Newly-acquired Devin Hester may or may not provide any sparks for the Seattle Seahawks during the playoffs, but the team evidently viewed his addition as a necessary supplement to the return game following Tyler Lockett’s designation for injured reserve. Without Lockett, the Seahawks were reduced to using Richard Sherman as a punt returner Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, just like they did in week 2 when Lockett first damaged his PCL against the Los Angeles Rams.
Sherman called fair catch on all but one chance to field punts Sunday, so he wasn’t dynamic as a returner. This tradeoff (against putting Sherman’s role as the team’s best cornerback at risk) wasn’t acceptable going forward for Seattle—but it was hardly the biggest cause for alarm in the San Francisco game:
Stephen Hauschka had an extra point blocked in the second quarter, which created an ugly five-point margin and kept the 49ers within one score even after the Seahawks expanded their lead with a third-quarter field goal. For Hauschka, it was the fifth blocked kick on the season, including the fourth blocked extra point and sixth missed extra point overall. Hauschka has now missed 10 extra points in two seasons since the NFL moved the try back to the 15-yard line after missing three in his previous seven years in the league. Hauschka also missed four field goals in 2016, including one blocked a week earlier against the Arizona Cardinals before three points wound up being the losing deficit (although the endgame would certainly have played out differently with a different score—especially if Hauschka also didn’t miss a later extra point wide).
Then, Seattle long snapper Nolan Frese hiked a ball over Jon Ryan’s head from the Seahawks’ 14-yard line, giving San Francisco two free points on a safety. Frese was playing through an ankle injury serious enough to place him on IR this week, which probably factored also in the exchange leading to the earlier blocked kick—but Frese’s snapping issues had been a problem for the Seattle kicking game since the preseason. The error brought the lead to a very vulnerable six points.
Fortunately for the Seahawks, they were able to add another field goal, because on the next punt try Seattle yielded a tricky, lateralled return that set the 49ers up on the Seahawks 35-yard line. Notwithstanding an uncalled block in the back that aided that return, San Francisco took advantage of the field position for a touchdown, creating a drama-filled finishing drive for Seattle in a game that, without any of these special teams miscues, could have been a 23-0 domination by the road team over the last three quarters and significantly changed the feeling around the Seahawks headed into the postseason.
Each of these areas—minimal returns, bad kicks, bad snaps and poor punt coverage—illustrate how Seattle managed to decline from the league’s third-best special teams unit in 2015, according to Football Outsiders, to the 13th-best, with a weighted special teams DVOA that ranked 18th. Pro-football-reference figures show the special teams contributed a net negative expected points in seven of the Seahawks’ 16 games. Special teams play as a whole is influenced by a variety of sometimes-unrelated factors and can be volatile year-to-year just as game-to-game, but Brian Schneider’s unit had contributed a top-5 DVOA score in four of Pete Carroll’s first six seasons in Seattle..
Part of the difference can be explained by injuries or changes in personnel, like the introduction of Frese after the Seahawks declined to pay Clint Gresham after he qualified for guarantees at the veterans minimum. Lockett’s initial leg injury certainly slowed him some early in the season, and the team’s performance compared to league average in kick and punt returns declined from Lockett’s outstanding rookie season. And again, the move for Hester became more of a priority considering the dropoff from Lockett to the returners remaining on the active roster—but returns had not been until then the area of greatest concern: Seattle in fact had the NFL’s third-best starting field position after kickoffs.
While Hauschka probably needs to correct his form while placekicking, considering the low trajectory leading to all the blocks, Tyler Ott’s snaps may be able to improve the exchanges between Hauschka and Ryan the holder (although Ott has lost two jobs already this season)—and Hauschka was also one of the league’s best at adding value on kickoffs according to Football Outsiders.
The worst element of the team’s specialty units, then, is the most surprising because they used to be so good at it, and because its decline has been consistent now across three seasons. The Seahawks’ punt coverage team cost Seattle 7.3 points over the course of 2016 (using estimates from DVOA), which is almost an 18 point swing from when it added 10.4 points in 2013. Punt coverage was even better by DVOA in 2012, when it added an estimated 12 points for the Seahawks.
But in ’13 it was on the verge of a historic season heading into week 17, allowing opposing returners room to attempt just 16 returns out of 70 punts—and more significantly had given up a total of 25 yards on those returns, an extraordinary average of 1.56 yards per return. If those numbers had held up through the final game, it would have been the fewest return yards allowed by a punt coverage unit since the 1967 Green Bay Packers, before the NFL-AFL merger, and the lowest average since the 1953 Chicago Cardinals.
Unfortunately, the special teams wizards at the (you guessed it) St. Louis Rams managed to unleash five punt returns that afternoon for 57 yards (including a 32-yard return by Austin Pettus in the third quarter), which even resulted in Seattle ceding the 2013 return-yards crown to the Rams by three yards. The Seahawks have not been as good at punt coverage since, contributing negative-4.0 points in 2014 and negative-5.4 in 2015 before getting even worse this year.
The difference can’t even be explained just by the injury and retirement of Ricardo Lockette, or the elevation of Jeremy Lane to the starting lineup. Lockette, for example, was still active in 2014 when Lane was also still a special-teamer, and Lockette wasn’t on Seattle’s roster in 2012 when they were also superb at coverage. Beside, players like Neiko Thorpe, DeAndre Elliott, Kelcie McCray and Dewey McDonald are all excellent gunners. It’s not that Ryan has gotten worse at punting either—his average has been at least 44 yards each year since 2013 when it was 42.7. So either his directionality is off, or the coverage scheme as a whole hasn’t been as effective (or both).
Either way, failing to seize the punt coverage record at the end of 2013 was a trivial detail in a season that was highly significant to the franchise for other reasons—and it didn’t either come close to putting that game into jeopardy or hurting the Seahawks’ playoff seeding, the way the coverage lapse did late against the 49ers. The last down year for special teams as a group, 2014, yielded another Super Bowl run and was followed by an excellent year so I won’t say yet it’s time to question Brian Schneider’s job or anything—although that correction in 2015 was mainly due to the extreme effect of replacing a negative season (relative to average) from Bryan Walters with Lockett’s All-Pro return performance.
When it comes to worries about Seattle’s postseason hopes, people rightfully say it’s because the offense isn’t the same, the defense isn’t the same, or wonder about the other ingredients of the Seahawks medicine—but in 2016 special teams didn’t do their expected part to alleviate any of those other difficulties.