By Danny O’Neil
The Seahawks have been running into a defensive problem for a couple of weeks now.
Wait. That’s not quite right. Running hasn’t exactly been the Seahawks’ problem so much as their inability to prevent opponents from doing that.
It started in St. Louis at the end of October when the Rams gained 200 yards on the ground against Seattle, the most St. Louis had run for in any game since 2009. Then it was Tampa Bay, another opponent with a losing record, another team that sought to minimize the burden placed on its quarterback and another offense that reached 200 yards rushing against Seattle. Bucs rookie Mike James rushed for more yards last Sunday than any game he had in college.
If the inability to protect Russell Wilson is the top concern for the 8-1 Seahawks then rushing defense is running a close second. Oops. There’s that word again. Running, and the ability to prevent opponents from doing that is Step One for any defense.
“We got to get right,” coach Pete Carroll said after Sunday’s game. ” This isn’t the way we want to go.”
But it is the way things have gone the past two weeks, echoing similar trends in previous seasons. Last year, Seattle’s run defense declined precipitously beginning with the second half of a Week 7 game at San Francisco. In 2010, there was a similar drop-off after Carroll’s first six games as coach.
Those declines were clearly tied to health, though. Three starting defensive linemen suffered injuries in 2010. Red Bryant was lost for the year while Brandon Mebane and Colin Cole missed multiple games. Last year, Bryant’s effectiveness was compromised by a foot injury.
So what’s the problem this time around?
Excluding rushing yardage gained by quarterbacks, the Seahawks allowed an average of 65.6 rushing yards in Weeks 1-7 before allowing an average of 190.5 over their last two games.
|• at Carolina: 96 yards (4.6 average)||• vs. San Francisco: 13 yards (1.2 average)||• vs. Jacksonville: 46 yards (2.1 average)||• at Houston: 146 yards (4.3 average)||• at Indianapolis: 100 yards (4 average)||• vs. Tennessee: 33 yards (2.4 average)||• at Arizona: 25 yards (1.6 average)||• at St. Louis: 189 yards (5.4 average)||• vs. Tampa Bay: 192 yards (5.7 average)||Note: Stats above exclude quarterback runs.|
“We were sloppy in our run fits, again,” Carroll said the day after playing the Bucs.
This is what coaches say when a team struggles to stop an opponent’s ground game, something that is undoubtedly correct yet not terribly informative.
A run fit refers to the defenders filling a specific assigned gap, leaving the running back with no hole to get through. There are two things that generally tend to prevent a defender from getting to his assigned gap.
The first is the opponent’s blockers, something that shouldn’t be underestimated given the fact there are at least five of them who weigh in the neighborhood of 300 pounds on any given play. The second is that pesky little thing called free will. Defenders aren’t computers. They don’t have a program burned into their hard drive. They can make mistakes on the assignment or just as commonly veer from the plan because they see a shorter path to the ball.
If Seattle is failing in its run fits, the next logical question is to ask who is failing to make those fits. The scrutiny has focused on the linebackers, a group that has been somewhat in flux with Bobby Wagner returning to the starting lineup for the past two games after returning from an ankle injury.
And while Carroll has a finger on Seattle’s problem, he’s not pointing a finger at the problem in anything more than general, team-wide terms when asked if it’s an issue regarding the linebackers.
“It becomes everybody’s issue,” Carroll said. “The linebackers are tied together strictly with what goes on up front … It fits all together, everybody has got their plays. So it’s just not as clean as it needs to be.”
And tidying it up is the first priority, the thing Carroll spent the first two hours of his week studying as he looked back at Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay with an eye toward the rest of this season.
“We’re going to work really hard at this,” Carroll said. “Three weeks ago, we gave up 30 yards rushing and then we jumped off the cliff here in the 200s. So I think that we’ll get decidedly better.”
They need to. Seattle’s season may very well depend upon it.