Seattle's run defense has crumbled. If Seattle's run defense had not crumbled, I could probably throw myself behind a playoff run.
There's a line in a Mount Eerie song "without looking for fulfillment, just accepting it," that I love. Funny how trite sentiment delivered in a didactic manner can feel welcome and inspirational accompanied with a black metal riff. But obvious isn't always bad nor is trite always meaningless. Who here hasn't sacrificed tomorrow to wring every last ounce of life out of today? Drinking forties outside Safeway wasn't planning for my future, and pounding triple cheeseburgers wasn't the best way to dilute my July 4th day drunk, but what I paid dearly for the next day is now an invaluable memory. And to say "I paid dearly" is a guess, because I don't remember July 5th.
If Seattle's run defense had not crumbled, I could throw myself behind this playoff run. Seattle's run defense has crumbled. Earlier in the season it looked like a top ten unit with aspirations of better, but following injuries to Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant and Colin Cole, it disintegrated. Or so's the story.
Bryant was the Seahawks best defender, by my estimation. I didn't think he was head and shoulders better than anyone else. Earlier in the season, I might have called Lawyer Milloy Seattle's best overall defender. Which is funny and sad, and sad and sad. But it would seem Milloy was somewhat dependent on Bryant, or that Milloy has slowed down the stretch. He is 37. And now, with Chris Clemons and Raheem Brock strictly pass rushers, Mebane in the midst of a mediocre season, the linebackers summarized as: promising but by no means sensational, prematurely past his prime, and powerful, fast and staggeringly mistake prone; the secondary headlined by a kid with a big task, a handful of big plays, a bevy of bad plays, and big potential; the defense is neither good nor overall terribly promising, and that which made them capable of playing over their heads in the playoffs, the run defense, is gone.
That is a tough question to answer. The Giants, Saints, Panthers and Chiefs all ran at will. Tampa Bay amassed over 200 yards on the ground, but the Buccaneers rushing attack mounted. That is, Seattle effectively stopped the run in the first half but collapsed in the second half.
The game against Tampa Bay was particularly interesting because it was the first game since Colin Cole returned that Seattle was really run over. The Seahawks held the Falcons to 2.6 yards per carry and forced two fumbles by Jason Snelling. The Seahawks held Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon to 3.5 yards per carry, and the 49ers only converted two first downs on the ground. Neither is quite a dominant effort, but both are good, and good felt great after weeks of awful run defense.
Cole isn't pushing for Pro Bowl recognition, but he might be valuable to Seattle. That is, Cole might be adequate where Junior Siavii and Amon Gordon are not. If that is the case, Seattle might be able to muster enough of a run defense to show a little life in the playoffs.
To try and figure out exactly how Seattle was able to succeed against the Falcons and 49ers before falling apart against the Bucs, I went back and watched every run play over the past three weeks. I was looking for some simple distinctions: Seattle's run defense against runs to the weak side, strong side and up the middle; Seattle's run defense with Mebane and Cole versus Terrill and Cole, Mebane and Gordon and Terrill and Gordon; and if the futility of the Seahawks offense had any clear impact on the run defense.
The final question is inexact. There is no research to my knowledge about whether a defense performs worse following a three and out or an otherwise short drive, and no research that a defense wears out if its offense cannot sustain drives. But let's take a stab at it.
Seahawks run defense by strong side, weak side and middle
A full analysis can wait until the offseason, but until then, let's look at how the Seahawks last three opponents performed against Seattle's strong, weak and middle. Runs are classified by where they are directed rather than where they end up. For instance, Anthony Dixon's 34 yard run was a pitch towards Seattle's weak side, but Dixon eventually cut back towards Seattle's strong side. Aaron Curry lost containment so bad it's not funny, but Seattle's weakside was knocked back and blockers were able to arrest Tatupu, Milloy and Hawthorne. So one side is rarely entirely at fault, keep in mind.
