The Morning After: Seahawks Thoroughly Outplayed by Bills, Lose 44-34
If you are coming here looking for a scathing review of the Seahawks, and absolutist statements about how this team will never win a Super Bowl with this defense, you have come to the wrong place. The Buffalo Bills out-coached and out-played the Seattle Seahawks yesterday. Unlike so many other losses, this was not a situation where the Seahawks should have won, only to bungle it away. This was not Arizona. Buffalo was better in all three phases of the game. It was painful to watch. Seeing it, though, made me no less confident about the Seahawks being the better team anymore than seeing Josh Allen outplaying Russell Wilson made me think Allen is the better quarterback. How did this happen, and what did we learn?
Buffalo came out with a game plan that totally abandoned the run and put the whole game on the shoulders of Allen. Even with Allen’s progress this year, that was a little surprising. They were just coming off a game where they rushed 38 times for nearly 200 yards and passed 18 times. Allen had been struggling the past four games. It was a bold strategy, and Seattle played right into their hands.
Ken Norton Jr. and Pete Carroll came in playing soft coverage initially with little blitzing. Allen and Stefon Diggs joyously took the easy yards and had scored two touchdowns before Seattle knew what hit them. Buffalo attacked the short-to-intermediate zone on the right side of the field. Over and over and over again.
It became clear rather quickly that Quinton Dunbar was not fit to play. He was not running like a healthy player. The Bills found him as the weak spot and threw with confidence his direction the whole first half. It was not just Dunbar playing poorly. Bobby Wagner looked a step slow when the game started, as did Quandre Diggs and a number of other Seahawks.
The opening kickoff saw undisciplined coverage that led to 50+ yard return. Overall, Seahawks players looked lethargic. They looked like the old 10AM Seahawks for the first time in a long time. That part of this game is something I set aside as an aberration, but absolutely played a role in the outcome.
The defensive game plan contributed to the sleepy start. The players looked no more excited to play a soft zone than fans were to witness it. The finally came alive a little when the coaches turned the dial to 11 on blitzes. Seattle would finish with a season-high 7 sacks and 10 QB hits on the day.
I had warned last week that the 49ers were a unique opponent in their limited ability (and interest) in pushing the ball down field. They are more of a horizontal offense. That gave the Seahawks a chance to be more aggressive with less downside. Seattle seemed to think the same thing in coming out with a different approach this week versus a much better receiving corps.
One of the biggest takeaways for me from this game is the Seahawks are going to have to prioritize pressure over coverage. They have to blitz. They have to do it a lot. They have to know they will get beat for explosive plays at times because of it. They have to do it anyway.
There was some evidence mounting a few weeks back that playing off coverage and keeping plays in front of them was starting to give the Seahawks defense some hope of being more durable defensively. Opponent yards per play was going down, explosive passes were going down, and the plays per scoring drive were up.
That is simply not this team. They are not sound enough or good enough in coverage to play that way. I have had my doubts about the blitz heavy way the team started this year because of how much stress it put on the secondary and because the blitzes were so poorly disguised.
What I saw last week and in the second half this week was a defense that played with far more passion and made more plays when attacking instead of playing back. That is not to say the defense is good when they are playing that way, but it appears to be the style that best suits the personnel.
Carroll will struggle with that decision. He comes from a background of creating sound defenses that rarely blitz and limit explosive passes. I do not think he can look at that secondary and think he has a choice.
Even getting Shaquill Griffin back, which is no sure bet this week, is not clearly going to solve any problems. Dunbar could sit, but will this knee injury heal this year or is he going to need surgery this offseason? Tre Flowers played another decent game yesterday, and the combination of Flowers and Griffin would have absolutely been better than Flowers and Dunbar yesterday.
Ugo Amadi might be better than DJ Reed, but we are not sure when he gets back.
Waiting for guys to get healthy is not a strategy. Even though the Seahawks got destroyed this week and gave up a nauseating 44 points, they gave up just 3.2 yards per play in the second half after giving up 7.0 yards per play in the first half.
Their second half scoring drives were all the result of either a turnover or a Seahawks penalty. They had drives of 19 yards for a field goal, 82 yards for a touchdown (Adams penalty), 3 yards for a touchdown, and 6 yards for a field goal.
The defense lost this game, but the offense lost the second half.
The 82 yard drive was of note for a couple of reasons. Seattle gave up a couple of explosive plays early, but were getting pressure. They eventually got a sack, and then a false start that was almost certainly related to their unrelenting blitzing, and then got another sack on 3rd down that would have likely resulted in a punt before the penalty was called on Adams.
