With one month of the 2021 season already in the books, emulating their historically poor performance from a year ago, the Seahawks have struggled to stop anyone on the defensive side of the football.
In five games, including a trio of losses, Seattle has allowed 450 yards per game to opponents, dead-last in the NFL. They tied a league record by surrendering over 450 yards of offense for a fourth consecutive game in a 26-17 loss to the Rams last Thursday, becoming only the fourth team to achieve this not-so-ideal feat since the NFL/AFL merger. They are on pace to yield 7,776 yards, which would shatter the record currently held by the 2012 Saints.
Not surprisingly, after signing a record-breaking four-year, $70 million contract extension in August, with the Seahawks floundering defensively for a second straight year, safety Jamal Adams has been under heavy scrutiny for his role in these struggles. He didn't do anything to silence critics on Thursday, as he wasn't able to track an underthrown pass from Matthew Stafford that resulted in a 68-yard completion to Desean Jackson and also was beat by tight end Tyler Higbee on a corner route for a 13-yard touchdown.
But despite the obvious issues in coverage, coach Pete Carroll defended Adams' play on Friday, reiterating his stance from his post-game press conference that the long completion from Stafford to Jackson was a fluky one that the player shouldn't necessarily be blamed for.
“For anybody that is highly compensated, you guys are going to give a good look at it, maybe a second look at it, or a third look about what’s up," Carroll told reporters. "He is playing his butt off, he’s running, hitting, and doing all of that stuff. He got in a really awkward and unusual situation on the underthrow last night and then he got beat on 1-on-1. We would loved for him to have won the 1-on-1 but those are hard, they ran it well, timed it well, did a nice job and they got him. The other play was a screwball in the park play where he wasn’t able to find a way to get to the ball like he needed to."
As Carroll clearly understands, given how much the Seahawks are paying Adams under the terms of his new contract, the star safety will always be under the microscope. Fans expect impact, game-changing plays from him each week and quite frankly, that hasn't been the case most of the season thus far.
This isn't to say that Adams hasn't had his moments. Only five days earlier, he turned in several key defensive plays against the 49ers in coverage, breaking up a downfield throw to tight end George Kittle on a double pass and later smashing him with a clean, well-timed hit in the end zone to prevent a touchdown. In a season-opening win over the Colts, he jumped over the line on a fourth down and helped prevent quarterback Carson Wentz from recovering a botched snap, with the ball eventually being recovered by teammate D.J. Reed.
But even though Adams has amassed 39 combined tackles, which ranks second among safeties per Pro Football Focus, there have been long stretches where he has seemingly disappeared for the Seahawks defense. Unfortunately, as was the case on Thursday, he has been at the center of several plays that didn't go well, attacking too far upfield to open up a crease for Derrick Henry to bolt 60 yards for a touchdown in Week 2 and missing multiple tackles against the Vikings in Week 3.
Coming off a record-breaking year with 9.5 sacks in 2020, Adams also has been a complete non-factor as a pass rusher, as he has yet to produce a single pressure or quarterback hit, let alone a sack. Much of that has had to do with a significant decrease in blitz rate, as defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. has only sent him as a rusher on 20 out of 382 defensive snaps, or just 5.2 percent of the time. Last year, he was blitzed at a 12.3 percent rate, chasing after quarterbacks on 106 out of 855 defensive snaps.
As Carroll has stated numerous times since the season started, while the Seahawks want Adams to be a factor as a rusher, they aren't going to blitz him just to blitz him and the "numbers are right" in terms of how often his number has been called to provide extra pressure so far.
“He’s been in a bunch of calls, and he’s in the game plan," Carroll elaborated. "We’re not trying to keep him out of it. Sometimes the formations and the spread offenses that we’re seeing a lot of in the first month of the season, it limits the opportunities. The calls don’t fit sometimes because the formations. We can’t just rush him all the time because he has other duties to take care of. I would love to see him have more impact on the game by pressuring too. That’s why we build this stuff in every week.”
Looking deeper into Carroll's comments, there's plenty to unpack there. According to Sharp Football Stats, prior to Thursday's game, the Seahawks had actually played a higher percentage (20 percent) of defensive snaps against 21 personnel with two backs on the field than any other team in the league. 20 percent of their defensive snaps have come against two tight end sets as well.
While the Seahawks have seen their share of spread looks as expected in today's NFL, they sit in the middle of the pack seeing formations with three or more receivers on just 60 percent of their defensive plays.
What does this mean in regard to how Seattle has been deploying Adams? With such a high frequency of snaps with two backs and/or two tight ends personnel on the field against them, it makes his positional distribution this year all the more mystifying.
Last year, per Pro Football Focus, Adams logged 445 snaps classified as a defensive lineman or in the box. That's 56.7 percent of the time. But this year, the Seahawks are using him far differently through the first five games. This year, he's played 177 of his 382 snaps on the line or in the box, which equates to a 10 percent reduction compared to 2020.
Meanwhile, Adams has seen a substantial uptick in snaps playing as a deep safety in single or two-high coverages. Last season, he played free safety only 19 percent of his defensive snaps, but so far this season, he has seen that percentage rocket up to 35 percent. This means that Seattle has purposely decided to play him further off the ball in deep coverage on almost 20 percent more of its defensive snaps.
Considering Adams' greatest strengths, that seems like an inexcusable waste of his talents keeping him away from the action nearly 40 percent of the time and consistently putting him in positions where he's forced to play like a traditional safety. That's not his game and the Seahawks seem hell bent on trying to force a square peg into a round hole, in part of because of how poor their cornerback play has been this year. There's a reason they are dialing up more two-deep safety looks than past years.
If that's the case, it's just another indictment on the front office for neglecting a position of need and in the process, they created two problems with one avoidable mistake.
This isn't to say that Adams has been a complete non-factor this year. Anyone making such claims isn't paying close enough attention and his coverage numbers honestly haven't been bad in the scheme of things. He's allowed nine receptions on 16 targets for 77 yards and a touchdown and passers are posting an 89.8 passer rating against him in coverage.
As Carroll correctly pointed out, if you watch entire games, he has erased concepts down field frequently this year and his overall coverage hasn't been near as poor as advertised. The numbers bear that out.
"He had a bunch of really good plays last night where the ball doesn’t get thrown because he covered the guy and took the concept away. You wouldn’t even know. He’s doing some good stuff," Carroll remarked.
But while the Seahawks shouldn't be panned for trying to "expand his skills," it seems apparent they are doing Adams and the rest of their defense a tremendous disservice by trying to transform him into something he is not. They're caging a unicorn and right now, he looks like just another guy on their defense.
For more than $17 million per year, that's simply not close to good enough. While Adams has to step up his game, with the defense getting shredded week in and week out, Carroll, Norton, and the entire coaching staff need to do a far better job adapting their scheme to the strengths of their players. If they can't do that, then maybe it's time for wholesale changes next spring.