The Seattle Seahawks are 2-1, which puts them in a better position after three games than they’ve been in plenty of other seasons under Pete Carroll. They’ve done so by way of Russell Wilson’s career-best start, improved run defense, and squeaking by the competition by a mere point or two in their first two wins.
What they haven’t won games with so far are the two phases of the game that they seemed to focus their entire 2018 and 2019 offseason on — improved rushing offense and replenishing the pass rushers — plus Carroll’s best-known coaching asset: how to make DBs in a lab.
Offensively and defensively we’ve seen the Seahawks make countless adjustments midseason to focus their efforts on to do more of what will work for their personnel and less of what won’t. We know that they’ve changed from a team that runs a nickel corner out there 75% of the time to one that runs Mychal Kendricks out there now instead. We know that when they didn’t have Jimmy Graham vs to when they did to back when they didn’t to the next time they did to returning back to when they didn’t, the offense and Wilson constantly adjusted. When they had Marshawn Lynch breaking tackles it was a much different offensive approach to the 2016 and 2017 seasons when they didn’t.
Seattle has constantly adjusted under Carroll and I don’t expect that to change — I mean, I do expect things to change??? — any time soon. The issue is that much of their recent focus to have certain personnel in key spots has not seemed to bear fruit. Not yet.
The secondary lacks shutdown or intimidating players, the running game is suddenly searching again for an answer in the backfield, and the offseason hoopla around the new pass rushers is barely any hoop and virtually no la. This is not the team that Carroll seemed to envision, so what are they gonna do next?
For a team that built its reputation on its defensive backs, the Seahawks are now trying to build a positive reputation in spite of them. Bradley McDougald is a fine player and he has the team’s only interception this season — a highlight-y diving one at that — but he’s not a star. He’s solid. He wouldn’t start for all 32 teams.
And he’s probably the best back there.
Tedric Thompson and Lano Hill have played anywhere from poorly to adequately to maybe even decently at times but they are not stars. For both to be back in 2020 would be somewhat surprising and for either to be a starting safety beyond that in Seattle would be teetering on shock, The team has gone from Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor to a search for “America’s Next Top Safety” and while that could be Marquise Blair, we know it’s not going to be Thompson or Hill and we have a lot of snaps to go before we can make a declaration on Blair.
At cornerback, Shaquill Griffin made a nice play on the ball on Sunday vs the Saints, but Richard Sherman intercepted 20 passes over his first three seasons and he was the least-targeted corner in football for a long stretch of time. That’s not the bar that Griffin or any other cornerback needs to meet necessarily, but it’s also not a bar that any corner on this team is anywhere near close to anyway.
Griffin (three interceptions in 34 games) and Tre Flowers (0 interceptions in 18 games) are so far doing okay but Pete Carroll’s reputation for being able to build a secondary of Pro Bowlers out of scratch has taken a hit as the three guys who gave him that reputation began to fade away. It’s interesting to wonder how involved John Schneider was or has been in trade negotiations for players like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Jalen Ramsey because lightning thus far appears content with only striking once.
Running Backs / Rushing Offense
The Seahawks focused their 2018 offseason on fixing the running game and it resulted in 160 yards per game, 4.5 yards per carry, and a DVOA ranking of sixth. You’d assume that virtually all the key people returned in 2019: Chris Carson, the offensive line+Mike Iupati, Brian Schottenheimer, Mike Solari, Rashaad Penny. On top of that they’ve added in a healthy C.J. Prosise, gotten back Will Dissly, signed Nick Bellore, and given Jaron Brown way more snaps than you think.
The result is a rushing offense that ranks 32nd in expected points added through their first three games.
Worst rushing offenses in the NFL by expected points added. No team has focused more effort on running the ball well than the Seahawks, probably. pic.twitter.com/MlP439Yq9y— Field Gulls (@FieldGulls) September 23, 2019
The major thing sinking Seattle’s EPA on rushes is of course Carson’s three lost fumbles, with one in each game. But even without the fumbles we know that Carson’s vision seems off, his ability to create plays with broken or missed tackles has not shown up like it did a year ago, and the Seahawks aren’t running the ball as effectively as Carroll wants to.
Chris Carson has mattered. He’s been a net negative on the offense so much so that despite Wilson’s best efforts in the passing game (the best start to his career by far) Seattle is ranked just 23rd in overall offensive EPA through three games. Their EPA on offense ranks directly behind offenses led by Marcus Mariota, Josh Allen, Gardner Minshew, and Kyler Murray.
