First 2 rounds of NFL playoffs showed defense and rushing still matter. Seahawks need upgrades on D-line to keep 10-6 from turning into 6-10.
In a parity-driven season that suggested much competitive balance, the first eight games of the NFL post-season had a disappointing number of dominant outcomes. If blowouts were wanted this month, we could have looked up online our 401Ks.
However, the Seahawks’ one-and-done appearance in the tournament was at least competitive, and provided a chance the past weekend to look around to see what’s working in the NFL.
What was working, mostly, were defenses, not the greyhound-race offenses that floozy-ed up the first two-thirds of the season, convincing many pundits that if a team wasn’t passing on nine out of 10 snaps, they were as irrelevant as Princess phones.
From a Seattle perspective, two developments stood out, both in the same game with the most local interest.
After getting 137 yards on 26 carries in beating the Seahawks, Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott was limited to 47 yards on 22 carries in the Rams’ 30-22 win in Los Angeles Saturday. That development was paired with the Rams offense, which had 248 yards rushing, thanks mostly to 123 yards in 23 carries by waiver-wire refugee C.J. Anderson and 115 yards in 16 carries from star RB Todd Gurley.
I don’t know where Seahawks coach Pete Carroll watched that game, but I hope the place had plenty of drool buckets for him. For all of the Harry Potter-esque wizardry ascribed young Rams sorcerer Sean McVay, he stole Carroll’s Dumbledore playbook.
McVay’s ability to seamlessly convert his offense to the run, and his re-emphasis on the run defense — the Rams defense was 23rd in the NFL against the rush in the regular-season — were exactly what Carroll would have conjured.
It helped that the Rams, diminished by a knee injury to Gurley late in the season, stumbled into free agent Anderson. He was on the couch, having been discarded by the Broncos, Panthers and Raiders in 2018.
“We thought (Anderson’s December hire) was going to be able to be a nice complement,” McVay said after the relatively easy win. “If you told me it was going to work out as well as it did tonight, I don’t know that I would have said that.”
As the Rams’ success relates to the Seahawks in 2019, the Seattle offense has its quarterback, running back and line set, give or take a D.J. Fluker. What the Seahawks don’t have yet is a front seven that can slow a premier runner sufficiently to help salvage a secondary still in toddlers’ clothes.
Elliott’s rushing controlled the wild-card game, as Gurley and Anderson controlled the divisional game against Dallas. In the Patriots’ 41-28 win Sunday over the Los Angeles Chargers, RB Sony Michel had 129 yards in 24 carries to keep the pressure off QB Tom Brady.
Is running the ball old-fashioned? Yes. So is eating.
Defense is the Seattle vulnerability.
The Seahawks defense finished 11th in average points allowed (21.7) and 16th in average yards (353.3). Not terrible; not playoff-winning good. The mediocrity was mitigated some because they led the NFL in turnover margin — 26 takeaways, 11 giveaways, the latter the second-fewest in NFL single-season history.
But in the turnover triumph, there was an asterisk — the Seahawks’ seven interceptions (three by FS Earl Thomas, who played four games before breaking a leg) were the fewest in franchise history. While some of that can be ascribed to inexperience among DBs Tedric Thompson, Tre Flowers, Delano Hill, Shaquill Griffin and Akeem King, the fact is that the Seahawks are largely committed to this young crew for the near future.
The weakest links in the front-seven defense were the two spots on the line not occupied by DE Frank Clark and DT Jarran Reed, who were well above average. Shamar Stephen was mostly a non-factor at right tackle. At left end, Quinton Jefferson was OK in his 12 starts, oft-injured Dion Jordan not so much in his four starts.
To the Seahawks’ credit, they saw the D-line shortfall coming two years ago, dedicating a first-round draft choice to fix the problem. To their discredit, they chose Malik McDowell of Michigan State.
He validated the warnings in scouting reports about immaturity when an ATV accident in the summer following his selection wiped out his career. Then when the career of DE Cliff Avril abruptly ended in 2017 with a regular football injury, the D-line problem snowballed.
This off-season, via free agency and/or the draft, the Seahawks need to upgrade both D-line positions, as well as seek a successor to veteran LB K.J. Wright, a valiant warrior for seven seasons who seems destined for free agency, given his age, injuries and potential expense. He could return more cheaply for one season if he gets no meaningful offers in free agency.
While the Seahawks have substantial room under the salary cap ($60 million) to sign free agents and give raises to Clark and others, they have only four draft picks. They gave away three 2019 choices via trades — a second for LT Duane Brown, a sixth for backup QB Brett Hundley (a seasonal DNP) and a seventh for SS Shalom Luani.
That means the Seahawks are nearly congenitally predisposed to trade their first-round pick, No. 21 overall, to acquire more picks later.
The paucity of assets means getting a better front seven will be expensive, via free agency. But it’s critical because the Seahawks’ 2018 results may have been a bit of a false positive.
For the sixth time in Carroll’s tenure, the Seahawks won 10 regular-season games, but some empty calories were a noteworthy part of the meal.
They played seven teams that ended with winning records, going 3-4 (wins over Dallas, Minnesota and Kansas City, all at home), while taking advantage of down years by NFC rivals Carolina, Green Bay and Detroit. Then there were the sugar highs of five games against arguably the three worst teams in the NFL (49ers, Cardinals and Raiders).
While it has been mentioned often this season that the Seahawks never lost a game by more than one score (the Chargers’ 25-17 win was the largest margin), it is also true they won four games by three points each (both Arizona games, Green Bay and Carolina).
Cumulative results suggest the Seahawks’ 10-6 record easily could have been 6-10, but for the random bounces from a carry fumbled or a pass tipped. Nothing wrong with good fortune, so long as no one is seduced by it.
And it remains wise in the NFL to load up on defense and the run game, because the fizzy stuff tends to dissolve in the dark, wet and cold of January.