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Gregg Bell: The Ken Norton Jr.-led meeting that changed the Seahawks' defense. Will it be for good?

News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. logoNews Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. 11/23/2020 Gregg Bell, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

The Seahawks host more meetings than Zoom.

Game-plan meetings. Position meetings. Coordinator-led meetings. Pregame, halftime and postgame meetings. Even meetings about social justice, registering everyone to vote, COVID-19 testing protocols.

And more.

Last week, their shortest, most-rushed game week this season, the Seahawks found time for a new meeting.

It changed their season

Pete Carroll is calling the meeting: “The best I’ve ever seen.”

The Rams had just become the latest offense to shred Seattle’s last-ranked defense, early in Los Angeles’ win over the Seahawks. Next up, with just three days’ preparation: Kyler Murray and Arizona. He and the Cardinals had thrown and run all over them weeks earlier while beating Seattle.

Carroll was in the room as defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. went player by player, first-, second- units, base and substitution packages. From All-Pros Bobby Wagner and Jamal Adams down to part-timer Shaquem Griffin, Norton asked each defender for his responsibility on each play, each alignment.

It wasn’t only to get Norton’s malfunctioning players on the same page. It was to emphasize each defender knowing his job—with the important point that each player has his own responsibility Anyone deviating from his, as if to help others away from his assignment, leaves the entire defense exposed.

“Kenny organized it so the guys had a chance to speak up and show what they knew about playing their spot, responsibility-wise in the base calls that we had,” Carroll said.

“It was just a remarkable meeting of accountability. Guys were great. That means that they’ve learned really well. Instead of just having the coaches say it, the players were saying the stuff and talking about assignments and all.

“It was just a real nice step forward. But it was powerful. We tried to build on that. And the guys played like it.”

It turned around Seattle’s season.

The coordinator the Pacific Northwest wanted fired the week before led the meeting his boss thinks has the defense back where it needs to be entering its next test, Nov. 30 at Philadelphia.

Entering Thursday’s game against Arizona the Seahawks had lost three of four. They’d fallen to fall to third place on tiebreakers in the NFC West. They’d allowed more yards over the first eight games of a season than any other defense had in NFL history. If Russell Wilson wasn’t perfect or nearly so and the offense wasn’t scoring 30-plus points, Seattle was losing.

It changed Thursday night against the Cardinals.

Linebackers and defensive backs played more disciplined, stuck to their jobs. The coverage on previously free-roaming receivers was tighter behind Seattle’s new, many blitzes was tighter.

Because they were more assignment-sound, the Seahawks were able to run their most varied and trickiest blitzes in years. Someone they brought Adams, other times Adams, Wagner and nickel back Ugo Amadi. Sometimes they showed Murray all three of those defenders were blitzing before the snap, then dropped off and sent no one.

The extent to which the Seahawks were fouling up Murray and the Cardinals by scheme was noticeable on the multiple third downs Arizona’s wide-receiver screens failed. Those plays crushed Seattle’s defense in the teams’ first meeting last month. Buffalo used them on third and longs against Seahawks’ blitzes to win this month, including for a 33-yard gain on a third and 16 in the fourth quarter. Carroll called that one, and admitted he erred.

Thursday, the Seahawks showed blitz and the Cardinals threw wide-receiver screens to beat it. But then Adams, Wagner and friends backed off and did not come. That left them in their assigned places to stop the screen plays before they really started.

On third and 12 in the first quarter, defensive end Carlos Dunlap even hustled outside to tackle Larry Fitzgerald for a gain of just 1 yard on a quick screen.

“Definitely, I felt like it was causing confusion,” Wagner said. “We learned from the last time we played them.

“We had to get to this guy. We had to get this guy uncomfortable. That was the only chance we had to win this game. ...

“I definitely feel like he felt us.”

The defense that had been allowing an NFL-worst 448 yards per game surrendered just 314 against Arizona this time. The 21 points they allowed in their seven-point win was the fewest the Seahawks had given up this season.

Seattle went from not sacking or even hitting Murray in his 48 drop backs last month to sacking him three times and hitting his seven more times on Thursday. Dunlap had two of those sacks, including the one on Arizona’s fourth and 10 with 38 seconds left to seal the Seahawks’ win and return to first place in the division.

Suddenly, Seattle’s defense isn’t a liability.

“We just had to put ourselves in better situations and get guys healthy on the edge,” Dunlap said. “The corners are getting healthy, we’re still getting guys healthy. Getting the D-line back, getting that depth back.

“When the offense is controlling the ball like they did, running, scoring at will, long drives, I think the sky’s the limit. That’s a great recipe.”

All after the best defensive meeting Carroll’s ever seen.

The 69-year old’s been coaching since Richard Nixon was president.

“What it means is the guys have arrived,” Carroll said. “I can’t keep telling you, ‘OK, soon we’re going to be feeling like we played together. We need some more time.’ I can’t say that anymore.

“We’ve made it to that point. ...

“It was only a couple days (last) week (to have that meeting and turn it around). But we just took a step forward.”

So why only now? Why not have the meeting in September, before the defense was bottoming-out among the worst ever in the league?

“We weren’t ready. We hadn’t done enough, hadn’t been together enough, hadn’t had enough interaction to get there,” Carroll said.

“I can’t tell you why it took this long, necessarily—other than the lack of continuity and the guys being out there. But we have taken a great step. Kenny had a great thought to pull these guys together and really have them speak out. ...

“This was just the best I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a better meeting for guys holding themselves accountable.”

———

©2020 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

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