MINNEAPOLIS, MN - Through three weeks of play, the 2021 season has been one defined by trends for the Seahawks.
In the first two quarters, for example, Seattle has come out sizzling hot offensively in each game. In the opener, quarterback Russell Wilson led three touchdown drives to build a 21-10 halftime advantage. Last weekend, the team scored a trio of touchdowns in a second quarter flurry to go into the break with a 15-point advantage over Tennessee.
This pattern of coming out of the gates firing on all cylinders carried over into Sunday's Week 3 road matchup against the Vikings. Wilson threw a touchdown to DK Metcalf on the game's opening drive and a 30-yard rushing score by Chris Carson extended the Seahawks lead to 17-7 midway through the second quarter. At that point, the visitors seemed to be in full command in a hostile environment.
But unfortunately, unlike the previous two contests, coach Pete Carroll's squad went into the halftime trailing and failed to mount a comeback in the second half thanks to a sputtering offense and a far more troubling, yet familiar trend dating back to last season: the inability to provide get any stops on defense.
"That was a really difficult game the way things went," a somber Carroll said in his post-game press conference. "Unfortunately Minnesota has been working the ball on offense in the first couple games really well and they did just what they've been doing the first couple games. We didn't stop them like we needed to."
Even without All-Pro running back Dalvin Cook, who sat out the game with an ankle injury, the Vikings steamrolled the Seahawks in all phases. Kirk Cousins torched a beleaguered secondary, completing 30 out of 38 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns, star receiver Justin Jefferson caught nine passes for 118 yards and a score, and Cook's replacement in Alexander Mattison tied a career-high with 112 rushing yards and added 59 receiving yards.
By the time Cousins took a knee in the closing seconds, Minnesota had racked up 453 yards of total offense and converted nine out of 14 third down opportunities, leaving a bewildered Carroll grasping for straws trying to find answers for a defense that has allowed over 900 yards of offense and 60 points over the past two weeks alone.
“We threw everything out there. All the stuff we’ve been working on, we went with today. Tried different things to get pressure, but they were ahead on the rhythm," Carroll remarked. "They did a nice job of staying ahead of us and we weren’t able to get pressure on early downs to offset those third downs, make them longer, and they were real effective. That’s just how exactly they’ve been looking and I thought we’d be able to offset it and we would control the run better. But as the game wore on, they were able to do what they needed to do in the fourth quarter and piled it up.”
When trying to figure out what ailed Seattle's defense on Sunday, it's difficult to single out one or two specific issues. Aside from forcing a three-and-out on Minnesota's second possession, nothing went according to plan.
As Carroll alluded to, much as they struggled to do last week with Ryan Tannehill, the Seahawks pass rush wasn't able to consistently turn up the heat on Cousins, producing just four quarterback hits and a strip sack by linebacker Darrell Taylor. He was particularly effective on early downs, completing four passes of 20-plus yards on first and second down with minimal pressure.
“I thought he did really good again, that’s how he’s been playing. He’s looked just like that, completing 72 percent of his passes coming in. Screens were really effective for them and they did a really nice job getting the ball behind us on play passes down the field. It winds up being a third down game. They did really well on third down and we didn’t.”
With the quarterback playing as well as he ever has in his 10-year career, Cousins was able to pick apart a secondary that battled communication issues throughout the game. On numerous occasions, players such as safeties Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams could be seen on the field shouting at teammates and/or holding their hands out with palms facing up suggesting confusion or a missed assignment.
Between the third and fourth quarter, assistant coach Deshawn Shead, who replaced defensive pass game coordinator Andre Curtis in this game, could be seen walking to the other side of the field with Tre Flowers, chatting with the starting cornerback and using similar frustrated body language.
While Carroll admitted Curtis' absence was a factor that had a negative impact on how the secondary played and contributed to the obvious disconnect on the field and the sidelines, he understandably wasn't pleased with the effort and execution from Flowers and D.J. Reed at the cornerback spots. At the same time felt they could have gotten better support from the rest of the defense.
“We didn’t make many plays out there today. We need to help them more," Carroll commented. "I was disappointed late in the game – we needed to challenge to get some wins to see if we could get off the field that way and their receivers beat us and they did a nice job."
Once Minnesota regained the lead late in the first half with a pair of touchdowns, including Reed getting schooled on a double move by Jefferson for a three-yard score, Seattle couldn't slow down Mattison either. Getting stronger as the game progressed, he ran for 76 yards in the final two quarters to help the home team melt more than 22 minutes of clock away while tacking on three insurance field goals.
As if those issues weren't enough, the Seahawks couldn't find a way to stop screens for a second consecutive week, as most of Mattison's 60 receiving yards in the first half came on well-executed screens. These plays kick-started drives and put Seattle's defense on its heels early.
"We're not recognizing them quickly enough and we're getting back in our drops and they're working - you know, they have a nice scheme, they throw the ball behind you, as they did," Carroll explained. "We're driving out of there and we get too much space between us in the screen, and that's why you throw those sometimes. We were late to respond. When we did, we didn't force one properly, we had snuffed out. And then the other one Bobby [Wagner] makes a play on it because he feels it. We just have to do a better job sensing it."
Having thrown everything in their schematic tool box at the Vikings and failing to provide any resistance, the Seahawks find themselves at a crossroads earlier in their season than they envisioned. The Rams and Cardinals both improved to 3-0 on Sunday, while the 49ers were in a battle with the Packers looking to stay undefeated as well, creating a quick two-game hole for them to climb out of in the NFC West.
Still, 14 games remain on the schedule and as Seattle showed last year making a 180 degree turn on defense in the second half, there's ample time to correct things. Better results on early downs and improvements on third down efficiency will put the ball in Wilson's court more often and allow the offense more opportunities to stay in a rhythm offensively. But the margin of error has certainly shrunk and losing two games in which they had double-digit leads could come back to haunt them in pursuit of a playoff spot down the road.
While it remains unknown how Carroll and his staff will proceed moving forward, he seemed open to the idea of making personnel-related changes to find a spark on defense. One potential move could be sliding Sidney Jones into the lineup as a replacement for Flowers, who has been picked on relentlessly in the first three games. They could also shake up their pass rushing rotation seeking more consistency.
It's also possible Carroll will stick with the current lineup for at least one more week, hoping adjustments in game planning and addressing apparent confusion on coverages made known by Flowers and others after the game prove to be enough to right the ship.
Regardless of what the Seahawks decide to do, though it's not time to panic, Carroll recognizes they need to get untracked quickly with difficult divisional games against the 49ers and Rams on tap in the next 11 days. How those games unfold could make or break the team's season and without significant defensive improvements, they could be staring at a 1-4 record before the calendar even flips to October.
“We’ll take a look at everything. We gotta get better, we just gotta get better. We’ll utilize all the ways we can go about that.”