Our first 49ers-Seahawks game of the year just feels different. Rather than the heavyweight bouts between surefire championship contenders that we’ve seen over the past couple seasons, the 2014 version of these two teams are inconsistent, underwhelming, and might not make the playoffs at all.
Virtually every power rankings on the Internet has at least the Packers, Cardinals, and Cowboys ahead of them in the NFC, if not the Eagles and Lions as well. Football Outsiders’ playoff odds have both teams out of the postseason, narrowly behind Detroit for the sixth and final seed. Ditto for FiveThirtyEight. It’s all weird.
What’s changed for these two NFC West rivals that only a year ago were the class of the NFL? Well, we’re all intimately familiar with what’s been going on with the Niners… the offense can’t help themselves from making dumb mistakes, Vernon Davis has disappeared, the run game isn’t dominant anymore, a revamped secondary has wildly exceeded expectations, and Chris Borland is everything. But what about the Seahawks? It makes sense to start in the place that has been their greatest strength.
Legion of… Meh
Seattle’s pass defense was historically good last season. Regression was inevitable — teams just don’t perform at that level for multiple seasons, that’s what makes them historically good to begin with. The question was how far back to the pack they would fall. There’s obviously a big difference between a slight slip that still left them as a terrifyingly good top two or three unit and one that put them at simply above average. Eleven games in and it appears to be more of the latter.
Pick your preferred pass defense metric and there’s a good chance that the Seahawks have fallen considerably in it. Seattle’s defense has still been very good in many areas, particularly on first down (an area where the 49ers have struggled). But that sharp drop-off for Richard Sherman & Co. has been the result of decline in three key areas that often have a disproportionate impact on a defense’s overall level of performance.
They’re not producing turnovers at the same rate. When facing the Seahawks’ defense last season, one in every five possessions ended in a turnover, the highest rate in football. That rate has been nearly cut in half this season, with just one in every nine possessions ending in a turnover, taking Seattle from the league’s best turnover rate to its 11th-worst.
That drop is entirely due to a lack of interceptions. Last season, the Seahawks intercepted 28 passes, five more than any other team. A whopping 15.6 percent of drives against the Seahawks defense ended via interception. This season? That’s all that way down to 6.3 percent of drives, also the 11th-worst rate in football.
They’ve been awful in the red zone. Seattle’s pass defense was the best in the league in essentially every meaningful aspect last season, and the red zone was no different. If you were lucky enough to get into scoring range against that defense, they made damn sure you didn’t find the end zone. Seattle allowed a measly 3.69 points per red zone trip, giving up touchdowns on just 36.1 percent of drive. Both marks were best in the league by a comfortable margin (Detroit was the only other team close).
Not only has that fallen off this season, it’s been a downright liability. Teams are finding the end zone nearly twice as much from the red zone (66.7%), and Seattle’s 5.57 points per red zone appearance allowed is the worst in the NFL.
I went back and watched every red zone passing play against Seattle and there really hasn’t been one thing you can point to that teams have been able to exploit. Teams have preferred spreading Seattle’s defense out with multiple receivers, and success has been had attacking the seams. But that’s far from the only way teams have beaten Seattle in the red zone.
Closely tied to the previous issues, Seattle hasn’t generated a single turnover in the red zone this season and there really haven’t been too many opportunities. Byron Maxwell dropped an interception against Dallas and Kevin Pierre-Louis dropped another against Oakland. But for the most part teams are finding holes in Seattle’s coverage or are getting enough time to throw for those holes to open.
They’re not getting off the field on third down. The league’s money down has been a problem for Seattle this season as well. The Seahawks third down pass defense DVOA (minus–78.9%) was nearly twice as good as the next closest team in 2013. They’re down to 15th (minus–5.6%) in the same metric this season.
There seems to be a couple of reasons for Seattle’s decline in these crucial areas. To start with, performance in all three aspects — turnover rate, red zone defense, and third down defense — isn’t incredibly sticky from one season to the next. This is largely a sample size issue. Plays on third down or in the red zone comprise a small portion of the overall plays a defense faces, and is subject to a bit more randomness.
As far as on-field issues, the Seahawks’ pass rush has fallen off substantially. Seattle ranks 28th in adjusted sack rate this season, dropping all the way from seventh a season ago. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril — Seattle’s two best pass rushers from last year — are still around, but they’re no longer getting help from the complimentary players in Seattle’s defensive line rotation.
If it’s possible for Seattle to have had an underrated part of last year’s defense, it was the depth and quality of their defensive line rotation. They went seven or eight deep and got contributions from everyone. Bennett and Avril might have gotten most of the attention, but it was that entire group that was responsible for the Seahawks pass rushing prowess. That just isn’t happening this year.
Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald combined for 10 sacks and 75 pressures last season, per Pro Football Focus; both players left in free agency this past offseason. Brandon Mebane didn’t record a sack in 2013, but was fourth on the team in hurries; he’s now on IR with a hamstring injury. Now, guys like Tony McDaniel and Jordan Hill are being asked to do more and they haven’t been up to the task.
Injuries have also played their role. It usually takes a good amount of injury luck to put together a season like the one that Seattle has in 2013. Sure enough, the Seahawks’ defense was the sixth-healthiest unit by Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost. The closest thing Seattle had to a key player missing a meaningful stretch of games were the four games linebacker K.J. Wright missed at the end of the season.
