The Seahawks have been working all week on what coaches call “situational tackling.”
The two situations the ransacked defense needs to get better at tackling: Anyone, and everywhere.
Bringing guys to the ground has been more difficult to do in Seattle the last month than keeping the grass green. Broncos, 49ers, Falcons and Lions ball carriers have run around, past and through the Seahawks with alarming consistency. It’s a main reason the Seahawks are 31st in the NFL in total defense (428 yards allowed per game) and also next-to-last in points allowed (28.8 per week).
Now here comes game-breaker Alvin Kamara at Seattle on Sunday, when the Seahawks (2-2) play the Saints (1-3) in New Orleans (10 a.m., channel 13).
Kamara has missed two of the Saints’ last three games with a rib injury. It’s had him feeling OK some days, awful others. But he told reporters in Louisiana this week he is “ready to roll” against the Seahawks.
No wonder. Everyone else has rolled over them.
“There are different tackling situations that we address,” Carroll said, listing specifically how the Seahawks have been so bad. “There are tackles that are on the sideline and you get to inside out your way and approach the tackle with leverage and make a solid attempt at one. There is open-field where you don’t have any boundaries that are there to help you. There are plays where you are fitting off of your teammates.
“There are times when guys are hung up — and you can see a couple of great tackles that Quandre (Diggs) had where the ball carrier was pretty much trapped and he was able to cut loose and cut the guy down.”
The worst of bad was last weekend in Detroit. The Seahawks allowed the Lions 520 yards and 45 points. The only reason Seattle won was because Geno Smith, DK Metcalf and Rashaad Penny produced 555 yards and 48 in the highest-scoring win in a regulation game in team history.
The Seahawks had just taken a 38-23 on Penny’s 36-yard touchdown run at Detroit. On the last play of the third quarter, the Lions were backed against their goal line, first and 20. Tight end T.J. Hockenson caught a pass in the clear on a simple drag route short across the middle. Seattle safety Josh Jones, who has had tackling issues this early season starting for long-term-injured Jamal Adams, came up. Jones lunged and whiffed on tackling Hockenson by the legs.
The tight end veered left, to the sideline. Linebacker Cody Barton spun out of a block by a wide receiver. He easily could have pushed Hockenson into the sideline boundary at the line to gain for a 20-yard play — bad enough for Seattle. Barton made it awful. He absorbed a shoulder from Hockenson rather than simply pushing the tight end out of bounds.
Undeterred, Hockenson ran down the sideline for 60 more yards before Seahawks cornerback Tariq Woolen, the fastest player on the field, got to Hockenson and slowed him down at the Seattle 4-yard line.
The Lions scored a touchdown to make it a one-score game again.
T. J. Hockenson with an 81-yard catch and run!pic.twitter.com/pkPBvtQayj
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) October 2, 2022
Trying for big hit
The Seahawks don’t practice tackling guys to ground, not in training camp or in season. In games they have often tried to simply hit ball carriers instead of tackling them, particularly when one-on-one in the open field. Pro Bowl safety Quandre Diggs is one of the few on the defense that is skilled at hitting bigger ball carriers and standing them up so fellow Seahawks can join in and bring him down.
But there haven’t been many cases of that, unless Diggs is to the tackle first.
“Say a guy catches a hitch. We are in man coverage. Everyone else is off of the field,” Carroll said. “And it’s just you and him. In that situation, you can’t take the opportunity to try to make a big hit in hopes that you get him down. You have to recognize that you are on your own, and that situation calls for a more conservative approach to the tackle, buying time for your pursuit coming.
“It’s situational tackling that we are talking about,” Carroll said, “and if you don’t recognize it and take the same shot like, ‘I’m going to knock the guy out’, you can make us vulnerable to big plays. That’s what we have to do a better job of, recognizing that.
“Usually, by this time, we should be getting that ironed out, so we are trying to clean that all up.”
Seattle has allowed 16 plays of 25-plus yards. That’s the most in the league. The defense is last in the NFL in yards allowed per play.
Getting exploded upon
The Seahawks define “explosive plays” on offense and defense as gains of 12 or more yards running the ball and 16 or more yards passing. Their defense has been getting exploded upon. It’s allowed 12 explosive run plays and 26 explosive pass plays.
Then there are the penalties.
Three new, inexperienced defensive backs have combined for 10 penalties, gifting offenses 10 first downs. Many of those on rookies Woolen and nickel cornerback Coby Bryant plus cornerback Michael Jackson starting the first games of his career have been after the defense has stopped a third-down play and otherwise was getting off the field.
“Some of those situations almost become explosives with the penalties that you get, particularly in the back end,” defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said.
“For young guys, there are things to be able to learn that if a bad play happens you have to be able to put it past you and move on to the next play, so that it doesn’t turn into an avalanche of issues.”
It is indeed an avalanche of issues.
Seattle is using a new defensive scheme this season, scrapping Carroll’s long-time 4-3 for Hurtt’s new 3-4. The Seahawks are giving major playing time to seven players who are either rookies (including outside linebacker Boye Mafe) or starting in their positions for the first time in the league (inside linebackers Barton and Jordyn Brooks, Jones at strong safety).
“A lot of it right now is youthful, young guys that are playing and that are taking their lumps, but also doing a lot of good things, as well,” Hurtt said.
Still, Hurtt says, “you can grow through growing pains and not give up 45 points at the end of the day. That is never acceptable.
“I don’t care who is out there, who is coaching, or whatever the case may be. We have to finish the game in a better fashion.”
What can they do?
Mafe is poised for more time on early downs to stop the run at left outside linebacker. Darrell Taylor, the second-round pick from 2020 has been a non-producer through four games. He seems destined for a situational, third-down pass-rushing role only, yielding the run downs to Mafe opposite outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu.
L.J. Collier could come off injured reserve for this game. The first-round pick from 2019 is a bigger defensive end for a line that’s had usual tackles Poona Ford and Shelby Harris at ends in this 3-4.
Ryan Neal is all the way back from what he said was a grade-2 high-ankle sprain. A teammate fell on him in a special-teams drill the first minutes of the first training-camp practice in pads. That was in early August.
Carroll said this week Neal is going to play more. That could be for Jones, as it was in the fourth quarter at Detroit after the fiasco with Hockenson. Neal could be a third safety with Diggs and Jones, basically a hybrid linebacker nearer the line of scrimmage, at the expense of the struggling Barton’s snaps.
The Seahawks were going to do a lot of three safeties with Adams, Diggs and Neal, last year’s sixth, dime defensive back, or with Adams, Diggs and Jones. Then Neal and Adams got hurt.
“If he says I’m going to get my number called, I can’t wait to get a shot and do what I do,” Neal said. “And that’s just, play fast as hell and make something happen.”