Seahawks Death Week: Getting Defensive

Yesterday, I took a look at the positives, what went right in the 2015 season for the Seahawks.  It ended up sprawling out of control and only covered the offense, so I decided to split it up and talk about the defense today.

Part of me feels like I’ve been a little hard on the defense – a defense that finished tops in the league in fewest points allowed for the fourth straight year, a feat never accomplished in the Super Bowl Era of the NFL – but part of me also feels that it’s warranted.  The stars are plenty on that side of the ball, which is why it gets the lion’s share of the salary cap devoted to it.  Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, and Bobby Wagner are among the best at their respective positions.  K.J. Wright, Cliff Avril, Brandon Mebane, Ahtyba Rubin, Bruce Irvin, Jeremy Lane, and Kam Chancellor are also pretty great and probably don’t get the type of recognition they deserve.  That is, literally, the entire starting base defense, 1-11; any team would be lucky to have even a few of those guys!  And here we are, with a murderer’s row of who’s who.

My response to the season this unit has had is more of a gut reaction, or an eyeball test, than anything I’m going to sit here and try to express with numbers.  I went into it a little bit on Monday, but I’ll say it again:  there were four games – including the loss to Carolina last week – where this defense gave up 30 points or more.  There were four such instances TOTAL (including playoffs) from 2012-2014.  So, that’s a little upsetting.  While the offense took a big leap forward in 2015, it wasn’t quite able to account for all of the defense’s shortcomings when we talk about some of these losses we had this season.  In most of those defeats where we blew the lead late, all it would have taken was a little extra clock-killing on offense to render those comebacks moot.  But, no dice.  Maybe, going forward, the offense will gain that killer instinct; instead of just trying to run out some clock, we’ll actively be trying to play add-on with the score late in some of these games.  I know it’s not necessarily in Pete Carroll’s nature, as a run-first guy, but we might have to adapt as the defense comes back down to Earth.

A lot of breakdowns in our pass defense as well, which used to be the belle of the ball.  Part of that was shored up with the combo of Jeremy Lane (returning from injury) and DeShawn Shead combining to take the place of Cary Williams, who was never all that impressive, but who I think also takes an unfair share of the burden for this team’s harrowing start to the season.  As you can see in some of these games towards the end of the season where breakdowns remained.  Not just against Carolina, but we can’t forget the Pittsburgh game, which was just a blitzkrieg of deep passes.  And I’ll never understand how we lost to the Rams a SECOND time, but there were a few critical lapses there as well.

I like a Seahawks defense that’s able to get by with a 4-man pass rush.  I like a Seahawks defense that prevents the big play from hurting us.  But, we gotta figure out what we’re doing on these intermediate-range plays, and we’ve GOT to fix whatever’s going on with our coverage on tight ends.  That Carolina playoff game wasn’t a microcosm of our season, Greg Olsen standing wide open at the line to gain as they convert yet another clock-wasting first down is a microcosm of our season.  We need to cut that shit out, but soon.

But, this post is meant to be more positive than negative, so let’s get to the 2015 accolades!

It’s been repeated ad nauseam, but it’s still remarkably cool:  4 straight years leading the league in fewest points allowed.  Unbelievable!  The Seahawks were also 2nd in fewest total yards allowed, 2nd in fewest passing yards allowed, and best in the league in fewest rushing yards allowed.  We managed all of this while being pretty middle-of-the-road when it comes to sacks, interceptions, and fumble recoveries.  As we all know, a lot of turnovers is luck-based.  Carolina and Arizona led the league in takeaways and, not surprisingly, they had the two best records in the NFL.  When you combine a lot of takeaways with an already-strong defense, amazing things tend to happen with your win/loss record.  The fact that the Seahawks could be so good in yards and points allowed, while being tied for 18th in takeaways, says a lot about the talent on that side of the ball.

