Something strange has happened in the last two weeks. The Seahawks exited two full games with their feet basically intact. No gunshot wounds. No stab wounds. Their weapons have been used on opponents instead of themselves. This is not a normal state for the Seahawks. They have been a bowling ball of butcher knives that inflicts lethal harm on their opponents, but often inflicts all sorts of damage to themselves along the way. The most glaring evidence of this was a five game run where the team averaged over 12 penalties and 116 penalty yards. Seattle has made a sudden and remarkable turnaround over the past two games, averaging just 5.5 penalties and 40.5 penalty yards. When the Seahawks properly aim their weapons, they are tough to beat.
The loss to the Washington Redskins at home was easily the most crushing and unexpected of the season. Blair Walsh is the convenient whipping boy, but the team registered a season-high 16 penalties for 138 yards. The only time a Seahawks team had been flagged more was in 1984 when they had 17 penalties in Green Bay. Just two teams in franchise history had a game with more penalty yards, with the last coming in 1998.
Seattle outgained the Redskins 437 to 244 in total yards, but when you add in the massive yardage advantage Washington had in penalties, the gap closes by 76 yards. That’s more than the Redskins had rushing on the day. In all, the Redskins gained 193 yards passing, 138 yards through penalties, and 51 yards rushing. That is not to say all those penalties were on the Seahawks defense, because they were not. Even when the offense moves back, though, those are yards gained by the opponent.
The Seahawks became a true force in 2012 with the addition of guys like Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner. They are a remarkable 59-21-1 (0.728 winning percentage) since 2012 when they have fewer than 100 penalty yards in a game. That same dominant team becomes eminently beatable when they lose all discipline. Seattle is a pedestrian 5-6 (0.455) when recording 100 yards or more in penalties in a game since 2012. It is crazy to think almost half of those games (5) came in the last seven weeks, and came in a bundle.
Understanding where the penalties were coming from
Of the 114 penalties accepted against the Seahawks this season, 29 (25%) have been against the offensive line, 28 (~25%) have been against the defensive line, and 27 (24%) have been against defensive backs.
As far as penalty type, the Seahawks top penalty is offensive holding (19, ranking 21st in the NFL per NFLPenalties.com). False starts (18, ranked 29th) are the second most. Defensive offsides (11, ranked 32nd), defensive pass interference (10, 31st), and illegal use of hands (8, 32nd) are the next three.
Holding calls generally occur because a lineman is overmatched. There is another factor for the Seahawks, which is Wilson’s tendency to break from the pocket. It can be incredibly difficult to avoid a holding call when you are blocking a player who is trying to go through you or around you, and then suddenly starts to try and run away from you. Some of those holding calls can be avoided with better technique. Some are just guys getting beat.
False starts are almost completely about discipline. There are some instances when lack of confidence leads a player to try and get an early jump so they do not get beat. Regardless, these are avoidable and extinguishable penalties.
Interestingly, though, the defense is the group that is ranking last or second-to-last in their big ticket items. Jumping the snap count is going to happen from time-to-time, but there is no need for the Seahawks to rank dead last in this correctable category. Illegal use of hands is a technique issue where defenders are too often getting their hands up into the lineman’s face when trying to disengage from blocks. Defensive pass interference is a judgement call. Seattle gets more scrutiny than any other secondary in this area. Jerry Jones famously bragged about the “Seahawks rule” after the league made a point to emphasize DPI, defensive holding, and illegal contact after the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. There are some things that can be done, but fans have to accept this team will likely be on the wrong side of DPI calls in most games.
The players most flagged this season have been:
- Germain Ifedi (12)
- Michael Bennett (8)
- Frank Clark (6)
- Shaquill Griffin (6)
- Jeremy Lane (5)
Four of the five are on defense. The next closest to Ifedi on the offensive line are Oday Aboushi (4) and Ethan Pocic (4). That is where the good news starts.
Ifedi learning on the job
People seem to forget this is Ifedi’s first season at right tackle. I had been one of his most vocal doubters heading into the season. I thought he would be a disaster. That just has not been true, and he is showing some exciting signs of growth over the past few weeks.
Ifedi had four false start penalties in the first six games of the season, but just two in the last six games. He had four holding calls in the first six games, but just two in the past six, and none in the last four.
He appears to be getting used to the Wilson scrambles and learning to let go of his opponent when he feels him start to pull away. That is promising. The false starts have slowed considerably, but may take longer to extinguish. Taking your number one penalty producer and helping him cut down those mistakes has a big, but somewhat hidden impact on the rest of the team.
The offense had been committing an average of 6 penalties and 53.6 penalty yards per game over the dreadful five game streak. That has dropped to just 2 penalties and 18 penalty yards per game in the last two weeks. That is a huge step forward. Ifedi is not the only part of that. Duane Brown sliding in to left tackle helps, and Luke Joeckel coming back means another of your top penalized players (Aboushi) leaves the field. Joeckel has been called for just one penalty all season that has been accepted. It is crucial that the offensive line maintains this newfound discipline, especially against defenses like they are facing right now.
Defense and special teams improving as well
The offensive line has made the biggest jump, but they are not alone. The defense had been averaging 4.8 penalties and 48.2 penalty yards during the five game streak. They are down to just 3 penalties and 20 yards per game in the last two. Of those 6 penalties, 4 were offsides calls. Bennett and Clark each had two. They also played terrific, game-changing football. Special teams does not get much attention, but they had been part of the penalty problem. They had 3 penalties for 30 yards in the Redskins game. They had gone four straight weeks with at least one bad block that came with a 10 yard penalty, but have had just one penalty for 5 yards in the past two weeks.
Combining low penalties with protecting the ball is a winning formula
Seattle is 15-5 since 2012 when committing 5 penalties or fewer in a game. They are 13-2 in those game since the middle of 2012, when they truly became the team the league feared. They are undefeated in 8 games since 2012 when committing 5 penalties or fewer and having zero turnovers as they did against the Eagles. They are undefeated in 9 games when they have 6 penalties or fewer and zero turnovers. They are 14-1 when they have 7 penalties or fewer and zero turnovers.
This team has done so much damage to opponents over the years. Their style of play has come with a lot of self-inflicted harm. These last two weeks have been about as clean as the team has played since Carroll arrived. The 49ers game was hardly a thing of beauty, but San Francisco never really had a chance to beat the Seahawks if they did not beat themselves. Facing a turnover hungry defense like the Jaguars brings this into even greater focus.
Philadelphia had been on a takeaway tear, and the Seahawks gave them no spark to light the fire. I don’t believe the Jaguars can beat the Seahawks if they are not the beneficiary of turnovers and penalties. For the first time in a long time, this Seattle team has shown some consistent discipline in their play. Do it a third week in a row, and things start to get very exciting.