The 2021 Seattle Seahawks treated opposing running backs to a day of football fantasy camp. Each got a chance to be Marshall Faulk. That’s a bit of an understatement. Faulk, at his best, totaled 1,048 yards receiving in 1999. Seattle allowed opposing backs to receive for 1,107 yards. It’s a bit of an overstatement too. Faulk was quite a bit more efficient. In terms of efficiency, opposing backs performed at a mere Priest Holmes in 2002 level. Here are the raw stats:
Receptions per game: 8.8
Receiving yards per game: 65.1
Working through Football Outsiders’ database of defense by intended target, which extends to 2004, I could only find one reasonable comparison for Seattle’s rare mix of futility at allowing receptions, yardage, and first downs and touchdowns to backs: Rod Marinelli’s 2007 Lions. Next season Detroit would finish 0-16. I mention that for shock value, of course, but also because Marinelli and Pete Carroll both crafted their respective systems under the guidance of the great Monte Kiffin—the co-architect of the Tampa 2.
“I owe him everything,” said Carroll, now the oldest head coach in the NFL at 65 (from a 2016 interview, obviously). “He taught me everything I know about defense.”
It’s a system that is supposed to find strength by being selectively soft. Low value targets are minimally covered to better stop higher value targets. But that system was built for a very different NFL. In 1996, minimizing big plays while waiting for an opposing offense to stall out was viable even clever. Now it often looks like this.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who completely gave up on the defense that day.
Which brings us to a more difficult discussion. How do we separate the limitations of the scheme from the limitations of the talent? Let’s look at the stats for the starters who were most likely to be covering a running back on any given down. All numbers can be found at Pro Football Reference.
Bobby Wagner: 81.6% completion percentage allowed, 71 completions, 593 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception
Jordyn Brooks: 80.2%, 77 completions, 865! yards allowed (the inexplicably maligned Trevon Diggs only allowed 907 yards), 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions
And because he’s the presumed starter at strong safety next season, Adams projected over 17 games.
Jamal Adams: 58.8% (!!!), 43 completions, 571 yards, 6 touchdowns, 3 interceptions
I didn’t project Wagner’s numbers over 17 games because 16 is close enough to 17 that I didn’t think it would be more informative. In a nutshell, Adams did okay, not well but okay. I’m not sure I believe that but the numbers are the numbers. Wagner really struggled. Brooks was game-breaking bad. He led the NFL in solo tackles on the back of dozens of coverage busts.
Apart from being young, there may not be any good reason to expect Brooks to improve. This bullet point looms large from his NFL Combine scouting profile.
As does his 6 total pass breakups in college in four years. Which ominously declined from 3 as a freshman to 2 as a sophomore to 1 as a junior to 0 as a senior. He did have 5 last season but that was 5 passes defended on 91 targets.
I don’t have any greater point to make. I’m knocking off rust. This was really just an attempt to cover something small in scope but salient. Something about Seattle’s intersection of scheme, talent and that talent’s fit in the scheme led to rare levels of futility at defending passes to running backs.
This perhaps designed futility was particularly relevant to Seattle’s performance against bad and/or unskilled quarterbacks. Backs and tight ends typically make for easier completions, which explains in part how Trey Lance, Jameis Winston, Taylor Heinicke, Davis Mills and Nick Foles all had relatively great games against the Seahawks.
There isn’t really an easy solution. I doubt Wagner or Adams has any trade value. Wagner isn’t a bad player I don’t think. He just needs some protection in coverage because he hasn’t looked quick or rangy in a long time. I personally think the trade for Adams is one of the greatest failures of talent evaluation in the history of the NFL, but I’m glad he played better in coverage last season.
Despite all the foofaraw about his tackle totals, Brooks shouldn’t be penciled in to start in 2022. He should be challenged to improve, coached hard in the offseason to better understand zones, react faster and react more effectively. He’s a kid. Kid’s grow. But celebrating his tackle totals when those totals are little but evidence of repeated blown coverage is the kind of crooked accounting that has to end for anything to get better. It is not enough for something to be technically true. A statistic that does not accurately represent what it claims to measure is, in effect, a lie.