Earl Thomas’ injury in Week 4 was supposed to be a deathblow for the Seattle Seahawks’ defense, at least in 2018.
Already struggling, the unit lost a three-time All-Pro and the piece that tied together its Cover-3-heavy scheme.
But after nearly pinning down the high-flying Rams in Week 5, the Seahawks held their last two opponents to 17 total points. Following Sunday’s shutdown of the previously surging Detroit Lions, they’re up to sixth in total defense and fourth in points per game.
A suddenly sustaining offense has eased the burden — Seattle has faced just 57.8 plays per game since Week 3 after facing 135 during an 0-2 start — but a fledgling defense also found its wings quickly.
Despite their predecessors’ long shadows, the starters in a reconfigured secondary have settled in.
Shaquill Griffin’s combination of quickness and strength is a perfect fit for Pete Carroll’s preferred style, and rookie fifth-rounder Tre Flowers — a 6-foot-3 converted safety — is using his length better by the week. Justin Coleman brings savvy to the slot in underneath zone, as he showed snagging a pick of Matthew Stafford in the flat to seal the win.
At safety, Tedric Thompson flashes the range needed of a center fielder while adding physicality — see his crushing blow to force an Ameer Abdullah fumble — he rarely showed in college. Never lacking for physicality himself, Bradley McDougald has harnessed it more effectively in his second year in Seattle while also making plays on the ball, like key breakups against Golden Tate and Michael Roberts in Detroit.
The precocious group still shows signs of its youth, missing tackles or having breakdowns in zone coverage. McDougald can be slow to identify route combinations. Thompson committed the cardinal sin of letting Marvin Jones behind him in deep-half zone on the Lions’ first touchdown.
The group’s chemistry has come a long way since Week 1, a nice byproduct of a scheme that — while featuring more wrinkles than in recent years — generally relies on a few core coverages.
The unit worked in concert on Sunday to limit downfield options, leading Stafford to throw underneath for much of the contest. Stafford struck deep a few times, but Thompson got the better of him with a would-be pick-6 that clanged off his hands, after the safety rotated from center field to cut off a wheel route early in the second quarter.
Of course, the front seven did its part.
Bobby Wagner got back tag-team partner K.J. Wright (preseason knee scope), whose speed made an immediate impact as the pair gobbled up underneath throws all day long.
The pass rush managed three sacks and four QB hits while often hurrying Stafford into contorted throws from off-balance platforms. After quiet stretches, especially in Weeks 1 and 2, that group has woken up of late. Frank Clark is in a contract year and playing accordingly, while Jarran Reed, Quinton Jefferson and even undersized rookie sub-package rusher Jacob Martin have flashed.
This defense doesn’t have nearly the ceiling of recent Seattle editions, and some low moments should be expected, especially if the takeaways (16 in seven games) hit a dry spell. Even so, an overhauled unit is overperforming opposite an offense showing balance it hasn’t had since Marshawn Lynch left.
In turn, the Seahawks have gone from 0-2 to the second spot in a jumbled NFC wild-card race. The schedule toughens over the next four weeks, but Carroll’s club might already have reconfigured expectations for a rebuilding team.
Jalen Ramsey’s tiny step backward
Ramsey is as close as it gets to the shutdown cornerback prototype. Not only does he have traits — a very rare blend of size, strength, length, speed and agility — straight out of a lab, but he also understands and reads the game brilliantly. That acumen led directly to his interception of Carson Wentz on Sunday in London.
Just outside the red zone, the Eagles called a double post concept against Cover-3 that included an intermediate crossing route by Alshon Jeffery from the other side (Ramsey’s side) to lure free safety Tashaun Gipson. When Gipson bit, cornerback Quenton Meeks was left to handle both post routes, and Wentz spied tight end Josh Perkins coming free. But Ramsey, having let Jeffery go inside on the crosser, was left without a route to cover in his deep third of the field. Rather than “covering” empty space (like many corners would), he looked for work.
Ramsey recognized the patterns coming from the other side and replaced Gipson in center field, breaking and leaping perfectly to snag the throw in the end zone. Wentz (who actually had Wendell Smallwood wide open to his left on a wheel route) never factored Ramsey into his read because 99 percent of cornerbacks don’t even think to make that play. Ramsey made it look natural.
But despite that tremendous pick, Ramsey has been just a hair below his 2017 level of play this season.
He shadowed Jeffery (an ideal body-type matchup) for most of Sunday’s game, even in the slot, and handily won the war. But Jeffery, who tallied a modest four grabs for 35 yards, won a few key battles, most notably a pair of third downs.
