Just How Awful is Seattle's Defense?

Minnesota Vikings WR Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings WR Justin Jefferson
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Seahawks cornerback Tre Flowers sounds a lot like Seahawks fans these days. "I've got a couple of questions," he said about his team's defense after Sunday's loss to the Vikings.

"I've got to find a way to (attack) digs," Flowers said, per Gregg Bell of the Tacoma News-Tribune. "Those in-routes, I've got to find a way to drive them or whatever it is."

"There's a little gray area right now amongst a couple people."

Count both Football Outsiders and Walkthrough amongst those couple of people.

The Seahawks rank 24th in defensive DVOA: bad, but not catastrophic. "Seattle ranks No. 1 in yards allowed because they rank No. 1 in opposing plays from scrimmage," Aaron Schatz wrote in Tuesday's DVOA analysis. "It's hard to figure out why opponents have so many plays against Seattle. It's not like the Seahawks can't get off the field on third down—they actually have a very average -1.4% DVOA on third and fourth downs! It's a bad defense, but it doesn't look anywhere near as bad as people are making it out to be."

Of course, the people in this case are folks who watched the Legion of Boom trounce Peyton Manning in a Super Bowl and are now watching Kirk Cousins pick the Seahawks apart. Or as Flowers told Bell, "Sadly, y'all want me to be Sherman."

Sadly, the y'all may include Pete Carroll and coordinator Ken Norton. The Seahawks still drop into Cover-3 an awful lot—34 times in 116 pass attempts, according to Sports Info Solutions—and Pete Carroll has intimated that the team hasn't changed much schematically since its glory days. "We're not different than we've ever been, conceptually and all that," Carroll said this week.

To answer Aaron's question: opponents have been able to sustain drives because the Seahawks rank 27th in defensive DVOA on first downs and 22nd on second downs, 24th on second-and-short. The Seahawks allow 5.2 yards per rush on first down; Derrick Henry's 60-yard touchdown run juices that average considerably, but allowing 60-yard runs while protecting a two-score lead is part of the problem. The Seahawks also allow 9.7 yards per pass (third-highest in the NFL) on second down. The Seahawks get a fair amount of stops on third downs, but they don't force opponents into third down often enough.

The Seahawks' last two opponents, the Titans and Vikings, are run-oriented teams by modern standards. Both use lots of 12 personnel and sometimes fullbacks, and that tends to keep defenses in their base personnel in neutral downs. And the Seahawks have LOVED to stay in base personnel for many years. Opponents have attempted 32 passes against the Seahawks when they only have four defensive backs on the field, completing 78.1% of them for 9.5 yards per attempt and 101.0 yards per game. Only the Buccaneers have had more passes thrown against their base defense (remember when Dak Prescott kept checking out of running plays in the opener?), and the Bucs have much better base personnel.

The strategy against the Seahawks defense right now appears to be: stay balanced, don't be afraid to run it on first down, remain in heavier personnel, keep Jordyn Brooks and Cody Barton on the field as much as you can, then attack underneath. Bobby Wagner is the only Seahawks linebacker who can cover, at all, and the secondary is tasked with keeping everything in front of them (except for Jamal Adams, the pint-sized edge rusher). Opponents are averaging a league-high 44.0 yards per drive and three minutes and 40 seconds per drive, and the Seahawks defense sure seemed to be wearing down late in the Vikings loss.

It's time to point out that the Seahawks have not drafted a defensive back in the first three rounds since Shaquill Griffin (now with the Jaguars) in the third round in 2017. They traded for Adams, of course, but that was a gross overpayment for a square peg. The Seahawks are planning to elevate Sidney Jones from special teams, but relying on Jones is a great way to be disappointed. The Seahawks haven't bothered to acquire the personnel required to do what they insist on continuing to do. Opponents know it. And those opponents that are good at manipulating defensive personnel, working underneath, and playing ahead of the sticks can exploit it.

The Seahawks face Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers on Sunday. Their defense may not be quite as bad as their fans think it is, but it's likely to get worse before it gets better, and it's not nearly good enough to keep them in the NFC West chase.

Five to Watch

We're focused on the offensive skill positions this week. And "backup interior lineman playing fullback" is the ultimate skill position!

Marquise Brown, Wide Receiver, Baltimore Ravens
The bad news is that Brown dropped three catchable deep passes on Sunday. The good news, besides the fact that the Ravens won anyway, is that he was open for three catchable deep passes. Also, Brown's teammates and coaches aren't worried about his case of the dropsies. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said earlier in the week that he told Brown: "This is going to be part of your testimony. You're gonna be able to talk to people about what you went through and what you overcame here, so let's go to work, starting Wednesday."

