Rost’s 3 Seahawks Questions: Can struggling pass rush find success vs Saints?

Oct 20, 2021, 11:12 AM
Seahawks Steelers...
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger looks to pass during the third quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Heinz Field. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The Seahawks come into Week 7’s Monday Night Football showdown with the New Orleans Saints at 2-4 and desperately needing to win.

Heaps: Seahawks ‘don’t really have a choice’ but to be a run-first team

Stacy Rost of 710 ESPN Seattle’s Jake and Stacy breaks down her three key questions leading into the pivotal primetime game.

The Seahawks want to lean into the run, but can it work against the Saints stout defense?

Pete Carroll made it clear he wants to run the ball more on two separate occasions over the last few days.

First, there was the Seahawks’ drive to kick off the third quarter in their Sunday night loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After a stagnant first half that saw the Seahawks carry the ball just five times for 18 yards, Seattle came out with a clear motive. The offense punched its way down the field with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that featured just a single pass attempt.

The second time was in a follow-up interview on Monday morning’s Pete Carroll Show on 710 ESPN Seattle.

Pete Carroll Show: Seahawks’ run game, improving D, state of season

During the interview, Carroll lamented not finding the opportunities to have a more balanced attack to start the game.

“I knew what we needed to do in this game, and we needed to be really balanced and run the football and take the pressure off of Geno (Smith) having to stand back there and drop back and throw the ball against a wicked pass rush,” Carroll said, when asked why he was angry with himself at halftime.

“It didn’t show up and we didn’t get it done (in the first half). Then we did. You saw us. That’s how we needed to play. And that’s how we need to play for the next couple weeks and on into the season. And really, that’s how we’ve played when we’re at our best for years. And there’s a lot of people who want to gripe and complain about running the football and all that, but you saw we scored 20 points in the second half … and we did it by controlling the football game with the strength of our team.”

Those same basic principles have helped the Kansas City Chiefs – a team that’s typically pass-heavy – take pressure off quarterback Patrick Mahomes over the last few weeks. (Or maybe it’s just to keep their struggling defense off the field. Who knows?)

The Chiefs rushed for 72 yards and 62 yards in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively. With the lone exception of a game against the Bills, the Chiefs have had closer to 30 carries per game (compared to 23 in Week 1 and 18 in Week 2) and have surpassed 100 rushing yards per game each week since then.

Of the top five rushing teams in the league, only one team (the Browns) is at .500. All others have a minimum of four wins, including the undefeated Arizona Cardinals.

And without their franchise quarterback still out Monday night, it makes sense for the Seahawks to utilize the run game more often.

The problem? Seattle’s ground game will be testing a New Orleans Saints defense that is second-best in the league in defending the run. Oh, and the Seahawks might have to turn to Rashaad Penny to lead the charge if Alex Collins (hip) remains limited (more on that in a minute).

It’s certainly possible to put up yardage against a stout defense. Back in 2019, Chris Carson rushed for 105 yards against a Buccaneers defense that was No. 1 in the league against the run and had limited opponents to just 73 yards per game. This year’s Saints are allowing just 79 rush yards per game, second only the Bucs (54.8).

The Hawks won’t have Carson this time, but they could have Collins, who last week became the first Seahawks running back since December 2019 to rush for 100 yards in a game. One thing to keep in mind for this one: Collins was pulled late from last week’s game after injuring his hip. He hasn’t been ruled out for Monday night, but the team could lean more toward Penny, who’s making his return from the IR.

You’d be forgiven for taking the Saints’ run defense in this matchup. But consider this: the Saints have allowed more than 100 rushing yards just once this season. It wasn’t to the Packers in Week 1 nor to Christian McCaffrey in Week 2. Instead, it was to the Week 5 combination of quarterback Tyler Heinecke and running back Antonio Gibson, who accounted for 100 of Washington’s 131 yards.

So, while the combination of Smith, an injured Collins, and Penny seems like an unlikely trio to put up yardage against a solid run defense, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time this year.

Will Tre Brown take over as a starter and can he repeat his successful outing this time around?

He certainly deserves a shot. The Seahawks carousel of a cornerback room has seen two separate starters in six weeks and could see a third in Week 7, but this one comes with some encouraging play.

Heaps: Have the Seahawks found the answer at CB in rookie Tre Brown?

Brown, a fourth-round rookie out of Oklahoma and one of Seattle’s three 2021 draft picks, earned a 72.3 Pro Football Focus grade after his performance against the Steelers.

Brown gave up two catches on five targets, and those receptions amounted to just nine yards. Brown’s biggest play was a textbook tackle for a third-down stop in overtime to force the Steelers to punt.

“He did really well, he played really well,” Carroll told reporters Monday. “It’s a lot to ask of a young guy, but he gives you the sense that he really has a terrific feel for playing the position. He helped himself, he’s going to play more.”

There’s certainly an opportunity for success. Brown and the rest of the Seahawks defense will have an interesting challenge against the Saints.

On the one hand, it’s a chance for Seattle to bounce back against a team that is second-worst in passing yards per game (169.4). On the other, they can afford no mistakes in communication and no shortage of discipline against an offense that also ranks first in red zone scoring (92.8%; 90% on the road).

The Seahawks got good news on Darrell Taylor, but it also reminded us that the pass rush is in bad shape. Can they find more success against the Saints?

The good news, and most important news, is that tests on Darrell Taylor were all clear after a scary injury saw him stretchered off the field and rushed to a local hospital. The news was so positive that Carroll has yet to rule Taylor out this week.

Seahawks Injuries: Carroll’s positive news on Darrell Taylor

Taylor’s stellar start to the season has already resulted in more snaps for the second-year pro (who’s really in his rookie year after being sidelined for all of 2020). He’s already accounted for four of Seattle’s 10 sacks and is tied for a team-high seven pressures.

Read that last bit back slowly, though. Darrell Taylor – who has appeared in just six NFL games, ever – has more sacks than anyone else on this defense. Not only that, but he has three more sacks than the next-closest player.

It’s good news for Seattle that a second-round pick is playing well, and Taylor has certainly received a boost from players around him (Carlos Dunlap has six pressures while Rasheem Green has seven). But if the Seahawks’ defense is going to improve, it needs to start up front and it needs to start in a hurry.

Seattle’s sack rate is currently second worst in the league (3.76%) ahead of only Kansas City.

Follow Stacy Rost on Twitter.

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