RENTON — It may not seem like it, given the ups and downs of the last four weeks, but the Seahawks defense has settled into a rhythm as the regular season nears its end.
It’s just one that, unfortunately for Seahawks fans, has been a little off key.
Consider that over the last seven weeks the Seahawks have ranked either 23rd, 24th, 25th or 26th in total defense (total yards allowed, or 375.5 per game) in the 32-team NFL and either 11th, 12th or 13th in the 16-team NFC.
That includes standing at 26th and 13th this week after the faceplant against the Rams on Sunday night. If they stay at those spots it would be by far the worst for any Seahawks team since Pete Carroll’s first year in 2010. Seattle hasn’t finished lower than 16th since and was in the Top 10 every year from 2011 to 2016.
For two weeks — in wins on the road against the 49ers and the Eagles — the defense appeared to be breaking through.
The Seahawks held the 49ers, last seen scoring 48 points at New Orleans, to their third-lowest yardage total of the season (302, more impressive considering the game went the full 10 minutes of overtime) and two weeks later became the only team to hold the Eagles under 10 points this season in a 17-9 win.
The last two weeks have been two steps back as the Seahawks gave up two late long drives to let the Vikings almost pull out a stunning comeback win Monday night, then allowed the resurgent Rams to gain 455 yards in a 28-12 Los Angeles win, the fifth-most gained by the Rams this season.
So what’s gone wrong?
Here are three things that stand out.
1. The pass rush has disappeared
The great revelation of the 49ers/Eagles wins was the revival of the pass rush as Seattle combined for eight sacks (five against the 49ers), the most in any two-game stretch this season. A monster game by Jadeveon Clowney helped fuel the defense against the 49ers. When he missed the Eagles game and Seattle still got three sacks, there was hope it was a permanent rebound.
The Seahawks had no sacks in the last two games with Clowney battling a core injury and Ziggy Ansah (who looked refreshed against the Eagles) missing the Rams game. But the hope was that Seattle was getting to where it didn’t have to rely on just those two players. The addition of speedy Shaquem Griffin rushing the passer against the 49ers helped greatly and second-year player Rasheem Green appeared to be coming on.
The defensive performance against the Eagles may have been a function of a Philly team that had a beat-up offensive line (no starting right tackle Lane Johnson). The injuries to Clowney, Ansah and linebacker Mychal Kendricks have taken a toll for Seattle. The Seahawks haven’t used the Griffin package much the last two weeks (19 snaps compared to 38 against the Eagles and 49ers).
The reality remains that no player has more than three sacks (Clowney, Green, Kendricks). Last year, the Seahawks had two players with at least 10 (Frank Clark, Jarran Reed).
Seattle’s 23 sacks for the season (fewer than the 23.5 Clark and Reed combined for in 2018) is tied for third fewest in the league. It also has just 40 tackles-for-loss (a stat that does not include sacks but all other tackles of a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage), which is the second fewest in the NFL.
The hope is that Clowney, Ansah and Kendricks can return to form over the next week or so, and especially by the playoffs. But if not, what you see may be what you’ll get.
2. Seahawks are making too many communication errors
Against the Rams, the Seahawks looked caught off-guard when the Rams went no-huddle (such as a 15-yard pass to Robert Woods on the first series) or just upped the tempo.
But a few times Seattle also just seemed confused, such as when tight end Tyler Higbee ran right by Shaquill Griffin to pick up 33 yards on a third-and-nine play to set up LA’s first TD.
The play was reminiscent of a similar breakdown the previous week when Minnesota’s Laquon Treadwell ran behind the defense for a 58-yard TD that spurred the Vikings’ comeback.
A few players said after the Rams’ game the signals needed to get relayed quicker.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said after the Vikings game the lesson was, “don’t let that happen again. Let’s have better communication. Let’s learn from that situation. I think that any time you play a multiple of coverages like we do, you’re going to have those type of situations. Then, you use those to learn from. We’ve talked about it all night that night. It’s something that we’ve gotten better from.’’
But the Rams game showed there are still some issues, and Carroll said “some newness contributed to it,’’ meaning that the Seahawks have some new players in key roles such as rookie Cody Barton filling in for Kendricks against the Rams and a secondary that has just four starts together with the current players in their current roles.
“They were effective in their tempo,’’ Norton said of the Rams. “It comes down to getting lined up and communication. I think everybody had a little piece of that. But you have to give the Rams a lot of credit, they played well that night.”
Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner — who wears the helmet with the headset and gets the call from the coaches to then give on the field — accepted the blame for it during his weekly session with the media, too.
“I would say it starts with me making sure I get the call in fast,” Wagner said.
It may be worth noting that while the Rams’ 455 yards Sunday were their fifth-most, their third-most was 477 against the Seahawks in October. Maybe it’s a Rams thing.
3. And the Seahawks are giving up too many yards and receptions to tight ends
Higbee had two big plays against the Seahawks — the 33-yarder on the first drive and a 32-yarder to set up the Rams’ final TD.
Linebacker K.J. Wright said each was just coverage breakdowns and that it was Higbee who just happened to be the open player (on the first reception, he was lined up out wide as a receiver and not in line).
Still, that Higbee ended up with 116 yards receiving on seven catches continued what has been a disturbing trend for Seattle.
According to Pro Football Reference, the Seahawks have given up the second-most receptions (84) and yards (918) to tight ends in the NFL. In each of the last three games a tight end has either led or tied for the lead in receptions against Seattle.
“It has been happening,’’ Wright said. “We’ve just got to figure it out, see who they are targeting in the game and just keep a coverage eye on him.’’
And, like all that has ailed the defense of late, that needs to happen soon, so the 10-2 start to this season doesn’t go to waste.