End Of Season Position Analysis, Part Five: Defensive Backs

by: William P. Tomisser

Tim Ruskell restructured the Seahawk’s defensive backfield after the 2006 season and it looked as if the Seahawks were back on track. In 2007 they led the league in passing touchdowns allowed, only giving up 15. Going into the 2008 season, the DBs were thought to be one of the strengths of the team. Instead, Seattle gave up 25 passing touchdowns and finished just two teams from the bottom of the league.

We all watched in horror as the Seahawks got torched game after game with midrange and downfield bombs that it seemed no one could stop. Frankly, we were worse than the 2006 team all over again who gave up 23 passing touchdowns and triggered the Ruskell house cleaning of the Seahawk safeties.

Let’s look at the final defensive back roster for Seattle in 2008:

Cornerbacks

  • Marcus Trufant
  • Kelly Jennings
  • Josh Wilson
  • Kevin Hobbs
  • Marquis Floyd (practice squad)
  • DeMichael Dizer (injured reserve)

Safeties

  • Deon Grant
  • Brian Russell
  • C. J. Wallace
  • Jordan Babineaux
  • Jamar Adams

Deon Grant and Brian Russell were going to be our saviors in the defensive backfield and stop the bleeding of all those completed passes from the midrange to the long bombs that were haunting the Seahawks not only during the Super Bowl year in 2005 but even more so in 2006. Ruskell had had enough by then and traded our up and coming young strong safety Ken Hamlin to the Dallas Cowboys and brought in tier one free agents Grant and Russell.

He brought in Grant to play tough and be the center fielder and not bite on play action like Hamlin had done so many times and Russell to be the cerebral player who would make sure everyone knew their assignments and to call the defensive backfield sets at the line of scrimmage.

In 2007, the bleeding stopped cold and it appeared as if the Ruskell fix had been successful when the Seahawks allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL. Furthermore, going into 2008, it was felt that the tandem would play even better together and mesh with the cornerbacks because of the year’s experience they all had together.

2008 was going to be the year they really gelled and, with what was considered one of the elite linebacking corps in the league and a defensive line that had put good pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2007, the 2008 defense was suppose to be the real strength of the Seahawks. That side of the ball was going to carry Holmgren to the promised land in his final year as the Seahawks’ head coach and send him off as a true Seattle icon and hero.

However, something happened on the way to the awards banquet in the dream sequence and the 2008 season became a real train wreck for the Seahawk’s defensive backfield as well as the entire Seahawks team. First of all, Russell wasn’t looking like the player we saw in 2007 and we were once again getting burned on those medium range passes and the long bombs with alarming consistency.

Kelly Jennings was starting to show promise by the end of his second year in 2007 and was expected to continue to improve his play as the starter in 2008, but instead he started getting burned on a regular basis. He stumbled at the last minute on a couple of plays and was caught with his back turned to the ball numerous times as the receiver was able to catch it right through his tight coverage because he wasn’t watching the ball. Other times, he appeared out of position. On Oct 12th, in Seattle’s fifth game of the season against Green Bay, he lost his starting job to Josh Wilson who officially became the starting cornerback opposite Trufant while Jennings became the nickel back.

All manner of things plagued Seattle’s defensive backfield in 2008. To be fair, a lot of the time Seattle’s defensive line wasn’t putting pressure on the opposing quarterback, and no defensive back is going to be able to tightly cover an NFL-quality receiver for more than two or three seconds. When an NFL quarterback has more than three seconds to throw, bad things are generally going to happen to the defensive team downfield. However, that didn’t excuse the times either Russell or Jennings were blatantly out of position, leaving a receiver completely uncovered.

On the brighter side, Deon Grant played well for the year. Although Marcus Trufant was arguably our best cornerback again in 2008, he had a down year from 2007 when he made the pro bowl for the first time. Teams still mostly avoided throwing to his side, preferring to throw to Jennings and then Wilson after he replaced him. Jamar Adams had shown promise in the pre-season but didn’t get into many games during the regular season to advance his education.

The biggest surprise was the ascent of Josh Wilson, who after taking the starting job away from Kelly Jennings, played much much bigger on the field than his small size would suggest. Josh had four of Seattle’s nine interceptions, running one of them back for a touchdown. Grant had two and Tatupu, Babs, and Trufant each had one. Babineaux also ran his back for a score.

Wilson’s season stats were actually better than Trufant’s. Wilson had 69 tackles and 7 assists to Trufant’s 60 tackles and 4 assists, four interceptions to Trufant’s one, two fumble recoveries which matched Trufant’s, and one sack against none for Trufant. Trufant played better against bigger receivers and generally was regarded as the better cover person overall, but Wilson definitely had a very good year considering that he didn’t start until the 5th game of the season. He was surprisingly good at staying with receivers too and only really got burned by taller receivers who could take highly thrown passes away in jump ball situations.

Wilson also became our kickoff returner and averaged 25.4 yards on 69 returns with his longest a 61 yarder. Not bad for his second year after spending his first year as the nickel back. The future does look bright for Josh becoming a productive part of the team and gives Tim Ruskell another feather in his cap for pulling a good talent out of the second round again. Josh was our first pick in the 2007 draft out of the second round because we traded away our first pick to New England for Deion Branch.