Walkthrough loves the idea of turning dropped passes in a 19-17 victory over a last-place team into a motivational sermon. I should have outstretched my arms, but I didn't. I never felt more low. But the Lord was on my side. More importantly, Justin Tucker was on my side. And Jared Goff was on the other side. Football fans will never forget September 26: the day the Chargers upset the Chiefs.

Anyway, The Ravens face the Broncos in Week 4. They cannot afford to leave lots of points on the field this time.

Tyler Conklin, Tight End, Minnesota Vikings
Hey look: the Vikings found the tight end they desperately needed. It turned out he was on their roster all along! Conklin went 7-70-1 against the Seahawks last week, lining up all over the field and exploiting a few mismatches: he split wide and beat Jordyn Brooks in man coverage on one play and beat Jamal Adams out of a bunch formation in the fourth quarter.

The Vikings have a chance to keep pace with their in-laws from Cleveland this week—and climb back into the playoff conversation—if Conklin can keep playing the old Kyle Rudolph role in their ultra-traditional offense.

Connor McGovern, Blocking Back (???), Dallas Cowboys
Kellen Moore and (whispers) Mike McCarthy have done an excellent job diversifying the Cowboys personnel groupings: getting Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard on the field at the same time, finding roles for both Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin at tight end, using Noah Brown as a blocking wide receiver, and so on. They even used McGovern (who started at right guard in place of Zack Martin in the opener) as a fullback or H-back on Monday night, and not just at the goal line.

Walkthrough wants to see McGovern score a 1-yard touchdown against the Panthers. Is that too much to ask?

Zack Moss, Running Back, Buffalo Bills
Walkthrough also wants to see more of Moss, who scored two touchdowns late in the Miami Dolphins blowout and added a receiving touchdown and 91 total yards against Washington.

It sounds like Moss needed a fire lit under his tuchus after missing part of training camp with a hamstring injury. "Zack came off being inactive that first week and was hungry. That's a good thing. Sometimes playing time is a great motivator," Sean McDermott said. (Quotes via Brandon Judd of Deseret News). "I think he has come off of that making the best of every opportunity he has gotten since that point. I'm seeing a hungry football player, and I love it."

Moss should remain the thunder to Devin Singletary's lightning against the Texans this week, though both players can contribute as pass-catchers. A versatile two-back committee can really diversify an already-explosive offense. Just ask the Cowboys.

Cordarrelle Patterson, All-Purpose Back, Atlanta Falcons
Patterson reminds me of someone. He's a uniquely gifted athlete, an exceptional return man and a powerful and surprisingly effective traditional tailback. The Vikings overvalued him when they acquired him, then had no idea how to really use him. But now Patterson is in Georgia, causing all sorts of mischief. Who does he remind me of? Think, Mike, think!

(Receives extremely unsolicited political email)

Herschel Walker! That's it!

Yeah, the comparison is a real stretch for their early careers. But the Falcons version of Patterson is a lot like the Eagles version of Walker: a 30-year-old all-purpose back with a somewhat unusual toolkit and a few elite traits, searching for a role that makes sense.

Using Patterson in a Derrick Henry-like I-formation role still feels somewhat zanypants. But Patterson is one of the few unpredictable and semi-effective elements of the Falcons offense, and he'll give the not-as-great-as-advertised Washington defense something to worry about in Week 4.

Leaderboard of the Week

Every Thursday, Walkthrough will examine a random (and usually obscure) leaderboard from Football Outsiders, Sports Info Solutions, or elsewhere on the analytics Interwebs in search of deep truths and wisdom.

We stay in house this week to check out the first-quarter offensive DVOA leaderboards. You can check out the full list here, if you are a registered FO user. And if you are 1,500 words into Thursday Walkthrough, you should really be a registered FO user.

First-quarter DVOA, especially on offense, is a useful leading indicator of a team's future success. Early-game offensive success allows teams to mount leads, which takes opponents out of their game plans. It's also a proxy metric for a team's offensive capability in "neutral" situations, from narrow leads to narrow deficits, because it shows how the team performs when the entire playbook is available. Success in the first quarter can cover a lot of other weaknesses.

Let's start with the top five teams in first quarter offensive DVOA.

  1. Los Angeles Rams, 52.5%
  2. Dallas Cowboys, 43.6%
  3. Minnesota Vikings, 40.9%
  4. Carolina Panthers, 48.2%
  5. Green Bay Packers, 36.3%

The Rams also rank first in third-quarter and fourth-quarter offensive DVOA, but they rank 27th in second-quarter DVOA. Sean McVay must leave early to get his stubble manscaped before halftime.