So, maybe that’s it.  Maybe that explains my gut reaction to this defense.  Big plays – like sacks and turnovers – tend to stand out.  A high volume of big plays leaves a better impression on you.  In years past – especially in 2012 & 2013 – the Seahawks were dominating the league in getting turnovers.  The past couple years, not so much.  Which is obviously a reflection of the rest of the league going hyper conservative (for the most part) against the Seahawks, settling for quick, short throws in the passing game.  And, not for nothing, but when it’s so difficult to run on us, we’re probably seeing fewer rushing attempts.  Combine that with the increase in quick throws, and you’ve got fewer opportunities to force fumbles, either by strip-sacking the quarterback, or punching it out of a runner’s hands.

Is there a way to increase turnover production, without changing everything that you’ve ever been about on defense?  Or, is it all just blind, stinking luck, bound to turn around with no rhyme or reason?  That’ll be something interesting to look at for 2016.

Anyway, back to the kudos, gotta start with Michael Bennett.  10 more sacks this year to lead the team.  He now has 25.5 sacks over his 3-year Seahawks career, which is a pretty great clip.  He was more disruptive overall in 2015 than I think I’ve ever seen, with just getting pressure, stopping the run game, and all the rest.  Glad to have him on our side, hope he stays on our side, without any disgruntled contract issues this offseason.

Sticking with the line, Cliff Avril was second on the team with 9 sacks, giving him 22 sacks in his 3-year Seahawks career.  These guys are the best 1-2 punch we’ve had on this team since Jacob Green and Jeff Bryant.  Always love to have an awesome pass rush.

Earl Thomas led the defense with 5 more interceptions, giving him 21 in his 6-year career.  He’s got a ways to go to get up around the career leaders in NFL history, but he’s also got a ways to go in his own career.  Here’s to hoping he makes a big push in the next few years to move up the rankings.

Richard Sherman had the fewest interceptions of his career, with only 2, but I can vividly remember a handful of uncharacteristic drops that would’ve had him around his career norms.  Regardless of numbers, Sherm was his usual amazing self, locking down his side of the field, and sometimes even following the opposing team’s #1 all around the field.  It was exciting to see, and to be quite honest, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of it.  We’re just so lucky to have him on our team; I pinch myself every time I watch him play to make sure I’m not dreaming.

I think I might have the most sheer respect for K.J. Wright over anyone else on this team.  He’s only missed 4 regular season games in his career, he comes to work every day, is CONSTANTLY overshadowed by a bunch of guys on this defense, and yet he’s one of the smartest, most talented, and athletically gifted players on this team, who simply gets better each and every season.  I didn’t think he had a better season in him than his 2014, when he finally got over the hump of making 100 tackles, but his 2015 blew me out of the water.  He led the team in tackles for the second straight season, with 116, he was a force in stopping the run, and he played sideline to sideline, really strong coverage.  If he ever got beat down the field, I don’t remember it.  Just a consummate pro, without whom this defense’s effectiveness would be drastically reduced.

Bobby Wagner wasn’t far behind, with 114 tackles, in a very workmanlike season.  He posted a career low in sacks, with 0.5, and this is the second straight year he’s been held without an interception, which again probably accounts for my gut reaction to his having a “down” season.  I’m not sitting here watching hours of tape, so I can’t say for sure if it was down, but from a fan’s perspective, I hope for something more.  When I compare Wagner to anyone, it’s Lofa Tatupu, the best middle linebacker in Seahawks history, and when I think of Tatupu, I think of all the great interceptions early in his career.  Fair or unfair, when your defense by its nature forces other teams to throw lots of underneath routes, you hope to have more of a visible impact out of your middle linebacker when it comes to knocking passes down and picking passes off.