Also: Quarterback runs, plays called back by penalty, and runs that substituted for kneel downs (like Dixon's 1-yard run with 1:53 left on the clock in the fourth quarter) were excluded.
Let's break this apart and then put it all back together again.
Against San Francisco
Strong: 8, -1, 2, 0, 2, -2
Middle: 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 3, 0, 3
Weak: 2 (first down), 3, 34 (FD), 3, 5, 3, 5, 2
Cole and Mebane: 3, -1, 1, 2, 3, 3, 0, 3, 5, 2, 2
Cole and Terrill: 2 (FD), 0, 3
Mebane and Terrill: 8, 2, 34 (FD), 3, 1, 5, 3, -2
Strong: 2, 1 (first down)*, 0, 3 (FD), 0, -2, 15 (FD), 4, 1, 0
Middle: 3, 3, 4, 4, 5, 3, 1, 4, 1, 2, 1, 0, 4, 2
Weak: 1, -2, 8 (FD), 8, -1, 4, 13 (FD)
Cole and Mebane: 3, 1, 4, 1 (FD), 0, 4, -2, 3, 8 (FD), 4, 0, 8, -2, 15 (FD), 2, -1, 0, 4, 13, 1, 2
Cole and Terrill: 3, 2, 3 (FD), 1, 4, 1
Mebane and Terrill: 5
Mebane and Curry: 1
Mebane and Brock: 4, 0
Against Tampa Bay
Strong: 11 (FD), 2, 6, 1, 3, 1, 48 (FD), 4, 0, 6, 2
Middle: 15**, 3, -2, 5, 4, 3
Weak: -1, 0, 20, 1, 53***
Cole and Mebane: -1, 3, -2, 5, 4, 1, 3, 1, 53 (FD), 4
Cole and Terrill: 0, 48 (FD)
Mebane and Terrill: -
Mebane and Gordon: 11 (FD), 20 (FD)
Terrill and Gordon: 1, 0, 6, 3, 2
Mebane and Richardson: 6
Mebane only: 15**
So what does this all tell us? Well, it takes a dog's age to do this. Other than that:
Strong side average: 4.3 YPA
Strong side success: 34.8%
Middle average: 2.89 YPA
Middle success: 10.7%
Weak side average: 8.1 YPA
(Weak side average w/o 53 yard run): 5.7 YPA
Weak side success: 40%
Cole and Mebane average: 3.8 YPA
Cole and Mebane success: 23%
All other pairings average: 6.1 YPA
All other pairings success: 28%
Runs first quarter average: 4.7 YPA
Runs first quarter success: 23.5%
Runs second quarter average: 3.5 YPA
Runs second quarter success: 40%
Runs third quarter average: 5.4 YPA
Runs third quarter success: 18%
Runs fourth quarter average: 5.5 YPA
Runs fourth quarter success: 26%
So the starters are all right. And fortunately, Seattle was able to roll with their starters for most of the overall snaps, and the great majority of competitive snaps. Colin Cole is not a great player, but he is a difference maker, because Cole to Siavii was a major downgrade against the run, and so too would be Cole to Terrill or Cole to Gordon. The Cole and Mebane pairing is surprisingly stout, even if they can not do much about Seattle's weakness against runs to the weak side.
There may be some indication of the Seahawks defense becoming fatigued, as the yards per attempt are highest in the third and fourth quarter.
The Seahawks may not have it in them to regain the dominant run defense it appeared they had with Cole, Mebane and Bryant starting, but Cole's return has improved Seattle's run defense, and when Cole and Mebane start alongside each other, Seattle's run defense looks downright stout again. If Kentwan Balmer can step up, and, frankly, if Aaron Curry can step up, Seattle still has the DNA of a run defense that can surprise come playoff time. And that might make a win this Sunday worth more than a one and done run through the playoffs.
*Craig Terrill is credited for a tackle. He wasn't on the field. Fix yo play-by-play, NFL.
**3rd and 26
***Run starts towards weak side before cutting up the middle.