While everyone else marvels over the fact that the Seahawks are over .500 this deep into the season, we’re more concerned about how Seattle’s historically bad run defense might prevent the team from advancing in the playoffs.
We have always projected the Hawks to be above .500 at this point (they actually have underachieved by a game in our eyes), and it speaks well of their developing offense that they have been able to stay in games against high-powered offenses such as the L.A. teams, Green Bay and Carolina — rallying to beat the latter two.
But Seattle’s defensive line has proven to be more of a liability than we thought it would be. No one expected the pass rush to be very good outside Frank Clark — and that largely has proven true (Clark has 10 sacks, Jarran Reed a mildly surprising 5.5 and the rest of the team 12.5). But the run defense has been a major disappointment.
In preseason, the defense looked like it might be strong against the run. It turned out to be a false predictor as the Hawks have been torn up by Denver (146 yards), Dallas (166), the Los Angeles teams (155, 149, 160) and Carolina (220). Granted, all of those teams are in the top 10 in NFL rushing. But they got there partly by running through Seattle, which is 3-0 against bad rushing teams, 1-1 against average clubs and 2-4 against the great ground groups.
The Seahawks have given up explosive runs on 15 percent of rushing plays, fifth-most in the league, and the 5.28 average by opponents is on pace to be easily the highest in Seattle history and the third-highest in the NFL since 1976 (when the Seattle franchise started). Pete Carroll’s defenses had never been over 4.5 and were under 4.0 in every season from 2013 to 2016.
The porous run defense has resulted in the Hawks giving up the most yards per play (6.15) through 11 games in team history — a pace to finish second only to Mike Holmgren’s 2000 club (6.27).
The big rushing days this season have created shootouts where the pressure has been on the Seahawks’ offense to score a bunch to have a chance. That unit fell just short in three losses to the L.A. teams, but Russell Wilson and company have rallied for late wins the past two weeks — giving a glimmer of hope that they might be able to overcome the glaring defensive deficiency.
Wilson has been inconsistent this season (despite what the career-high 112.0 passer rating and the elite TD percentage might tell you), but he has come up big the past two weeks and had perhaps his best game of the season in Carolina (after a shaky start). He will need to continue to play that well if the Hawks are going to reach — and do anything in — the playoffs.
That’s because the run defense is not likely to get much better — not with so many young players and without the savvy Wright.
“We made a lot of errors (against Carolina),” Carroll said. “It’s concerning because we’re not a real complex system. I talked a lot about the discipline of it. It’s experience, you know. Playing this system without K.J. in the lineup. K.J.’s played these guys a lot and he and Bobby (Wagner) really have intricate roles. There were some errors and some misreads and stuff like that that hasn’t happened in years past.”
Of course, this was merely the nadir (hopefully) for a run defense that has had real trouble against some great rushing teams. The good news: The Hawks won’t face the same caliber of rushers again until the playoffs. That could help lower those historically bad numbers, but it’s hard to think the Hawks will get any better by the time the postseason arrives — with more good running teams.
The Seahawks will get back Mychal Kendricks in two weeks for another big NFC game, against Minnesota, but even Carroll doesn’t know when or whether Wright will return from his knee injury.
Along the line, it’s telling that Nazair Jones was rated the best player against Carolina. He had one big red-zone stop and flashed a couple other times, but Reed couldn’t beat one-on-one blocking and Shamar Stephen, double-teamed most of the game, was a non-factor.
The Seahawks obviously are going to have to address their defensive line in spades next offseason — basically remaking the entire thing around Clark (assuming they pay him) and Reed. They need to find another Michael Bennett/Cliff Avril and Brandon Mebane/Tony McDaniel/Ahtyba Rubin.
For now, they’re going to go as far as the offense takes them.