The Cowboys have now outscored opponents 35-17 in the first quarter. Their early-game scripts are delightful, mixing creativity with well-timed shots at explosive plays. Early leads will help their shaky defense as the season wears on by pushing opponents to abandon the run. (Or, in the Eagles' case, leave the run on a mountaintop for the vultures to pick clean and the icy winds to blanch).

The Vikings offense is generally effective when they can line up with a fullback or two tight ends and balance a play-action short game, their rushing attack, and occasional deep shots. As their first-quarter DVOA reveals, they have been very good in relatively neutral situations, at least when they aren't self-destructing due to a zillion false starts and holding penalties. Walkthrough LOVES to rip the Vikings, but their first-quarter DVOA suggests that they are due to improve.

The Panthers have outscored opponents 14-0 in first quarters and 26-6 in second quarters. Yes, the Jets and Texans were two of those opponents, and Christian McCaffrey is out, but strong offensive starts bode well for the Panthers' ability to sustain success. The Panthers defense ranks second in first-quarter DVOA. We have no idea how the Panthers will perform when playing from behind, because it hasn't happened yet.

The first quarter over for Cowboys-Panthers this week is +10, and despite the Panthers' fine defensive DVOA, Walkthrough has already played it.

Packers games come in three stages:

  • Stage 1: the creative, balanced early game plan.
  • Stage 2: Matt LaFleur runs out of ideas and/or Aaron Rodgers gets bored, leading to multiple stalled drives.
  • Stage 3: The Packers are either munching clock or hoping for Rodgers heroics, and Rodgers either performs miracles or chucks "f*ck this" balls to Davante Adams and rolls his eyes.

The Packers have gone from fifth to 17th, 11th, and 22nd in DVOA subsequent quarters, with most of the fourth-quarter trouble coming from the season opener against the Saints. They need to minimize those mid-game lulls to keep pace with the Buccaneers and Rams.

Now onto the bottom five.

  1. Chicago Bears, -46.8%
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers, -57.2%
  3. Tennessee Titans, -59.4%
  4. Las Vegas Raiders, -62.3%
  5. New York Jets, -98.5%

The Steelers throw most of their Big Bucket O' Screen Passes offensive shenanigans at the wall in the first quarter, and it shows in the metrics. Things stabilize a bit when they stop acting goofy and behave a little more conventionally in later quarters. As bad as Ben Roethlisberger looks, the Steelers may be overcompensating to hide his weaknesses in their game scripts. They might be better off (looks around nervously) establishing the run, then relying on early-game flag football tactics that everyone sees coming.

Derrick Henry is averaging just 2.2 yards per rush in the first quarter. Ryan Tannehill is averaging just 5.0 yards per first-quarter pass attempt, with an interception and four sacks. Early game scripts still look like a tweenager chose the Titans on Madden and is just trying them out to learn how the truck stick works. Like the Vikings, the Titans need to remain balanced and on schedule for their offense to function, so it's in their best interests to figure this out. Unlike the Vikings, they play in the Sun Belt Conference and should be fine even if they don't.

In the first quarter of the Raiders' Week 3 overtime victory against the Dolphins, Derek Carr threw a pick-six, Peyton Barber got stuffed on fourth-and-inches, and a wild Andre James snap turned into intentional grounding. The Raiders have been outscored 21-5 in first quarters this year. They rank second in offensive DVOA in the third quarter, and I'm willing to buy "halftime adjustments" to a degree, but I'm more inclined to think that the first-quarter Raiders are closer to the "real Raiders" than their won-loss record is. It's hard to imagine a team that's this bad early in games staying in the playoff race in a tough division.

There's not much more to be said about the Bears offense that hasn't already been said elsewhere, and the Jets should be politely ignored until they are ready to enter the NFL.

Thursday Night Action: Jacksonville Jaguars (+7.5) at Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals haven't been seven-plus-point favorites since they beat the Browns 30-16 in Week 12 of 2017, with Andy Dalton out-dueling DeShone Kizer. (They covered as 6.5-point favorites in a victory over the Dolphins in 2018). Fans of meaningless trends will be excited to learn that the Bengals are 10-4-2 against the spread as seven-plus-point favorites since 2012. If Marvin Lewis, A.J. Green, and prime Andy Dalton show up, this one's in the bag.

