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The Seahawks defense is getting killed on early downs

Wild Card Round - Seattle Seahawks v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

While the Seattle Seahawks held the Philadelphia Eagles to just nine points and sacked their quarterbacks seven times, the defense’s total Expected Points Added (EPA) was just 1.96. I’m sure no turnovers and the fact that those seven sacks only lost 15 yards didn’t help, but as I wrote in Winners and Losers on Sunday night, I am not really convinced that was a good defensive performance given what remained of the Philly offense.

One thing that stood out to me in the 2nd half is that not once did the Seahawks defense force a punt, with all four drives ending deep into Seattle territory. You can call this “bend but don’t break” defense but I’d like to think much better defenses don’t rely on that tactic against a backup quarterback whose #1 wide receiver was a Josh McCown injury away from being the next quarterback.

A common theme you’ll notice looking at the 2nd half drive charts is the lack of 3rd downs the Seahawks forced. Philadelphia only faced five 3rd down plays and four of them were essentially at the very end of the drive, with the Eagles either going for it on 4th down or kicking a field goal afterwards. That means the Eagles repeatedly marched down the field because of early down success, and thus they had roughly 30% of their early downs (1st and 2nd down... duh) turned into first downs. In contrast, half of the Seahawks’ total first downs were on 3rd down conversions, and the early down success rate was just 16.7%, the worst of all wild card teams over the weekend.

While the offense has actually been vastly improved on early downs this season (last Sunday notwithstanding), this issue of conceding first downs on 1st and 2nd down has plagued the Seahawks all season long, and it’s one of the many reasons I’d rather not see Ken Norton Jr be retained as defensive coordinator.

The Seahawks defense allowed 245 “early down first downs” in the regular season, which ranks 31st in the NFL. Factor in number of plays and they have a league-worst 30.2% success rate against them, giving up the third-most yards per play (6.2). Quite bizarrely, they have the second-best turnover rate at 2.7%, which has frankly saved these stats from looking a lot worse.

Against the pass, their success rate is 36.4% and that’s second-worst behind the Miami Dolphins. They fare better against the run, with a success rate of 21.4% that ties them with the Buffalo Bills at 22nd (excluding kneeldowns). We can only conclude that the pass defense — particularly the lack of pass rush and coverage vulnerabilities are the bigger issue here.

What does this all lead to? A defense that ranks 31st in punts per drive, accompanied by a bunch of other bad defenses, along with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings, both of whom make up for the lack of punts by sporting two of the best red zone defenses. The Seahawks rank 26th in red zone touchdowns, so the “bend but don’t break” philosophy has been a crock of shit this year. It’s more like “quickly collapse.”

Additionally, Seattle’s 3rd down defense is actually a respectable 16th in conversion rate at 38.4%, but what happens when you keep allowing first downs sooner than that? You rank dead last in 3rd downs faced even though you were 19th in snaps played.

If the Seahawks are to move further along in this postseason, they’ll either have to magically fix this very serious problem quickly or work around this flaw and keep on winning in spite of the early down defense.