Photo by Jeff Marsh & the Seattle Seahawks

Defense – Starters

Michael Bennett – 5-Technique DE (over TE)
Brandon Mebane – 1-Technique DT
Tony McDaniel – 3-Technique DT
Cliff Avril – LEO
Bruce Irvin/Mike Morgan* – SAM (Strongside Linebacker)
Bobby Wagner – MIKE (Middle Linebacker)
K.J. Wright – WILL (Weakside Linebacker)
Byron Maxwell* – RCB
Kam Chancellor++ – SS
Earl Thomas++ – FS
Richard Sherman++ – LCB
Jeremy Lane* – Nickel CB

* New starter or new position
+ Pro Bowl
++ All-Pro

Defense – Running Game

Everyone knows the Legion of Boom by now, and the impact the Seahawks secondary has had on the league. What many not know is that run defense was a far more critical barometer of how the team played in 2013. When the Seahawks kept opponents from running wild, they dominated. Teams that were able to pile up yards on the ground made Seattle sweat.

Record Avg Pts Scored Avg Pts Allowed
Opponent rushes for 130+ yds 5-2 20.5 16.6
Opponent rushes for less than 130 yds 8-1 30.3 12.8

Seattle might have been 5-2 in games they allowed 130+ rushing yards, but those wins included a 14-9 near-disaster in St. Louis, falling behind 21-0 to the Bucs at home, a miracle comeback against Houston and 12-7 opener in Carolina. The two losses were @SF and at home to Arizona. The secondary deserves the praise it receives, but the way the front seven plays against the run has a lot more to do with the outcome of a Seahawks game. Seattle brought in help at defensive tackle in Kevin Williams, but teams will test the new starting defensive ends early and often to see if they can hold up as well as Chris Clemons and Red Bryant did. Results were mixed in the preseason.

Defense – Passing Game

Seattle went from 36 sacks in 2012, good for a rank of 18th in the NFL, to 44 sacks in 2013, and a rank of 8th. This is a different defense when they combine their talented secondary with an effective pass rush. Opponent passer ratings dipped from 71.2 in 2012 to a ridiculous 63.4 in 2013. How bad is a 63.4 rating? Case Keenum finished with a rating of 78.2 last season for the lowly Texans, and was just released. This was a historic pass defense last year, as Peyton Manning found out in February.

They will need to reestablish their dominance with new personnel this season. Their top four in the secondary remain intact from where they ended last year, but everything changes after that. Their pass rush has many of the same parts, but each is playing new or expanded roles. The preseason was mostly encouraging, but was inconsistent enough to raise some concern.

Defensive Line

Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril were twin wrecking balls for the Seahawks last season. They brought intensity, turnovers and outstanding production. Neither was a starter. That speaks to the difference in line depth this year and Avril steps in for Clemons and Bennett for Bryant. One perspective would be that this should be a step forward for the players and the defense. Bennett is known for his pass rush ability, which is about 10x what Bryant could bring in that department, but is a terrific run defender as well. Avril was a far superior pass rusher to Clemons last year, and will get more snaps that should lead to more production this season. No player has looked more primed for a monster year during training camp and preseason than Avril. The question for him will be how well he can hold up in run defense, where he will be tested regularly.

The other guy who looks ready to have a terrific season is O’Brien Schofield. A strongside linebacker most of last year, Schofield re-signed with the Seahawks exclusively as a rush defensive end. He has wreaked havoc and has to have the coaches feeling confident they have a strong nickel edge pass rush package with Schofield and Avril coming from either side. Bruce Irvin will join that fray soon as well. Bennett will slide inside on nickel situations, and be joined by Williams, Jordan Hill or Cassius Marsh. Williams is the only one of those three who could hold up reliably against the run, should an offense try to take advantage of Seattle’s nickel personnel.

Williams, Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel are the bellwether’s for this group, and possibly for this defense overall. They need to be outstanding against the run up the middle. When Seattle has struggled in recent years, it was because opponents were able to gash them for yards up the gut. McDaniel was great last year, but will he be as motivated after signing his free agent deal? Mebane was amazing, but is getting older. Williams is older, but will play fewer snaps than at any point in his career. These three guys could give Seattle its best interior line play in ages, or it could break down and leave the team scrambling for solutions. Greg Scruggs is a fine young player, but he is not ready to step in for any of these guys.

