RENTON, Wash. — Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. gathered his players after Wednesday’s practice, as coaches usually do the night before a game.
What made this different from a typical meeting was that it wasn’t the coaches doing the talking.
At Norton’s direction, the defense went around the room with some 30 players — starters and backups — each calling out everything they have to know and do at their position on some of the defense’s base playcalls.
Coach Pete Carroll watched in amazement.
“It was one of the most remarkable defensive meetings I’ve ever been in,” Carroll told 710 ESPN Seattle, “in that every single guy just riffed on what he’s supposed to do, who he’s supposed to communicate with, how it’s supposed to work out, what you can count on coming from me. And then the next guy, and then the next guy, one after another after another. It was like one of the great meetings of accountability. It just took us to the next step.
“We met as a team after that. I said something to the whole team that something just happened here. We’ve kind of, like, evolved to the point where now we can go play.”
To Carroll, the Seahawks’ 28-21 victory over the Arizona Cardinals the next night — thanks in large part to their defense turning in the best performance of what has been a historically bad season — didn’t come out of nowhere.
The Seahawks held Arizona to 314 yards, 111 below the Cardinals’ league-leading average entering the game. That was a season low for Seattle’s defense, as were the 21 points it allowed. Arizona’s offense had been averaging 29.6 points per game entering Thursday, third in the NFL. The Seahawks sacked Kyler Murray three times, hit him seven other times and held him to a season-low 15 rushing yards on five attempts. They recorded a safety and a season-high three three-and-outs.
“We didn’t want to give him the opportunity to break outside and find those gaps,” All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner said of Murray. “So I think we just played really sound defense. Everybody did their job. We executed the plays that the coaches were calling. I really felt like we just played fast.”
It helped that Murray was playing through a shoulder injury. His fourth-quarter touchdown to a wide-open Chase Edmonds typified the coverage breakdowns that have plagued Seattle’s pass defense. But all told, it was a 180 from when the Cardinals racked up 519 yards and 37 points in their overtime win over Seattle in Week 7. The Seahawks didn’t get so much as an official QB hit on Murray that night, let alone a sack.
Carroll might have been the only person who saw Thursday night’s performance coming after witnessing what he thought was a sign of an imminent breakthrough. In Carroll’s view, what happened in the team’s defensive meeting the night before couldn’t have happened early in the season because there were too many new pieces and moving parts on that side of the ball.
“We weren’t ready,” Carroll said. “We hadn’t done enough. We hadn’t been together enough. We hadn’t had enough interaction to get there. I can’t tell you why it took this long necessarily other than the lack of continuity, guys being out there. But we have taken a step. Kenny had a great thought to pull these guys together and really have them speak out.
“This ain’t the first time that guys talked or nothing. But this just was the best I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a better meeting for guys holding themselves accountable and really illustrating the command they had of what we’re doing.”
The challenges Carroll was describing aren’t unique to the Seahawks. Every team had to break in new players in a condensed offseason and has had to shuffle its lineup because of injuries. But a lack of continuity is as good of an explanation as any for why the Seahawks’ defense struggled so badly the first 10 weeks.
Things are looking up.
All-Pro safety Jamal Adams, the Seahawks’ top offseason acquisition, is back after missing four games. Carlos Dunlap has added some much-needed firepower to the defensive line since being acquired last month. Linebacker Jordyn Brooks, the team’s first-round pick, seems to be settling in. Defensive ends Rasheem Green and Benson Mayowa are back from injuries. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin is expected to return to the starting lineup next Monday against the Philadelphia Eagles, which kicks off a four-game stretch against opponents with a combined record of 9-30-1.
Dunlap has 3.5 sacks, seven additional QB hits and five tackles for loss in three games with Seattle. Arizona was driving for what would have been the tying score in the final minute when he closed out the game by dropping Murray for his second sack of the night.
“We’ll play better than that,” Carroll said. “We’ll get better than what we looked like the other night, and we’ll continue to improve. It’s really exciting because it’s been a long haul, and the guys have had to go through a lot of crap to get there … It’s a big step for us, and I know everybody’s excited to hear that. I certainly am, too.”