O’Neil: Seahawks’ defense has a question mark where it used to have an All-Pro
There will be plenty of people telling you what the Seahawks should do going forward after Sunday’s 21-20 win over the Bengals.
Namely, throw the football more.
I’m going to tell you what they absolutely can’t do: Play defense like that, and I’m not talking about the 418 yards that Andy Dalton threw for. I’m talking about the way he threw for those 418 yards, and more specifically Seattle’s back end committing the cardinal sin in Pete Carroll’s eyes: Giving up big plays over the top. Both of Cincinnati’s touchdowns came on deep throws to a receiver who broke through the last line of defense.
Now, Carroll’s desire to prevent big plays is hardly unique. There’s not a football coach alive who expresses indifference toward having his defense beaten over the top, but Carroll’s approach absolutely requires it for two reasons.
First, the Seahawks are generally toward the bottom of the league in number of blitzes called. They just don’t do it very often in large part because Carroll wants to wait the opponent out. Keep everything in front and see if the quarterback is the one who blinks first.
That brings us to the second reason that getting beaten over the top is a dealbreaker. Carroll’s entire offense is predicated around the idea of keeping it close with a run game that minimizes the overall number of possessions. It’s essentially a bet Carroll is making that his team will make fewer mistakes than the opponent, and while there’s plenty of room to debate the wisdom of this approach given Russell Wilson’s proficiency, it’s very clear that he’s not going to change this approach any time soon.
How many times have we watched Seattle’s offense futz its way through a first half like it did on Sunday, and then no sooner do the Seahawks accelerate the tempo and let Wilson start throwing that they zip down the field for a touchdown? It’s as maddening as it is predictable. Almost as if Seattle waits until a half is going to end to start calling the good plays.
But the only way this approach holds up is if you have a defense that is capable of keeping the door closed, which is what makes Sunday’s game so concerning. The back end of Seattle’s defense left the barn door open against the Bengals. Twice. The first time, Seattle was suckered by a flea-flicker – safety Bradley McDougald getting sucked up to stop the run and leaving linebacker Mychal Kendricks trying to stay with John Ross, who scored on a 33-yard touchdown. Fool the Seahawks once, they can’t get fooled again, only at the end of the period Seattle gave up what might be the most egregious touchdown the defense has allowed in Carroll’s 10 seasons.
I’m not sure that Tedric Thompson could have played Dalton’s heave from mid-field any worse. Had Thompson waited for Ross to catch the ball, he could have tackled him and let time run out in the half. Had he batted it incomplete, there might have been time left. Even pass interference would have been preferable as Cincinnati then would have had to convert a field goal.
Instead Thompson leapt to intercept the pass, never touched the ball and the Bengals had a touchdown and the lead going into halftime.
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) September 8, 2019
It underscored the fact that for all the resources that Seattle has spent on its secondary over the past three years, mostly in the draft, it still has a gaping question mark where it used to have an All-Pro.
Of all the players that Seattle figured to miss on Sunday from Doug Baldwin to Frank Clark to Ziggy Ansah, who was scratched because of a sore shoulder, it was a player that no one ever expected to come back whose absence loomed largest: Earl Thomas.
Pete Carroll used to say that one of the benefits that Thomas provided was all of the throws opponents didn’t attempt because of Thomas’ presence in the deep middle of that defense. Well, that deep middle turned out to be a sore spot on Sunday, and Seattle better find a way to protect it because given its insistence on a pedestrian offense, it can’t afford those kinds of mistakes against a better opponent.