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For a 4th straight season, the Seahawks defense has a familiar problem

Welcome to the 2023 edition of “Stop blaming the offense for the defense’s snap count problem.”

Seattle Seahawks v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

There has been a lot of deserved criticism for the Seattle Seahawks’ sputtering offense and their more recent inability to string drives together. Previously they were moving the ball but not consistently getting touchdowns in the red zone, but the Baltimore Ravens game saw them not even pick up first downs.

I’m here to talk about the defense instead; we’ll get to what ails the offense later in the week. We’ve had a lot of praise for the Seahawks defense turning into a force since Week 4, holding the opposition to 50 points total and allowing none of the New York Giants, Cincinnati Bengals, or Arizona Cardinals to cross 300 yards of total offense. Then came the Ravens game and it all fell apart to the tune of 37 points, 518 yards of offense, and almost 300 allowed on the ground.

In the context of the Ravens game, the offense was a disaster and only ran 49 plays, whereas the defense was on the field for 76 snaps. A common refrain I’ve heard is that the offense is giving the defense no breaks, and it’s tiring them out and causing them to wilt.

I know I sound like a broken record because I’ve written about this topic before, and it has to be addressed again:

The defense creates its own lopsided snap count and possible fatigue by not getting off the field sooner.

Guess which team is among the worst at forcing 3-and-outs on the season?

And guess which team is averaging the 2nd most defensive snaps played per game right now?

Pro Football Reference

If this hold up then it’ll be the fourth consecutive season that the Seahawks defense will have played either the most or top-5 most snaps in the NFL. And in case you’re wondering, these are the accompanying offensive snap count rankings:

2020: 20th

2021: 32nd

2022: 22nd

2023: 31st

The only common theme for those Seahawks offenses are mediocre to awful 3rd down results, but that applies to almost every Seahawks team under Pete Carroll. Otherwise, it hasn’t mattered much whether the Seahawks are playing few offensive snaps or merely below league-average. The 2020 unit is the highest-scoring group in franchise history and that defense STILL was out there forever, so evidently it also doesn’t matter how good or bad the offense performs.

This is what I wrote last December, and I believe it still generally holds true:

The grand conclusion is that scapegoating the offense for what is now a three-year problem doesn’t hold water whatsoever. When the offense is struggling, the defense is not dependable enough to get off the field. When the offense is thriving, the defense still isn’t dependable enough to get off the field. In the context of this year’s team, the defense is arguably not giving the offense enough chances to score.

If an offense’s ineptitude causes a defense to completely come unglued, then the New York Jets should be allowing 40 points per game based off of their wholly inept offense. We just came off a nationally televised game in which the Jets offense was so poor that Troy Aikman abandoned any form of analysis and decided to riff his best Zach Wilson disses. For some odd reason, the Jets defense didn’t fold up against the Los Angeles Chargers. Officially, the Jets allowed 27 points, but those touchdowns consisted of a 2-yard drive, 50-yard drive, and a punt return TD.

Only once did the Jets allow a Chargers drive to last longer than 4 minutes, so the time of possession argument is blown up. It turns out that, much like the offense can dictate how long it stays on the field, the defense actually has complete control over its own ability to get off the field, regardless of how many times they’re forced back out there.

The Jets have scored 8 offensive touchdowns all season and yet the defense is 2nd in 3-and-outs, 5th in punt rate, 4th in drive success rate (the number of non-kneeldown drives ending in at least one first down or a touchdown), and a surprisingly modest 20th in 3rd down conversion. Contrast that with the Seahawks defense, which is 29th in 3-and-outs and punt rate, as well as 23rd in drive success rate and 30th in 3rd down conversion. Seattle does rank 11th in turnover rate, which means exactly like last year, they do not consistently get off the field unless they’re getting takeaways. And for all of the rightful grievances aired over Geno Smith’s turnovers, the Seahawks defense still enjoys some of the best field position in the league.

Allowing long, clock-consuming drives like the Seahawks have over the years is not a direct result of offensive ineptitude. Just look at three of the first five games of opening drives against the Seattle defense:

vs. Los Angeles Rams: 16 plays, 75 yards, 9:52, touchdown

vs. Carolina Panthers: 11 plays, 50 yards, 5:38, field goal

at Cincinnati Bengals: 13 plays, 69 yards, 6:16, touchdown

You can either conclude that this is a systemic problem and has been for years under Pete Carroll, or you can argue that the defense is exhausted in the 1st quarter. Unsurprisingly, Seattle is one of the league leaders in 10+ play drives allowed, even if they don’t all end in a touchdown or even a score.

What’s most alarming? The Seahawks defense has faced the 30th toughest schedule by DVOA, according to FTN Fantasy. For comparison, Seattle’s offense has played the 6th toughest schedule by DVOA. The only teams the Seahawks played with above-average rushing and passing offenses are the Detroit Lions and Ravens, who each put up north of 30 points.

Unsurprisingly, after that shambolic performance in Baltimore, Seattle’s defensive DVOA dipped from 15th to 19th, which feels appropriate. They have mostly dominated horrible offenses like the Giants, Panthers, Cardinals, and Browns (which is good!), but the only time they’ve played well against a reasonably formidable offense was Joe Burrow’s Bengals. I think we have been through this song and dance before.

Seattle’s defense is not terrible—I think they’re tangible improved from last year—but until they can consistently perform better against offenses not led by backup quarterbacks, then brace for impact when those 49ers and Eagles games come around. The pass rush is better than we’ve seen in recent years, the run defense isn’t getting crushed by just any team, but the same core problems persist whether they’re running a 4-3, 3-4, a hybrid formation, a Pete Carroll Cover 3, or a Vic Fangio-inspired scheme.

Is the Seahawks offense helping the defense by turning it over or having quick three-and-outs like we saw against the Browns and Ravens? No. But Seattle is still 14th in punts/drive, 11th in turnovers/drive, 19th in 3-and-outs/drive, and 19th in drive success rate, so last Sunday was not indicative of a weekly problem. If you’re so minded, you can argue the Seahawks offense needs to cut this ineptitude out if only because the defense is not good enough to repeatedly bail them out against better offenses. This comes with the admission that, at the moment, Seattle does not have a good defense despite that “Since Week 4” stretch.

There’s still a lot of season left for these stats to trend in a positive direction. Improvement means Seattle will have a chance to win any game, stagnation all but assures the chance of more blowout losses to come. Until then, I remain steadfast in my belief that the Seahawks defense is responsible for controlling their own snap count and time of possession, just as the offense holds the same responsibility on their end. Neither party is doing their job well enough right now, but the defense hasn’t held up their end of the bargain in a long time.