Marsh is a wildcard who will not be relied on, but has flashed upside to where he could be a valuable part of this line rotation by year’s end.

Linebackers

Young and hungry, this group may help make up for losses elsewhere by elevating their level of play. K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith both are playing on the last year of their contracts. Irvin is trying to prove he can be a star instead of just an above average player. Bobby Wagner has mixed All-Pro play with mediocre in his first two years. It is time for him to put together a complete season. Those four players are all capable of significant growth in 2014 after largely being ignored last year with the famous Seattle secondary and pass rush earning most of the spotlight.

I am still puzzled as to why it appears the Seahawks will start the season with Mike Morgan playing SAM in place of the recovering Irvin instead of sliding Wright over and letting Smith play WILL. Morgan is not the player Smith or Wright are. It appears as though the team has decided Smith has a specific nickel role, and that is all. Wright was just an okay WILL last year after being a plus SAM before. Smith was a far bigger playmaker. It is past time for Wright to make the impact his talent suggests he should.

Brock Coyle is a promising middle linebacker who could easily be part of this team for years to come. He could step in and immediately be effective against the run. His pass coverage would be the question mark.

Kevin Pierre-Louis is more of a developmental prospect at this point. He has not shown that he is ready to get off of blocks and would be a liability against the run. This group lost a promising player in Korey Toomer to make room for the likes of KPL and Morgan. The hope is that they make that tradeoff worthwhile.

Secondary

As well as Byron Maxwell played at the end of last season, it will be a little sad to not see 6’4″ Brandon Browner abusing receivers this season. We will miss his suplexes and crushing plays in run support. We will not miss his suspensions and trouble defending shifty receivers. Maxwell proved to be a playmaker in his first extended time as a starter. He was one of the best corners in football during that span. He will be tested throughout this season as teams largely avoid Richard Sherman. That means he will either look bad, or could have some monster passes defensed and interception numbers.

The nickel corner is where there is more intrigue. Jeremy Lane steps in to start, but he is not the player Walter Thurmond is. Lane had some promising moments when Thurmond was suspended last year, but enough questions remain that John Schneider traded a 6th-round pick to add another nickel corner to the roster in Marcus Burley.

Another option should Lane struggle is to move Maxwell inside during nickel situations and let Tharold Simon play outside. Simon is still raw, but would not be a disaster if pressed into action.

Safety play is still the straw that stirs this secondary. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor must continue to grow and assert their authority. Something they are more than capable of doing.

Special Teams – Coverage & Kicking

Lane and Ricardo Lockette were fantastic gunners on punt coverage last year. That group nearly set an NFL record for fewest punt return yards allowed. They may not get many chances this season with the way that offense should play, but it is definitely worth watching every Seattle punt.

Steven Hauschka was steady and spectacular all year. Anything close to that rate of reliability would be fantastic for this year.

The big news for this group will be to see how kick and punt returns perform. Harvin is the best in the business and Thomas is listed as the returner for punts. Golden Tate was a great catcher of the football and built for a little abuse. Thomas is not nearly as natural of a catcher, but has more breakaway potential. 

Defense – Overall 2014 Outlook

This group will be hard-pressed to reach the level that the 2013 defense did. That was one of the best defenses in the history of the league. The good news is that they do not need to be as good as last year’s crew. The offense should make life easier on them. When the offense is effective, it means fewer chances for the opposing offense and fewer plays to defend. That leads to fresher defenders and often, better results. It is a virtuous cycle that the Seahawks would love to see.

It was hard to separate some of the disappointing play from depth players during the preseason and what the starters are capable of. This did not feel like the same lean-forward defense we have watched the last two years, but many of the guys who will step on the field when the season opens were not on the field. Health is always important, but it feels more so this time around. There are not good options to step in at corner or defensive tackle. Seattle has had an embarrassment of riches for years, and now must prove their stars can will the team to dominant play no matter who surrounds them. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed did this for Baltimore. Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton did it for Pittsburgh.

The talent is there to be the best defense in the NFL again. Williams stands out as a crucial player who could make a huge difference against the run and the pass if he plays to his standards. The linebackers could very well earn their own nickname this season as their results match their potential. And there is room for more than one new name to join the legion. No defense in the NFL has 11 better starters than what the Seahawks will put on the field. Time to prove it once again.

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