Can Seahawks turn defense around like 49ers did from 2018 to 2019?
In the week leading up to Super Bowl LIV, Tom Wassell, Jake Heaps and I got into a debate. Like any good sports debate – one with plenty of yelling for emphasis and quick searches for stats on smartphones – it started with a hypothetical:
Was the Seahawks’ 2013 defensive line better than the 49ers’ current D-line?
Pro Football Focus gave San Francisco the third-highest pass rush grade this season. The 49ers put plenty of pressure on quarterbacks in 2019, ranking second in quarterback pressure percentage (28.7%), first in quarterback hurries per dropback (14.7%) and third in sack percentage (8.5%).
Seattle’s 2013 defense was a historical best. Their -25.9% DVOA was significantly better than even the second-ranked Arizona Cardinals (-16.4%) that year and would rank above the 2019 49ers (-19.8%), but Seattle would have ranked behind this San Francisco team in total sacks (44) and sack percentage (7.7%).
The initial jump to make the comparison is easy: both teams’ seasons featured a fantastic defense and strong run game. They’re division rivals and share history, including a key player (Richard Sherman) and coach (Robert Saleh, former Seahawks defensive quality control coach and current San Francisco defensive coordinator).
But if the Seahawks play their cards right this offseason, they could share another similarity on defense: drastic improvement from last season.
It’s been a wonder that a Pete Carroll-led defense featuring stars like Jadeveon Clowney and Bobby Wagner could struggle as much as it did in 2019. The group excelled with takeaways but finished 29th in sacks (28), 29th in quarterback hits (68), 29th in missed tackles (131), 27th in passing yards allowed per game (263.9) and 22nd in rushing yards allowed per game (117.7).
Making matters worse – or, at the very least, trickier – is their lack of returning veterans. Six defensive linemen will become free agents in March: Clowney, Ezekiel Ansah, Al Woods, Quinton Jefferson, Jarran Reed and Branden Jackson. Only Rasheem Green, Naz Jones, Demarcus Christmas and Poona Ford remain under contract for 2020 (along with Shakir Soto, who was signed to a reserve/futures deal two weeks ago).
Making a quick turnaround isn’t easy, but the 49ers have proven it’s possible. In 2018, they finished 22nd in passing yards allowed per game and had an abysmal seven total takeaways. That offseason, under the guidance of general manager John Lynch, the 49ers made three key acquisitions: they traded for defensive end Dee Ford, signed linebacker Kwon Alexander and drafted defensive end Nick Bosa with the No. 2 overall pick. Add in a healthy Sherman, who leads the team in interceptions and passes defended, and San Francisco now boasts the best defense in the league.
Can Seattle make drastic improvements in a single offseason, too?
The Seahawks don’t have the draft capital San Francisco used for its rebuild – such is the case for any perennial playoff contender. But they do have more cap space – quite a bit, actually. With $60 million to spend, Seattle can afford to re-sign Clowney and add more talent through free agency.
Additional changes could also be on the way: Carroll told reporters in early January that he plans to make adjustments on defense.
“A little bit of everything,” Seattle’s head coach said when asked where those adjustments would be made.
More from Stacy: Key questions Seahawks face once offseason begins