Those who prefer slightly more substantive trends should note that the Jaguars are 8-11-1 ATS as road dogs since 2019, with an average margin of defeat of 9.3 points. They have also been outscored 21-7 in first quarters this season, so Walkthrough is taking the Bengals -3.5 to lead after the first quarter. We'll also spice things up with Joe Burrow OVER 247.5 passing yards (-115) against the NFL's 30th-ranked pass defense.

As for the game itself, the Bengals over a touchdown is just too rich for Walkthrough's diet.

Comments

12 comments, Last at 30 Sep 2021, 6:36pm

3 1st Quarter DVOA

Is there a historical precedent for 1st quarter DVOA being more predictive than others for overall offensive success? 
 

*Update: I forgot how to read, disregard!

4 Seattle

What I keep thinking when I hear those defensive stats: "Oh, no. Coach Carroll's going to read that and his solution, forever and always, will be to slow down the pace on offense and seek a 50:50 run-pass split, filtering plays through Chris Carson and Alex Collins rather than his top QB and elite WRs."

Didn't we do this last year? Get better players on defense instead of penalizing your offense's best elements!

5 Had some time this week to…

Had some time this week to watch the Vikings 1st three games, very quickly. The Bengals interior defense just curb stomped the Vikings guards and center; it was a little surprising they scored as many points as they did. The blocking improved against the Cards, and then the oline pretty much whipped the Seahawks d front soundly.

The Browns will be a good test as to whether the trendline represemts lasting improvement, or if it is just normal variance. If Cousins is allowed to be comfortable, he can make the cap space allocated to him look reasonable.

 

 

6 I'm starting to think the…

I'm starting to think the Bengals defense might be, if not "legit," than at least...above league average? They held the Bears to 13 offensive points (OK, I know) and the Steelers to 10, in Heinz Field, which has generally afforded a distinct home-field advantage. And although their box-score performance against Minnesota doesn't jump off the page, your description gives me a bit more confidence that they've significantly improved. (DVOA backs this up too.)

So, to recap: Cincinnati has a good defense, Minnesota has a functional O-line, and Cordarrelle Patterson is an instrumental part of an NFL team's offense in 2021. Got it! Strange times, man.   

9 If they hadn't started…

If they hadn't started changing the rules to minimize kick returns, Ol' Cordarelle would have made a lot more money, I suspect. Just consistently gave his offense good to great field position, with td tossed in pretty consistently as well.

10 As a Chicago-area native who…

As a Chicago-area native who watches the local team (carefully evading the term "Bears fan"; too much ineptitude to care deeply), he was an underappreciated player for several years. On the off chance he had the opportunity to return a kick, his dynamism leapt off the screen. The Bears are certainly less fun/dangerous without him. Rooting for him in Atlanta, and not just because he's on my fantasy football roster.     

ETA: he had 35 returns just last year, for over 29 yards per return, plus 1 TD; numbers buoyed by his determination to take kicks out of the middle-to-back end zone. You'd think I would have remembered that!  

12 I was surprised...

...that the Vikings O-line help up against Zona's front seven.  I fully expected Cousins to have a rough day.  They did sack Cousins and almost get a fumble later in the game, though.

You know what they say in the NFL, it's not necessarily who you play but when you play them.

The Cards jumped on an unprepared and sluggish Titans team to open the year, then had to survive a missed kick to beat the Vikings at home, snoozed through the first half of the Jags game only to coast late.  

I certainly hope we see a prepared to play Cardinals team on Sunday.

7 Seattle vs San Francisco…

Seattle vs San Francisco might be the most interesting case of teams matched up perfectly to score points on each other this season. The 9ers love to run from heavy packages and throw short PA passes, which the Seahawks have shown very little interest or ability to stop. On the other side, the Hawks love to throw deep bombs to Lockett and Metcalf, and the 9ers have a depleted secondary that probably can’t cover them.

I think we can throw DVOA predictions out the window for this one.

8 And as for the Rams…

And as for the Rams offensive DVOA quarter splits, I think that’s just noise. There doesn’t appear to be much reason why they’re average in the second quarter, and excellent in the other quarters.

32 teams, it’s not that hard to find some high probability weirdness in the results.

11 Good Write-up.

Everything mentioned is exactly what I see on film.  They have no LB corps, outside of Wagner who is still good but past his prime.

Their corners can't cover and their safeties are out of position.

The Seattle defense is feast or famine.  You don't know what you'll get from play to play.

They also have no pass rush.

The Hawks/Niners game is a pick-em for me because I can see reasons why both team has an advantage.  I trust Russell Wilson more than Jimmy G, but I don't trust either of these defenses.