The Falcons have the top-ranked offense and the Seahawks have a top-five defense. But how potent is Seattle’s defense if it is without Earl Thomas? Well, we’re about to find out.
He said it casually, almost thoughtlessly, as though it were the undisputed truth.
Responding to a question about facing Atlanta’s offense — which was the NFL’s best for the final four weeks of the regular season — Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett threw out a statement that some may feel is dated.
“It’s one of those things where number one meets number one,” said Bennett, referring to where the Seahawks’ defense and Falcons’ offense rank in his mind. “And it makes it really good.”
One would expect this kind of answer from a two-time Pro Bowler that has emerged as one of the most disruptive defensive forces in the NFL.
He has to think this way about the unit that led the league in points allowed each season from 2012-2015.
But if we’re talking about present-day; if we’re talking about an Earl Thomas-less Seahawks squad that has proven itself vulnerable — can we really say this defense is No. 1?
Well, we’re about to find out.
It’s no secret that the points-allowed title has been a point of emphasis for Seattle since the Legion of Boom introduced itself to the nation. When the Seahawks won that crown for the fourth straight time in Arizona last year, cornerback Richard Sherman expressed to the media how satisfying the feat was.
But in the four regular-season games sans Thomas this year, Seattle allowed 98 points — including 38 and 34 to the Packers and Cardinals, respectively — as the Patriots (250 points) and Giants (284) slid under the Seahawks (292) in the points-allowed department.
You can’t think that this sat well in the locker room.
“Dang!” said Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright Tuesday when he was reminded of the shortcoming. But then he reminded the scribes surrounding him that, with the Falcons on the horizon, the Seahawks have a chance to prove that no defense should be held in higher esteem.
“We want to go out there and show the world who the best defense is,” Wright said. “They are a great offense, so it will be great if we can look at the end of the game and they have however many points and have just dominated them. I’m excited for the challenge.”
Of course, it’s easy to be excited for the challenge when that challenge is still a few days away. It may not be so exciting if Atlanta is picking the Seahawks apart one Matt Ryan laser at a time.
The Falcons have averaged 38.5 points over the final four games of the season and have the top-ranked offense in the league according to advanced metrics (DVOA). Ryan, the favorite to win NFL MVP, has a league-leading passer rating of 117.1 and a league-leading total quarterback rating of 83.4. Julio Jones finished second in the league in receiving yards, Devonta Freeman placed ninth in rushing yards (1.079), and center Alex Mack made the Pro Bowl.
And while I can go on and on about the numbers and the level of talent from the players on that roster, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll put it more succinctly.
“They’re good at everything on offense,” he said.
Can the Seahawks say the same about their defense?
No one will dispute that injuries are a given in football, but the loss of Thomas was particularly troublesome for Seattle. This is a defense built around the secondary, and the free safety was the anchor of that core.
And while Thomas’ replacement, Steven Terrell, has show signs of improvement, he hasn’t demonstrated he can adequately fill the void left by the potential Hall of Famer. But that doesn’t mean he can’t do an about face Saturday.
There have been an array of playoff celebrities that have emerged from Seattle over the past few years; Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and Doug Baldwin being among them. But the engine of this team — the force that powered the Seahawks to two Super Bowl appearances and five straight 10-win seasons has been the defense. And if they are to return to the NFC championship game for the third time in four years, then it will be the defense that got them there.
Don’t read too much into Seattle holding Detroit to six points last week. The Lions were a feeble group that struggled just to catch the ball.
The real test for the Seahawks’ defense comes Saturday. We won’t know if it’s an elite defense until we see the final score at the Georgia Dome.
Maybe the Seahawks prove they are still number one on that side of the ball. Or maybe the Falcons just do a number on them.