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A year in review: Seahawks improved at offense, defense a push

NFL Pro Bowl Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Last year, it appeared likely that the Seattle Seahawks would have a better offense than defense. With the addition of DK Metcalf and maturation of Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, and Will Dissly, the offense was the safer bet than the aging and departing defense.

It’s not a situation with which Seahawks fans are all that familiar. In fact, we asked the question last year- would we be ready to support a team that had completely flipped their script? Could we cheer for touchdown efficiency and suffer through a porous run defense?

While I can’t say how the average fan handled 2019 (not well, I’ve heard), Seattle absolutely widened the gap between their offensive and defensive units.

The Seahawks’ offense improved tremendously, while their defense remains a few steps below average.

Widening the gap

Per Football Outsiders in 2018, by DVOA, Seattle’s offense was 9th in the NFL at 8.8%. By contrast, the defense was 14th in the league, at -0.1%. Jump to last year, and the Hawks improved drastically to a 17.1% offensive DVOA, good for 5th. The defense, meanwhile, dropped to 18th in defense at 2.6%.

That makes two consecutive seasons in which Pete Carroll’s offense has been more efficient than his defense, which is the only time that has happened since the arrival of Russell Wilson.

These last years have been as promised by Carroll himself - that is, balanced. Broken down by play in 2019, the Seahawks were the 4th best passing team and 6th best running team, again by DVOA. In 2018, they were 6th and 6th.

On defense, the same applies. Though it’s maybe not what Pete Carroll promised, more like it’s what we all expected. Last year Seattle was the most average of all teams against the pass, but 26th out of 32 teams against the run. 2018 saw a much more balanced team, 14th against the pass and 17th against the run.

In most of Pete Carroll’s tenure, the defense has been a top-5 unit against either pass or rush; many times both.

So statistically the offense was almost twice as efficient (or valuable) last year over 2018. While the defense technically graded better last year, they did not keep up with the direction of the rest of the league.

The largest culprit, as you might have guessed, was Wilson. His defense-adjusted yards against replacement doubled last year. He had 1,265 as opposed to 637 in 2018.

The second factor should come as a surprise: Rashaad Penny.

Penny - and I strongly encourage you to check this link because I didn’t believe it myself - was the second-best running back in the entire NFL by DVOA last season. This comes with a caveat because he wasn’t the team’s primary back and his injuries kept him from getting even 100 rushes. However, if Penny had kept up his pace for roughly three times the rush attempts, he would have been in the range of top-7 most efficient back in the league.

Will Dissly was another factor as his total DVOA was a massive 36% on only 27 passes, good for second in the NFL.

Meanwhile, the struggles of the defense are harder to quantify, but it starts up front, where it was bad.

Football Outsiders don’t do DVOA for defensive positions individually. They do provide a series of metrics on other defensive metrics, particularly along the line. The Seattle Seahawks were ranked 20th or worse against the run at the line of scrimmage, at the second level, and in pass protection.

What’s next?

Anyone who watched at least two games of Seahawk play last year doesn’t really need much of this statistical verification. The eye test proves right in this case: Russell Wilson + two good receivers is very, very dangerous. The defense has good players but plays poorly in glaring areas: namely the short middle of the field whether running or passing.

This is awkward because the best player in Bobby Wagner roams that very area. That, combined with some of the compounding advanced defensive metrics are not a mark in favor of defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.’s approach last year.

Even more fascinating is that this gap between offense and defense could be at least as large again this year. Jadeveon Clowney seems less likely all the time, and so they’ve replaced one top-end defensive talent with another in Jamal Adams. Quinton Dunbar seems uncertain, and so the defense as a whole is quite similar in makeup.

Meanwhile, with the lone exception of Tyler Lockett, a case could be made for every single one of the offensive difference-makers actually improving in 2020. Most of Seattle’s offensive weapons have the potential for more impact if:

  • DK Metcalf - sophomore jump
  • Chris Carson - don’t get hurt
  • Rashaad Penny - don’t get hurt/emerge for the final three weeks of 2019
  • Will Dissly - for the love of God don’t get hurt

This alone does not guarantee the Seahawks move from the 9th to a top-5 DVOA offense, but it’s within reach. Easily. Especially without Germain Ifedi to give them so many 3rd and 14s, which wreck this stat.

Meanwhile, the defense, plain and simple, has problems that Jamal Adams cannot solve on his own. An extra half-season of Quandre Diggs would certainly help. The availability of Dunbar would undoubtedly be welcome. A full-strength Jarran Reed would be immense.

But if they don’t retain Clowney, does anyone really want to put the effort into convincing themselves that this defense is set to improve this year?

I’m not sold on the defense.

I’m very sold on this offense, even if Wilson doesn’t throw as much as many want.

Seattle can either close the gap in a good way by balancing the defense, or in a bad way by regressing offensively. Or, they continue the trajectory and fire away offensively and widen the difference between the two units.

If you had to ask me today, I’d guess that the last one is the more likely scenario. Give me some top-5 offense on the three-headed one-two punches at receiver, running back, and tight end. Who cares if the opponents score 32 points per game.