It’s week 15 of the NFL season and the 6-7 Washington Football Team will be facing a 9-4 Seahawks team at home at FedExField on Sunday. The Seahawks have a much better overall record, but Washington is 4-1 over the last 5 weeks while the Seahawks are 3-2 over the same timeframe. The Seahawks are currently tied with their division-rival Rams for the lead of their division and the Rams have won their only head-to-head game this year, giving the Rams the tiebreaker and the lead in their division. The Seahawks will be looking to win this game in order to overtake the Rams within their division, though they have another head-to-head matchup next week.
The Seahawks started the season undefeated in their first 5 games, but have been up and down (and 4-4) since then. Although their offense started out red hot, their defense was one of the worst in the NFL early in the season. Things have reverted to the mean on both sides of the ball, with their offense seeming to cool off and their defense starting to gel. Head coach Pete Carroll has seemed to prefer an old-school defensive, run-heavy approach since taking charge of the Seahawks, but has recently transitioned to a more pass-happy, offensive affair revolving around deep throws to wide receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. The Seahawks defense is ranked 25th against the pass and 11th against the run so far this year according to Football Outsiders DVOA, which (combined with their offensive output) has lead to some pass-heavy games. The Seahawks have particularly struggled to generate pass rush this year until trading for Bengals DE Carlos Dunlap at the end of October. Dunlap has garnered 3.5 sacks in 5 games with the Seahawks, but is currently questionable to play this week with a foot injury.
To learn more about these and other issues, I asked John Gilbert of Field Gulls five questions about the state of the Seahawks and what to look for in this game.
1) The Seahawks defense started the season unable to stop anyone, but seems to have started to click recently, holding their last 5 opponents to 23 or fewer points per game. To what do you attribute the early-season struggles and why do you think they’ve looked better recently?
I think it’s a combination of multiple things as opposed to any individual issue.
The first factor is that scoring across the NFL is down from earlier in the season. Just as was seen in 2011 following no offseason and an abbreviated training camp because of the lockout, defenses across the league struggled early in the season. However, as they’ve had more time in practice and now thirteen games to learn, defenses are faring better across the league, not just in Seattle.
Then, for the Seahawks specifically, some injury issues led to several members of the defense missing time. Early in the season starters Bruce Irvin and Marquise Blair were lost for the year due to injury. All Pro strong safety Jamal Adams missed four games. Starting left cornerback Shaquill Griffin missed four games. Defensive ends Benson Mayowa and Rasheem Green missed three and six games, respectively. Cornerback D.J. Reed missed the first six games with an offseason injury, and he’s provided quality play both in a nickel role, as well as outside when injuries pushed him into a starting role. Things are now coming together for a unit that is finally starting to play more assignment sound and performing as a more cohesive unit than they were earlier in the year.
Lastly, part of it is simply that they’ve faced opponents which might not have quite the offense of the opponents they faced earlier in the season. Specifically, the last three opponents the Seahawks have faced (Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and New York Jets) are all 26th or lower in the NFL in scoring, and there may be no better recipe for a struggling defense than to face a string of three straight sputtering offenses.
So, in short, putting all of these factors together, the result is a defense that may not necessarily have improved as much as the on-scoreboard production of opponents indicates, but which is certainly improved from earlier in the season.
2) Conversely, the Seahawks offense was scoring 30+ points per game early in the season, but has failed to break 30 points in the last 5 weeks except for an outlier performance against a moribund Jets team. Has there been a decline in the offense and if so, what do you think is causing it?
This, again, is the result of a couple of factors. The first is that opponents have had an opportunity to adjust to the Let Russ Cook movement. Teams came into the season expecting Seattle to run the ball early and often just as they did in 2018 and 2019, but they’ve been throwing it far more this season. As teams have adjusted to focus more on stopping the pass while inviting the Hawks to run the ball, the result has been an offense that hasn’t been nearly as explosive.
Then there are teams that have done what the Giants did to the Seattle offense, and that is to shift late, throwing off the pre-snap reads for Russell Wilson. At a very basic level the Seahawks offense comes to the line of scrimmage with three plays Wilson can run, and which of the three plays Wilson runs is based on these reads for Wilson. Back in 2018, the Carolina Panthers stymied the Seahawks offense for a half by often showing two high safeties pre-snap which led Wilson to checking to a run play at the line of scrimmage, and then once Wilson had made that check, one of the safeties would collapse into the box and the Hawks were running into a stuffed box. The Giants did the opposite - they gave the Seahawks a lot of single high looks which would lead Wilson to want to look for the deep ball. Then after Russ made his check at the line the second safety would retreat deep, taking away the deep ball the defense had just invited Wilson to throw. In particular, the Giants did this between the 40s, which is where the Seattle offense likes to look for shot plays, and by combining this shift with pressure when they knew Russ would likely be looking deep they were able to generate four sacks on pass plays with the line of scrimmage between the 40s.
