Hawks face tough defenses early and often in 2021

We already knew the Seahawks are going to play almost two-thirds of their games against top-10 defenses next season, so it’s no surprise that half of them will come in the first two months.

In their first seven weeks, they will face five of the top seven defenses (by DVOA) from 2020. It will be a tough early test for Shane Waldron and Russell Wilson, but it’s the cost of doing business in the NFC West, where all four teams typically feature pound-you-down defenses, and facing the NFC’s top teams every year as well.

The Seahawks went 6-3 last season against teams with defenses that ended up in the top 11. Two of those losses were to the Rams, of course. And that’s why Waldron is in Seattle now – to beat his old team and every team that has a stellar defense like that.

The Hawks hit the road for four of their first six games, so if they can weather that and the tough defenses they face, they will be in good shape by December.

The first test comes in Week 1 in Indy. The Colts return almost everyone from their seventh-ranked defense, plus first-round pass rusher Kwity Paye. Carson Wentz was 0-5 against Seattle with the Eagles; will he be able to buck the trend after his trade to the Colts?

This is the first of two 10 a.m. games this season — no problem for Seattle, which is 11-1 in early starts over the past three years.

The Hawks have been notoriously bad in their first road game. They had lost five straight road openers until 2019 and are just 3-8 in those under Pete Carroll. But the good news: They have now won two straight, including a win in Atlanta last season.

They also have flipped their fortunes in September road games: They were 2-10 in the Wilson era until winning the past four. We’ll see whether they can continue that run as they play three of the first four games on the road, including at Minnesota and San Francisco.

The 49ers, the sixth-ranked defense in 2020, lost DC Robert Saleh to the Jets and Ahkello Witherspoon and Kerry Hyder to Seattle; but they also get back Nick Bosa, who missed most of 2020 after suffering an ACL injury in Week 2. The big question is whether first-round pick Trey Lance will be starting at QB already.

The Hawks would have to be happy if they started 3-1 against that slate, which includes a home game against Tennessee, which has remade its awful defense. A 2-2 split seems more likely.

The challenges continue during a three-week stretch of prime-time games: a Thursday nighter against the Rams in Seattle in Week 5, a trip to Pittsburgh for SNF (Al Michaels!) and the Saints in Seattle on Monday night in Week 7.

That Rams game will be a huge measure of how the Seattle offense stacks up against the league’s stingiest defense from 2020. The playoff loss to the Rams to end last season resulted in a whole lot of drama around Wilson and another OC change, with Waldron coming from the Rams. This will be his chance to show his quality against his mentor, Sean McVay, and get Wilson and company to finally handle Aaron Donald and Co.  

The Rams didn’t change much on defense, but they certainly did at quarterback – trading Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford, who should make a strong offense much more potent (assuming he can stay healthy).

The Seahawks then get 10 days to prepare for SNF in Pittsburgh (this is their added road game for 2021). The teams rarely play, but this is their second meeting in three seasons. Led by T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers had the league’s best (DVOA) defense in 2020, third in scoring. You might recall the Hawks were among six teams bidding for Fitzpatrick in September 2019; they ended up later acquiring Quandre Diggs.

Seattle finishes off the prime-time troika with the Saints, who no longer have Drew Brees and will be trotting out Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill at QB. Of course, as the Hawks know from their 2019 loss to the Saints, the guy they need to be concerned about is Alvin Kamara. The Saints had the No. 2 defense in 2020 as well, and they used their top three draft picks on that side. So this will be a big midseason test for Seattle.

That game starts a stretch of three home games and a bye over five weeks for Seattle. It continues with a Week 8 home game vs. Urban Meyer, Trevor Lawrence and the Jag-Hawks (Jacksonville has three former Seattle coaches and some ex-players).

After a bye, the Hawks head to dreaded Lambeau Field, where the franchise has lost nine straight (playoffs included). The last time the Hawks visited was for the 2019 playoffs – the fourth loss there in the Carroll/Wilson era.

These franchises have a rich interwoven history over the past two decades, and this year they share some QB drama. We’ll see whether Aaron Rodgers is still playing for the Pack next season or whether Jordan Love has taken over.

Wilson is 6-3 after the bye, and the Hawks had won three straight road games right after the bye until losing at Arizona in overtime last season. Will the bye help them end their Lambeau skid?

Speaking of Arizona, the Hawks return home to face the Cardinals in Week 11. The Cardinals have won four of the past six in Seattle – though the Hawks pulled out a 28-21 win last season, with Carlos Dunlap sealing the game with a sack.

The Cardinals lost Patrick Peterson and Kenyan Drake, but they loaded up with veterans — WR A.J. Green, C Rodney Hudson, DE J.J. Watt, K Matt Prater, RB James Conner, CB Malcolm Butler. GM Steve Keim, coach Kliff Kingsbury and QB Kyler Murray are ready to go for it in 2021.

After that big division battle, the Hawks roll into consecutive prime-time games – they are one of 10 teams with five.

Wilson is 9-0 playing on or immediately following his Nov. 29 birthday. This year he will celebrate his 33rd birthday on MNF, at Washington. The Hawks used a “get rid of the ball” strategy to keep WFT’s vaunted front four off Wilson in a 20-15 win late last season. We’ll see what Waldron puts together as the Hawks try to beat Ryan Fitzpatrick for the second straight year (last year it was in Miami, and now he’s WFT’s QB).

The Hawks then start December at home on Sunday night against the 49ers. Wilson & Co. are 8-1 in December home night games, 19-3 in all home night games and 29-8-1 in prime time overall. They went 4-1 in prime time in 2020 – the loss coming in overtime at Arizona.

The Seahawks swept the beat-up 49ers in 2020, but they should expect something more like the three tight games they played in 2018-19. Again, the big question for the 49ers will be: Who is playing QB?

The Hawks have a pretty good final five games, starting with an easy one against Houston (will DeShaun Watson be gone?) and including home games against Chicago and Detroit.

The big ones will be Week 15 against the Rams and the finale against Arizona. The Hawks have to solve the Rams – it is the main reason Waldron is here.

Everyone talks about the Glendale Gloom (our name for it), because of the Super Bowl XLIX debacle and some big injuries that have occurred there, but the fact is the Hawks are 6-1-1 in Glendale in the last eight games (and the two non-wins were both overtime games).  

The Hawks almost always play Arizona in one of the last two games of the year, and the game always impacts the playoff picture for Seattle.

All in all, this schedule is as good as the Hawks could have hoped for, considering they have the 11th-toughest schedule, by 2020 records. After the tough start, they have a midseason bye amid several home games and a friendly finish.

It all comes down to Waldron. If he fizzles, they might win as few as nine games. If he shines, they might win 13. We project 11 – and then Waldron and Wilson need to crank it up in the playoffs.

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