Those four teams rank 10th, 11th, 17th, and 13th overall in rushing EPA.
So while Carson had some un-quantifiable but present contribution in 2018, he has a different un-quantifiable contribution in 2019 and it appears to be worse. If there is a hierarchy to your contribution efforts, then certainly that player must matter to some degree. I don’t hear very many Seahawks fans who are watching him fumble every week and thinking, “Just keep giving it to Carson, because obviously any back you put there will be on pace for 16 fumbles.”
Carson has 45 carries for 159 yards with three fumbles. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Dalvin Cook has 57 carries for 375 yards and zero fumbles. His backup, Alexander Mattison, has 25 carries for 132 yards, nearly matching Carson’s total on 20 fewer attempts.
From 2010-2015, Seattle had a top-2 running back star on the roster. Whether you agree with the philosophy to focus on your rushing game first, we know that it’s the philosophy that Carroll holds dearest. For those six seasons with Marshawn Lynch, he had what he wanted, basically. It carried over temporarily to Thomas Rawls, 2015’s leader in YPC and DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement), and Carson picked it back up for a moment in 2018, but the Seahawks have no star in the backfield after three games.
Prosise led the position in snaps vs New Orleans, but carried it four times for only five yards.
This is the reason they drafted Penny in the first round, to become the next star behind Wilson. He wasn’t available in Week 3, but Carroll’s hoping that changes in Week 4 and 5 (when Seattle must face two NFC West opponents in four days) and that they can do better than 32nd in rushing EPA and not having a player in the top 20 for rushing.
Otherwise, what was all that effort for?
Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, Frank Clark, Bruce Irvin. None of these players had the hype of Jadeveon Clowney and all of them were more productive at rushing the passer in Seattle than Clowney’s been so far.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being intensely critical and microscopic in our judgment of Clowney’s contributions to the team thus far. Even if he was added just days before the season and at a fantastically low price, this is one of the biggest acquisitions in Seahawks history. And somehow his best game was the one he had the least amount of time to prepare for.
Through three weeks, Clowney has recorded five tackles, one sack, one QB hit, and two batted passes. His sack/QB hit came on the same play in Week 1, his batted passes came in Week 1 and 2. In his last three seasons with the Houston Texans, Clowney averaged about eight sacks, 20 QB hits, and 18 tackles for a loss. His numbers can turn around with one huge day against the Arizona Cardinals (16 sacks allowed already) but rather than beating up on the bad teams, can Clowney do what the Seahawks really need him to do, which is to wreak havoc on the playoff-caliber tackles.
At least sometimes.
The presence of Ziggy Ansah on Sunday, albeit short and without any previous game experience for Seattle, didn’t help at all. Ansah’s name never got called out and that pretty much tied him with Clowney for highlights. We of course also didn’t hear L.J. Collier’s name because he was a healthy scratch. The Seahawks focused a first round pick on Collier, a trade for Clowney, and waited out the compensatory period to sign Ansah, but they’ve gotten to the quarterback only six times, including two by Quinton Jefferson in Week 1, and a sack each by Rasheem Green and Branden Jackson.
The front “seven” we were praising after the Clowney acquisition included him, Ansah, Collier, Poona Ford, Jarran Reed, Bobby Wagner, Mychal Kendricks, and K.J. Wright, plus Green, Jackson, Al Woods, Jefferson, and Cody Barton. They’ve done an admiral job in shutting down the run, which was a significant focus of the 2019 offseason, but the assumption must have also been that Clowney, Ansah, and Collier would replace some of the pass rushing production of Clark last year and Bennett/Avril before him.
Maybe when Reed debuts in Week 7 that will be the push over the hill they need, but that’s still three more games away and we don’t know yet that his presence will be any better at living up to the hype as Clowney or Ansah’s.
New Orleans has a great offensive line and plan to avoid sacks, but to not have a competitive defensive line against them when you’ve made moves for two recently franchise-tagged pass rushers has to be a source of significant disappointment.
Overall, this team does have players in line to hopefully have an impact soon once given or ready for the opportunity. There’s Blair at safety and Ugo Amadi at nickel or safety. Not only are Collier and Green young enough to still have plenty of potential, but Clowney and Ansah are proven enough to expect them to produce at higher levels than what we saw in Week 3. The defensive line will also get back Reed in a month. And the running game has Penny, Prosise, and reason for optimism that Carson can be better than the last three weeks, which may be his floor from which to crawl off of.
They can be better. They’ll have to be.