That is the style they will have to play. They will get give up yardage, but have to hope they will make a play or two to get the opponent off-schedule or more likely to turn the ball over.
They will also have to get better at recognizing when teams will attempt to counter these blitzes with screens, after getting gashed twice in the second half, including on 3rd and 16 on that same drive.
I have no trust in Norton Jr being the guy who can figure out the right balance, or disguise his intentions, or coming up with creative approaches, or teaching his players how to do it well. This is also not Carroll’s area of expertise. The ideal coach would be someone like Jim Johnson, who was in Seattle for a cup of coffee back in the Dennis Erickson days and helped implement some of the best blitz schemes in football while allowing Chad Brown and Shawn Springs and others to flourish. He went on to leading some of the NFL’s best defenses in Philadelphia before retiring. He passed away in 2009, so he will not be helping Seattle.
Lots of folks are clamoring for Dan Quinn. As much as I like Quinn, I’m not sure he is the right guy for the job either. One name that could be interesting would be Wade Phillips. He is not exactly a blitz-heavy guy either, as he usually relies on a dominant front four, but he has played a more attacking style than Carroll and could provide some perspectives to expand thinking in the room.
Outright firing Norton seems like a big longshot. Carroll is not the guy to fire one of his coaches during the year (or almost ever). He was already in full mother hen mode in postgame, saying that he was responsible for a lot of the defensive calls, including the blitz on the 3rd and 16. It sounded very similar to how he protected Darrell Bevell after the Super Bowl loss.
It would also require quite the swallowing of ego for Carroll to bring in another defensive coach. To some extent, that would be acknowledging that he cannot fix this on his own.
The most likely scenario is that Carroll and Norton will be tinkering with this defense and trying to learn how best to blitz the rest of the year. As twisted as it might seem to say, the truth is there was some progress made on Sunday. The last time a Seahawks team had 7 sacks in a game was in 2013. It’s only happened three times in the Carroll era, and yesterday was one of them.
It was impressive and surprising that Allen did not make a single mistake or turnover despite all of that pressure. Other players will.
Carlos Dunlap looked like exactly the player Seattle needs him to be. Jarran Reed had 2.5 sacks. Wagner had another sack. Adams had 1.5. This was against a Bills offensive line that was among the best in the league at pass protection. There is something to build on there, even amidst the wreckage.
The offense will get a bit of a pass from many as the awful defensive game cast a shadow they could hide in. Not here. Yes, the offense scored 34 points. Yes, Wilson threw for nearly 400 yards and DK Metcalf had another 100+ yard receiving day. It also was too error-prone.
Wilson had four turnovers on the day. Some of that is on Wilson. Some of that is on his offensive line. Some of that is on Brian Schottenheimer for getting out-schemed.
Take Wilson’s first pick in the endzone on 4th and 1 from the 5-yard line. They got into that situation by running Travis Homer on 3rd and 1 for no gain. Why on earth is Homer the guy getting a short-yardage carry? Alex Collins is far more sensible. Homer is not a short yardage back and never will be. DeeJay Dallas had been knocked out with an illegal helmet hit that went uncalled. If you were uncomfortable playing Collins there, just do not run it.
Then, on 4th down, the play called did not work, leaving Wilson trying to make something out of nothing. Did he make a bad decision? Absolutely. Was it all his fault? No way.
Wilson started the second half with a really bad series. Schottenheimer called a great first play and Wilson uncharacteristically left the ball short, hitting the defender in the back. He then missed Metcalf on second down and finally fumbled on third down. The second half might have been very different if Wilson had played better on that series.
His second interception was on a desperation play after the game was pretty much out of reach. His final fumble was after being pummeled by an untouched blitzer. Yes, it is on him to recognize the defense and get rid of the ball, but he took a beating.
I put more of this offensive performance on Schottenheimer than on Wilson, but both we not their best. Even after turning the ball over four times, getting no turnover help from their defense, and playing behind all day, being out-schemed, they managed 34 points and a bushel of yards.
This offense will be a handful for opponents all year, and I think we are seeing that Chris Carson is more valuable than many want to acknowledge. This team is far better when he is on the field.
Folks who want to say this team has no hope to win the Super Bowl with this defense will have plenty of ammunition from this game. The defense looked hopeless. I simply do not see it that way. They played and coached terribly yesterday and the opponent played and coached wonderfully, and they lost by ten points. The secondary is a legitimate red flag. What I see, though, is a defense caught between identities that needs to choose one thing to be good at, and build from there. I see a path to this defense disrupting quarterbacks more than I see a path to them playing sticky coverage. Lean in.