Patience Required with Seahawks New-Look Secondary
Carried largely by the golden arm of Russell Wilson, who has thrown nine touchdown passes in eight quarters of play, the Seahawks have raced out to a 2-0 start by capturing high-scoring victories over the Falcons and Patriots. They currently stand as just one of five undefeated teams left in the NFC.
But while Wilson has undeniably been the NFL's MVP through two weeks and on his own accord makes Seattle a viable Super Bowl threat, the team's early success hasn't been without warning signs to monitor.
Most strikingly, the Seahawks talented secondary featuring newcomers Jamal Adams and Quinton Dunbar has been shredded to a tune of 831 passing yards by quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Cam Newton. That's the second-most passing yardage given up by a defense in the first two games of the season in NFL history behind only the 2018 Chiefs.
The majority of this damage has been done in the second half of Seattle's first two games. In the opener in Atlanta, Pete Carroll's team played a bit of "rope-a-dope" defense while holding a commanding 31-12 lead early in the fourth quarter, allowing Ryan to complete a lot of easy throws against soft coverage and lead two late touchdown drives in garbage time.
In a far more concerning performance against New England, with Seattle stifling the opposing rushing attack early, Newton nearly orchestrated a stunning comeback late. He completed 23 of 33 pass attempts and finished with 312 passing yards in the final two quarters, marching up and down the field against Carroll's defense with ease primarily by airing it out.
This wasn't how things were supposed to play out. Not after trading away a fifth-round pick to acquire Dunbar from Washington and sending multiple first-round picks to the New York Jets for Adams to team the pair up with free safety Quandre Diggs and Pro Bowl cornerback Shaquill Griffin.
"Well, they've thrown it like 80 times, or 90 times, in the first two games. I think that's part of it," Carroll said when asked about giving up so much yardage, pointing out the Patriots threw the ball far more than anticipated in part due to the Seahawks shutting down their run game. "Seen a lot of plays, we've given up way too many explosives, particularly kind of in the catchup mode that we've been in. We've got to do a better job there, we have to execute better."
Through the first two games, the Seahawks have surrendered nine pass plays of 20 or more yards, second behind only the Dolphins, Cowboys, and Falcons. Nearly 46 percent of receptions by their opponents have resulted in first downs, which ranks third behind the Eagles and Texans. They are giving up 8.6 yards per catch, the fifth-highest mark among 32 teams.
On Sunday specifically, Newton connected on three passes of 20-plus yards, including 49 and 33-yard connections with receiver Julian Edelman beating Adams downfield. New England capped off both drives with touchdowns and for as many impressive plays as he's made so far, Carroll admitted the standout safety has a "lot of room to grow" in the coverage department.
"He's such an active football player that sometimes his activity can take him chasing some stuff that he needs to ignore at times," Carroll explained. "I love the way he plays. We're just gonna keep coaching him like crazy to get it right. He's gonna make plays in all phases of the game, but he's gotta clean some things up and he knows it."
As Carroll additionally noted, not all of those issues fall directly onto Adams and the secondary either. As feared, Seattle hasn't found much success rushing the quarterback, with Adams registering two of the team's three sacks thus far as a blitzer. The defensive line hasn't been able to produce near enough pressure to make quarterbacks uncomfortable and it's left the cornerbacks and safeties hung out to dry covering for extended periods of time.
It's also worth noting that on Sunday night, the Seahawks lost starting free safety Quandre Diggs late in the first quarter after he was ejected for a helmet-to-helmet hit on N'Keal Harry. Moments later, Marquise Blair was helped off the field with a torn ACL, further depleting the unit.
"Losing Quandre was a big deal for us," Carroll said. "Quandre's been a fantastic player for us in the short time we've had him. He's been so steady and so consistent and all that. That forced a couple different moves to happen and Marquise going down, it just took us a couple steps down into the depth chart there and we didn't respond as well as we'd like to. There were just some plays that got away on a really good throwing team that knew what they are doing and the quarterback was on fire - it made it hard on us."
Without Diggs or Blair available, Lano Hill checked in at free safety alongside Adams and though he gave his best effort, Carroll suggested communication issues for a group that hasn't played much together were a key ingredient in giving up so much yardage to Newton and the Patriots after halftime.
Considering circumstances, rather than press the panic button just two weeks into the season, Carroll isn't discouraged by what he's seen and believes some of the struggles can be chalked up to an abbreviated offseason.
If there's a silver lining, though they've given up a ton of yardage, the Seahawks have come up with big plays when they needed them, such as an interception by Dunbar in the third quarter after Newton went to the well one too many times. They're also the only team in history to give up more than 700 passing yards in the first two games and give up three or less passing touchdowns, showing they've mastered the "bend but don't break" mentality.
With just two games under their belts together, as the secondary gains more experience playing together, Carroll expects Adams, Dunbar, and company to step up and play at a much higher level.
"We have to play cleaner and we just gotta keep working at it. There were some mistakes that were made and some of it was the newness of guys not seeing things together, all stuff that we can definitely get better at."