There are much bigger names on the Seattle Seahawk defense than Poona Ford. Jamal Adams, Bobby Wagner, and Damon Snacks Harrison have all been All-Pro players in the NFL. Carlos Dunlap, Shaquill Griffin, and KJ Wright have been pro-bowlers. Quandre Diggs, and Jarran Reed are more or less fringe pro-bowl talents.
So, if you look at the title of this ditty, and chuckle, I won’t blame you. I get it.
On the surface, it can be a challenge to take a player such as Poona Ford seriously. For one thing, the very name “Poona” isn’t likely to strike fear into the hearts of opponents and fans (certainly not like a Karl, or a Lawrence, or say, a Cortez would). It can also be a challenge to take seriously a player that went un-drafted by all 32 teams in the league a few years ago (even though he was a highly productive defensive tackle for the University of Texas).
Perhaps the biggest reason to be skeptical of a player named Poona is the fact that he stands at the very average human height of 5-11, and frankly, very few defensive tackles that have been sub 6-0 have had much success in this league. Seeing Poona Ford on the field and standing next to a KJ Wright, or a Carlos Dunlap can look a bit silly to the eyes. He’s quite short for a position that is supposed to take on multiple interior blockers and cause havoc in the backfield. The thing is, though, that is exactly what Poona Ford does.
Quietly, the Seattle Seahawks have been using Poona Ford more on passing downs in their attempts to generate more pressure over the past month, as they have been moving him around their defensive line to take advantage of certain situations. So, far so good with that.
Perhaps no longer to be considered just a run stuffing nose tackle, over the past month, Poona Ford has climbed towards the top of the list of NFL interior pass rushers in terms of generating quarterback pressure, according Pro Football Focus. In fact, he has climbed just been behind LA Ram star Aaron Donald, who just so happens to be another undersized defense tackle, and yet arguably the best defensive player in the league.
Now, I am not writing this piece to try to convince you that Poona is suddenly going to become the next Aaron Donald for years to come. What I am suggesting, though, is that Poona is probably Seattle’s best version of Donald, and we should probably expect to see more of him as part of their pass rush moving forward.
Like Donald, he is a short defensive tackle who is blessed with unusually long arms. This physical makeup, mixed with quickness and strength, allows Poona to win the leverage battle against blockers and to shake past them to make plays in the backfield. Since coming out of Texas, he has always shown the ability to make the splash play against the run behind the line of scrimmage. Now in his third year, he is showing a knack for getting into the backfield to effect the quarterback.
Against the Cardinals last Thursday night, Poona jumped off of the television screen getting instant pressure on Kyler Murray. He was credited with five quarterback pressures in that game, and mixing him along with veteran edge rusher Carlos Dunlap, Murray did not have the kind of game that he was likely envisioning. This was a dramatic difference between how this defense decided to play Murray from the last time they played a month ago, and Poona played his part.
Over the last couple games against quality offenses, it feels like Seattle is figuring out its defense in 2020, finally. It feels like they are figuring out how to best utilize the talents that they have, and some young cream is starting to rise to the top, such as Poona Ford.
This is a good thing.
Here are some of my further thoughts on Seattle fixing their defense moving through the rest of their 2020 season.
Ken Norton Junior deserves credit for stepping up at defensive coordinator
While we are only two games removed from the abysmal dumpster fire performance against the Buffalo Bills in which Seattle’s defense surrendered the most points ever in a game in the Pete Carroll era, I am breathing a bit easier about how the Seattle defenders have recently played against the Rams and Cardinals. I think a lot of credit should go to the very person many fans (including myself) have been wanting fired, and that is defensive coordinator Ken Norton Junior.
Seattle’s game against the Rams a couple weeks ago started rough as they quickly surrendered 17 points and well over 200 yards, but something happened in that game that started giving me hope. As the game went on, they started to effect Jared Goff and they started to get him off his game.
Poona Ford and Jamal Adams especially had inspired efforts in that effort to settle down the defense. Seattle could have won that game if not for their super star quarterback Russell Wilson having his worst game of the season. It was a frustrating loss because of Wilson, but it oddly gave me fresh hope because of this slightly under-looked defensive effort.
