As some of you may have already seen, Football Outsiders released their annual list of Best and Worst Cornerbacks in the NFL for 2010. Not surprisingly, no Seahawks appeared on the "Best of" list, which is compiled using "Success Rate", which, "to remind everyone, is the percentage of passes that don't manage to get at least 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent of needed yards on second down, or 100 percent of needed yards on third down." They also measured average Yard Per Catch and average Yards After Catch of the marked receivers. Antoine Williams, Darelle Revis, Stanford Routte, Champ Bailey, Tramon Williams, and Joselio Hansen all scored well in the different categories. Nnamdi Asomugha didn't receive enough targets to qualify for the rankings, but that's because opposing quarterbacks simply don't throw his direction.
Very surprisingly though is the fact that none of the Hawks corners showed up on the "Worst of" lists either. For a team that was near the bottom in every defensive passing category: passing yards against, passing TDs against, points against etc and so forth, you'd expect either Jennings or Trufant (or both) near the top of that list. I think the fact that you don't see them in any category - success (or lack thereof) rate, average yards per catch and average yards after catch of opposing receivers - tells you a lot about the Hawks defense as a whole. One, it tells you that despite popular opinion, the Hawks don't have the worst corners in the league. Sure, they're not near the top either, and yes, they need to improve at the position for the Hawks to have more success, but it also tells you that the blame doesn't necessarily fall just on their shoulders - something I see happening at times. Kelly Jennings is largely denounced as "terrible" and Trufant is "not the player he used to be". Both of these statements aren't completely false, but when it comes to the blame game getting thrown around, I think these statistics exonerate them somewhat.
The safeties, even Earl Thomas, got beat deep a lot too. The linebackers, largely responsible for the coverage of Tight Ends and Running Backs releasing from the line, didn't do their jobs well enough either. Maybe most importantly, it shows that the Hawks didn't get enough pressure on the QB from the defensive line position. They had a good amount of sacks coming off the edge with Brock and Clemons, but did not consistently pressure the QB. The result of this lack of pressure was of course that the defense was picked apart through the air - exploiting the whole defense: the corners, safeties, and linebackers. The defensive tackle position for the Hawks produced one sack this year. This was recorded by Brandon Mebane, at the 3-tech position, the position that Pete Carroll described as "your premier interior pass rusher." Compare that to league leaders: Suh had 10 - Tommy Kelly of the Raiders had 7. This is the type of disruption you need from that position to disrupt the passing game. Mebane is a good player, but his natural position is the 1-tech, a run-stuffing wall of a man. I really believe if you give any NFL level quarterback enough time, they will be able to pick apart any defense. This is part of why the Hawks have a habit of making lower-tier QBs look like all-world players. The obvious goal then this offseason would be to upgrade the pass rush from the key positions responsible - the 3 tech and the LEO. Clemons and Brock were good but we'll need to get steady production again from them. Mebane has been given a third round tender but who knows what that really means once the new CBA is agreed on. If he's back, he may be used more at the 1-tech with Cole and hopefully a pass rushing 3-tech will be drafted or signed in free agency.
As for the cornerback spot for the Hawks, I think it will be really interesting to see what happens there this offseason. It would behoove the Hawks to sign or draft a shutdown corner of course - but what team wouldn't benefit from that? Finding a player of that caliber in the draft isn't easy and I'm not holding my breath for it to happen anytime soon for the Hawks. There are some free agents out there that could be brought in - Nnamdi Asomugha would be a crazy signing. Antonio Cromartie recently publicly 'made up' with Hasselbeck (won't matter if Matt is not re-signed of course) and is a top-level corner in the NFL as well. These guys wouldn't come cheap and aren't likely to be headed to the Pacific Northwest.
So what happens? The Hawks will need to improve at several positions for the pass defense to improve and the secondary is no exception. I believe that Earl Thomas will just get better, and Kam Chancellor has potential to start opposite him. It's possible the situation at corner isn't as bad as people make it out to be. Trufant will be back and should be healthy at the start of the season; Walter Thurmond showed promise in his rookie campaign and will be looking to win a starting role in 2011. Roy Lewis has been signed for another year and will provide depth at the nickel. Brandon Browner will compete in camp for a spot and could be a really interesting prospect. Backups Josh Pinkard and Marcus Brown have shown promise in camp and on the practice squad. Even Kelly Jennings could be re-signed and play in some nickel and bandit packages and honestly would not be a bad option in that role (so long as he's not depended on as the number two corner).
The Hawks will need to get better along the line and not give QBs so much time to pick them apart, but I have to think that the secondary can only improve from last year. The linebacker corps will look to get back to the top form they've been known for in years past. Pieces will have to fall into place, but I'm confident the Hawks defense will improve over last year.