The headline read “Seahawks defense showing signs of decline,” in the Seattle Times sports section today. Danny O’Neill wrote a factual article that described how poorly the Seahawks defense has performed against the run in the last ten quarters, when compared to the first six-and-a-half games of the season. Mike Salk has been leading the “this defense is not elite” charge on the radio since last weeks loss in Detroit. It is understandable. Seattle set a high bar. You may be surprised, however, how impressive Seattle’s results are when additional context is layered into the picture. People are tossing the “elite” label out the window far too soon, and far too easily.
It is true that Seattle is giving up more yards rushing in the last three games than any other team in the NFL. It’s also true that Seattle has faced the #1 and #5 rushing offenses in the NFL during that span. One might wonder whether Seattle’s defense helped their opponents rise to those lofty rankings. The 49ers rushed for 175 yards against Seattle, only six yards over their season average. The Vikings are averaging over 7.0 yards per carry in their past three games. Seattle clearly got beat on rush defense in the Vikings game, even with context added. They also got beat by the best running back in football, who is playing the best he has in years. The total picture is important to examine as well in those games. The 49ers game, in particular, seems to be chalked up to a bad game for the defense. That bad game resulted in 13 points, on the road, to an offense that had been ranked #1 in the NFL only six days earlier. The Vikings scored a disputed three points after halftime, and finished with less than 290 yards of offense, fourth-worst in the NFL this week. Even the Lions game, where the defense played poorly by almost any measure, there seems to be a lack of respect among Seahawks fans for a Lions offense that ranks #2 in the NFL in yards per game. They got beat on the road by a great offense. It happens.
Further, look at where Seattle ranks after nine games in key defensive measures. They are #3 in opponent points/game, #4 in opponent yards/game, and #6 in yards/play. They have reached those ranks despite played some of the top offenses in football in the first nine games. Seattle has gone up against the #1, #9, #12 and #14 offenses in points/game, the #1, #2, #6, and #13 offenses in yards/game, and the #2, #7, #9, #10, and #11 offenses in yards/play. Those top five defensive rankings for Seattle have not been earned against patsies.
Those performances have put Seattle in position to end the season as the #1 defense in football. Take a look at how the rankings compare for opponent offense from the first nine games versus the final seven:
The best offense Seattle faces in the last seven games of the year is San Francisco at home. The Bears score a lot of points, but a significant chunk of that is coming from their defense. Seattle only faces one of the Top 13 scoring teams in the last 7 games of the year. They play two of the Top 14. The rest rank 18 or lower. The top-ranked opponent the rest of the year in total yards is #13 (SF). All the others rank #21 or worse.
If the Seahawks rank #3 in scoring defense and #4 in opponent yards/game after their schedule through nine games, it stands to reason they will climb higher in those rankings with their final opponents. Seattle has also managed these rankings while getting almost no takeaways (~1 per game) and supporting a struggling offense. Things could look very different if Seattle’s offense continues to improve and the takeaways start to come. The defense could even play worse on a per play basis, but see their overall numbers improve if the offense and takeaways are keeping opponents off the field.
It is logical to be disappointed with aspects of the Seahawks defense the last few games. It is far too early to write them off as merely “very good.” There is a reasonable path to a #1 overall rank for this defense in 2012, and that’s plenty elite for me.