Analysis: 5 Key Questions for Seahawks' Defense Coming Off Bye Week
Fresh off their bye week, the Seahawks stand as one of just three remaining undefeated teams in the NFL and alone atop the NFC standings with a 5-0 record.
Despite the best start in franchise history, Seattle has been anything but dominant on the defensive side of the football to this point. Struggling to pressure opposing quarterbacks and cover receivers, coach Pete Carroll's squad has given up the most yardage in the NFL, surrendered a league-worst six explosive pass plays of 40 yards or more, and allowed 27 points per game.
With 11 weeks left in the regular season, will the Seahawks be able to right the ship defensively? Here are five key questions that will need to be answered over the next several weeks as the team pushes for a division title and the NFC's top seed.
1. Will the secondary start playing to its potential?
Heading into this season, the Seahawks expected to have one of the most improved secondaries in the entire league. After all, general manager John Schneider traded a fifth-round pick to Washington for cornerback Quinton Dunbar and then shipped a king's ransom to the New York Jets for safety Jamal Adams. Teaming those two players with Pro Bowl cornerback Shaquill Griffin and safety Quandre Diggs, this looked to be the best group Seattle has had since the "Legion of Boom" era ended.
Unfortunately, those expectations haven't played out on the field - at least not yet. The Seahawks have yielded an NFL record 1,852 passing yards through five games. Injuries have certainly been part of the story, with Dunbar missing a pair of games with a knee issue and Jamal Adams sitting out the last two games with a hamstring strain. Add in Diggs being ejected for most of the Patriots game in Week 2 and the four players have played just one game together thus far.
Assuming Adams returns in the next week or two and the rest of Seattle's secondary stays healthy, there's reason to believe the group's performance will improve substantially simply from better chemistry. There have been positive signs of a turnaround brewing recently as well - the Seahawks have only given up six pass plays of 20-plus yards in the past two games after allowing 16 such plays in the first three weeks. Griffin has been at the center of those improvements, making an interception and five pass deflections in wins over the Dolphins and Vikings.
2. Which rookies will have the greatest impact in the second half?
Seattle has received valuable contributions from rookies on the offensive side of the football with Damien Lewis starting all five games at right guard and receiver Freddie Swain recording at least one reception in each game. On defense, however, injuries have prevented the team's top two picks - linebacker Jordyn Brooks and defensive end Darrell Taylor - from contributing. Brooks has been nursing a knee sprain, while Taylor has yet to practice coming back from offseason leg surgery.
Peering towards the second half, the Seahawks should have Brooks back in the lineup soon at weakside linebacker, allowing the first-round pick a chance to make a splash down the stretch. The biggest question mark remains Taylor, who according to Carroll still may be several weeks away from returning from the Non-Football Injury list. If the second-round pick out of Tennessee can't make it back, which is definitely a possibility, the team will have to continue leaning on fifth-round pick Alton Robinson as his replacement in a reserve role at the LEO defensive end spot. At this point, any production from Taylor should be viewed as a cherry on top in a strange season.
3. Can Seattle start turning quarterback hits into sacks?
In some regards, the Seahawks have been better at pressuring opposing quarterbacks than they were a year ago. Prior to Week 6, for example, Carroll's squad had produced 33 quarterback hits per Pro Football Reference, which ranked sixth in the NFL at that time. They also have ramped up their pressure rate from 19.3 percent to 21.4 percent and ranked in the upper half of the league in ESPN's Pass Rush Win Rate metric at 45 percent.
The problem? These pressures still aren't turning into sacks. Seattle currently has only 9.0 sacks through five games, putting the team on pace for 29.0 sacks, nearly an identical number to last year's underwhelming production. Even after missing two games, Adams still remains tied with Benson Mayowa for the team lead with 2.0 sacks. While sacks aren't everything and there have been signs of progress turning the heat up on quarterbacks, the Seahawks inability to get home more frequently despite an uptick in blitz percentage remains a major concern and it's worth wondering if they have the horses to improve upon those numbers.
4. What happens if/when the turnovers disappear?
Though they've given up record yardage totals through the first five games, the Seahawks have been able to come up with clutch stops when they have needed them. They've been particularly good at creating timely turnovers, including turning a fumble and an interception against the Cowboys into 14 quick points. In Week 5 against the Vikings, a 21-point flurry in the third quarter was spearheaded by a strip-sack by Damontre Moore and a one-handed interception by K.J. Wright.
As Seattle learned the hard way last season, however, relying on turnovers can be a dangerous game to play. After producing 16 of them during a five-game stretch following Diggs' arrival via trade, the team didn't create a single turnover in the final two regular season games or either playoff game back in January. While such a drought may not happen this season, there's a lot of variance when it comes to producing turnovers. At some point, the Seahawks will have to prove they can make stops the conventional way by winning on third down more often, as they rank 28th in the league in third down defense (50 percent). If they can't, the reliance on turnover creation will eventually come back to haunt them as it did last year.
5. Is there help to be brought in that isn't currently on the roster?
With only five draft picks for next April, though he has some options to consider if he wants to add a veteran pass rusher to the mix, it seems unlikely Schneider will pull off any trades before the November 3 deadline. But that doesn't mean reinforcements aren't coming to help a struggling defense.
Obviously, Adams returning to the lineup will be a major game changer, while the Seahawks remain very high on Brooks' potential alongside Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Versatile defensive back D.J. Reed, who returned to practice on Monday, could compete for snaps at nickel cornerback right away and offers special teams value. Defensive end Rasheem Green looks to be close to returning from injured reserve and veteran Damon Harrison could be promoted from the practice squad this week, improving depth in the trenches. Again, the real X-factor here is Taylor, who would bring much-needed athleticism to Seattle's pass rush if he's able to get healthy and return in the near future.