The Seahawks have built a 10-3 record largely on the strength of the league’s fifth-ranked offense (fourth in DVOA), but we just saw what happens when that unit does not play well enough against a good team and the defense does not get the takeaways.
Outside the win over Minnesota, Russell Wilson and the offense have struggled for the past month. The defense set up the wins over the 49ers and Eagles but then had its usual trouble against the Rams, and the offense scored a season-low six points in a 16-point loss that was Seattle’s third-worst margin of defeat in Wilson’s eight seasons.
The loss brought up the season-old question: Are the Hawks really the contender their record says they are?
Wilson and the offense have had a tough time against some pretty good defenses recently. It is reminiscent of the 2013 season, when the offense was stymied by strong defenses in the final month before getting going again on the way to the Super Bowl title.
In that December, Wilson had four straight games with a passer rating under 100, throwing three interceptions. The Hawks lost two of those games — against San Francisco’s No. 13 defense (DVOA) and Arizona’s No. 2 unit — while beating the Giants with five takeaways and winning the finale vs. the Rams (the No. 11 defense) to finish 13-3.
Now, just like the end of 2013, Seattle is in a late run against good defenses. The 49ers are No. 2 in DVOA (third overall), the Eagles No. 14 (13th overall), the Vikings No. 8 (seventh overall) and the Rams No. 6 (ninth overall). The Hawks have turned the ball over nine times against those teams, and Wilson has thrown a pick in every game and played two of his three worst games in that stretch, with ratings under 100 in all.
He actually played pretty well against the 49ers (the OT interception aside) and the Vikings; the Hawks scored 64 combined points in those wins (aided by six takeaways). But Wilson played poorly vs. the Eagles (completing just 52 percent) and had probably his third-worst game of the season vs. the Rams (a 69.8 rating) — it was his first time without a TD pass since a horrible game vs. Minnesota last December.
It certainly hasn’t helped that Wilson has basically been without his top center and wide receiver over this stretch — or that a flu epidemic has swept through the team the past few weeks.
The good news: Aside from the unfortunate loss of Rashaad Penny (ACL), the offense is actually getting healthier. Tyler Lockett has recovered from his shin injury and the flu, and Ethan Pocic is coming off IR, which might bolster a center spot that has struggled since the smaller Joey Hunt replaced injured Justin Britt. The Hawks have given up 18 sacks the past four games.
It also should help that the Hawks are now about to face a couple of weaker defenses — Carolina ranks 23rd and Arizona 28th (by DVOA) — before the 49ers (currently missing half their starting defense to injuries) come to Seattle for the Week 17 finale.
If the Hawks continue to struggle on offense over the final three games, there will be cause for concern. But the worst of the storm appears to be over, until the playoffs arrive.
Then the question becomes: What are they capable of doing once they get there?
They won the Super Bowl in 2013 on the strength of a defense that was the NFL’s best in pretty much every category — yards, points, takeaways. This unit is not nearly that strong — and continues to play at less than full strength (Jadeveon Clowney and Mychal Kendricks are out again this week, and Ziggy Ansah remains a question).
But, the one area where this Seahawks team rivals the 2013 unit is turnover margin; they were No. 1 in 2013 and are No. 3 this season. They are 7-1 when winning the turnover margin, 3-2 when even or worse.
Wilson and company have 18 turnovers, which is one off the high-water mark during the Wilson era (19 in 2013).
Postseason success almost surely will come down to that stat. In 2013, the Hawks tallied an 8-1 turnover margin in their three postseason games, including four in the 43-8 blowout of Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Seahawks beat New Orleans and San Francisco on the way to that game, and they might have to do it again this year. Will they be able to get enough takeaways? Will Wilson and the offense stop turning the ball over and start scoring again?