It wasn’t that long ago that the Seahawks were synonymous with the best defense in the NFL. The Legion of Boom, as it was called, struck fear into every quarterback they met. Over the last three years, though, the Cowboys have enjoyed a similar deal with Dan Quinn, the man who once coordinated those Legion of Boom defenses, running the show.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was a mentor to Quinn, and the Dallas defensive coordinator got his first head coaching gig largely due to the success he enjoyed working under Carroll. But as the times have changed, so too have the schemes both of these coaches employ. Philosophically, they’re both still holding the same roots: attacking defenses that take away big plays, tackle consistently, and create takeaways.
Quinn reinvented himself upon coming to Dallas, embracing more hybrid defensive fronts and using a ton of man coverage. Much of that was due to the talent he inherited, and the emergence of a unicorn in Micah Parsons. Carroll’s schematic evolution has taken a different turn, as he had several unicorns - namely Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and Bobby Wagner - who either retired or have aged past their primes.
After the 2021 season, when the Seahawks defense finished as one of the worst in the league across most categories, Carroll let go of most of his defensive coaches and implemented a philosophy shift. Longtime defensive line coach Clint Hurtt was promoted to defensive coordinator, but Carroll also brought in Sean Desai as the associate head coach of defense while bringing Karl Scott in as the defensive pass game coordinator.
Desai, now the defensive coordinator for the Eagles, was a longtime Vic Fangio disciple throughout his career while Scott had just finished up his first season with the Vikings under Mike Zimmer. Prior to that, Scott coached under Nick Saban at Alabama. The common thread between Desai and Scott was a wealth of knowledge in the two-deep safety coverage schemes that have taken the league by storm.
This marked a dramatic shift in schemes on the back end for Carroll, who built his Legion of Boom defense off of keeping the middle of the field closed off with a single high safety most of the time. The defense had become synonymous with Cover 1 and Cover 3 shells for a while, but Seattle struggled with it once they no longer had Thomas roaming the middle of the field.
With that, the Seahawks underwent a pretty thorough change. While Hurtt kept many of the same fundamentals and techniques the same for the defensive front, he did shift to having more EDGE players lining up in a two-point stance on early downs, a big shift from what Seattle had been running. And on the back end, Seattle had much more variation in their coverages, still keeping some single-high safety looks but dabbling in a bit of everything.
Unfortunately for Seattle, the results didn’t follow. They gave up the eighth-most points per game and finished 22nd in defensive DVOA and 26th in EPA/play allowed. Frequently, the Seahawks found themselves in shootouts where the offense needed to score every drive just to have a chance of winning. In their eight losses in the regular season, Seattle allowed more than 28 points per game, well above their 23 per game for the full season.
Desai left for the Eagles job in the offseason, but Hurtt and Scott remain as the braintrust of this defense. In the offseason, they worked to beef up the defense, bringing back nose tackle Jarran Reed and linebacker Bobby Wagner in free agency and drafting five defenders in the draft, highlighted by fifth overall pick Devon Witherspoon. As the first cornerback drafted, Witherspoon has primarily played in the slot, but Seattle moves him outside depending on the matchups. Witherspoon has played well, and currently has the second best odds to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, per DraftKings.
All in all, the moves to upgrade the defense have worked, though not as much as Seattle may have wanted. They’re giving up the 11th-most points per game right now and are ranked 21st in defensive DVOA and 20th in EPA/play allowed. That’s all better than it was last year, but not much. And they’ll have a Herculean task this week, facing a Cowboys offense that’s ripped defenses apart lately, anchored by a red hot Dak Prescott. The potential for this defense is clear, but Dallas doesn’t seem like the best matchup for them given where they’re at right now.