage, such as when safety Jamal Adams resumes his 2020 role of blitzing more.

The aim is for Seattle’s defense to be more varied, unpredictable — and thus pressure and confuse quarterbacks into more sacks and mistakes. More than in 2021, when the Seahawks forced a team-record-low 18 turnovers in 17 games.

On any given down Taylor may be the edge rusher he was in 2021 while getting 6 1/2 sacks. Or he — and outside linebacker trained to do it, not a defensive lineman — may drop back in coverage

“The same positions are here asking us to do more, and I like it because it shows off the athleticism of the outside backers and everything,” Taylor said. “It’s exciting, and it’s definitely something that we’re all excited about learning, just being able to show off our talents in that way.”

Plus, 22 of the 45 defensive players on the 90-man offseason roster have two or fewer seasons of NFL experience.

The terminology and play calls have changed, too. It’s a new language, even for the old(er) returning Seahawks such as Taylor, Brooks, Ford and Barton.

“Definitely different language and lingo that we’ve got to speak, and we’ve got to learn to be able to communicate with each other for each play, each series, each down,” Taylor said.

“It’s definitely different.”

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Darrell Taylor (52) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Darrell Taylor (52) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Hurtt stresses accountability

Taylor says the biggest difference between Norton and Hurtt as the coordinator of the defense is the no-nonsense Hurtt holding each player accountable.

“I think his assertiveness as a coach and how he is as a person just rolls over into his coaching. And I think every day, he’s making us better,” Taylor said of Hurtt. “He’s holding us accountable. He’s asking us to do things, asking us to get out of our comfort zone and make us better players. ...

“He’s just on us even more just to make sure that we’re on top of everything, holding us accountable. As far as that goes, players hold each other accountable, and coaches will do same thing. It goes hand-in-hand.”

Hurtt says that is at the core of this Seahawks defense that is new in concept, players, teachers — and, they expect, results.

“Obviously, I’m a different personality,” Hurtt said. “So I call a spade a spade. ...

“To me, that’s everything. That’s something that you have to do. It doesn’t matter if it’s an established player like Jamal and Q (fellow safety Quandre) Diggs, or it’s a young guy. Everyone — coaches, as well — has to be accountable to what’s going on out here. They have to feel that standard.

“And, obviously, as you teach the accountability part, you’re teaching the entire system to everybody on the defense on all three levels, so guys know who is supposed to be where, who’s responsible for things, who has a tough down based on the call.

“So there’s a lot of teaching involved with that when we have the accountability part that gets factored in.”