On February 2nd, 2014 I was watching Super Bowl XLVIII at a friend’s house. The Seattle Seahawks were completely annihilating the Denver Broncos and won by a final score of 43-8. Late in the third quarter – it was actually early Monday morning my time – I left to watch the fourth quarter at home in my bed, because the game was over. The score was 36-0 in favor of Seattle and their defense took over from start to finish. It was the peak of an awesome defensive stretch that started in 2011 and might have come to an end in 2017.
When Pete Caroll took over as head coach in 2010, he and personnel guru Scot McCloughan went on to nail three drafts in a row and they built one of the best defenses in NFL history. They turned a bottom-10 defense into one of the best within two years. They drafted guys like Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Byron Maxwell, Malcolm Smith, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner, Bruce Irvin, Jeremy Lane and Walter Thurmond. Eight of those started in Super Bowl XLVIII. In 2013, this defense accounted for a 63.4 passer rating, 3.2 ANY/P, 4.8 NYPPA and a pass DVOA of -34.2%. These numbers led the league and it wasn’t close. They had a great pass rush that consistently got to the QB, a great coverage unit at LB and an even better coverage unit on their secondary. In 2013, they caught 28 interceptions.
That defensive dominance held until 2015, but over the past two seasons the Seahawks defense took a little step back. Here are their respective ranks of the pass efficiency metrics I adressed above for the past two seasons:
It started in 2016 when free safety Earl Thomas broke his left fibia in a week 13 matchup against the Panthers. He also missed the game before against the Bucs. The Seahawks play cover 3 mainly on defense – both outside corners are in zone coverage and they are responsible to cover their deep third towards the sideline. They have their eyes on the QB, can anticipate underneath routes and contain or break up those. Playing cover 3 requires to have a good free safety with speed, range and instincts to cover all the space between the numbers and to attack seam routes. Earl Thomas is that guy and he is probably the best on his position. Playing cover 3 efficiently takes away a lot of room for the opposing passing game to operate and takes away deep passes. Combined with an elite pass rush, you force opposing QBs to make quicker decisions and tough reads against tight zone coverage. This is what made the Seahawks defense so special from 2011 – 2015 and still made them good over the past two years. This is why they made bad QBs and bad passing offenses in general look so ugly very often.
No Earl Thomas – no party
In 2017, Earl Thomas barely missed a game against the Arizona Cardinals. Head coach Bruce Arians said they had two game plans in place for that game, one with Thomas playing and one without. That’s how much respect opposing offenses have. Without Thomas, that defense completely collapsed in 2016. Suddenly, they got beaten deep a lot. Over the first eleven games of the season, the Seahawks allowed a passer rating of 9 (yes, 9) on passes to the deep middle (Earl Thomas) and 39 to the right deep third (Richard Sherman), according to Sharp Football Stats. From weeks 12 to 19 including the playoffs, the Seahawks allowed a passer rating of 139 to the deep middle and 69 to the deep right third. The average passer rating of all defenses to the deep middle was 93 that season. In terms of pass DVOA, the Seahawks’ numbers from week 12 to 19 would have ranked 29th in the league over the course of a season – they were suddenly one of the worst pass defenses in the league. They were giving up plays all over the field, because opposing offenses didn’t fear anything and went aggressive. It also put more stress on both cornerbacks. In the playoffs, they were able to overcome a home game against a harmful Lions offense, but then got hammered by the Falcons who attacked them all week long.
Why am I telling you this? First of all, I want to explain the impact of one single player on that defense and secondly, the Seahawks have been cleaning house during the off-season and Earl Thomas seems to be on the trade block as well. On an interview during the Senior Bowl, he said that he wouldn’t return to the Seahawks without a long-term deal. There have also been some rumors that the Seahawks would be interested in trading him. Last week he said in an interview that he hopes to stay but doesn’t know what would happen. Over the years, the Seahawks signed most of their defensive impact players long-term, so it was obvious they would get into some kind of cap space trouble at some point. During the off-season, they decided to do a “reload” as they say. They traded DE Michael Bennett to the Eagles, cut CB Richard Sherman and let DT Sheldon Richardson go. SS Kam Chancellor and DE Cliff Avril are rehabbing from career-threatening injuries and no one can say whether they are going to play in 2018 or not. Last year’s 2nd-round defensive tackle Malik McDowell might not play a single NFL snap after an ATV accident.
Sheldon Richardson is a bigger loss than it seems to be
Michael Bennett might be 32 years old, but he proved still to be one of the best defensive ends in the league. He had 10 sacks last year and made the top-15 in total pressures according to various charting websites. DE Frank Clark is as good of a successor as it gets and will get the No. 1 role but who will play on the other side? Avril is rehabbing from a 2017 week 4 injury when he lost feelings in his arm. Dion Jordan? Barkevious Mingo?
Sheldon Richardson played the first season as a 4-3 defensive tackle and he played really well. He can consistently disrupt the pocket and move opposing QBs off their spots, even though you don’t see a lot of sacks on his stats line. He had a top-12 pressure rate among all interior defensive linemen in the NFL. The current group of DTs isn’t able to replace Richardson at the top.
Richard Sherman has probably lost a touch from his former elite status, but he was still one of the better cornerbacks in the league last year. Sports Insight Solutions charted him with the 17th-best success rate and the 16th-best yards per pass rate on passes thrown into his direction. Out of 81 qualifying CBs. His ability to contain yards after the catch is still elite. 2nd-year CB Shaquill Griffin quietly took part in making a case for the best CB draft class in years. He was targeted a lot but played pretty well, ranking 8th and 5th in those respective rates by SIS. So who plays opposite him next year? Can slot CB Justin Coleman be trusted outside? Who is going to play there? And who is going to do a solid job on the outside if Earl Thomas gets somehow traded?
SS Kam Chancellor might start the season on the PUP list. His salary already became fully guaranteed so the Seahawks should have no interest in trading or cutting him. His replacement Bradley McDougald, a former undrafted safety, signed a three-year contract in the offseason. He is his replacement – at least on paper. You can’t really replace one of Kam Chancellor or Earl Thomas.
Depending on the Avril and Chancellor rehabs, only three players of the 2013 Super Bowl defense might be starters in September. The Seahawks have lost a bunch of production and a whole lot of efficiency. They also lost a lot of leadership. Not even the biggest Hawks fan can deny that. They don’t have enough quality a the top and they are lacking depth. They also don’t have 2nd-round or 3rd-round picks in this year’s draft. They are picking at 18 in the first round but they have some holes on the offense as well. Trading Thomas would provide them with more high draft picks but would also completely alter their defense so that might not be the best approach.
We were talking about a borderline top-10 passing defense over the past two years but that unit is heading straight towards a borderline top-20 ranking right now. If Thomas gets traded, the Hawks are in deep trouble. The years of shutting offenses down with their system and talent are over – the (mighty) Seattle Seahawks defense is ailing and it might take some time to heal.