When Ken Norton Jr. accepted Pete Carroll’s offer in January and returned to the Seahawks to be their defensive coordinator after a couple years away in Oakland, there was the superstar quality across Seattle’s defense.
Richard Sherman. Kam Chancellor. Earl Thomas. Bobby Wagner. K.J. Wright. Michael Bennett. Cliff Avril. Sheldon Richardson.
Norton had plans to use all that experience to blitz and attack in 2018, to make opposing offenses react to his Seahawks defense, not the other way around.
Nine months later? Whom Norton has versus whom he signed up with are as different as Seattle is to Oakland. (I know. I’ve lived in both).
In the second game of Norton’s return season leading the Seahawks’ defense Monday night in Chicago, Sherman, Chancellor, Wagner, Wright, Bennett and Avil were all gone. Only Thomas remained. And the All-Pro safety was nine days into his return from his nine-month holdout demanding a new contract or trade.
Instead, Monday night against the Bears Norton was coaching Austin Calitro, Akeem King, Quinton Jefferson, Shamar Stephen, Barkevious Mingo, Mychal Kendricks and Bradley McDougald.
That’s a net loss of 17 combined Pro Bowl selections on Seattle’s defense since last season. The only starter on this year’s defense that’s been to a Pro Bowl is Thomas, six times.
What difference has that made? Well, the Seahawks are 0-2. They have the 28th-ranked defense in the NFL so far this season.
Norton could file a grievance to Carroll for false advertising.
Yet the lead architect and play caller for this so-changed defense that had nine new starters Monday compared to week two of the 2017 season says this overhaul plays right into his goal for his unit in 2018.
“Coming into it, one thing I wanted to do is have depth,” Norton said Wednesday, four days before the home opener for the Seahawks (0-2) against the Dallas Cowboys (1-1). “To have guys, to develop young guys behind the starters. If anything were to happen — guys were to take a water break, or got tired on one play and a guy has to go in like Austin Calitro — he goes in and we don’t lose much.”
It’s turning out to be depth by necessity as much as by design.
Norton got back one of his stars Wednesday when Wagner returned to practice for the first time since he strained his groin 10 days earlier. Coach Pete Carroll said the team expects Wagner to start Sunday against the Cowboys, after he missed his first game in three years. But Wright, the other kid Norton helped develop as Seattle’s linebackers coach, remained sidelined.
The Pro Bowl weakside linebacker remains out indefinitely following his arthroscopic knee surgery late last month.
“So the main thing is to get depth, to grow and develop younger players to step in when the veterans are out for any particular time,” Norton reiterated Wednesday.
Calitro is Norton’s shining example of that.
The Seahawks have been looking for years for an even semi-capable backup to Wagner at middle linebacker. Problems are Wagner was never not playing and Seattle still have not drafted a viable option behind Wagner since 2012. That’s the year they took the ultra-athletic, four-time Pro Bowl selection as a second-round steal from Utah State.
They appear to have found the best backup to Wagner yet in Calitro, whom they signed June 13 as a second-year free agent from Villanova.
Calitro spent 2017 with four teams: the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and the Seahawks. He was on Seattle’s practice squad for 15 days last September, before he finished the year on the Browns’ practice squad. Cleveland released him in mid-May.
Though he bit on a fake hand-off and overran a shovel pass on the goal line by the Bears for Chicago’s first touchdown Monday night, Calitro has, since the preseason, shown strong instincts, communication skills, speed and toughness in holding run gaps in the middle of Seattle’s defense. He had eight tackles, tying strong safety McDougald for the team lead at Chicago, plus one tackle for loss and one pass defensed.
“He can play this position,” Norton said. “He stepped in really well.”
Another example of Norton having to change on the fly: He has already used three linebackers in two games to fill in for Wright on the weakside. Rookie Shaquem Griffin started there in the opener at Denver. Norton and Carroll were so alarmed with how much Griffin was flying around haphazardly trying to do everything, missing his assignments and overrunning his run gaps, they replaced him with Calitro in the second quarter.
“Calitro got his chance a lot sooner than he thought,” Norton said.
Last week the Seahawks got desperate to replace Wright. They signed Mychal Kendricks two practice days before the Bears game. The same Mychal Kendricks who is facing prison time and an NFL suspension he’s appealed after he admitted to insider trading last month. They got the starter in Philadelphia’s 4-3 defense in February’s Super Bowl cut by the Browns and unemployed, until Seattle signed him Thursday to a week-to-week contract.
“There was a lot of carryover. There’s a lot of things that we do that was just like the things that he does, from the team that he came from,” Norton said. “It was a matter of the language, was the biggest barrier.
“For the short time that he had to learn, I’m really impressed and very happy with what we got out of him.”
Carroll said Wednesday the Seahawks have received assurances from the NFL that Kendricks will be able to play again Sunday against the Cowboys, that the league won’t rule on his appeal or start his suspension before then. That buys Seattle more time for Wright to get back.
How has Norton’s boss felt his coordinator has handled the unexpected injuries that have necessitated so many changes already to a defense that was already so different?
“He’s adjusted well,” Carroll said. “We’re doing quite a bit less... so, we’re zeroing in more on base stuff and all of the aspects of that to keep that alive.
“But it’s nothing new for Ken. It’s just different than what he did (before). He’s adapted fine. He has no problem with it, at all. He has total command of what we’re doing.”
Wright marveled in August at how much Norton was blitzing, and said he and Wagner loved it.
But because it was Kendricks, Calitro and King playing instead of Wright, Wagner and injured rookie starting right cornerback Tre Flowers, Norton dialed back the blitzes against Chicago. Because it was Griffin instead of Wright at Denver, and because Flowers was starting in his first NFL game, Norton didn’t blitz so much against the Broncos, either.
The result: One the biggest issues facing this remade defense entering the year remains. The Seahawks have three sacks on 76 drop backs by opposing quarterbacks. That’s 26th in the league in sacks.
That’s been almost predictable, given their personnel losses. Dion Jordan was supposed to be the pass-rushing end opposite Frank Clark, the only proven returning sack man. But Jordan missed all offseason and preseason work after a third knee surgery in 13 months then a stress fracture in his leg. He’s played only 15 then 14 snaps in Seattle’s first two games.
So where’s the pass rush going to come from with unproven edge rushers, and a reluctance to blitz often because of all the inexperience in the secondary and fill-ins at linebacker right now?
“It’s still early in the season. But at the same time, it’s matter of just work,” Norton said. “In the history of ball, it’s about work, getting better, and finding different ways of getting the quarterback off his spot.”
Norton compensated for Kendricks’ limited knowledge of Seattle defensive playbook by playing three safeties for the first time in dime, or six defensive-backs, sets on passing downs. He employed Tedric Thompson as the extra free safety next to Thomas and McDougald, with usual nickel back Justin Coleman inside on slot receivers.
“Both (starting) safeties have flexibility to play up and back,” Norton said in explaining the new three-safety defense.
Norton, who’s won a Super Bowl as a Seahawks assistant and three more as a linebacker for the Cowboys and 49ers in the 1990s, won’t use all the injuries and newness as an excuse.
Heck, he won’t even concede what his boss did, that he’s simplified or changed much.
“We didn’t lose anything,” Norton said. “The defense, system stays set. The calls stayed pretty much the same.
“You have to do a great job of teaching and developing.”
And adjusting to what you thought you were going to have.