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The Seahawks defense is actually better than last season ... and yet also somehow worse

Seattle Seahawks v Cleveland Browns

For the past few seasons, I have created my own spreadsheets to track various aspects of the Seahawks performance during the season. This year, however, between writing for the site, starting a new job (after Week 3), and the general malaise that comes from watching the current iteration of our beloved team fall woefully short of expectations ...

I didn’t bother even starting a spreadsheet until yesterday. And, to be honest, I was actually leaning toward not doing a spreadsheet this year.

Then I read an article on the Athletic that was titled “The Seahawks’ defense must improve, and change starts with Pete Carroll” (October 12, 2021). Per usual, Michael-Shawn Dugar lays out a pretty strong case, including this head-spinning passage:

Seattle for the second straight season has started the year with one of the NFL’s worst defenses. As a result, it’s 2-3. Through five weeks last year, Seattle ranked 20th in defensive Expected Points Added per play and allowed 27 points a game. This season, Seattle is 27th in EPA per play, allowing 25.2 points per game, 11th-worst in the league, according to TruMedia. Seattle’s defense doesn’t do anything at a high level. It’s 20th in EPA per play against the run and 27th against the pass. The unit is in the middle of the pack when it comes to forcing punts and ranks 24th in turnovers forced. Seattle is tied for 17th in the league with 10 sacks and 13th in total quarterback pressures.

Two things about that passage stood out to me:

One. Seattle’s defense ranks considerably lower this year than last year despite giving up 1.8 fewer points per game.

Two. Seattle is “middle of the pack when it comes to forcing punts.”

That second one is the one that prompted me to pull up my 2020 spreadsheet because I didn’t recall us forcing a whole lot of punts at the beginning of last year and I knew that we forced 6 (!!!) against the 49ers two weeks ago.

Sure enough, through 5 games last season, Seattle’s defense had only forced 10 punts (an average of 2 per game). This year, they’ve forced 19 (an average of 3.8 per game).

And yet they’re only “middle of the pack when it comes to forcing punts” ...

INTERESTING.

Wanting to know how the defense compared in other areas to last year’s team, I started my 2021 spreadsheet ... the day before our 6th game.

Here’s what stands out to me:

Seattle’s defense “can’t get off the field”

That’s been a common refrain so far this season, right?

In 2020, through 5 games, Seattle’s opponents had 57 possessions. This year? 57 possessions.

Last year, those 57 possessions resulted in 378 plays. This year? 366 plays.

Average yards per play? 6.2 both seasons.

Admittedly, the defense has been on the field for longer stretches of time this season.

Through the first 5 games in 2020, the opposition had the ball for 158:02 vs. Seattle having it for 141:58. That’s a difference of 16:04 overall, or about 3:13 per game.

This year, the gap is a whopping 52:39 through 5 games (178:57 vs. 126:18). That’s a difference of about 10-1/2 minutes per game.

But ...

The opposition has run 12 fewer plays this season and has not gained any “extra” yards (on a per-play basis).

To me, that’s somewhat mind-boggling.

Fun Fact: Seattle “won” the Time of Possession battle in each of their first 3 games last year and in 8 games overall. So far in 2021, they’re 0-5. (Note: “Fun” might have been the wrong word.)

Seattle’s defense is allowing teams to “convert” too much

This is another common refrain that doesn’t actually ring true. At least not compared to last year’s team through the first 5 games.

  • Opponent first downs: 2020 = 140; 2021 = 131 (minus-9)
  • 3rd down conversions: 34 of 68 (50%) in 2020; 24 of 65 (37%) in 2021 (minus-13%)
  • 4th down conversions: 5 of 10 (50%) in 2020; 4 of 9 (44%) in 2021 (close, but still down)
  • Red zone success rate: 11 of 17 (65%) in 2020; 11 of 22 (50%) in 2021 (minus-15%)
  • Goal-to-Go situations: 9 of 11 (82%) in 2020; 8 of 12 (75%) in 2021 (minus-7%)

Fun Fact: Seattle forced a total of seven 3-and-outs through the first 5 games last year; this year, they’ve forced 10. That’s a difference of +3 ... betcha didn’t see that coming.

Seattle’s defense is giving up too many yards

Much has been made this week - including by me - about Seattle having allowed 450 or more yards in a team-record and NFL-record four straight games.

And for good reason.

That’s not a record you want your team to be associated with.

But ...

The team record that Seattle broke last week when the Rams became the fourth team to top that mark ...