Against the Cardinals, when Russell Wilson played his more usual smarter game (also aided by a solid run game), and the Seahawk defense dished up a good overall game against perhaps the most explosive offense in the league. The defense played fast and decisive. Most importantly, though, they look varied between how they rushed and how they covered. They looked like, dare I say it, a competent NFL defense.
Credit Ken Norton Junior for finally settling this mess of a defense down. According to Pete Carroll, it was Norton who sat the defenders down earlier in the week and asked each player what their responsibilities were for each scheme. This was his attempt to get all his players on the same page and to hold accountable in front of their teammates. The results against the explosive Cardinal offense was impressive.
With a softer looking schedule approaching, there is now hope that Norton can further hone these defenders in, and get them playing better as a team. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but I, for one, have hope where a couple weeks ago I had zilch. I credit Ken Norton Junior for that.
Younger players are starting to emerge out of defense.
Poona Ford isn’t the only youngster that has been stepping up for the defense. There have been others and this probably gives me the best hope for this defense moving forward.
DJ Reed has been playing steady ball stepping in for injured left corner Shaquill Griffin, and listening to Pete Carroll’s praise over the youngster, Reed appears to have earned a role on this defense even with the return of Griffin. Even though he is much shorter than what Carroll prefers at outside corner, he has shown an ability to hold up outside, and I suspect that he is going to bring serious competition at nickel corner that has been held by Ugo Amadi (another young player that has been looking splashy). Suddenly, Seattle looks impressively deep at nickel corner, and that could give them more flexibility against passing teams.
Another player that looks like he is stepping up is second year defensive lineman LJ Collier, and this is a good thing. As a run stuffing defensive end, Collier is not the flashiest of players, but has has shown to be stout enough against the run. Where Collier looks to maybe be gaining some traction is as an interior pass rusher, and this is interesting.
Recently against the Cardinals, Collier was credited for a sack early in the game, but outside of the game ending sack by Carlos Dunlap on fourth and ten, I thought he had the play of the game much later on by badly beating JR Sweezy with an interior rush move that drew a holding call in the Cardinal end zone, which led to a key safety. That play was a huge turning point in the game, and his explosive swim move made it happen. There is reason to think that with Poona Ford and Jarran Reed, Collier can give Seattle a nice interior pass rush moving through these final six games. This is what Collier was drafted to be; a run stuffing defensive end who converts inside as a pass rushing defensive tackle on passing downs, a la Michael Bennett.
Rookie first rounder Jordyn Brooks is playing fast at WILL linebacker, and that is allowing Seattle’s defense to play much faster, which is a really good thing. He is making his presence felt against the run, and in the second half of the losing effort against the Rams, he laid a hit on an LA receiver that was very Kam Chancellor-esque. I’m excited to see what happens when the game slows down for him, when he is into the offensive playbook more like his linebacker mates KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner. This is perhaps the area where Seattle’s defense can really take off.
Finally, you might want to rub your eyes after reading this, but much maligned right corner Tre Flowers has quietly been playing fairly decent ball over the last month in place of injured Quinton Dunbar. Yes, he will still give up some cushion on shorter routes, and yes, he did miss a tackle against the Cardinals, but he also helped to hold star receiver DeAndre Hopkins to 50 yards, and he deserves credit for that. Flowers is not a flashy player, but he is playing outside corner the way Pete Carroll wants them to play. He is being physical enough, and he is no longer getting beat for big gains. He’s going his job.
Bringing Back the NASCAR Pass Rush Package, Finally (Hopefully)
This is probably the area of the defense that will excite fans most if we start to see more of this. With the addition of Carlos Dunlap and the emergence of youngsters such as Poona, there is now some reason to hope that we now start seeing some resurrection of the NASCAR pass rush Seattle once had when they were Super Bowl teams back in the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
During those Super Bowl years, the Seahawks rushed with four on passing downs by putting their fastest defensive linemen on the field in a rotation. Those rotations generally consisted of Michael Bennett inside with Clinton McDonald/Jordan Hill, and Cliff Avril on the edge and book ended by Chris Clemons/Bruce Irvin.