Kevin Hobbs and C. J. Wallace were held to spot duty mostly and didn’t see much action, and like Jamar Adams should compete for more playing time next season. Hobbs might be able to compete for the starting job as a bigger cornerback at 6′ tall if we are unable to obtain one through free agency or the draft.

Babineaux lived up to his name of “Big Play Babs” by turning in a big play during the season again, intercepting the ball in the Miami game on November 9th and returning it 35 yards for a touchdown. He played in relief quite a bit and was eighth on the team with 57 tackles.

Quite a few fans have expressed dissatisfaction with Russell’s play and think he should be replaced. He was burned for quite a few catches this season and seemed to be playing out of position a lot of the time. Whether this was due to his own deficiencies or because the scheme that Marshall provided was flawed, only the coaches know. Regardless of the underlying reasons, most Addicts who have expressed opinions and concerns about our safeties seem to want him gone.

Kelly Jennings was also guilty of letting receivers make catches when he was out of position, or worse yet when he was almost wrapped around the receiver but still allowed the catch because he didn’t turn his head around to find the ball in the air and make a play on it. There have been calls for Ruskell to draft a bigger cornerback to play opposite Trufant, move Wilson back to the nickel back position, and either give Jennings his walking papers or more time to mature.

Russell has been around for awhile, and if the scheme didn’t cause him to be constantly out of position, replacing him makes sense. Jennings showed more promise his first year and probably should be given more time to mature before being called a bust. Acquiring a larger corner to play opposite Trufant does sound like a good idea if such a player can be found. As noted before, Hobbs at 6′ might be able to take his game up a notch and compete if Seattle is unable to find an alternative.

All in all, the defensive backfield of the Seattle Seahawks finished almost at the bottom of the rankings in 2008. Hugh Millen attributed a lot of the bad play to the scheme. He said during more than one Hardcore Football radio segment that in 2007 they kept both safeties back playing the Tampa Cover 2 defense, but in 2008 they had one safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage while only keeping one back.

Millen believes that was a knee-jerk reaction to the Green Bay playoff game where they were burned big by the Packers’ running game in the snow. He believes that this overreaction caused the defensive backfield to be more vulnerable to the medium and long range passing game and was the biggest reason for the perceived change in our defensive backfield play from 2007 to 2008. One thing I know for sure is that Hugh Millen knows his stuff, so there may be some justification for the coaches to conclude that Russell wasn’t totally responsible for the bad play we perceived at safety from his position.

Most of the season, Millen kept talking about how the defensive scheme didn’t change from week to week and that after one offensive coordinator figured out how to beat it, everyone else followed suit by watching game film. It did seem as if every game we were getting burned by the same type of passing game and the same type of passes–sometimes it looked as if we were playing the same team over and over again.

Millen also pointed out that you have to try and keep your scheme one step ahead of your opponent, and if you give him the same look that has been beaten before then you’re going to get beat again because they can see it all on tape and what works for one team will work for all. It was said all season long that Marshall’s scheme was too vanilla and easy to beat. Worse, he didn’t make adjustments as the season wore on. Millen seems to have hit the proverbial nail squarely on the head with his analysis.

Where does that leave Seattle with respect to their defensive backfield? It does appear as if we could use an upgrade at safety. Russell clearly had problems and hasn’t lived up to the hype that came along with his signing in 2007. The midgets (Jennings and Wilson) may have to pull duty again manning the starting corner and nickel back positions in 2009 because we just don’t have the resources available to fix all of our problems this season. I think the Seahawks would jump at the chance to bring in a bigger corner to compete with them for the starting job though, and you may see that happen via the later rounds of the draft or a 2nd tier free agent. As previously noted, Hobbs may be given a chance, too.

Malcolm Jenkins from Ohio State is the top rated cornerback in the draft and is projected as a top 10 pick, while Vontae Davis from Illinois and D.J. Moore from Vanderbilt are expected to go in the top 25. It is considered a very deep draft for cornerbacks and Seattle might find a good one even into the 4th round.

Taylor Mays from USC is projected as the top safety and as a top 10 pick. William Moore from Missouri, the second highest rated safety, is projected as a top 15 pick.

There has been a lot of interest from Seahawk Addicts in Taylor Mays and many believe Seattle would be wise to trade down to pick him up in the first round and acquire an extra pick or two in the process. Others think that Mays hasn’t been proven yet because he was rarely thrown to in college, with quarterbacks preferring to avoid his area of the field. NFL quarterbacks won’t be so scared.

However you Addicts feel about Seattle’s defensive backfield, it probably won’t undergo too much change because of other concerns on the team. I do believe that the Seahawks will look for a safety somewhere along the line to challenge Russell but they may be forced to leave any real cornerback upgrades to another year. Of more concern will be fixing the pass rush and it’s most likely that taking care of that detail will automatically show a big improvement in the defensive backfield.

Next up, the wide receivers.

Hasta,

BillT

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