It was only a year old.

In 2020, the Seahawks defense allowed more than 450 yards to each of their first three opponents (Atlanta, 506; New England, 464; and Dallas, 522).

Seattle broke that streak when they “held” the Dolphins to 415 yards. The following week, the Vikings put up 449 (so close to 450, right?) and then the Cardinals dropped 519 yards on Seattle when they handed the Hawks their first loss (in overtime) in Week 7 (Game 6).

My point? This isn’t “new”; it’s just the fact that it’s 4 consecutive games that makes it a noteworthy (and cringeworthy) story.

From an actual yardage perspective, Seattle’s defense is actually doing better than last year. So far in 2021, they have “only” allowed 2,254 yards (450.8 average) whereas last year they had allowed 2,356 (471.2 average) through the first 5 games.

Neither one is “good”, of course, but ...

450.8 < 471.2

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Fun Fact: The 2012 Saints hold the NFL record for most yards allowed with 7,042. Divided by 16, that’s an average of 440.1 yards per game.

Pass defense vs. run defense

As Michael-Shawn Dugar pointed out, “Seattle’s defense doesn’t do anything at a high level.” He included EPA to support that statement. Me, I prefer something more tangible and easier to understand: yards.

Yes, we just covered “yards,” above, but ... this is different.

Let’s start with the rankings. Seattle’s defense ranks 31st in both passing yards per game and rushing yards per game. 31st! In both categories.

For some perspective on that:

The Cowboys rank dead-last in pass defense but are 5th in the league in run defense. The Ravens are tied with the Chiefs at 29th in pass defense but rank 7th against the run.

On the flipside of that, the Chargers are last run defense, but 7th in pass defense and the undefeated Cardinals are 29th (run) and 8th (pass).

Seattle is 31st and 31st.

That’s comparing the Seahawks to the rest of the league though. How do they look compared to last year’s team?

Raw passing stats:

  • 2020: Opposing quarterbacks had 160 completions on 239 attempts (66.9%) for 1,883 yards with 8 touchdowns and a combined passer-rating of 89.7
  • 2021: Opposing QBs are 130 of 194 (67.0%) for 1,608 yards with 9 TDs and a combined passer-rating of 103.6
  • Biggest difference: Seattle’s defense had 7 INTs through 5 games in 2020 but has only 2 so far this year. Add 5 interceptions to this year’s stat line and the combined passer-rating for opposing QBs would be 10.7 points lower at 92.9

Fun Fact: Seattle’s “anemic” pass rush had a mere 9 sacks through the first 5 games last year. This year? They have 10.

Raw rushing stats:

  • 2020: Opposing runners had 504 yards on 130 carries for a 3.9-yard average and scored 6 TDs
  • 2021: 726 yards on 162 carries for an average of 4.5 yards with 5 TDs
  • Biggest difference: Derrick Henry. (A) Seattle didn’t face him last year. (B) Take out his 60-yard touchdown run and the average over the first 5 games drops from 4.5 to 4.1

Fun Fact: The longest run of the game for each opposing team through the first 5 games last year: 15, 13, 9, 11, and 25. This year, those numbers are: 12, 60, 24, 15, and 29.

Bottom line

I ended a recent article with a very distinct conclusion:

Shit be broken.

That article was focused on Seattle’s run defense through the first 3 games.

We’re 5 games in now and Seattle did “hold” the Rams to 118 rushing yards (which was 34 below their season average to that point). Unfortunately, they let Matthew Stafford set the high-water mark against them in passing yards with 365 gross and 358 net.

Note: Giving up 3 touchdowns on the Rams first 5 possessions of the 2nd half didn’t help.

The stats that I’ve shared today seem to indicate that this year’s defense is better than last year’s defense ... and in many ways, IT IS.

But last year’s team sucked at pass defense (through the first part of the year they were on pace to shatter the passing yards allowed record and would have broken the total yards record as well). They were, however, pretty stout against the run, holding their first 3 opponents under 75 yards and allowing only 103 to the 4th one.

This year, every single team has topped 100 yards rushing and 4 of the 5 have topped 320 yards passing. Seattle’s best game this year was it’s first game (223 passing, 113 rushing, 336 total); it’s been all downhill from there.

The good news is that the team figured out how to turn things around last season. Perhaps they can do so again this season.

And maybe, just maybe, they’ll start that turnaround tonight in Pittsburgh.

I’ve got a good feeling.

Fingers crossed.

Go Hawks!