The Seattle Seahawks defense has faced 26 third downs already in 2016. It stopped 20 of them. Seattle is first in the NFL in points allowed, first in yards allowed, has Football Outsiders’ best-rated defensive DVOA. The defense is well-acclaimed and has performed admirably. But it’s this third down rate, 23.1 percent, also top in the league right now, that probably best explains how the Seahawks held final drives with eyes toward winning both games despite catastrophe upon catastrophe piling wreckage over the offense.
Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams missed five third downs in a row at one point and only reached Seattle’s red zone once, after a coverage goof in the second quarter led to Lance Kendricks catching a 44-yard drag route to the four-yard line. It was the sole drastic error the Seattle defenders made all day, and they mostly made up for it when Michael Bennett belly flopped on top of Todd Gurley for a four yard loss on first and goal and then, three plays later, the Rams were snapping for a field goal try from the 10-yard line.
(Bennett, by the way, who once said only “death” could cause him to shave his beard, looked pretty neatly trimmed over the weekend.)
Seattle has allowed four red zone appearances in two games and yielded a combined 10 points on those series. Oh, and they stopped the only fourth down try too.
Keeping opponents away from the end zone was critical to the Seahawks having any chance at all after scoring first 6 and then 3 points before those final drives. They’ve forced nine three-and-outs over 22 total possessions. Possibly even more important than the drive-stopping plays themselves, however, was how Seattle managed to contain drives even when it didn’t get ahead of downs against L.A.
The Rams’ most consistent series came when Case Keenum caught fire for a little bit in the second half. Yes you read that right. We make fun of Keenum but he played well enough for Pro Football Focus to grade him the best offensive player in the game, with marks as good as defensive end Robert Quinn’s. Call it Keenum picking on DeShawn Shead if you like. Motion’s trick is the illusion one thing leads to another and his throws to the left sideline were sharply accurate here. Keenum took Los Angeles from its own 13-yard line to the Seahawks’ 29 in five plays at the end of the third quarter, and the only completion into Shead’s coverage came at a nearly impossible angle with Kenny Britt tiptoeing the boundary coming back to the ball.
Either way, there’s another reason Keenum favored that side of the field. In fact, if you remember all the significant action Sunday happening near the left sideline, you’re not wrong:
Russell Wilson’s distribution map was more diverse but it shows the same trend, as the Seattle quarterback went after Coty Sensabaugh and his replacement Troy Hill more often than he challenged Trumaine Johnson or Lamarcus Joyner. For Keenum, the man to avoid was Richard Sherman.
But Sherman inserted himself on Keenum’s big drive anyway on the second play by nipping Todd Gurley on a little belly sweep to the (offense’s) right flat. Sherman’s tackle isn’t a crushing stop or anything, but he cuts off the angle and wraps Gurley up—and plus Earl Thomas is there stacked right behind Sherman like he’s in the I formation, like a two-man battery of Boom (Earl’s tackling was fine Sunday after the Miami misses; he may have saved the touchdown on the Kendricks catch and run mentioned above). And plus plus, K.J. Wright comes flying in from the side to clean up the play before even Thomas can.
The next play finds Sherman on the defense’s right side, because Seattle’s in base while L.A. goes with a two-tight end alignment and both flankers to the left. Man up on Brian Quick, Sherman gets rubbed off by a crossing route from Britt and has to take the long route around Shead while Quick picks up a first down at the sticks. It’s not ideal. Still Sherman and Shead instantly wrap the tackle and that’s my point:
The Rams moved the ball on that sequence and dictated scheme by switching in and out of different personnel groups, but the Seahawks’ discipline prevented them from gathering any extra yards. They absorbed Los Angeles’s best-executed blows and eventually prevailed on a third down to force another field goal whereas any cheap touchdown would have effectively ended the game during a period when Seattle failed to get beyond its own 39-yard line on three straight drives.
Because the games have been so tight and low-scoring, each first down no matter how contested looks magnified and disastrous. But those conditions aren’t the defense’s fault. If in the NFL it’s too costly to allow three points on the opponent’s best drive, then this game was over after the first possession.
That’s what the Seahawks defense does at its finest: Even when its dominance doesn’t bear immediate dividends it grinds and grinds with the patience that the odds must turn toward it if it can extend the opportunity long enough. You know how Christian Bale’s investors start freaking out in The Big Short because he’s draining their billions paying huge premiums for credit default swaps before the mortgage market collapses but he assures them if he can keep the money flowing the return is imminent? Never mind. Any experienced gambler understands it takes a long bankroll to fade the built-in risk and variance that makes a game or betting system potentially profitable.
Seattle’s defense gives it an enormous bankroll, and this is true as you stretch the timeline beyond one game to a whole season and multiple years.
If the Seattle Seahawks had won the Super Bowl after 2014, it wouldn’t have been because they gave the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the goal line. It would have been because in the NFC championship game the defense held Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers to field goals on drives starting from the Seattle 19, 23 and 33 yard lines and intercepted Rodgers twice more inside the Seattle 35.
When the Seahawks beat the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of last year’s playoffs, it wasn’t because of a missed field goal. It was because the defense forced three earlier Blair Walsh attempts instead of letting the Vikings into the end zone on two drives beginning inside Seattle territory and Kam Chancellor caused an invaluable fumble when Minnesota needed to run out the lead.
Now you might say as counterpoint: What about what the Patriots did against that defense, or the Panthers? What about the fact they actually lost to the Rams on Sunday? Perhaps you’ll point out the Rams’ third field goal won the game after all, and my whole example of their bend-but-don’t-break drive is worthless. Or how Los Angeles is the worst offense in the league after two games, so what does it prove?
And those are fair questions. Football blogging is like the art world in that cynicism usually makes the money that enthusiasm spends.
But I’m not saying the Seahawks defense guarantees it can’t ever be beat. I’m just reminding that the defense, so long as the system and these star players—Sherman, Thomas, Bennett; Frank Clark and Bobby Wagner played superbly last week—as long as this unit remains intact, it will continue giving Seattle a chance every week no matter what happens in the other phases, and that collection of consistent chances should assert itself with a superior team in the long game. Perhaps that’s too subtle or too obvious, one or the other. Still it seems especially worth remembering while Wilson is hobbled and the rest of the offense struggles with injuries and growing pains that those Pro Bowl talents on the other side are still putting in those premiums.
I also don’t think the offense is as far away as the scoring output makes it seem. The Seahawks in their two-game sample have the unluckiest average starting field position in the NFL, which if they keep the number one defense is absolutely certain to flip, probably as soon as the takeaway faucet starts dripping. Also, as banged up as they are and discombobulated as they look, Seattle isn’t even in the bottom third of yards gained per drive. They were ravaged by quirky penalties and facing their least favorable unit matchup Sunday.
Naturally lots depends on the quality of future opposition and other positional matchups, but if the offense gets healthy or regresses a fraction toward the mean in these other areas, while the defense can maintain much of its performance so far in 2016, that element probably carries the Seahawks over the razor’s edge of winning most games.
And if Wilson can fix his leg in combination with Germain Ifedi’s expected return and together they restore, or even approach, an offensive stability that generated the best DVOA in football last year? It could get too big to fail.