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Seattle Seahawks
Sports >  Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks lost their ‘screen master’. Now, they’re struggling against the screen pass.

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 18, 2021

Seattle Seahawks outside linebacker Jordyn Brooks (56) walks of the field after an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis.  (Associated Press)
Seattle Seahawks outside linebacker Jordyn Brooks (56) walks of the field after an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (Associated Press)
By Bob Condotta Seattle Times

RENTON — In what is one of the few bright spots in a season of disappointment, the Seahawks’ defense has improved markedly of late, allowing an average of just 17.8 points over their past six games, the fourth lowest in the NFL during that time.

But one area where the Seahawks defense is still a work in progress is in defending screens.

Seattle allowed 123 yards in six receptions to Green Bay running backs Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon in Sunday’ 17-0 loss, continuing a season-long trend.

In fact, the Seahawks now are allowing the most receiving yards of any team in the NFL to running backs, per Pro Football Reference — 684 on 64 receptions, 76 yards per game.

That’s already more than last season, when the Seahawks allowed 647 yards to running backs in 16 games, via PFR, or 40.4 yards per game.

The obvious difference between last year and this year is who is playing the weakside linebacker spot in passing downs, a position that often carries with it the primary responsibility for defending screens — Jordyn Brooks in 2021 compared to veteran K.J. Wright in 2020.

Wright was so adept at defending passes to the running backs that he was affectionately dubbed “the screen master” by teammates.

The Seahawks so valued Wright’s pass defense ability that last year they kept him at the weakside linebacker spot in the nickel defense even after he was moved to strongside linebacker in the base defense following a Week 2 injury to Bruce Irvin.

That meant Brooks — the team’s first-round pick in 2020 — played weakside linebacker in the base defense, when the team more often expects running plays, and then came off the field on obvious passing downs.

So why didn’t the Seahawks simply keep with that rotation this year and re-sign Wright when he became a free agent last spring?

The biggest reason is that Seattle didn’t want to consign Brooks — the 27th overall pick of the 2020 draft — to again playing a mostly supporting role. Only three times did Brooks play more than half the snaps in any game last season.

The Seahawks also felt they had other suitable options for the strongside linebacker role in the base defense, such as Darrell Taylor and Benson Mayowa, whom they felt could be adept in both coverage and rushing the passer. And like with Brooks, the Seahawks felt if they re-signed Wright, it would somewhat block the playing time of Taylor, who was the 48th overall pick in 2021.

So, Seattle let Wright walk, and Wright eventually signed a one-year deal worth $3.45 million with the Raiders.

The Seahawks would likely argue that in general the move has worked out OK. Brooks is second on the team with 83 tackles and has been particularly good against the run of late, and having turned 24 last month is obviously a big part of the team’s future.

But in a comment about as frank as Carroll usually gets, Carroll this week said Brooks has to get better pretty quickly at sniffing out screens.

“I need him to see a few more screen passes,” Carroll said Monday. “Eyeball a couple of those for us and help us out. They were pecking away at us yesterday.”

When he met the media Wednesday, Brooks didn’t argue the point.

“I just want to get better at obviously the screen game,” Brooks said. “Teams are trying to attack us with the screens all day. That’s all they got.”

That Brooks might need some time to grow into defending screens isn’t necessarily a surprise.

Brooks said he wasn’t asked to do much defending of screens at Texas Tech, where he drew most of his praise for his run defense.

“Concerns with coverage duties could impact how teams see him as an every-down linebacker,” wrote NFL.com in its scouting report on Brooks before the 2020 draft.

And it’s worth noting Brooks has generally proven adept at coverage in man-to-man situations, including on Sunday when he stayed with Packers receiver Allen Lazard to break up a pass 30 yards downfield.

It’s that speed that was one of the biggest reasons Seattle drafted him, and an attribute that the team feels will eventually allow him to become equally proficient at defending screens.

And Bobby Wagner notes that for all the accolades Wright received for his pass defense, “K.J. didn’t come in as the screen master. He developed and turned into that.”

Said Carroll on Wednesday: “This is just something that he needs experience. He needs to see a couple of more. He needs to feel the pain a little bit.”

He certainly got some dished his way Sunday. Brooks was the closest initial defender in coverage on a 23-yard pass from Aaron Rodgers to Jones in the third quarter, and then missed a tackle on what turned out to be a 50-yard pass from Rodgers to A.J. Dillon in the fourth, a tackle he might have made had he recognized quickly enough to be there just a step sooner.

And as Carroll noted, it’s not all Brooks’ fault. “He’s not the only one (who needs to improve in defending screens),” Carroll said. “D-linemen get a chance to feel that, outside backers and safeties get a chance to feel those plays, too. … We just have to do a better job of it.”

Brooks said the defense was given a cutup video this week of screen passes and that “I’m just studying that all the time.”

He said he’s trying to learn the mannerisms and other telltale signs of the running backs Seattle is facing to better gauge when a screen is coming. One, he said, is when the center and the running back head in the same direction at the snap.

Something he may also do is ring up Wright.

“K.J.’s the screen master,” Brooks said. “So I’m trying to get there. Might give him a call this week, maybe he can give me some tips. … Maybe go back and watch some of the screens that K.J. had in his time here and just try to pick up on what he picked up on and get better in that area.”

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