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Seattle Seahawks

Why the Seahawks are emphasizing versatility with their defensive line

Seattle Seahawks veteran Jarran Reed, who is listed as a nose tackle, will also likely see significant snaps playing as an end.  (Tribune News Service)
By Bob Condotta Seattle Times

SEATTLE – From the moment he got his first defensive coordinator job with the University of Michigan in 2021, Mike Macdonald has preached the gospel of multiplicity.

His defense – and especially the fronts – are designed to defy easy categorization.

“We’re going to be multiple,” Macdonald told reporters at Michigan in 2021 upon accepting the coordinator job after seven years as a Baltimore Ravens assistant. “And the best way I can describe our scheme, it’s going to look a lot like the places I’ve been previously. Watch our Baltimore defense and tell me the times that we look like a 3-4 (formation). There’s going to be a certain percentage there, OK, but there’s a lot of times we’re going to look like we’re in a 4-3, there’s sometimes we’re going to like we’re a 6-1. Sometimes you’re not going to know what the heck it looks like.”

Macdonald was at Michigan for a season, then returned to the Ravens as their defensive coordinator before being hired as the Seahawks’ coach this year.

He is bringing the same approach to Seattle, having spoken several times about installing a defense that will present offenses with many looks.

“We have some position flexibility, more so than we might have had in the past,” Macdonald said at the NFL league meetings in March. “Being able to change up some fronts with the same personnel on the field will be exciting. Guys that can play multiple spots across the line, we’ll have some cool combinations of people on the field at the same time.”

As the Seahawks held OTAs (organized team activities) the past three weeks, those plans have begun to come to fruition, much to the delight of players.

For veteran Jarran Reed, who is listed as a nose tackle, it means he will likely see significant snaps playing as an end as well as his usual role inside.

It also means ends Leonard Williams and Dre’Mont Jones might be used regularly inside and outside. There have been hints that Jones, in particular, could be used more on the edge in his second season with Seattle.

Defensive coordinator Aden Durde said how specific players will be used has not been set in stone, making the obvious point that the new coaching staff is only now getting its first look at players in 11-on-11 sessions.

The hope is to move players around to confuse the offense and create favorable one-on-one matchups.

“I think that’s what good defensive lines are,” Durde said. “You look at the groups, and right now it’s kind of hard because we can’t go full gas. But it’s, ‘What are people good at? What are their individual roles? How do they fit into the picture? What down and distance would they be good at, and where do they excel?’ I really believe up front it’s about creating a way of playing that enhances people’s ability in certain situations.”

That doesn’t mean moving players around just to do it.

As Durde noted, some players might have specific roles that fit them best. He mentioned veteran tackle Johnathan Hankins, who appears set to mostly play tackle on obvious running downs.

“There’s a couple of guys that really just flourish in every situation, and there’s other guys like Hank (Hankins) or those guys that flourish in certain situations and then how you rotate them,” Durde said. “We’ve got so much versatility.”

Reed said he played end extensively with Green Bay in 2022 before returning to Seattle last season – a season in which he had 14 quarterback hits, tied for the second most in his career – and said he’s looking forward to the chance to play outside again more regularly.

“They can use a lot of my talents a little bit more, move me around a little bit more,” Reed said. “I think we got multiple guys that can do that. Not just us being stationary, moving us around a little bit, creating some mismatches for everybody else along the line.”

Moving players up front, of course, is nothing new.

Previous coach Pete Carroll’s staff also did it. Maybe the most notable was how the Seahawks used Michael Bennett, who often played end in the base defense and moved inside to tackle in passing situations. They also used players such as Jadeveon Clowney and Kerry Hyder similarly.

The Seahawks last year began using Jones more on the outside after edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu was lost for the season to a pectoral muscle injury in October.

But Macdonald’s staff could get even more creative with Jones, who signed a three-year contract worth just more than $51 million in March 2023, finishing with 4.5 sacks in 17 games after compiling 6.5 in 13 games the year before.

Durde acknowledged that the Seahawks will explore all options to maximize Jones’ skill set.

“I think, again, his versatility,” Durde said. “As you move him around you can create matchups and things like that, but understanding on early downs where he fits and how he fits in the picture will be (an) important part.”

The Seahawks also figure to move first-round draft pick Byron Murphy II around some.

“You definitely see his ability,” Durde said. “You see his contact balance, his movement, his flexibility. I think you really answer the questions when we get into pads though, but he’s doing a great job.”

The ultimate goal is to create a line that can serve as the focal point of a vastly improved defense. The Seahawks appear to have the pieces to do so with the drafting of Murphy, re-signing of Williams, addition of Hankins and presence of Reed and Jones, as well as the return from injury of Nwosu, who has appeared without limitations during OTAs open to the media.

“It’s still coming together, but the middle of the defense is really, really important,” Macdonald said in March. “You need a strong spine, and we’re excited about the guys we have. Guys that I haven’t coached yet, but watching them on tape and the relationships that some of our coaches have with them, feel really strongly about it, and I think we’ll be really strong up the middle.”