The Seattle Seahawks' Uphill Battle

by Derrik Klassen

Take a step back to think about the state of the NFL after Week 2. The Bears finished off the week by beating the Seahawks on Monday night to put the once-dominant kings of the Pacific Northwest in a 0-2 hole to start the season. Roster purges across Seattle’s defense, as well as the coaching staff, had the team behind the eight-ball from the start and they appeared to be doomed before the season really got going. As Justis Mosqueda highlights every season, a 0-2 record to start the year is a near death sentence. It was more than the overcast weather that was serving out gloom in Seattle. 

To make matters worse, All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas broke his leg the following week versus the Cowboys. The Seahawks ended the day with their first mark in the win column, but losing the player most responsible for maintaining the structure and intensity of the defense was enough to dampen what should have been a hopeful afternoon. Starting off a 1-2 in the NFC without their defensive star felt like a suffocating position for the Seahawks to be in. 

Since then, the Seahawks rallied together a 3-2 run to bring their overall record to 4-4. The strength of the NFC means Seattle’s 4-4 record is still not good enough for the playoffs if the season were to end today, but being tied with or within a game of the Bears, Washington Footballers, Eagles, and Falcons is a fine spot to be in with half the season to go. 

Seattle’s floor was always set to be high so long as Russell Wilson was playing. Wilson is one of the league’s elite quarterbacks. In a league driven by passing and finding even the smallest advantages through the air, having one of the handful of quarterbacks who actually matters automatically keeps a team in the wild-card race. 

Through nine weeks, Seattle’s passing offense ranks 11th in adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) value. 11th is by no means special, but given that the offensive line is still questionable in pass protection, the tight end group is significantly worse with the departure of Jimmy Graham and season-ending injury suffered by Will Dissly, and the running backs have little impact in the passing game, 11th-place is plenty good for Wilson. 

Play-action has been critical to the offense’s success. Since shifting the offense more toward play-action passing after the first few weeks, the Seahawks offense has taken off and unlocked Wilson’s ability as an intermediate and deep passer. The Seahawks entered Week 9 with the third-highest play-action rate in the league (29 percent), trailing only the Rams and the Eagles, and the second-highest yards per play on play-action (11.0 yards per play), just 0.1 yards behind the Chargers.

Wilson’s Week 8 showing versus the Lions shed light on how effective Seattle’s play-action passing game can be. On a number of occasions, the fake hand-off baited Detroit’s single-high safety into flowing downhill to defend the run, leaving the defense exposed over the top. With a brilliant deep passer like Wilson, that is not an opportunity a defense can afford to give up to the Seahawks. 

In both plays, Detroit’s high safety comes up to play the run. The time and space afforded to Wilson as result of the safety buying the play-action fake made for a pair of easy completions, the first going for a touchdown. Both passes were also caught by 2017 seventh-round pick David Moore, a breakout wide receiver this year who has been a catalyst in expanding Seattle’s downfield passing attack. 

Though Wilson’s greatness is impressive as ever, a high standard of play is expected of him. Nobody in their right mind doubted that Wilson could pull the weight of the Seahawks offense. How well the rest of the team could find their footing to support Wilson, primarily in replacing Thomas in the secondary, was the real mystery for this iteration of the Seahawks. 

The youth in Seattle’s defense has responded well in Thomas’ absence. Veteran linebackers KJ Wright (since his recent return) and Bobby Wagner are holding up their end of the bargain same as always, but youngsters such as defensive end Frank Clark, cornerback Shaquill Griffin, and safety Tedric Thompson have stepped up to minimize the impact of losing Thomas. 

What is odd about Seattle’s young defense is that they are not good in the way one might expect of a young squad. Though full of youth across the board, Seattle’s defense has been one of the best at not allowing explosive plays, particularly in the passing game. Per Bill Connelly of SB Nation, Seattle’s defense ranks top-10 in big play rate and 4th in passing marginal explosiveness, a measure of how much value a team is giving up on big passing plays relative to field position, down-and-distance, etc. The Seahawks’ defense also ranks 10th in third-down success rate. 

Conversely, it is the down-to-down play that Seattle struggles with. Per Connelly, Seattle ranks 24th in standard-down play and are one of the worst teams in terms of giving up first downs on first or second down. In all, they are 19th in marginal efficiency, which is effectively a measure of success rate given the field position, down-and-distance, etc.

And yet, it is the stress on preventing big plays and generating turnovers, of which they already have 16 this season, that has prevailed to this point. Through the lens of AY/A, only the Bears and Ravens have a more valuable pass defense than the Seahawks to this point in the season. 

The NFL is driven by explosive plays in either direction, so Seattle fielding a defense that can minimize explosive plays from opposing offenses while also generating turnovers is quite the combination. No defense in the NFL this year has proven capable of consistently carrying a team, but the few defenses near the top of this list have the right formula to at least enable their offenses to have a chance. Wilson is as good a candidate as any to capitalize on his defense keeping the team in the game. 

Still, there is a reason teams that start the season 0-2 often fail to make the postseason. Once a team is in that predicament, they almost have to go 10-4 through the remaining 14 games. That is especially true in an NFC that should have wild card teams with double-digit wins. 

Sitting at 4-4, the Seahawks only have a couple of losses to spare until their postseason chances are washed away entirely. The Seahawks have three “gimme” games left on the schedule with two games versus the 49ers and one against the Cardinals, but the other five games will be slugfests against the NFL’s top teams, including NFC opponents in the Rams, Panthers, and Vikings. 

The Seahawks now are in a better position than the first two weeks of the season would suggest they would be, but they are nowhere near the mountaintop. Be it Wilson and the offense kicking into another gear or the defense developing further, the Seahawks need to be even better than they have been over the last month and a half if they want to make it out of a crowded NFC wild-card race. After failing to get to January last season, this Seahawks team does not have any leeway to miss the postseason again this season.