Tight Ends Continue to Torch Seahawks' Defense
The Seahawks have a tight end problem. And no, it’s not only the absence of Will Dissly and Ed Dickson on their own current roster.
While Seattle certainly misses Dissly as well as Dickson, who are both on injured reserve and out for the year, the biggest issue has been providing any semblance of defensive resistance covering opposing tight ends.
These woes shouldn’t be a surprise, as Seattle has struggled defending tight ends throughout coach Pete Carroll’s 10-season tenure. Even when the “Legion of Boom” roamed in the secondary for a historically great defense, tight ends posed an issue at times.
Back in 2014 for example, the Seahawks only allowed 593 receiving yards against tight ends, but they yielded 11 touchdown receptions to the position, tied for third highest in the NFL. The next year, Seattle gave up 873 receiving yards and eight touchdowns to tight ends, sitting near the top of league leader boards in both categories.
Though the Seahawks made substantial improvements covering tight ends last year, it’s been burdensome for defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.’s unit in 2019.
Per Pro Football Reference, the Seahawks have given up the second-most receptions (84) and receiving yards (918) to tight ends through 13 games. Over the past two weeks against the Vikings and Rams, they’ve surrendered 12 receptions to tight ends for 172 yards and a touchdown.
Earlier in the season during the first matchup against the Rams, tight end Gerald Everett caught seven passes for a career-high 136 yards against the Seahawks. Browns tight end Ricky Seal-Jones scored a 31-yard touchdown on a wheel route the ensuing week.
Even with Everett out injured in Sunday’s rematch, Tyler Higbee went off for a game-best 116 receiving yards and reeled in a 33 and 32-yard reception.
On the 33-yard catch in the first quarter, Higbee came wide open downfield against busted coverage before being tackled at the one-yard line. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin appeared to pass him off believing he had help behind him, but there wasn't a safety in the vicinity.
It was the second straight game Seattle had given up an explosive pass play due to a communication error, as Laquon Treadwell scored a 58-yard touchdown for Minnesota under similar circumstances.
“They were effective in their tempo,” Norton Jr. commented on Wednesday. “It comes down to getting lined up and communication. I think everybody had a little piece of that. But you have to give the Rams a lot of credit, they played well that night.”
Prior to Week 14, Seattle had experienced a bit of a defensive renaissance. With a dormant pass rush waking up, the team gave up 16 points per game and created 11 turnovers in three consecutive wins over San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Minnesota.
But many of the ugly trends that doomed the Seahawks defensively in the first half of the season, such as failure to pressure opposing quarterbacks, have reappeared over the last two games.
Though they held off the Vikings in a shootout and forced a couple turnovers, Kirk Cousins wasn’t sacked a single time and the lack of pressure continued against the Rams. Jared Goff comfortably threw for 184 yards and two touchdowns in the first two quarters and he might as well have been throwing from a couch.
“We haven’t gotten to the quarterback,” Norton Jr. remarked. “That’s something that is obviously an issue. We’ve had some injuries and guys are working through some things. Still working at it.”
With Ziggy Ansah and Mychal Kendricks potentially returning this weekend, that particular issue may have remedies coming in short order. As for stopping tight ends? As evidenced by the entire season thus far, the Seahawks haven’t yet found a viable solution and time is running out to address the concern.
While coach Pete Carroll doesn’t seem too keen on Seattle transitioning away from using its base 4-3 defense so frequently, playing more nickel defense could be beneficial.
Going into Sunday’s game, the Seahawks had only played 242 defensive snaps with five or more defensive backs, the lowest total in league per ESPN charting. As a result, K.J. Wright and Kendricks have often been in coverage against tight ends and expectedly been exposed at times.
Dating back to last season, cornerback Akeem King has done a stellar job over the past two seasons in “big nickel” packages covering tight ends, including helping hold Chiefs star Travis Kelce to just 54 receiving yards last season. Rookie Ugo Amadi could also be ready to rotate into the lineup to defend shiftier slot receivers as well.
At the end of the day, however, Norton believes it all comes down to execution rather than scheme. From what he’s seen, Seattle simply has to do a better job getting defensive play calls in and lining players up in a timely manner, which should help eliminate many of the problems plaguing the defense.
Crediting the Rams for their superior performance, he reiterated that the team won’t overreact to one game and the Seahawks have already turned their attention to this weekend against the Panthers.
“I think that any time you lose the way we did- we didn’t execute the way you’re supposed to execute. I think that any time you play this game a long time, we’ve won 10 games and had a fantastic season. Games like that you can really learn a lot from, put you in the right frame of mind.”
Norton Jr. has the right mindset moving on from last week's defeat, but for the Seahawks to do any damage in January, they'll have to solve their tight end coverage woes. With other NFC threats featuring stars at the position like George Kittle, failing to find a solution could lead to their playoff demise.