Blue Friday Fodder: Seahawks Defense Losing in the 4th Quarter
Ask a Seahawks fan how they feel about their undefeated Seattle Seahawks, and they will likely tell you they are excited with a pause before adding, “but that defense….” It is true that Seahawks opponents have been exiting games with gaudy, stomach-churning, numbers. No defense has given up more yards or explosive passes than the Seahawks. They have been a historically bad pass defense thus far. It would be easy to assume this group is going to be a weakness all season. Peel back the numbers, though, and there is a case to be made some attainable changes could dramatically improve Seattle’s defense, and championship odds.
Symptoms of the problem
Seattle has surrendered 1,604 passing yards through four games. That is nearly 300 more yards than the second-worst defense in that statistic. Not only that, it is the most passing yards a defense has ever given up in the first four weeks of a season. The next closest was the 2011 New England Patriots, who have up 1,475. Seattle is running away with a record nobody wants to own.
They are also allowing 27.3 points per game. That would set a new franchise worst, beating the 1976 team record of 26.8 points per game set in the inaugural season. A side note: giving up that many points in that point suppressing era of the NFL is a truly terrible accomplishment.
Clues about the cause
The first instinct when you see players getting beat on the field is that there is a talent problem. Player X just stinks. Personnel is almost always a part of the issue when things are not going well on the field. Talent can cover up a lot of mistakes.
Take the case, though, of Shaquill Griffin. This was a player who was a Pro Bowl alternate last season and looked dreadful in getting torched in the Dallas game two weeks ago. He gave up 94 yards by himself in one drive in two plays. Against Miami, he was targeted six times and gave up no catches, while batting down two of those passes and intercepting a third. You will not find a better statistical performance in his career.
You don’t go from those extremes from one week to another without something changing. His talent is a constant in the equation. His opponent obviously changed, but Tre Flowers still gave up a similar amount of receptions as the week prior, so it was not just a bad opponent. There were other elements that changed. We will get back to that in a moment.
There were other differences between the week three defensive performance against Dallas and the week four performance against the Dolphins.
The Seahawks defense had been allowing opponents to score quickly during the first three weeks of the season. It took opponents an average of 3 minutes and 21 seconds to score. That ranked 21st in the NFL.
That changed in week four. Seattle forced Miami to take an average of 4 minutes and 40 seconds to score. That ranked 7th in the NFL.
That changed to 5 minutes and 4 seconds if you limit to the fourth quarter. Seattle had been allowing teams to score in 3 minutes and 12 seconds in the fourth quarter the previous three weeks.
The fourth quarter is worth spending a bit more time on.
Seattle has been ahead in every game so far this season. In fact, only two other teams have spent more time in front of their opponents than the Seahawks.
Their opponents have been in comeback mode in each game. Seattle has surrendered 331 passing yards and 3 touchdowns in the last five minutes of games while leading by more than a touchdown.
Opponents have thrown the ball 48 times in the last five minutes while trailing, 15 more pass plays than the nearest defense. That indicates at least part of the issue with the pass defense is driven by game script and volume of passes they are being asked to defend. Overall, 612 of the 1,604 passing yards (38%) the Seahawks defense has surrendered have occurred in the fourth quarter while leading.
Those garbage time touchdowns have a significant impact on the points allowed per game average. Take away those three opponent TDs when leading by 10+ points with less than 5 minutes to play, and the Seahawks opponent scoring average drops from 27.3 to 22 points per game.
Would it surprise you to find out the Seahawks defense ranks 12th in the NFL in points allowed through the first three quarters of a game? They are allowing 15 points per game prior to the fourth quarter. By comparison, the 2013 Seahawks allowed 11 points per game in the first three quarters. They are roughly one point per quarter worse than the best defense of this generation before getting to the fourth quarter.
Here is how they rank in scoring defense as the game progresses:
First quarter: 20th
First half: 13th
First three quarters: 12th
Full game: 21st
Here is how they rank in each individual quarter:
1st quarter: 20th
2nd quarter: 15th
3rd quarter: 13th
4th quarter: 30th
So we know that the Seahawks are giving up a disproportionate amount of their yards through the air. We know that they are giving up a disproportionate amount of those yards and points in the fourth quarter.
We also know that they are giving up more explosive pass plays (16+ yards) than any team in the NFL (41). That was another difference between the first three weeks and week four.
Seattle had given up at least 10 explosive pass plays in each of the first three weeks. They gave up 8 in the fourth week.
Of all those explosive pass plays surrendered in the first three weeks, 13 of them were for 25 yards or more (4.3 per game). That was dead last in the NFL. They gave up just one such play against Miami, tied for 5th best in the NFL.
Finally, we know they made a significant change in how they approached coverage and how they called blitzes in the fourth week. They blitzed just five times on 45 Miami pass attempts (11.1%) versus roughly 40% of the time against the Cowboys a week prior.
The Seahawks are hemorrhaging yards and points late in games while they are leading. They have been allowing teams to score far too fast by allowing too many chunk pass plays. They were able to dramatically change that in week four.
This defense does not need to be great for the Seahawks to win a Super Bowl. They have proven they can win while giving up lots of points and yards. The probability of being a championship team goes way up if they can just make it tougher for teams to score.
That starts with limiting this mega-chunk pass plays of 25 yards or more, and general explosive pass plays of 16 yards or more.
Part of the formula for doing that is keeping more players in coverage and utilizing safeties as help over the top instead of blitzing them so often.
Jamal Adams is a a great pass rusher for a defensive back. That’s awesome. He has been sent to blitz nearly a quarter of the time when an opponent drops back to pass. That is too much. He blitzed 16% of opponent dropbacks last year in New York.
You can get the goodness of his pass rush without creating integrity problems in the defense by sending him so much. He is more than a blitzer.
Just making teams take more time and more plays to score reduces their ability to put up big numbers. It also increases the chances for turnovers, which the Seahawks have been pretty good at creating so far.
Having more guys in coverage seems like an important aspect of that plan. Continuing to emphasize staying on top of the opposing receiver, even if it means giving up easier underneath throws of 8-15 yards, is going to be important as well. Seattle has been an excellent tackling team so far. They rank first in Pro Football Focus in team tackling grade. Keep plays in front of them and rally to the ball.
It is more than just scheme or playcalling. Getting back Quinton Dunbar will be a big boost when he can return. Flowers has been very bad. Dunbar only needs to be a league average corner to be a large improvement.
This week is going to be a great test of that with two of the best deep threats in the NFL coming to town in Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson.
Seattle has the offense to play in front all year. A few attainable changes to the defense can make this team a far more efficient winner and far more likely champion.