Escaping with a 27-20 Week 8 victory over the Falcons, the Seahawks moved to 6-2 for the first time since 2013 and opened a season with four straight road victories for only the second time in franchise history.
As noted by coach Pete Carroll, plenty of positives emerged from the win. DK Metcalf scored two touchdowns in the red zone, Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny combined for 145 rushing yards, and an opportunistic Seattle defense created three turnovers.
But if you’re someone who looks at the glass half empty, Seattle’s insufficient depth in the secondary was on full display as Atlanta roared back from a 24-point halftime deficit and nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback.
The Seahawks kicked off Sunday’s contest minus starting cornerback Tre Flowers as well as safeties Quandre Diggs and Lano Hill. And though he was active, Bradley McDougald only played a handful of snaps after returning to practice late this week due to back spasms.
In the first half, Seattle played well despite the absence of Flowers and McDougald, limiting Atlanta to two missed Matt Bryant field goal attempts and zero points. Reserve quarterback Matt Schaub threw an ugly interception to linebacker Mychal Kendricks and should have been picked a second time by cornerback Akeem King.
After emerging from the tunnel to start the third quarter, however, everything changed. The Falcons went from being completely inept in the first half to an offensive juggernaut.
Apparently jumping in a time machine during the 15-minute intermission, Schaub turned back the clock to 2009 when he threw for a league-best 4,770 passing yards with the Texans. The 38-year old quarterback carved up the Seahawks with 460 passing yards and most of the damage happened during the final two quarters.
It wouldn’t be fair at all to pin all of Seattle’s second half defensive struggles squarely on King, especially covering an elite talent like All Pro Julio Jones who can make even the best defensive backs in the sport look bad. But the drop off from Flowers, who has been playing some of the best football of his young career recently, to the fifth-year veteran was obvious on Sunday.
While avoiding third-year cornerback Shaquill Griffin most of the time, Schaub picked on King, who drew the difficult assignment of trying to cover Jones and Calvin Ridley. Attacking him as much as possible, he completed four passes for 15 yards or longer against him in the second half, with three of those passes going to Jones.
Unlike earlier years where the Seahawks had an abundance of riches in the secondary under Carroll’s tutelage, injuries have only further widened the talent gap between the starters and the reserves. This is most noticeable at cornerback, where the team only has King and lifelong special teams stalwart Neiko Thorpe available behind Griffin and Flowers.
King excelled covering tight ends in Seattle’s big nickel package last season and Thorpe has earned a reputation as one of the NFL’s best gunners in punt coverage. But between them, the two players have started two combined games at cornerback and never emerged as viable starting options competing for defensive playing time over the years.
After watching them struggle against a backup quarterback like Schaub, what would they do against Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers in a playoff game? Yikes.
If the Seahawks can stay healthy the rest of the way, the ascending duo of Griffin and Flowers at cornerback alongside Diggs, McDougald, and emerging rookie Marquise Blair at safety should give Seattle a formidable secondary unit. With ample room for development, there's a reason Carroll remains bullish on the young core's potential.
But as exhibited on Sunday, the Seahawks cannot afford substantial injuries in their defensive backfield the rest of the way. Knowing they will see superior quarterbacks down the road, there’s simply not enough quality depth to overcome such personnel losses at this time.