GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01: Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson #7 of the Seattle Seahawks looks back to the bench during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2012 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Seahawks 23-20 in overtime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Seattle Seahawks' defense was among last season's biggest surprises of 2011, but offensive troubles limited the team's overall success. Will Seattle's offseason moves prove to be enough to contend in the NFC West?
Surprising. No label fits the Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carroll better than that one. Carroll's team trudged its way to an NFC West win in 2010, his first season at the helm. A year later, a revamped defense helped Seattle pull off a few upsets on its way to another 7-9 record, although many experts pegged them as contenders in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.
There was more urgency in Seattle's step this offseason. Beating low expectations no longer qualifies as success. Smart, unheralded moves have been the hallmark of the team's defensive improvement, starting with the addition of defensive end Chris Clemons in Carroll's first season.
Quarterback questions overshadowed improvements to the defense, and elsewhere on the roster. Vikings castoff Tarvaris Jackson reunited with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell last season, as part of a two-headed solution including Charlie Whitehurst. This season, Seattle will see if Jackson and Matt Flynn can provide any more certainty to the offense. Seattle's success this season rests largely on the shoulders of those two signal callers and the coaches responsible for them.
Home victories over the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants highlighted Seattle's 7-9 effort. Those were also the only two playoff teams they beat in 2011. The offense scored an average of just 20.1 points per game last season. The defense allowed an average of fewer than 20 points per game. Five of Seattle's nine losses had a final margin of seven points or less. Do the math.
Offensive line injuries, including both starting tackles landing on IR, hurt the offense.
The biggest surprise for the Seahawks was their secondary. General manager John Schneider and his staff found a keeper in cornerback Brandon Browner, who they plucked out of the CFL in January 2011. Browner picked off six passes, scored twice and had 220 yards on his interceptions. The only player that beat Browner with any consistency last season was Browner himself, who drew 15 penalties, the second-most in the league. Seattle found another diamond in the rough at cornerback in Richard Sherman, a 5th-round pick last year. Safety Kam Chancellor was also a standout in his first season as a starter. Working next to blue chip Earl Thomas doubtlessly helped.
For all of Seattle's defensive efficiency, they managed only 33 sacks last season. More than a third of those sacks came via Chris Clemons.
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Seattle's defensive line had plenty of raw strength. It lacked players, beyond Clemons, who could get to the quarterback. Defensive tackle Jason Jones, who signed a one-year deal with the Seahawks, gives them a player capable of getting pressure on the inside.
2012 NFL Draft
Seattle had the most talked about draft pick of any team thanks to its surprise selection of West Virginia outside linebacker Bruce Irvin with the 15th pick in the 1st round. Most draft analysts put a middle round grade on Irvin, because of character concerns and a skill set limited to rushing the passer. Carroll is betting on his ability to create workplace where players excel, free of distraction. He also has the luxury of limiting Irvin to a pass rushing role this season.
Linebackers Bobby Wager and Korey Toomer will help bolster a unit that lost David Hawthorne to free agency. Utah State running back Robert Turbin looks like a carbon copy of Marshawn Lynch, and can relieve Lynch in certain situations. Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson has the tools to succeed, but his size raises big question marks for a team that already had plenty of those at quarterback.
From SB Nation's Field Gulls:
If the teams in the NFC West didn't already respect the Seahawks' tough defense, they might be sitting up and noticing this season. The Hawks boasted a top-10 defense any way you cut the cake last year, but their one main deficiency was in getting to the quarterback. That could be about to change.
In free agency, the Hawks went out and signed interior pass rushing talent Jason Jones, a former Titan with a resume of providing pressure from the middle. He should provide a nice option for the Seahawks in their nickel packages to bring some heat and collapse the pocket. Not content there, the Hawks used the 15th pick in the draft, after trading back from the 12th spot and picking up two mid-rounders, to select a guy that many (most) are calling 'the best pure pass rusher in the draft,' in Bruce Irvin. Irvin's explosive first step and relentless motor should give the Hawks a nice weapon to stick on the opposite side of the line as Seattle pass-rush stalwart Chris Clemons, and give opposing quarterbacks something to think about. With Clemons, and now Jones and Irvin rushing the passer on 3rd downs, Alex Smith, Kevin Kolb, and Sam Bradford will have to get rid of the ball much more expeditiously than they're used to when facing the Seahawks. It should be a huge boost.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
In the NFC West, the road to the playoffs runs through San Francisco. Seattle's defense looks like a unit that could really give Alex Smith, and plenty of other quarterbacks, real problems since adding some pass rushers. They cannot afford sophomore slumps from their two cornerbacks.
The real issue for Seattle's playoff hopes this year is the offense. Can Matt Flynn turn his previous internship under Aaron Rodgers into a starring role? Will Tarvaris Jackson hang onto the starting job? Will either one be enough to put their team into the win column with more frequency in 2012?
A full season of play, or close to it, from wide receiver Sidney Rice would help whoever starts under center. The same goes for left tackle Russell Okung, a talented player who has yet to start more than 12 games since Seattle drafted him with the sixth-overall pick in 2010.