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Don’t be surprised if the Seahawks run defense is Pete Carroll’s top offseason priority

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Pete Carroll likes to establish the run. In fact, one could argue that the 2017 season broke his football brain so much that he made an over-correction for the ages in 2018. How on earth can you justify a near 60-40 run-pass ratio on early downs? One can only hope that Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer make some minor tweaks so that this level of insane predictability can no longer be a thing.

But that’s been discussed to death, so let’s look at the other side of the ball. If Carroll believes in establishing the run on offense, he has to think that the defense’s job should be to prevent the other team from establishing their running game. In that sense, the Seahawks defense has floundered over the past two seasons — or at least they’ve floundered relative to previous Carroll-era teams.

For the first time since 2010, the Seahawks run D ranked below average in DVOA, coming in at 17th. That’s the same ranking they had in 2010, except they were also a much worse passing defense, whereas the 2018 Seahawks pass D was average. In 2017, they were a middling 14th in run DVOA, but they were an outstanding 3rd in 2016. For the most part, the 2018 Seahawks were pretty much owned by any team with a halfway decent rushing attack, with the Green Bay Packers a notable exception, and even then they had a -0.90 EPA. Green Bay just felt compelled to abandon the run despite leading most of the game. That has to make Carroll deeply concerned.

The Seahawks had the NFL’s worst yards per carry average on early downs, giving up 5.19 per rush. Even more worrisome is that they allowed first-down runs on 1st and 2nd down 23.3% of the time, tied for 21st with the San Francisco 49ers. Want to put that number in context? Here are the previous seasons under Carroll dating back to his first year.

Seahawks run defense on early downs (2010-2019)

Year Rate of 1st downs allowed League ranking
Year Rate of 1st downs allowed League ranking
2010 18% 12th
2011 18.50% 11th
2012 20% 16th
2013 17.40% 08th
2014 15.50% 02nd
2015 18.90% 10th
2016 17.60% 03rd
2017 18.30% 12th
2018 23.30% 21st
2019 21.40% 22nd

They’d never been in the bottom-half of this statistic under Carroll until the 2018 season. I suppose losing Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Kam Chancellor, and Richard Sherman didn’t help matters. Neither did having K.J. Wright out for most of 2018.

If Seattle’s offense was a little too content to play for 3rd and manageable, Seattle’s defense created plenty of 3rd and manageable situations and often avoided 3rd down altogether. They were 31st in allowing first-downs on early downs, and 29th in 3rd down distance. We will get to their early down success rate in pass defense in another post, but I can assure you it’s unsightly.

I’m willing to be that if Carroll had any takeaway from the 2019 NFL Playoffs, it’s the fact that the New England Patriots, a below-average run D (19th in DVOA), held the Los Angeles Chargers (6th in run offense DVOA), Kansas City Chiefs (4th), and Los Angeles Rams (1st) to a combined 122 yards on 40 attempts. Their run defense EPA was a combined 5.38. He’ll have surely interpreted those games as the Patriots being able to make the opposition one-dimensional, thus putting New England’s defense in better position to succeed in obvious passing downs.

Don’t get me wrong, the run defense has to be better. I just personally wouldn’t even rank it in my top-three on my “to-do list” for the Seahawks this offseason. Of course, I’m not the GM, I’m just the Enemy Reaction guy. But if Carroll was pulling his hair out watching the moribund rushing attack of 2017, he must have been doing the same for the largely poor run defense of 2018. Expect significant emphasis on that side of the ball this offseason, whether you like it or not.