Rost: Why Seahawks’ poor defense is hurting them more now than last year

Sep 29, 2021, 9:57 AM
Seahawks Pete Carroll Ken Norton...
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. look on in the fourth quarter against the Titans at Lumen Field on Sept. 18. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

If you’re thinking this year’s Seahawks defense looks a lot like last year’s, you’re not alone. Even head coach Pete Carroll can see the resemblance between this version and the 2020 unit, which was on pace to give up the most yards of any defense in NFL history through the first several weeks of the season.

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“It feels a little bit the same,” Carroll told reporters Monday. “We’re giving up too much and it feels like we’re in similar situations. We’ve been ahead, we were ahead in games a lot last year early on, and we jumped out (early against the Vikings), too. That’s similar. And responding to those situations and holding the score down has not been a strength of ours early in the year.”

Not every trend has been carried over – though that’s not always a good thing. Last year’s group held opposing offenses to 99.6 rushing yards per game (fifth in the NFL) while the 2021 Seahawks are allowing 155 per game (30th). Their average passing yards allowed isn’t much better (285.3, which ranks 26th). Whether through the air or on the ground, this year’s group – like last year’s – is leading the league in net yards allowed.

The problem? Last year’s defense had the benefit of a 5-0 record to start the season, whereas the Seahawks now are 1-2 and quickly falling behind in an NFC West with two undefeated teams. One of those teams, the Los Angeles Rams, shows no sign of slowing down and just toppled the defending Super Bowl champs in Week 3.

One more thing, and this is just as important: last year’s defense had 10 takeaways in five weeks. Those often timely turnovers bailed the defense out of troubling trends – like surrendering big chunk pass plays – and got the ball back to an offense that averaged 34 points per game (nearly 10 more than this year’s group).

Those turnovers and stops erased some pretty ugly plays. Take last year’s Week 3 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas’ four biggest plays all went for 40 yards or more, and three of them were touchdown passes. Seattle’s defense surrendered 522 net yards, including 461 through the air, and allowed Dallas to go 2 of 2 on fourth down and convert nearly half (47%) of its third down attempts. But the Seahawks also forced three turnovers. A late first-half interception led to one Seahawks touchdown, while a third quarter fumble recovery led to another. Meanwhile, Seattle’s offense had a monster day, with 100-yard games from both DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and five touchdowns from quarterback Russell Wilson.

It was a similar story in a Week 5 win over the Vikings in 2020. The Seahawks were trailing 13-7 in the third quarter until back-to-back turnovers by the defense (a fumble recovery and an interception, both by K.J. Wright) allowed the offense to punch in two extra touchdowns. In just under two minutes of game time, the Seahawks took a 21-13 lead.

It was a chaotic way to win, and in the end it wasn’t sustainable. The Seahawks’ offense scored less often in the second half of the season while the defense improved to keep those games more manageable.

Overall, turnovers alone aren’t going to mask every issue for a defense that’s giving up that many yards.

Unfortunately for these Seahawks, winning the turnover battle is just about the only trend that hasn’t made a repeat showing on defense. The Seahawks have just two takeaways this season – both forced fumbles – and no interceptions.

It’s an issue Carroll knows Seattle must change, and he’s looking to the pass rush for help.

“(Those turnovers) basically come from pass disruption,” Carroll said. “The disruption of the quarterback, the plays where you hit the ball out of his hands or you force him to throw us the football, that has not happened for us, and we have to continue to focus on it. And it’s not just slugging the ball out when they’re running the ball; it’s those plays that happen in the midst of rushing the passer that we’ve got to create.”

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