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The Seahawks pass defense continues to struggle against running backs

Seattle Seahawks v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks played pretty good defense against a loaded Kansas City Chiefs offense, but one area of trouble was an all too familiar one.

Jerick McKinnon and Isiah Pacheco combined for 4 catches, 63 yards, and a touchdown in their 24-10 win over Seattle. Pacheco turned what should’ve been a modest gain on a screen pass into a 31-yard play, while McKinnon caught a touchdown out in the flat while breaking a Michael Jackson tackle. Jordyn Brooks diagnosed the play but it was too late and he was effectively picked off by JuJu Smith-Schuster and couldn’t get to McKinnon in time.

This has been a recurring theme for the Seahawks for three seasons straight: they don’t defend passes to running backs.

Entering Week 17 the Seahawks have allowed 84 receptions for 733 yards and 4 touchdowns exclusively to RBs. That’s seventh-most receptions allowed for the third-most yards and fifth-most touchdowns. Not good! And somehow an improvement from last year, when everyone got to be Marshall Faulk and conceded 127 catches for 1,106 yards and 4 touchdowns.

It goes without saying that the Seahawks defense as a whole is a shell of what it used to be, but defending pass-catching RBs has been a three-year nightmare that deviates from their peak years.

Seahawks Pass Defense DVOA vs. RBs (Football Outsiders)

2012: 10th

2013: 1st

2014: 16th

2015: 5th

2016: 5th

2017: 2nd

2018: 13th

2019: 10th

2020: 28th

2021: 32nd

2022: 31st

The Football Outsiders Almanac briefly touched on the 2021 unit’s willingness to just give up short throws (typically to running backs) in the most annoying form of “bend but don’t break” ever created.

The Seahawks were content to die by a thousand cuts, and opponents were happy to slice them up like an onion. A full 86% of passes against Seattle were marked short in the official play-by-play, the most in the league, and the Seahawks DVOA of 9.3% on those plays was second worst ahead of only the Jets. Seattle surrendered 1,105 receiving yards to running backs, second most in our database behind the 1,152 given up by the 2010 Titans. (Remember that Tennessee team, we’ll get back to them shortly.) Seattle’s whole game plan was to sit back and wait for opposing quarterbacks to beat themselves, but in the NFL, even backup quarterbacks will roast you if given half a chance, and that’s exactly what happened to the Seahawks. The quartet of Taylor Heinicke, Colt McCoy, Nick Foles, and Tim Boyle completed over 70% of their passes against Seattle for 7.0 yards per throw. Three of their teams beat the Seahawks, while Boyle’s Lions scored 29 points in defeat.

But to my eye the Seahawks haven’t necessarily operated the same way in 2022; they just have no answers for getting beaten underneath. Their DVOA against deep passes (16+ yards down the field) was 9th this year and 5th last year, but their DVOA against anything within 15 yards is complete toilet. Funneling teams to short routes is only worthwhile if you can prevent them from getting yards after catch, and for the second year in a row the Seahawks are getting reamed there.

I don’t have any schematic insight as to why this is an ongoing problem for Seattle, but it sure feels more than coincidental that their willingness to concede targets to (usually) running backs falls in line with their repeated inability to get off the field early. If you’re so minded you can say “Jordyn Brooks was drafted in 2020, K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner declined/eventually left, and look at the results” but I don’t think it’s that simple or even fair to Brooks.

The easiest conclusion to make is that this front seven as a whole is just not good enough at generating pressure or making plays in the open field to limit short throws to short gains and not eventual explosives. If there are no tangible improvements made any time soon, this will continue to persist and the Seahawks will continue to be among the league leaders in snaps defended.