On an early third-and-6, Ramsey seamlessly flowed over a pick to meet Jeffery’s slant short of the sticks, but the wideout muscled through the cornerback to barely convert. Early in the third quarter, Jeffery beat Ramsey’s press on a slant and boxed him out for 12 yards on third-and-9. That ignited a 95-yard touchdown drive, which was capped by a 36-yard screen pass to Smallwood on which Ramsey couldn’t get off a block 30 yards downfield.
No cornerback wins every battle, and Ramsey still wins more than anyone. But he’s been a hair less invincible than he was last season, and every bit counts.
Ramsey is a microcosm of the Jaguars’ defense as a whole, as several tiny pockets of regression have added up to a unit that isn’t the same. The bloodthirsty pass rush from last season has gone quiet for stretches, and linebackers have been exploited at times in coverage. Inherently fickle, the takeaways (33 in 16 games in 2017) have evaporated: Jacksonville has seven (better than only five teams) through eight games even after two on Sunday.
With a historically great defense slipping to merely great, Blake Bortles’ warts have been re-magnified, and the crumbling offensive line and lack of run game have proven catastrophic. Even if Ramsey can inch his play back to 2017’s staggering heights, it’s hard to imagine the entire unit recapturing the magic.
Taysom Hill, the double-edged sword
I still don’t know how to feel about backup quarterback Taysom Hill’s expanding role — 73 offensive snaps since Week 4, including 44 (35.8 percent) the last two weeks, after six total from Weeks 1-3 — in the New Orleans Saints’ offense.
On one hand, Hill gives one of the NFL’s shrewdest offensive minds an explosive mobile quarterback, a schematic advantage the likes of which Sean Payton has never had. And yet, Payton has never needed such an advantage with Drew Brees, and every snap Hill takes is one that Brees doesn’t. Likewise, any plays designed for Hill could mean fewer for the insanely efficient Alvin Kamara or Michael Thomas.
Hill absolutely expands the Saints’ run concepts, whether through the zone read, other option designs or QB draws and sweeps. His fakes open up lanes for Kamara and Mark Ingram, and he’s been efficient when keeping the ball himself (21 carries, 123 yards, one TD).
But the misdirection comes at a cost.
New Orleans essentially tips off the defense that it is running the ball. Though Hill has passed quite well (50 of 69, 514 yards, four TDs, two INTs) in limited preseason action, the Saints had run the ball on 21 of his 22 snaps at QB entering Week 8, the lone exception a would-be 8-yard TD that Kamara dropped. Without fearing pass, teams treat Hill much like they’d treat a Wildcat quarterback, crowding the line and selling out to stop the run.
Of course — back to the positive side of the double-edged sword — the Saints exploited that tendency perfectly to set up their first touchdown against the Vikings on Sunday.
With Brees split wide and Hill (barking signals like a grizzled starter, oddly enough) at QB, Harrison Smith, aligned just 11 yards off the ball as the deepest safety. Despite Hill’s straight dropback (no play-action), Smith actually stepped forward initially after the snap, and Thomas zipped right by to come wide open deep. Under pressure, Hill severely underthrew a likely 52-yard touchdown, but the design created so much separation that Thomas still caught it while drawing a pass interference flag.
The 44-yard gain was more than double the Saints’ next biggest of the night, and three plays later — including a Hill run for no gain with Brees AND Teddy Bridgewater on the field — they led 7-0.
Will New Orleans let Hill throw more moving forward? Has Payton stashed a bunch of higher-upside designs to unveil down the stretch and in the playoffs? It’s definitely possible, and perhaps likely. But when games become more critical, is it really worth taking the ball out of Brees’ hands?
The Saints could stop playing Hill at QB and still get plenty of value from him. He’s entrenched as a core special-teamer, with seven tackles the last two years, plus seven kick returns for 170 yards and two converted fake punts (one pass, one run) this year. More intriguing, Hill has suddenly become a contributor as a wing tight end, where most of his offensive snaps have come.
He’s not stymying defensive ends, but Hill has handled safeties and the occasional linebacker while also being deployed on lead blocks, slice blocks and cracks on toss plays. He has just two catches — a screen (after lining up at RB) for minus-4 yards, and a 5-yard checkdown after chip blocking — but that could change. Because Payton has used Hill as an on-the-move blocker, it would be natural to find him easy gains on similar designs off play-action.
Payton wants opponents to have to prepare for Hill, and how the former BYU QB is used down the stretch will be intriguing. To his credit, Hill has proven valuable enough to earn a role, and the results have been great so far. But it might be best to use only the future Hall of Famer at quarterback when it really counts.
–David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media