MAURA DOOLEY

Seahawks Check-In: What we’ve learned through 4 games

Oct 9, 2023, 1:24 PM

Seattle Seahawks Geno Smith...

Geno Smith and Seattle Seahawks teammates take the field against the New York on Oct. 2, 2023. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

(Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The Seattle Seahawks’ bye week happened to fall right around a quarter of the way through the 2023 NFL season, so it seems like a good time to evaluate what we’ve seen so far. Seattle is currently 3-1 and in second place in the NFC West, coming off of a dominant Monday Night Football win over the Giants.

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What has gotten the Seahawks to this point, and where do they still need to grow? Here is a look at some of what we’ve learned with four games in the books.

Seattle Seahawks through four games

Where have they improved?

The much-maligned run defense of 2022 was the biggest focus this offseason. The Seahawks made some changes to the roster up front and bolstered their secondary, but there was a big question as to whether they had the right personnel to improve what was a bottom-three run defense a year ago. The answer so far is a resounding yes.

Through four games last season, the Seahawks allowed opponents to rush for 616 yards (5.1 yards per attempt). This year, they have only given up 350 rushing yards (3.2 yards per attempt), making them the No. 6 run-stopping unit in the NFL. You could argue that they haven’t been truly tested yet because Saquon Barkley was out injured for the match-up with the Giants, and David Montgomery exited Seattle’s win over the Lions early after a pretty solid start, but Seattle wasn’t exactly facing the top running backs in the league when it gave up over 600 rushing yards to start last season to make those backs look very good. Melvin Gordon, Jeff Wilson Jr., Cordarrelle Patterson, and Jamaal Williams were the leading rushers against the Seahawks in those games.

The Seahawks still have to face four of the top five rushing offenses (Eagles, 49ers, Ravens and Browns) this season, but they can head into those matchups with the confidence that they’ve found a solution to last year’s struggles. Defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt spoke to the media about what’s changed during a recent press conference.

“The guys just understand attacking the line of scrimmage, which is what we’ve always wanted to do,” Hurtt said. “Guys clearly understand the fits and how to leverage the football, so if you do get a play that gets away, a 6-yard gain isn’t going to beat you. It’s ones that pop for 25, or 35, or 40, and that happened way too much last year.”

The Seahawks’ effort to limit the explosive plays in the run game that we saw so often last year is clearly paying off, as they have not allowed a rushing play of 20 yards or more this season.

What is still uncertain?

How is Seattle going to get rookie wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba more involved in this offense? There is still plenty of time to get this figured out, and it’s not exactly urgent with the Seahawks racking up 98 points in their last three games, but you eventually want to see more from the 20th selection of the 2023 NFL Draft.

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Smith-Njigba dazzled everyone in training camp and the preseason with his ability to get open and his sure hands, but he hasn’t made much of a splash yet in the regular season. He has 12 catches on 20 targets for 62 yards with two drops. It’s easy to compare him to two of the wide receivers taken after him in the first round, Baltimore’s Zay Flowers (29 catches on 40 targets, 317 yards and Minnesota’s Jordan Addison (19-29, 249 yards), but Smith-Njigba has seen less time on the field than both (52% of the Seahawks’ offensive snaps, compared to Addison’s 67% and Flowers’ whopping 90%).

Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Shane Waldron told the media before the Giants game that sometimes the ball just doesn’t come your way, but Smith-Njigba is keeping his head in the game.

“I know it’s an unfortunate thing as far as the production goes right now,” Waldron said. “The opportunities are maybe different coverage contours for a play that’s going his way and it doesn’t quite work out, and a lot of other guys are getting the ball as well. I think with him, it’s about working hard and still progressing every day, knowing that sometimes at the receiver position the ball doesn’t go your way based on things that are totally out of your control. He’s done a great job controlling the things he can control, and we’ll keep working with him and keep progressing. We’re expecting nothing but positive things moving forward with him.”

What is for certain?

The Seahawks have something special in rookie cornerback Devon Witherspoon. It’s still too early to make any bold long-term projections, but there is no denying that Witherspoon is a standout talent.

The Seahawks using their coveted fifth overall selection in the 2023 draft on a cornerback when the defensive line was such a weak spot last year was definitely met with some criticism. There was a lot of talk of whether they would end up regretting the decision to pass on Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, and that wasn’t helped when Witherspoon missed much of training camp as well as Week 1 with a hamstring injury. But when he did return, he showed anyone who doubted that he could have as much of an impact as Carter in a game just how wrong they were.

Has there even been a CB like Seattle Seahawks’ Devon Witherspoon?

The Monday Night Football win over the Giants was Witherspoon’s introduction to the rest of the country as he became the highlight of the evening, making a pick-6 in addition to two sacks and seven tackles. ESPN analyst Ryan Clark raved about him on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt postgame.

“You know what was amazing? It wasn’t a fluke,” Clark said. “This was a guy who was vital to this team tonight. Coby Bryant, who is the normal starter at nickel (cornerback), was inactive. (Strong safety) Jamal Adams starts to play and there’s so much excitement around it. He makes the big hit early in the game, they’re going to play big nickel and then he goes out. So, now you move Devon Witherspoon into that spot, and it could be a letdown, it could be a lack of physicality, and the thing that stood out to me most when he walked up here? He’s a little dude. He’s not a big human, and the physicality that he showed in the run game and also rushing the passer is what tells you that this is a guy who can play both inside and out and be extremely impactful.”

On top of the physical gifts, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has repeatedly talked about Witherspoon’s incredible natural instincts and ability to process what he’s seeing on the field. The Giants matchup was only his third NFL game so, it’s extremely exciting to imagine what he could be capable of as he gets some more experience under his belt.

Where do they have to get better?

The Seahawks have to improve on third downs on both sides of the ball. Defensively, they are allowing opponents to convert 52.4% of their third down attempts. That ranks 31st in the NFL, slightly worse than where they were at this point last year (29th). Carroll was at least encouraged by the growth shown in the Giants game, as the defense only allowed New York to go 6 of 16 on third down attempts.

“It’s a huge improvement for us,” Carroll said. “It’s been the No. 1 emphasis on both sides of the football, to be more effective on third downs. Of all of the areas in our game, that’s where we have to improve, and it just so happens to be on both sides of the ball. So, it’s good to see some numbers going the right direction there.”

The Seahawks are currently 31st in third down conversion rate on offense as well, converting just 28.9% of their attempts. This is a big change from last season, when they found themselves second in the NFL with a 55.3% success rate. When the Seahawks were at their most efficient offensively on third downs last year, Carroll said the biggest factor was trust.

It’s understandable that trust might need some room to grow this season as the offensive line has been a rotating cast week to week due to injuries. They have done a fantastic job of performing at a high level despite testing the limits of their depth chart, but you can see where it could have an impact on that trust in these critical situations. Waldron and offensive line coach Andy Dickerson have done wonders with the backups to this point, they just need the injuries to stop in order to establish more consistency.

More on the Hawks

Bump’s Breakdown: How Seahawks kept offense rolling with Lock at QB
Huard: How Giants’ collapse could boost Seattle Seahawks’ defense
Seahawks again relying on youth, and it seems to be working
Seahawks Rookie Check-In: How Seattle’s picks have done so far
Rost: Which Seattle Seahawks are rising, and who is waiting to take off?

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