Seattle was able to win with rushing four by being faster than the players that were blocking them, and that cracked the code for their defense to truly be great. Yes, the Legion of Boom secondary was a huge determining factor, but their NASCAR pass rush completed the defensive circle for them. That should never be overlooked.
Seattle hasn’t been able to do that for a few years now, and especially wasn’t able to do that last year because they didn’t have a true Leo rush end, even with Jadeveon Clowney. Seattle hasn’t been able to do this through 2020.. until they traded for Carlos Dunlap.
Dunlap gives them a solid veteran pass rusher who can truly be the focal Leo. Benson Mayowa and rookie Alton Robinson probably have just enough abilities to mix in on the other side opposite of Dunlap, and it sounds like they might be finally getting rookie edge rusher Darrell Taylor available for the last final set of games (a player that Carroll is high on and who the team traded up for in the most recent draft).
A couple relatively “big ifs” here, but if Dunlap stays healthy, and if they do get Taylor active, Seattle could suddenly look much deeper with their edge rush than they have in some time. Dunlap is the glue that holds this hope together, and it is vital that he stays healthy for Seattle.
Rushing from the inside, it suddenly feels like Seattle has several options. There is Jarran Reed who is a proven every-down defensive tackle, and there is, of course, the emergence of Poona Ford. There is also the upsides of LJ Collier and Rasheem Green moving inside from their five technique end positions. To be honest, Poona, LJ, and Green are all much quicker athletes than Jarran Reed is, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we start to see possibly some transition away from Reed to these quicker athletes inside (at least when the defense is in more obvious passing downs). This is something to watch for moving forward.
It is possible that Seattle’s best NASCAR package could be something like Dunlap/Collier/Ford/Taylor down the final stretch. If this happens, this could become a massive win for Seattle in 2020, and even a bigger win beyond, as they will have cheap club control on Ford for one more season, and they will have Collier and Taylor playing on cheap rookie contracts for several. This is how you ideally want to build your roster. I’m excited about that potential.
Finally, running the ball fixes everything
This is the sub heading that might have some from the Let Russ Cook movement raise their defenses a bit, but their is no reason for the pass happy folk to feel threatened. Russell Wilson plays at his best when defenses has to think about the run as much as they have to think about the pass.
And further more, in very general football terms, if a team can consistently run the ball well, it tends to play better defensively. In 2020, it is true for the Los Angeles Rams, and the New Orleans Saints, both teams that mix explosive offenses that feature the run with stronger defenses, and are also coincidentally in very solid playoff contention.
One reason for Seattle to return back to a more balanced offensive by mixing in the run more with Russell Wilson’s arm talent is not just to take more pressure off of Wilson, but to also give Seattle’s defense more breathers. This doesn’t mean that they now have to run more than they pass, and I don’t expect Seattle to now do that, but I do expect them to mix it in more.
Running the ball helps to control clock, and in that, it helps keep defenders more fresh to defend. If you can control clock with a lead in the second half of games, you force the opposition’s offense to have to throw more to climb back into the game. This is how the offense connects with the defense, and that is how you get your defense successfully playing with a NASCAR pass rush.
In the games remaining on Seattle’s schedule, the Jets, Eagles, and Washington Team all look like teams that have struggled to stop the run. All this adds up to reasons why Seattle should get back to their offensive DNA a bit more.
This is a great time to get Chris Carson back, and maybe perhaps Rashaad Penny to mix in with Carlos Hyde. This is what the schedule is setting for.
Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing more of that power run game. I’m sure that there is more than a Seahawk defender looking forward to it, as well.
Will this defense improve enough for the 2020 Seattle Seahawks to have an extra special season?
I don’t know. Possibly. I mean, through these last couple games, I like a lot of things that I see.
A lot will hinge on Dunlap staying healthy, young players like Poona and DJ Reed continuing step up, and Jamal Adams to continue settling into this club and Seattle using Adams in ways that become less predictable. There is reason to believe that as Adams understands Bobby Wagner better, and Quandre Diggs better, they will become more connected on the field. If that happens, yes, I think that this defense can turn itself around enough for 2020 to become an extra special year for the Seahawks.
Will it happen?
I think it might!