How the Seahawks' defense has authored a remarkable second-half turnaround

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How the Seahawks' defense has authored a remarkable second-half turnaround

Post by admin » Fri Dec 06, 2019 9:06 am

The Seattle Seahawks came into the 2019 season with very few remaining remnants of the Legion of Boom. Earl Thomas was in Baltimore. Richard Sherman was in San Francisco. Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril were retired. Michael Bennett was in Foxboro on his way to Dallas. Outside of linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, there wasn’t much left of a defense that set the pace for the modern era of professional football, leading the NFL in scoring defense every season from 2012 through 2015.

In the place of those former stalwarts, head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr. had a lot of uncertainty. Young cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers looked to be the outside starters. With former slot star Justin Coleman off to Detroit with a rich free-agent contract, Carroll and Norton went decidedly old-school with a base three-linebacker set most of the time, with Mychal Kendricks adding his talents to the Wagner/Wright battery. Seattle picked up ex-Lions pass-rusher Ezekiel Ansah on a one-year, $9 million deal, as Ansah was coming off a shoulder injury that limited him to seven games and two starts for Detroit in 2018. Seattle also selected TCU defensive end L.J. Collier in the first round of the 2019 draft — a move that was met with quite a few raised eyebrows.

The safety position was the most impacted to start the season. There is no way to replace a player of Earl Thomas’ talents, so Seattle tried to do it in the aggregate. Veteran Bradley McDougald was the one reliable element, but McDougal isn’t a deep post safety at this point in his career. He played mostly box safety in Seattle’s preferred iterations of Cover-1 and Cover-3, though he would move back in Cover-2 looks. Seattle tried to work with youngsters like Delano Hill, Tedric Thompson, and Marquise Blair in the deep third, but it really wasn’t working out.

Through the first nine weeks of the season, Seattle ranked 21st in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted defensive DVOA against the pass, and 27th overall. The Seahawks hit the half-season mark at 6-2, primarily because Russell Wilson was putting together his best season to date in what’s already been a remarkable career.

Carroll and general manager John Schneider knew more was required on the defensive side of the ball if their team was to be a credible postseason contender, and they knew that before the 2019 campaign started. So, they pulled off two season-altering trades for very little in return. In early September, they offloaded pass-rushers Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin and a 2020 third-round pick to the Texans for 2014 first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, an edge weapon with virtually unlimited potential but inconsistent production through his first five NFL seasons. The Texans liked to play Clowney in a “spinner” role, as opposed to letting him pin his ears back from the end of the defensive line and unleash hell upon enemy quarterbacks. It became clear that Carroll’s coaching staff would use Clowney in a more traditional — and successful — way.

But the deal that really turned Seattle’s defense around barely made a blip on the national radar. On October 23, Seattle traded a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Lions for safety Quandre Diggs and a 2021 seventh-rounder.

It took a bit of time for Clowney and Diggs to get their feet under them, they’ve each made major differences in a defense that has become one of the NFL’s best. Since Week 10, Seattle has raised its profile to fourth in pass defense DVOA, and fourth in defensive DVOA, behind only the 49ers, Steelers, and Ravens.

Clowney’s value was most obvious in Seattle’s most important win of the season to date — the 27-24 Week 10 overtime win over the 49ers. Coming into that game, Seattle’s defense had put up just 14 sacks, with 17 quarterback hits and 107 quarterback hurries. Seattle amassed five sacks, four quarterback hits, and 14 quarterback hurries against Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and Clowney — who had been relatively quiet to that point — had one sack, all four of Seattle’s quarterback hits, and six of the team’s 14 hurries. In addition, he was at least partially responsible for the sacks picked up by teammates Al Woods and Quinton Jefferson.

Clowney has been limited by a core muscle injury since then, missing Seattle’s Week 12 win over the Eagles, though he did return for Sunday’s win over the Vikings, adding one quarterback hit and one quarterback hurry. But while Clowney was down, Ansah got healthier and decided to heat up, with 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries against Philadelphia, and three quarterback hits against the Vikings.

Diggs’ effect on the secondary, it could be argued, has been even more transformative than Clowney’s on the defensive line.

Another way in which Seattle’s defense has improved over the second half of the season is in the ability to generate turnovers. The Seahawks had a total of 16 defensive turnovers in the first nine weeks of the season; over their last three games, they’ve generated 11. This includes four interceptions, and the overall coverage metrics since Diggs became a fixture in the back third tell an even more impressive story. From Weeks 1-9, Griffin allowed 28 catches on 46 targets for 388 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, and an opposing passer rating of 95.2. Flowers had allowed 29 catches on 46 targets for 379 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and an opposing passer rating of 94.4.

From weeks 10-13, though, Griffin has allowed just five catches on 12 targets for 34 yards, no touchdowns, and an opposing passer rating of 49.3. Flowers has allowed 17 catches on 26 targets for 202 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and an opposing passer rating of 56.9. During that stretch of time, per Pro Football Focus’ metrics, the Seahawks are the only NFL team with two starting cornerbacks in the top 6 when it comes to opponent passer rating. Overall, only the Steelers, Ravens, and 49ers have a lower Expected Points Allowed in pass defense than Seattle since Week 10, per Sports Info Solutions. From Weeks 1-9, Seattle ranked 21st in EPA allowed.

Another way to quantify Diggs’ effect on the defense is to look at the success rate of routes specifically designed to test the deep third. Sports Info Solutions has this data, and it’s fascinating. From Weeks 1-9, on posts, deep crossers, go routes, hitch-and-go routes, out-and-up routes — anything that would test a secondary deep — the Seahawks allowed five catches on six catchable targets for 144 yards, one touchdown, and one interception to the middle, right middle, and left middle of the field.

But since Week 10, Seattle hasn’t allowed a single reception under those conditions. Neither Diggs nor McDougald have been targeted at all on such routes, and the Griffin/Flowers combo have been targeted three times with no catches allowed on deep stuff.

Two plays against the Vikings typified the type of pass defense Carroll has always taught — exact and aggressive. At the start of the fourth quarter, Kirk Cousins attempted a short pass to receiver Stefon Diggs, but Flowers (at the bottom of the screen) was having none of it. Diggs is one of the NFL’s best route-runners, and Flowers has been vulnerable to shorter, angular routes through his career, but he “landmarked” Diggs perfectly here, ran the route with him, and came up with the interception.

And here, halfway through the second quarter, Diggs shows his closing speed and ability to negate a play in space as he screams down from his deep safety role to lay the boom on tight end Irv Smith, Jr. for a six-yard gain.

This is now a secondary playing in concert, and Diggs is the difference. One could easily argue that his addition to Seattle’s defense has had a similar impact to Minkah Fitzpatrick’s in Pittsburgh after a mid-September trade with the Dolphins. Pittsburgh gave up their 2020 first-round pick for Fitzpatrick, and that’s not to say they gave too much — general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin would likely tell you they’d make that trade again 100 times over. But the Diggs deal does further the reputation Schneider and Carroll have earned for finding the players who fit their concepts and putting them in the best possible positions to succeed.

“You can give Q some credit on that,” Carroll said Wednesday, when asked why his defense has enjoyed such a turnaround of late. “He has been a factor. It feels like he’s been a factor. I don’t know if he was just bolstering the pass rush from way back there, but everything just picked up about that time. If it was a coincidence or whatever, I don’t know. Let’s give him credit for it.”

The difference is clear and obvious, and it takes the Seahawks into the last month of the regular season with an advantage they may not have expected. This isn’t quite the Legion of Boom 2.0, but it’s a defense constructed to contend with any opponent — which is as much or more than anybody could have expected when the season began.

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