It’s an understatement to say the Seahawks defense is struggling. Through six games of the 2020 NFL season, this unit has been historically bad. Seattle has allowed 2,875 yards, the most in NFL history according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Last Sunday’s defeat to the Cardinals saw the Seahawks defense continue their struggles and give up 519 yards. The Russell Wilson-led offense has been forced into carrying this team.
Writing off the defense as terrible is easy, but what’s more difficult is identifying what exactly is going wrong. The play calling of defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr has been blamed, the lack of a pass rush bemoaned, and the bad coverage pointed at. Even Pete Carroll’s overall scheme has been identified by some as the crux of the problem.
Each week, I chart every single Seattle snap. Studying the Arizona tape on a play-by-play basis and then looking at the Cardinals’ scoring drives generates some interesting conclusions. It helps us understand where and why things are going wrong on defense.
Drive 2: 6:35 1st Quarter, Seahawks 10 Cardinals 7, Ball on Arizona 25
Seattle’s defense was doing some nice things on this drive. At their own 35-yard-line, they managed to bring up a 3rd and 2. It was here that they were caught napping by Arizona’s look-to-the-sideline deception. Kyler Murray delivered a perfect 35-yard touchdown throw to DeAndre Hopkins versus the ‘press’ one-on-one of Quinton Dunbar. Dunbar could never fully recover from being out-of-phase at the start.
Result: Touchdown Pass
Drive 5: 4:04 2nd Quarter, Seahawks 20 Cardinals 7, Ball on Arizona 25
This drive started with Ryan Neal busting a Cover 3 “shove alert” check, resulting in a 12-yard pass for Murray to enjoy. Fittingly, it ended with back-to-back coverage mistakes too.
First, Ugo Amadi bit hard on a play action pass that saw him vacate his curl zone in Seattle’s middle of field open pass coverage. Kliff Kingsbury had a good beater for the concept with a deep dig and a deep post from either side of the field, but if Amadi had played better coverage - and he had no immediate run gap to fill with the 3-tech to his side - then the 41-yard pass to Dan Arnold doesn’t happen. Perhaps Amadi was trying to make up for the play before, where on 3rd and 8 he tipped his coverage rotation too early and Murray was able to beat the blitz as a result.
Following this explosive pass, Seattle came out in a ‘sticks’ Cover 3 defense designed for the goal line. Shaquill Griffin got looked off to the out route and didn’t trust his underneath coverage to do his job. Griffin vacated his deep responsibility and gifted Murray an easy touchdown.
Result: Touchdown Pass
Drive 6: 0:43 2nd Quarter, Seahawks 27 Cardinals 14, Ball on Arizona 25
This was a drive of Seattle playing all "Middle Field Open" coverage to Arizona’s four wide receiver package, with Murray taking the check downs for big yardage. We even saw the Seahawks drop eight defenders plus call Tampa 2 Invert.
Result: Field Goal
Drive 8: 8:30 3rd Quarter, Seahawks 27 Cardinals, 17 Ball on Arizona 7
Kliff Kingsbury called a brilliant game where he threw a ton of beaters at the Seahawks defense. This drive was a smartly schemed effort that shows the futility of defense. Still, the Cardinals should have gone three and out after Bobby Wagner’s big hit on a 3rd and 5 incompletion was flagged as unnecessary roughness - it was a bad, bad call.
Instead, they ended up with a touchdown. Tre Flowers was in the ball game after Shaquill Griffin left with a concussion, but this was mainly Xs and Os following that penalty on Wagner. It did, however, take Arizona 14 plays to score.
Result: Touchdown Run
Drive 10: 6:44 4th Quarter, Seahawks 34 Cardinals 24, Ball on Arizona 25
Now we enter the game management phase - or the Seahawks attempt at it. The Cardinals went into their 10 personnel (one running back, no tight ends, four wide receivers) package again; the Seahawks opted for dime-plus personnel and a lot of drop eight, Cover 2 looks.
The defensive plan worked. Seattle drained the clock to 3:02 left and forced Arizona into a 52-yard field goal - keeping it a one-score lead for the Seattle. The issue was Benson Mayowa ruined his good defensive work by picking up a leverage penalty for 15 yards, blessing the Cardinals with a new set of downs on 4th and 12.
From this point, Ryan Neal missed a tackle on a running back check down in drop eight Tampa 2 and Arizona got 11 yards. Then, either Neal or Damarious Randall busted the coverage down at the goal line, with no help in the slant window for Dunbar after the corner let the nestled slant go to what he presumed was help. Randall appeared to get the wrong call, playing middle of field when he should have helped on the backside in the Red 2 defense. The coverage was over-rotated. Dunbar then disappointingly missed his tackle.
Result: Touchdown Pass
Drive 11: 0:52 4th Quarter, Seahawks 34 Cardinals 31, Ball on Arizona 20
This drive is where 10 personnel broke the brain of Norton. Arizona needed only a field goal and Seattle got caught in dime-plus personnel, middle field open coverage, and light boxes. The Cardinals marched down the field.