Seattle hasn’t been as fortunate this year. Here’s a list of defensive players that have missed time this season:
|CB Marcus Burley||3|
|S Kam Chancellor||2|
|DT Jordan Hill||3|
|LB Bruce Irvin||1|
|CB Jeremy Lane||10|
|CB Byron Maxwell||3|
|DT Brandon Mebane||3|
|CB Tharold Simon||5|
|LB Malcolm Smith||2|
|LB Boby Wagner||5|
With the numerous key injuries on the Niners’ defense, you won’t find much sympathy for those injuries here, but they’ve certainly had an impact on the performance of Seattle’s defense.
Wilson and the League’s Most Simplistic Passing Game
As you well know, the Seahawks have leaned heavily on the running game in recent seasons. Much like the 49ers, when they have had to pass, they’ve been incredibly efficient (2014 not withstanding). Seattle ranked fourth and eighth in pass offense DVOA over the past two seasons, respectively. This season? The Seahawks are all the way down to 19th, one spot below Colin Kaepernick & Co.
Russell Wilson’s numbers are down basically across the board. The biggest reason I could find for the drop off was the lack of a vertical element to their passing game. After beating up your front seven with Marshawn Lynch in the run game, Seattle would go to play action, get Wilson on the move, and look to take shots down the field. This year, not only are they throwing deep less frequently, they haven’t been nearly as effective when they do.
Wilson’s average depth of target isn’t quite Alex Smithian, but it’s dropped nearly two full yards, going from 9.8 yards last season (6th) to 7.9 yards in 2014 (T–29th). Wilson was targeting receivers more than 20 yards downfield on one of every 6.8 throws (14.7%) in 2013; in 2014 that’s gone down to one in every 10 throws (10.2%).
The absence of a couple of Wilson’s favorite downfield targets from a season ago at least partially explains Wilson’s new affection for the short passing game. Golden Tate was the Seahawks’ most targeted receiver on throws of over 15 yards last season; he’s now catching passes from Matthew Stafford in Detroit. Sidney Rice only played in eight games last year, but he still managed to be Seattle’s fourth-most targeted receiver on deep throws and was good for a couple of deep targets per game when he was in; he’s now retired.
Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, second and third in deep targets last season, are both still there and have been Wilson’s primary targets on not just deep passes, but all throws. That hasn’t been enough to maintain an effective downfield element to their passing attack.
Wilson completed 27 of 60 passes (45.0%) that traveled at least 20 yards in the air last season, piling up 922 yards (15.4 yards per attempt) and nine touchdowns against five interceptions. Those numbers were good for a passer rating of 118.9. Through 11 games this year, Wilson is completing just 37.5 percent of deep passes (12 of 32) for 394 yards (12.3 per attempt) and an even two-to-two touchdown-to-interception ratio, for a noticeably worse 79.4 passer rating.
In a season where rookie wide receivers have been having near-unprecedented success, it’s a bit curious that Seattle hasn’t looked to rookie Paul Richardson to solve their deep passing game woes. The performance of players like Odell Beckham Jr. and Sammy Watkins doesn’t mean that Richardson will see the same level of success, of course. But the 2014 draft class was widely considered to be one of the deepest wide receiver classes in NFL history, and Seattle took one with their first selection, picking up Richardson in the second round.
Richardson has been on the field for 42.3 percent of Seattle’s offensive snaps, with a big bump in usage following the Percy Harvin trade. Yet, I’ve made the same number of receptions on deep targets as Richardson has this season (0), and I’m not very good at football. Only four of Richardson’s 21 targets have come on deep passes, which seems strange for a player that Mike Mayock referred to as a "poor man’s DeSean Jackson" after Seattle selected him in the draft.
In a recent podcast with Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar, Greg Cosell called Seattle’s passing game the most simplistic in football. The lack of a downfield element definitely plays a part in that. And with San Francisco’s no. 1 pass defense up next, it doesn’t appear that Wilson & Co. will be getting back on track anytime soon.
For a 49ers team that has had plenty of their own issues, the Seahawks still pose several problems to be concerned about. At the forefront is the insanely efficient Seahawks’ rushing attack. Lynch is still doing that whole Beast Mode thing, despite the supposed unrest between him and Seattle’s front office regarding his contract. Wilson has already eclipsed last year’s 539 rushing yards by over 100 yards. Seattle is the only team with a positive offensive DVOA that has been more efficient running the ball than throwing it, and it’s not especially close.
Bennett and Avril, who line up primarily on the offense’s right, will undoubtedly cause issues with Jonathan Martin standing in their way. Even with all of the losses along the defensive line, the Seahawks’ run defense has been very good. With the issues San Francisco has had up front, it seems unlikely they’ll be able to find a lot of running room when Seattle undoubtedly stacks the box.
That said, home field has played a large role in deciding the outcome of the previous five games between these teams. Seattle’s defense has been considerably worse away from Century Link, dropping from fourth in defensive DVOA at home to 23rd on the road. For two tightly matched teams, and a match-up I still consider to be the NFL's best rivalry, that seems like enough to be the difference.
Happy Thanksgiving, Niners Nation.
Prediction: 49ERS (–1.5) over Seahawks