Before the season many had the Seattle Seahawks pegged as a division winner. Primed to win a play-off game for the 4th straight season and maybe even make it 3 Superbowl appearances in a row. But now, as the grind of the regular season takes hold, Seattle sit a shocking 14th in the NFC play-off race with a 2-4 record and back to back 4th quarter leads lost. How has this fall come about? How exactly does a team go from perennial contender to the basement? There are many things that can scupper even the best teams. Dallas’ season has taken a nose-dive due to injuries to their best players; Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. Coaching changes in Baltimore have seen a high-performing offense turn into an also-ran. For Seattle though, it looks like a perfect storm of issues have mixed together to create a season were nothing goes right.
Legion of Blown Coverages
Seattle have long been famed for their “Legion Of Boom” secondary which has been the powerhouse of a stifling defense. This season however things haven’t be quite as they were before. Every team suffers injuries and coaching changes, but Seattle’s have been clustered around their secondary and it’s been killing their production. Jeremy Lane, who suffered a nasty broken arm in the Superbowl against New England, was a key part of Seattle’s secondary as their nickel corner last year. The broken arm, as far as football injuries go, wasn’t going to keep him out for long but it turned out he also needed knee surgery and it’s that injury that has lead him to miss all of the 2015 season so far and potentially the rest of it as well. His replacement in the Superbowl, Tharold Simon has appeared in just one game this season and has been placed on season-ending Injury Reserve with a toe injury. When you parse that together with Byron Maxwell leaving in free agency and Kam Chancellor’s holdout you can see how problems would begin to appear.
Cary Williams, who starts across from Sherman as the second cornerback, is a massive downgrade from the players Seattle have normally been able to dig up. It’s important to note that Seattle hasn’t invested much draft stock in cornerback. Sherman was a 5th round selection, Brandon Browner was a CFL import, Maxwell and Lane were 6th rounders. Pete Carroll is a defensive back lifer, playing there in college and making a name for himself as a position coach, but it was inevitable that the production line of turning low round picks into Pro Bowlers would fail eventually. Now that it has the gaps are beginning to appear in a secondary that was once flawless. Seattle’s defense has run a lot of cover 3 in the past years under first Gus Bradley, now the head coach in Jacksonville, and then Dan Quinn who left to man the helm in Atlanta. With a third Defensive Coordinator in 4 years it’s not surprising that a successful formula has become a little muddied.
With the changes in personnel both on and off the field Seattle have started to run more man coverage than in previous years, as well as different zone variations. All of which has lead to more blown coverages, most notably last weekend at the end of the game when Greg Olsen was left all alone up the seam for an easy game-winning touchdown. Richard Sherman was busy playing a cover 2 and protecting the flats while Earl Thomas was playing a cover 3. It was a simple communication issue that cost the Seahawks that game, it’s been a problem all year and one that can make even the greatest players look like amateurs.
The hope has to be that as Kam Chancellor gets up to speed with everything that when on during his absence these communication issues will disappear, but no one is suddenly going to make Cary Williams an amazing coverage player, or fix Jeremy Lane’s knee in a day. So far this season opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 91.3 against Seattle. Up from last year’s 80.4 and 2013’s outrageous 63.4. Numbers like that were always going to be tough to maintain but it shows just how poor this pass defense has been compared to what we’re used to.
Speaking of communication issues, perhaps the most important aspect of offensive line play is communication. Understanding who each of your line-mates, tight ends or backs are blocking, which direction the slide is going of if a double team is required on a defensive tackle is vital in plays getting off properly. The hub for communication along an offensive line is almost always the center, and over the last few years Seattle have had a great one. Max Unger, drafted in the second round in 2009, is a 2 time Pro Bowler and was named to the First Team All-Pro in 2012. While there have been some shaky guards moving in and out next to him Unger has been a rock for Seattle and a driving force in their running game.
But due to his large contract and the fact that the Seahawks were unlikely to be able to afford extending him after this season he was traded in March. Since then Seattle’s offensive line has been nothing short of a disaster. They’re last in Adjusted Sack Rate. Russell Wilson, one of the most elusive Quarterbacks in football, has been sacked 26 times in 6 games. That’s a pace that will give him 69 this season, the 3rd highest ever. Marshawn Lynch, admittedly slowed by his own injury issues, is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. If you take away the one long run from Thomas Rawls the Seahawks running backs are averaging just 3.99 yards per carry this season, down from 4.62 yards per carry last year. For a team that has been so reliant on the ground game in past years it’s a worrying trend. And it’s not just purely communication along the line bringing down talent.
Outside of left tackle Russell Okung there are no stand-out players across this line. Garry Gilliam, who has started every game at right tackle, has been awful, consistently allowing pressure on Wilson and failing to generate push in the run game, but Seattle don’t have many options at this point. Last year’s right tackle Justin Britt has been moved into left guard, which has helped the run blocking performance that side but he’s been getting sliced up in pass protection recently as he adjusts to the different techniques needed to play the position. In 6 games Seattle have scored just 9 offensive touchdowns, and when the defense isn’t playing less and less like Mariano Rivera in his prime in the 4th quarter you start to need more production from your offense.
There are glimmers of that production coming though. Jimmy Graham, who came over in the Unger deal, had easily his best game as a Seahawk against Carolina, seemingly finding some chemistry with Wilson and reacting well when the quarterback was forced to scramble around. Wilson’s scrambles are typically Seattle’s most successful plays (outside of Tyler Lockett returns) so a growing understanding between the two will cause opposing defenses a lot of problems. But if the ‘Hawks can’t fix some their blocking woes then Wilson might soon be on the shelf like Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger. It’s not a stretch to call this group the worst offensive line in the NFL, so at least there can only be improvements right?
It shouldn’t all be doom and gloom in Seattle though. Of their 4 losses 3 have come against teams that are currently undefeated and they had a lead late on in 2 of them. Thanks to a surprising performance from Pittsburgh they’re just 2 wins behind the division leading Arizona Cardinals and have 2 winnable games in San Francisco this Thursday and Dallas next weekend before a bye week and a home game vs the Cards. The NFC Wildcard is also still up for grabs. While there are 2 5-win teams in the NFC South no other second place team has more than 3 wins so the play-offs are far from gone for Seattle, and if they make it they should still be a tough opponent.
They still have bona fide stars like Michael Bennett and Bobby Wagner, and the longer the season goes the more comfortable the secondary should get with its wider range of coverages and checks. But there’s little doubt that this Thursday’s game in San Francisco is a must-win if the fans and players are to maintain the level of confidence that recent successes have given them.
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