Whether the offense itself is actually back on track or not remains to be seen, but at this point the Seahawks need just 60 points over the final three games of the season for the offense to finish as the highest scoring offense in franchise history.
3) When Ron Rivera was hired in Washington, it was promised to be as the head of a “coach-centric system” largely modeled after the one in Seattle where the head coach has final say in all matters of football operations. How critical do you think this system has been to the Seahawks success? What was the value in giving John Schneider a formal GM title (as opposed to something like VP of Football Operations) and have there been times when Carroll and Schneider have clearly disagreed on personnel decisions?
The front office is pretty tight lipped, so I’m not aware of any specific instances where Carroll and Schneider have clearly disagreed on personnel decisions. That said, over the course of working together for more than a decade, I’m sure they have had disagreements on personnel and the like, but they haven’t let it become public, and they are on the verge of making the playoffs for the ninth time in eleven seasons, so something is working.
4) The NFC West is widely considered to be the most competitive division in football right now and is likely to field more than one playoff team. Which of your division rivals would you be most worried to face in the postseason and why?
Absolutely zero doubt that it’s the Los Angeles Rams. The Arizona Cardinals and last place San Francisco 49ers have flashed at times, but neither is truly a team that instills fear. Yes, the Cardinals have split the four games they’ve played against the Hawks since Kliff Kingsbury was hired, but the Rams are 5-2 against Seattle since Sean McVay arrived in town. And even that pair of losses came in games in which Cooper Kupp dropped a potential touchdown pass that hit him in the hands with 12 seconds left on the clock in a 16-10 Seattle win in Week 5 of the 2017 season and then in Week 5 of the 2019 season the Seahawks escaped with a 30-29 victory when Greg Zuerlein missed a 44 yard field goal with 11 seconds left.
In short, that’s how close Seattle is to being 0-7 against McVay’s Rams over the past three plus seasons, leading to not looking forward to playing the Rams in Week 16 with the NFC West title on the line, or possibly running into the Rams again in the postseason.
5) If you were gameplanning to beat the Seahawks, how would you do it on both sides of the ball?
Attack the defense in its weak spots - tight ends in the seams and look for situational mismatches where backs and receivers are covered by linebackers. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are two of my favorite players, but father time is undefeated and neither of them has the speed they had in their younger days. I could see Washington looking to create mismatches by using alignments where those two wind up in coverage on J.D. McKissic, and that could be bad for the Seahawks. McKissic was one of my favorite players during his time with Seattle, and I will not be surprised at all if he has a huge number of targets this weekend.
On the other side of the ball, the most important thing is to use multiple high safeties to take away the deep ball. Then it becomes a matter of needing to muddy the reads for Wilson in terms of disguised coverages and bringing pressure from different places to speed up his clock in the pocket. Wilson’s pocket mechanics are light years better than they were when Seattle and Washington faced off in 2017, but he still has a tendency to revert to some of his older habits when he’s pressured and hit early and often. Fluster Russ and get him anticipating rushers that may or may not be coming, and that’s when he can get off his game and start turning the ball over.
In addition, keeping two safeties deep invites the Seattle offense to run the ball, and any team hoping to slow down the Seahawks offense must be prepared to allow the running game to gain some ground. It can be hard for a defensive coordinator to suffer the death by a thousand cuts of allowing the run game to work while waiting for the strategy to eventually lead to a 3rd & long that the offense can’t convert, but the instant they commit an extra defender to the box, Russ will look for DK Metcalf or Tyler Lockett deep, and that is far more dangerous to opponents. So, one of the biggest things is to be patient and absorb the body blows while limiting explosive plays.
Thanks again to John Gilbert for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Seahawks.
As of right now, Vegas has Seattle as 6 point favorites over Washington. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Seattle wins by more than 6 points
Seattle wins by 6 points or less or it’s a tie
Washington wins outright
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 44.5 points. Which would you bet?
This poll is closed
45 or more total points are scored (both sides combined)
Fewer than 45 total points are scored (both sides combined)
How many 1st round picks would you be willing to trade right now for Russell Wilson and his contract? Be sure to indicate your limit, not just what you’d hope for.
This poll is closed
Five or more