0:52 1st and 10. Dime plus 2 man even drop eight (spy) Neal beat on Larry Fitzgerald over route, but makes tackle immediately for 11 yards.
0:39 1st and 10. Spike.
0:38 2nd and 10. Dime plus 2 man even drop eight (spy). Murray runs draw inside open A gaps for 15. What is the point of Shaquem Griffin as the quarterback spy if he is dropping off the edge like this, not attacking the middle?
0.25 1st and 10. Spike.
0:24 2nd and 10. Dime plus Cover 2 even drop eight (spy). Griffin was going to run with the crosser then stopped with Murray, thrown for 16 yards into the flat - no pass rush with only rushing three.
0:17 1st and 10. Dime plus even with Griffin up as the 3-tech. Inside zone for 12 yards, Griffin pancaked.
0:03 1st and 10. Spike.
Result: Field Goal
Drive 12: 5:30 Overtime, Seahawks 34 Cardinals 34, Ball on Arizona 28
Norton’s meltdown continued into overtime. He called plays like he was unaware that Arizona only needed a field goal to win the game. Arizona’s 10 personnel package caused serious issues once more.
5:30 1st and 10. Nickel Cover 2 under look. K.J. Wright out-leveraged by out route to Fitzgerald, over-pursues it, Fitzgerald cuts back for seven yards.
4:58 2nd and 3. Nickel Even WILL blitz, one sugared A gap front. Inside zone hits through unplugged a gap, out-gapped defense. Quandre Diggs comes up well, but Amadi and Dunbar caught inside, run bounces for 32 yards.
4:49 1st and 10. Nickel Cover 2 under look. Seahawks out-gapped, lucky this only went for nine on inside zone. Great work from Wright and Jarran Reed.
4:16 2nd and 1. Nickel Cover 2 again! Murray shifts running back to get the zone read away from 3-tech side and keeps for six yards. Mayowa as wide end tries surf technique and Murray manages to get outside.
3:36 1st and 10. Base rocky strong safety Cover 3 blitz. Neal blitzes right into Kyler Murray for loss of six.
Result: Missed Field Goal
Drive 13: 0:57 Overtime, Seahawks 34 Cardinals 34, Ball on Seattle 49
On the final drive, Norton returned to Cover 3 but with the corners playing so far off. This reflects the lack of trust Seattle has in this position. It may even have been an individual choice from Flowers stemming from his lack of confidence - Hopkins roasted him earlier but Murray fortunately overthrew the football.
Whatever the case, the Cardinals didn’t even need that many yards to win the game - so the corners playing so far off was infuriating. The first play of a quick out to the isolated Hopkins for nine yards versus Flowers essentially ended.. The defense was in a terrible situation though.
Result: Winning FG
Carroll’s description of the defeat spoke of poor adaptation.
“We have to keep working to put our players in the best positions to be aggressive and be effective and we need to help them more in our pressure,” Carroll said in his Monday press conference.
“We did not try to get after them very much last night. That was not part our plan going in, and when we needed it, we needed to adjust and I wish I would have got that done.”
It’s interesting how many of the game’s drives came down to poor play execution and talent as opposed to play calling though. Yes, Norton Jr ended the game with poor strategy, but this only began with 0:52 left to play in the encounter. Core Arizona offensive concepts were removed by smart game-planning. The defense even managed to force three turnovers: a fumble, turnover on downs, and an interception.
Two of Arizona’s touchdown drives enjoyed one busted coverage or more from the Seahawks. Remember, also, the Hopkins deep touchdown versus Dunbar that was ‘cheap’ and relied on trickery. That‘s 21 points.
Mayowa’s drive-extending mistake on the Gonzalez field goal came on drive No. 10, a busted coverage drive. Like Seattle's offense, too many mistakes were made by the defense for them to win the game.
It’s evident in clear passing situations that the Seahawks coaching staff is terrified of their cornerback group and scheming to protect them. That will lead to some big yards being given up towards the ends of games they lead, but in a managed game state still tends to work without busts - yes, Norton stuck with this for too long at the end of the loss.
While it would be nice for the Seahawks’ pass rush to win more often, particularly shedding blocks versus play action protection, the defense was getting off the field and caused issues for the Cardinals when they were playing assignment-sound football.
On a wider level, the front office’s failure to improve the 2020 pass rush after highlighting it as an offseason goal should not be ignored. However, pressure was put on Murray and the issue was a lack of finishing more than a lack of activity. They then went into their rush three, prevent stuff to close.
The addition of Carlos Dunlap will surely boost the defense. However, the greatest problem is the outside cornerback group and the lack of faith shown by Seattle’s coaches. They don't want the deep one-on-ones of Cover 3 in clear passing situations. It makes the decision to not draft an outside corner in the 2019 draft look worse and worse - especially with Shaquill Griffin and Dunbar both in a contract year.
Attacking Norton while overlooking passing game coordinator Andre Curtis - and the repeated pass coverage busts - is foolish. There have been challenges posed by the personnel turnover and lack of continuity or chemistry this brings. Ultimately, the failure to play assignment-sound football consistently is what is costing this team most. As defensive captain Bobby Wagner assessed on Tuesday, “you have to do your part.”