Defensive Woes Preventing Seahawks From Reaching Potential
Though the Seahawks have opened 2019 with a 7-2 record, there’s no sugar coating it. The team has been narrowly winning games all season long in spite of one of the NFL’s worst defenses and the Russell Wilson show has saved them to this point.
If it sounds odd coach Pete Carroll’s squad has been winning games because of an explosive offensive attack led by Wilson rather than defense, you’re certainly not alone. The 69-year old built a perennial NFC powerhouse in the Pacific Northwest on the defensive side of the football, which is supposed to be his specialty.
Yet, here we are, nine games into the season and a Seattle defense that features big names such as Bobby Wagner and Jadeveon Clowney hasn’t been able to figure out how to consistently stop opponents. The pass rush has been nonexistent for the most part, an inexperienced, injury-depleted secondary has given up air yards in bunches, and mental miscues have persistently dogged the unit.
Just how poorly has Carroll’s defense performed this year thus far? Let’s start with the simple fact they’re surrendering 25.6 points per game, ranking 22 in the league, a far cry from Seattle’s dominant defenses of yesteryear.
Stopping the run remains a top priority for Carroll, but while the Seahawks have done a decent job improving in that area, they still rank 22 in run defense DVOA. They’ve also given up seven runs of 20 or more yards, tied for fourth-most in the NFL.
Digging deeper, the Seahawks have produced only 14 quarterback sacks, but that doesn’t truly explain how inept the pass rush has been through nine weeks. According to Pro Football Reference, they’ve produced just 16 quarterback knockdowns as a team and recorded quarterback pressures on 16.8 percent of opposing drop backs, the second-worst mark behind only the Raiders.
With the pass rush struggling to even breathe on opposing quarterbacks, the secondary has been allowing opponents to carve them up primarily with short and intermediate pass plays. In the past two weeks alone, the Seahawks have surrendered nearly 800 passing yards to… Matt Schaub and Jameis Winston.
For the season, Seattle has given up the second-most total passing yards and ranks 27 in the league yielding 1,415 air yards on completions. When pressed about his team’s struggles defending the pass after Schaub threw for 460 yards two weeks ago, Carroll indicated the failure to get third down stops was the main culprit.
“Sometimes, that’s what happens with two quarters of a two-minute drill basically. That happens sometimes. I wish we would’ve gone off the field on some third downs to get out of there and not give them the opportunity to stay out.”
Interestingly, even after allowing Winston to extend drives with several clutch third down passes last week, one area the Seahawks have done well defensively has been getting key third down stops. They’re eighth overall in the league limiting opponents to a 35 percent conversion rate in such situations.
The Seahawks have also been fairly opportunistic, producing 16 combined turnovers defensively. While they’re in the middle of the pack with seven interceptions, they rank second in the NFL with nine fumble recoveries, which has helped mask many of the team’s defensive deficiencies.
But turnovers come in spurts and banking on continuing to create a bunch of interceptions and forced fumbles isn’t the most reliable strategy for any defense. And for a coach who places such emphasis on staying on schedule offensively, Carroll’s defense hasn’t been able to get opponents behind the sticks and has consistently been losing on first and second down.
Against the Falcons, they surrendered 30 first downs to a Schaub-led offense and all but three of those came on first or second down. On Sunday, that troubling trend continued, as Winston and the Bucs produced 23 first down conversions on first or second down.
For the two games combined, Seattle only allowed nine third down conversions on 23 attempts. That’s a 39 percent conversion rate, an acceptable number close to the team’s stellar season average. But it becomes a moot point when teams are picking up big chunks of yardage on first and second down to keep the chains moving.
So how can this problem be corrected? There’s not a perfect plan that will cure everything that ails the Seahawks, but to start, schematic adjustments must be made by the coaching staff to take away some of the short completions they’re giving up each week.
Some would argue the Seahawks needs to blitz more frequently, but as the old adage goes, you live by the sword and die by the sword. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. has already dialed up more pressure packages this year than last season to compensate for the lack of a pass rush and blitzing even more puts further stress on a young secondary. That's not the answer.
Whether they mix in more man coverage or play more aggressive press coverage with their corners, Seattle has to do something because it’s been far too easy for quarterbacks to dink and dunk down the field against them. And the ability to unload the football quickly has mitigated the effectiveness of the defensive front rushing the passer.
Seattle could also make some simple personnel changes, including installing Quandre Diggs as the new starting slot cornerback and running more nickel packages with five defensive backs on the field to try and stifle opposing passing attacks. To add some much-needed speed to the pass rush, maybe try to sprinkle in Shaquem Griffin off the edge a few plays per game as well.
Carroll and Norton Jr. have some options to consider, and with a bye week coming, maybe we'll see some of significant moves coming in the near future. Maybe we won't.
As long as Wilson remains under center, the Seahawks will have a chance to win every game remaining on their schedule. Even with the league’s toughest remaining schedule by win percentage, getting back to 10 or more wins and returning to the playoffs appears likely.
Given the defensive struggles across the board, however, this isn’t a Super Bowl contender. At least not now. There’s still a ton of football left to be played and with the players Seattle has on defense, it’s not out of the question the light switch will turn on at some point.
Heck, it’s even possible it could happen on Monday in a high stakes divisional matchup against the 49ers, as Carroll’s teams have a tendency to play up or down to competition.
But we’re late enough in the season where it's fair to question whether or not the Seahawks will ever put it all together defensively as initially hoped. If they can’t and proper adjustments aren’t made, a prime opportunity to compete for a second Lombardi Trophy in Wilson’s prime could slip away.