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A few growing pains for Seahawks’ slightly retooled defense

Seattle’s defense has been solid, but hasn’t matched the greatness it displayed last season. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Each Wednesday, national NFL writer Mark Maske will assess the league through the lens of the front office and roster construction, breaking down rookies, draft targets, trades, recent signings, upcoming free agents and more.

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In many ways, the defense that the Seattle Seahawks put on the field Monday night against the Washington Redskins closely resembled the unit that stole the show and dominated the Denver Broncos in last season’s Super Bowl.

The headliners remain in place in cornerback Richard Sherman, safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. So do defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, linebacker K.J. Wright and cornerback Byron Maxwell, all of whom started the Super Bowl and also were in the starting lineup Monday at FedEx Field.

But the Seattle defense has had to undergo some retooling after a few offseason losses in free agency, and Seahawks players said late Monday that the adjustment process is ongoing four games into their season.

“Guys are still learning the ropes,” Avril said in the visitor’s locker room at FedEx Field following the 27-17 triumph over the Redskins, which raised Seattle’s record to 3-1.

“Guys are still learning. Guys are still coming along. I know me personally I’m trying to help some of the D-linemen, some of the younger D-linemen come along because we’re gonna need them in the long stretch. And they’re getting better week in and week out. So that’s a positive.”

Thomas said: “We’ve got a lot to improve on. We’re not nearly to where we need to be. But we’re … growing every week. That’s just a part of the process because it’s a new year.”

Super Bowl-winning teams generally cannot be kept completely intact in the salary cap era, and such was the case with the Seahawks. Three defensive players who started the Super Bowl are gone. Defensive end Chris Clemons was released. Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald and cornerback Walter Thurmond exited as free agents. The Seahawks also released defensive end Red Bryant and lost cornerback Brandon Browner in free agency.

Some young players and newcomers have moved into the playing rotation. Cornerback Marcus Burley, obtained in an August trade with the Indianapolis Colts that cost the Seahawks a sixth-round draft pick, played 37 of Seattle’s 55 defensive snaps Monday night. Second-year defensive tackle Jordan Hill played 25 snaps. Veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams, signed in June as a free agent after he spent 11 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, was in for 20 plays. Rookie defensive end Cassius Marsh, a fourth-round draft choice in May from UCLA, played 11 snaps against the Redskins.

“I think for the most part, the pieces that need to be here are here,” Thomas said. “It’s just about positive thinking, positive talking to the guys that came here, and just try to show them the way of life and the coaching here. They catch on real quick because we practice so hard. We demand a lot out of ourselves and others. It’s a genuine appreciation.”

The defense remains superb. The Seahawks are ranked fifth in the league in total defense and ninth in the NFL in scoring defense. They lead the league in run defense.

Yet, by the lofty standards of what appeared in February to be a historically great defense, there are some growing pains being experienced. These Seahawks rank 22nd in the league against the pass. They have six sacks and two interceptions in four games. Opponents have compiled a passer rating of 97.8.

Last season the Seahawks had 43 sacks and 28 interceptions, and limited opponents to a 63.4 passer rating. They finished the regular season ranked first in the NFL in total defense (based on yards allowed) and scoring defense. They were first against the pass and tied for seventh against the run.

The Seahawks did what was needed Monday night. The Redskins managed only 32 rushing yards and had only 10 points before crafting a late touchdown drive with Seattle 14 points ahead.

Still, there were some imperfections. The Seahawks had only one sack and no interceptions against Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, who threw for 283 yards and had a passer rating of 102. Cousins had completions of 60 and 57 yards to speedy wide receiver DeSean Jackson.

“We won the game,” Thomas said. “The D-line played great. The secondary played great besides those two explosive plays.”

Said Avril: “I know up front, there’s a lot of things we feel like we can do better at. A lot of stuff they got was because of dumb stuff we did. We had too many penalties and we kept them on the field too much. So I think that’s the biggest thing. … We take pride in not giving up explosive plays. They definitely got a few explosive plays on us. That’s just something we’ve got to work on.”

It probably is nitpicking to say that the Seahawks have some wrinkles to iron out on defense. But the standard is exceedingly high and the expectations are ridiculously lofty after a performance like the Seahawks provided in the Super Bowl against quarterback Peyton Manning eight months ago.

“I feel like we’ve still got a lot of growth, a lot of growth to get back to where we want to go,” Avril said. “We have to continue getting better. We definitely feel like we’ve got the talent to do it. It’s all about making it happen.”