I’d like to throw out a combo shout-out to a few guys who are free agents in 2016:  Mebane, Rubin, Lane, Shead, Mike Morgan, and Bruce Irvin.  All of them except for Shead are unrestricted free agents (meaning they can sign with anyone, with no penalty to the team that signs them).  Shead, I believe, will just get a tender to sign, so we can count on him being back in the fold.  All of these guys had great seasons, with big impacts either on defense, special teams, or both.  Bruce Irvin probably has the biggest market for his services; it’ll be interesting to see how many teams are interested, how much they’re willing to spend, and how interested the Seahawks are in bringing him back (for the record, I’ll believe Irvin takes a discount to return to the Seahawks when I see it; everyone says that on the last day of the season; it’s emotional, you’re seeing your friends for the last time in a while, you say shit you don’t necessarily mean when you’re staring at a contract offer two months later).  Mebane is probably the guy I’d want to have back the most, for sentimental reasons alone.  But, he also proved he’s got a lot left in the tank after missing a lot of 2015 with injury.  I’ll also be interested in seeing what happens with Lane.  He was injured for most of 2015, but also kinda helped save our season with his return and insertion into the starting lineup.  Will that, and the reputation of the Seahawks churning out amazing cornerbacks, be enough to build up his value across the NFL?  Or, will teams be a little more gunshy after the disaster that was the Byron Maxwell deal in year 1 with Philly?

Honestly, I’d like to have all of those guys back, but this is a business, so it’s not likely going to happen.  Gotta work on that offensive line, which probably means dipping our toes into free agency, which means less money to go around on defensive free agents.  I’m also curious to see what happens with Mike Morgan.  He’s a special teams standout, he’s a capable fill-in guy on defense if/when guys go down with injury.  Does he have enough tape to prove to teams he’s a starting-calibre guy a la Malcolm Smith?  OR, might he be – to the Seahawks – a cheaper alternative to replace Bruce Irvin, if he maxes out his deal elsewhere?

Part of me thinks we’re only scratching the surface of Bruce Irvin’s potential, in spite of his being in the league for four years already.  But, the rest of me knows the danger in over-paying for all three linebackers on the same defense, as there’s only so much salary cap to go around.

Interesting times for this team.  2015 might be a transition year for the defense as well as the offense.  I’ll close with some thoughts on some of the younger guys.

Frank Clark flashed some of that great potential we all saw in the pre-season.  I think his rookie season was wildly successful!  More than anything, he stayed healthy.  That’s huge for a guy who’s obviously developing, both his skills and his body.  What’s he going to look like when he comes back for Training Camp, with a full offseason to work out and get comfortable with the NFL life (now that he’s no longer a rookie, with everything going a thousand miles a minute)?  He could truly be a beast in 2016, and a candidate to make a big jump in overall production.

Kelcie McCray was a real find for this team.  The Seahawks traded a 5th round pick to Kansas City to bring him in at the end of the pre-season, which appeared to be – at the time – something of a panic move, with Kam Chancellor’s hold-out dragging on into the regular season.  Without any time to gel with the defense, he wasn’t anything more than a depth guy (with credentials as a fantastic Special Teams player).  But, over the course of the season, he got comfortable with our scheme, and looked every bit the part in his time taking over for Kam, who missed some games with injury late in the season.  McCray is signed through 2016, which could be a good bargaining chip for this team, as we head into another offseason of uncertainty regarding Kam’s happiness with his contract.  It’s reasonable to assume Kam isn’t any happier with his deal than he was at this time last year.  But, you know, he didn’t have the greatest 2015 by any stretch of the imagination.  Perhaps the team opts to rid itself of the headache and looks to insert McCray into the starting lineup.  At the very least, the team has that move in its back pocket, should another holdout be on the horizon.

Finally, because I somehow managed to blow out this post more than yesterday’s, shout out to Cassius Marsh and Jordan Hill for making it to the end of the season relatively injury-free.  Marsh, as a rookie in 2014, was shut down REAL early in the season.  But, he came back quicker and stronger in 2015 and made it the whole season.  Granted, he’s still a role player, behind a couple of studs in Bennett and Avril, but you need those guys in your rotation to keep everyone fresh.  And, not for nothing, but Marsh might have been our best coverage guy on kickoffs; he seemed to always be around the ball making tackles inside the 20.  As for Hill, he’s yet to play a full season in his 3-year career, but he played out the last three games for the Seahawks, and will hopefully be able to use his offseason to get stronger as opposed to simply rehabbing another injury.  I look forward to both of these guys making a bigger impact next year, with Hill possibly even starting.

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