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Sports >  Seattle Seahawks

Commentary: Ken Norton Jr. expected to pay price for Seahawks’ defensive woes, but it’s Pete Carroll who must adjust

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 18, 2022

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, center, greets middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (54) against the Chicago Bears during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, in Seattle.   (Associated Press)
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, center, greets middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (54) against the Chicago Bears during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

Pete Carroll is safe. By all accounts, so is John Schneider. Russell Wilson once again is surrounded by sound and fury, but like last year, it may end up signifying nothing.

Yet a disappointing season such as the one just completed by the Seattle Seahawks warrants some kind of reckoning, a change that pushes them forward, or at least is perceived to. It’s easy to envision that last week’s end-of-season meeting by team chair Jody Allen with Carroll and Schneider focused on that very topic.

So it was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped, and according to reporting by The Times’ Bob Condotta and Adam Jude, it will end up booting defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. out of Seattle, along with defensive passing game coordinator Andre Curtis.

There’s no question the defense under Norton has been an issue, particularly the past two seasons. In both cases, the team got off to absolutely miserable starts — trending toward NFL records for futility — and then gradually improved.

But in both cases, the Seahawks still finished among the worst in the NFL in yards allowed. In 2021, the Seahawks nevertheless managed to do a decent job of keeping teams out of the end zone (they finished 11th in points allowed). But the collateral damage of having opponents constantly move up and down the field, and chew up time of possession, was still considerable.

So this firing of Norton is justifiable. The only mild surprise is that Carroll agreed to jettison his longtime protégé, who has been associated with Carroll most of his coaching career, dating to their USC days. Carroll is big on loyalty; when he replaced Kris Richard (with Norton) after the 2017 season, it was the only time he had ever fired a defensive coordinator in his long coaching career.

Now it’s two, but here’s the upshot: Though Norton’s departure may be a necessary move, it’s Carroll who needs to adjust and adapt on defense.

After all, it’s long been said that it’s Carroll’s defense that the Seahawks run, and the defensive coordinator is merely caretaker of it. Whomever is hired to replace Norton will be Carroll’s fifth defensive coordinator in Seattle; Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn both left to take head-coaching jobs.

It’s a golden opportunity to bring in someone with fresh ideas, whether it’s from within the organization (assistant head coach/defensive line coach Clint Hurtt is said to be the leading candidate) or outside (Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was listed by Condotta and Jude as being on the shortlist of candidates, and Bradley may soon be out of a job in Las Vegas. The Broncos’ recently fired coach, Vic Fangio, who built his reputation as a defensive whiz, is an intriguing name as well).

But if Carroll is, in fact, the de facto D-coordinator, let’s hope he is amenable to fresh ideas. There’s no question that Carroll can mastermind an elite defense when it’s peppered with elite talent; the Legion of Boom-era Seahawks will go down as one of the greatest units in NFL history.

As the talent diminished, however, so did the performance of the Seahawks’ defense, which led the NFL in scoring defense in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 (and was first in fewest yards allowed in three of those seasons). The Seahawks’ D has been in steady decline ever since.

That’s inevitable; you can’t replicate Hall of Famers such as Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, or an all-time enforcer such as Kam Chancellor. The only common link is linebacker Bobby Wagner, but even with him, the Seahawks haven’t come close to reproducing, or even approaching, the magic of their golden defensive era.

So as this change is being made, it would be incumbent on Carroll to reexamine his schemes and concepts — which falls right in line with his fundamental tenet of coaching: Always compete.

The Seahawks in 2021 were far too soft in their Cover 2 scheme in the middle of the field. That stemmed from an early mistrust of their corners, which was warranted to a point. But that soft coverage — giving up easy 5- to 8-yard passes underneath all the time — also negated the pass rush, which was problematic in 2021. Only eight teams had fewer sacks than Seattle’s 34.

The Seahawks also need to figure out once and for all how to best utilize safety Jamal Adams, for whom they paid a massive price in draft picks when they traded for him in 2020.

As a blitzing safety in 2020, Adams had 9.5 sacks (in just 12 games), most in NFL history for a defensive back, but that also tended to leave the secondary vulnerable. In 2021, deployed more conservatively, Adams didn’t have any sacks in 12 games before his season ended because of a shoulder injury; sitting back in Cover 2 is clearly not where Adams excels. The Seahawks need to find a happy medium that makes best use of his attacking style without leaving the Seahawks secondary exposed.

Carroll’s whole defensive philosophy is predicated on producing turnovers (while minimizing them on offense). After peaking with 32 take-aways under Norton in 2019, they dipped to 18 this season, ranking 25th in the NFL; part of that is the result of Carroll’s emphasis on taking away the big play after seeing them burned too many times.

The departure of Norton opens up a world of possibilities for the Seahawks. But it also increases the urgency for Carroll to find new answers on defense.

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