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What's wrong with Seahawks' fourth-quarter defense, and can 49ers take advantage?

Seattle's defense has struggled late in games this year. Where are things going wrong and can the 49ers take advantage?

Among the NFL’s most surprising disappointments through six weeks of the 2015 season, the Seattle Seahawks are near the top of the list. When Pete Carroll’s squad takes the field against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium tonight, they’ll do so with the same 2–4 record as their dismantled rivals. The loser will capture sole possession of last place in the NFC West.

We’re all familiar with the reasons why the 49ers have struggled this season. As it turns out, overcoming the loss of your coaching staff and all your players is tough to do in one offseason. Seattle’s issues are a bit more complicated.

Part of the problem has been an inability to close out games. In each of their four losses, the Seahawks have watched fourth-quarter leads dissipate in the game’s final moments. Losses to the Rams and Packers were more understandable. St. Louis was ahead for most of the game before the two teams exchanged leads or equalized the score four different times within the final five minutes of regulation plus overtime. Green Bay was only down a single point at the start of the final period and took a lead they would not relent with over nine minutes to go. Plus, you know, Aaron Rodgers.

Seattle’s most recent late-game collapses have been more egregious. With a 17-point lead to begin the fourth quarter in Cincinnati, the Seahawks boasted a 99 percent win probability according to Pro-Football-Reference. Last week against Carolina, a Steven Hauschka field goal with 11:46 remaining gave the Seahawks a two-score lead and a 95.8 percent win probability.

Russell Wilson & Co. aren’t blameless for blowing those leads, but the bigger issue has been the one area that’s supposed to be Seattle’s overwhelming strength: the Legion of Boom.

The Seahawks defense has been one of the league’s worst at the end of games this year, ranking 29th by Football Outsiders’ DVOA in the fourth quarter, and the pass defense has been the primary culprit. Take a look at these splits:

Stat First 3 Quarters 4th Quarter
Yards/Pass 5.20 (6th) 9.04 (28th)
1D/TD% 26.8% (3rd) 46.3% (31st)

Opposing offenses are averaging nearly four more yards per pass attempt in the fourth quarter and those passes are converting first downs or touchdowns 20 percentage points more often. Put another way, during the first three quarters this is basically the same Seahawks pass defense we’ve seen for the past several seasons. But in the final quarter they suddenly morph into the Chargers. That is bad.

So where are things breaking down for Seattle’s pass defense late in games? Perhaps more importantly, can Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense take advantage?

Let’s start with the former. The middle of Seattle’s pass defense has been shredded in the past two games. Andy Dalton and Cam Newton combined for 28 fourth-quarter pass attempts against the Seahawks, and 20 of them were thrown between the numbers. Andy Newton completed 17 of those passes for 229 yards (11.45 Y/A) and a pair of touchdowns.

Many of those plays were simply well-designed route combinations that took advantage of weak spots in Seattle’s Cover–3 defense.

On this play, the Bengals get tight end Tyler Eifert free up the seam for a touchdown with excellent play design. With two receivers split wide to the right of the formation and two more tight to the opposite side, Cincinnati gets free safety Earl Thomas cheating away from their intended target. The underneath routes by Marvin Jones and Gio Bernard occupies Seattle’s shallow defenders, preventing them from carrying Eifert’s route upfield. Finally, the condensed split by Jones gets Cary Williams playing with outside leverage, keeping him from making a play on the throw to Eifert.

Carolina also made good use of condensed splits from their receivers, utilizing them to attack the intermediate level of Seattle’s defense with dig routes.

Here we see the Panthers in a similar formation to the one we saw from the Bengals on the previous play. Greg Olsen’s short out route widens the curl-flat defender, opening a clear passing lane for Newton on the dig route to Devin Funchess. It was a look Carolina went to frequently in the fourth quarter.

Every coverage has weaknesses, and even good defenses will give up some plays like the ones above here and there. But what’s been more concerning for Seattle is their prized secondary has been getting beat even when they’re in good position.

Seattle is in man coverage on this play and ends up with Kam Chancellor matched up on Eifert to the right of the offense. Even with Chancellor in close proximity and Thomas helping over the top, it’s not enough to get a stop. Dalton drops the ball perfectly between the two Seahawks safeties and Eifert hauls in the tough catch for 25 yards. It’s a well defended play in which Seattle simply gets out-executed.

Newton threaded his own needle between a pair of top Seahawks’ defenders for a big play the following week, connecting with Olsen on a dig route between the coverage of Richard Sherman and K.J. Wright.

There’s no defense for that throw. Newton places the ball perfectly, away from Sherman’s reach and over the top of Wright. Olsen seals the deal with an excellent catch and run for 32 yards to setup a short Jonathan Stewart plunge into the end zone.

Getting back to our second question from earlier, I’m not sure Kaepernick & Co. can find similar success against this Seahawks defense. For starters, there’s little reason to expect Seattle to continue having problems late in games. The Seahawks have been one of the 10 best fourth-quarter defenses in each of the past three seasons, per DVOA, including a fourth-ranked finish in 2014. Considering they have largely the same personnel and still have Pete Carroll running the show, it’s hard to imagine they suddenly forgot how to finish games. It’s far more likely that Seattle’s fourth-quarter performance will fall back in line with their level of play during the first three quarters, which has still been very good.

And when you look at the tape, it’s not like receivers are running wild through the secondary. With a few exceptions, the throws being completed are generally into tight windows with defenders in close proximity. Those type of throws to the middle of the field require timing, anticipation, and excellent ball location. It’s no secret those traits aren’t exactly strengths for Kaepernick, which doesn’t inspire confidence in his ability to consistently make the throws we saw from Dalton and Newton.

Kaepernick’s relative success in the past two games has been a product of less pressure in the pocket and low-difficulty throws to open receivers. He’s unlikely to find those same conditions tonight against Seattle. More likely, this is a game in which the Kaepernick roller coaster ride goes through some loops and Seattle’s defense gets back on the winning track.