BY JON AIKEN via Oregon Sports News
Now that we’re through the 2020 NFL draft, it’s fair game to reflect on the Seattle Seahawks’ 2019 shortcomings and make some speculative comparisons about what may materialize next season. Specifically, I want to look at the defense’s most glaring issue, a miserable pass-rush sack rate.
Last year, the Seahawks weren’t the worst team in sacking opposing quarterbacks—that was the Miami Dolphins with just 23. But just above the lowly Fins, there were three teams tied at 28 team sacks: the Detroit Lions, the Atlanta Falcons, and our beloved Seahawks.
Back in 2018, the Hawks amassed 43 sacks (tied for 11th in the NFL), but then lost Frank Clark via trade and Jarran Reed via suspension, both of whom contributed to a diminished group delivering decreased results in 2019.
And what’s even more troublesome is that 14 of the Hawks’ 28 sacks came in just three games; week one against the Cincinnati Bengals (5 sacks), week four against the Arizona Cardinals (4 sacks), and week ten against the San Francisco 49ers (5 sacks). Exactly half the season’s sacks coming in just three contests tells me there was a lot of situational luck involved in seeing our guys get home on those days.
A different blocking assignment here or a rolled ankle injury there and we could easily have been behind the Dolphins’ last-place sack stats altogether.
Seahawks Head Coach, Pete Carroll, seemed to agree that the team pass rush fell flat last year, making it a clear priority for the team his year.
“We really did look at the issue and we weren’t happy with the production of our pressure that we put on last year and so we went after it. Every move that we’ve made has addressed that and I think that we have the depth that can really help us keep guys fast and fresh and get a really good rotation going.”
It’s comforting to know that the Seahawks’ top leadership are aware of their deficiencies from last year and have made coordinated moves to correct them. Not that we would expect (or even accept) anything else from Coach Carroll and General Manager, John Schneider, but you can easily imagine a less-competent coaching/managing duo failing to address these issues in such a direct manner.
Imagine if Bill O’Brian was running the Seahawks… oof.
Okay, so who exactly does Coach Carroll have so much confidence in this year? The current Seahawks pass rushers, which could be reduced before the season starts, breaks down into four groups.
The Hawks have four returning pass-rushers from the 2019 squad: Rasheem Green, Shaquem Griffin, L.J. Collier, and Jarran Reed.
Green led the 2019 Hawks with 4 sacks, but as he’s now only 23 and entering his third season, he’s still very much coming into his own. Griffin isn’t called upon to rush the passer as much as the others, but he’s certainly got the speed and drive to contribute. 2019 first round pick, L.J. Collier had a very discouraging rookie season, but his college sack stats (14.5 in three seasons at TCU) speaks to his ability to get home. So, assuming 2019’s poor numbers were only a rookie learning curve, and not reflective of an actual limitation, the potential is there for a significantly improved sophomore season. And Reed is now back from suspension with a new contract, poised to return to his 2018 form, which saw him deliver 10.5 sacks in 16 games. Assuming he remains on the field, he should easily surpass his wretched 2 sacks from 2019.
To help bolster the team’s pass rushing group, the Hawks acquired two NFL veterans: Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa.
Both Irvin and Mayowa have been on the Seahawks before, and both had good sack totals last year; Irvin had 8.5 sacks (3 for the Oakland Raiders and 3.5 for the Atlanta Falcons) while Mayowa had 7 (all for the Raiders). These career-best sack totals indicate that both players still have plenty left in the tank to unleash on the Hawks defensive line in the 2020 season.
In the draft, the Seahawks further strengthened the defensive attack by adding three young, fresh rookie athletes: Jordyn Brooks, Darrell Taylor, and Alton Robinson.
Brooks is a linebacker, so his role as a pass rusher should be limited, but his speed will almost certainly be utilized in obvious passing-down situations when the Hawks want to dial-up the pressure. Taylor, the Hawks’ second-round pick tallied 16.5 sacks over his last two seasons at Tennessee, so he’ll compete for snaps and should make contributions immediately. Similarly, in the fifth-round of the draft, the Seahawks selected Robinson, a defensive end who registered 14 sacks in his last two seasons at Syracuse.
And then there’s the 2020 Seahawk’s ultimate question mark, Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney joined the Hawks last year and was a genuine disruptor on the field when healthy. (Remember the hell he unleashed on the 49ers in San Francisco?!?!) From a sack perspective, Clowney is unusual in that his talent on the defensive line is in ruining plans and wreaking havoc but not necessarily bringing the quarterback down. He excels at making opposing teams focus on him and rearrange their schemes to try and stop him, but any success they have at limiting Clowney allows someone else to succeed in his stead. But Clowney is a free agent and he’s expensive, so we can’t pencil him in on the Hawks roster just yet. Rumor has it that Seattle is working with him to finalize a contract, but so are other teams, like the Philadelphia Eagles, so we’ll just have to wait and see which defense he ends up on.
In addition to all these players, Carroll says that Schneider may not be done sourcing defensive talent yet.
“We should be really better than we’ve been. We’re real positive about that. That doesn’t mean we’re done working, either. John [Schneider]’s going to keep going, keep digging around and see if there’s a guy that might spark us in there, like we always do. Pretty fired up about it, really. We’re really pleased with what we’ve done.”
So, in addition to negotiating with Clowney, the Seahawks may try to acquire Everson Griffen, Markus Golden, and/or another pass rusher before all is said and done. And by combining returning rushers with veterans and rookies, the Seahawks are poised to present a seriously upgraded pass rush attack in 2020.
And yet, there are two other factors that make me believe we’ll see a significantly improved sack total in 2020 beyond the personnel.
The first is that while the team didn’t end last season with a great sack total, they fared better in hurrying opposing quarterbacks, ranking 16th in the league with a hurry rate of 9.2%. Such a drastic difference between the hurry rate and sack total tells me that the Hawks’ pass rushers got close far more frequently than they actually converted the sack, making me optimistic that it was just a fluky down year.
And second is that the Hawks’ 28 team sacks in 2019 was the worst since Carroll took over coaching in 2009. That means that in the decade that Carroll and Co. has been running the team, they consistently brought down opposing quarterbacks at a better rate. Some of that is who’s on the team—and losing top-end talents like Cliff Avril or Michael Bennett does impact your results—but some of it is also about the chemistry of who’s lining up next to whom and the internal drive that each player has propelling their efforts on any given play. Also, sheer luck has a tremendous influence on whether a rusher shakes a block, avoids a hold, takes the quarterback off his feet… or doesn’t.
Okay, one last thing, and maybe I should’ve started with this question. Why do sacks matter?
It’s a simple question with a seemingly simple and obvious answer: because the other team doesn’t move the ball and likely loses yards. While both of those things are certainly true, there are other reasons too, like zapping the momentum of an opponent’s drive or getting 60,000 screaming fans all engaged in the game at once. And on top of those intangible benefits, there’s the fact that any drive that includes a sack, even if the team recovers and keeps going, is far less likely to result in a touchdown.
If you want to read more about that specific aspect from someone who knows what he’s talking about, I highly recommend this article by former Seahawks player turned professional analyst, Dave Wyman.
Assuming the season starts as scheduled, we still have more than three months to go before a real game is played. Between now and then, the Seahawks will likely add more pass rushers and make cuts as well, as they narrow their way down to an official 53-man roster.
Which combination of current, former, or rookie rushers will end up playing the most snaps or recording the most sacks in 2020 is yet to be seen, but I am certain that they will exceed last year’s total. And if they can put up more than 50 sacks, they’ll vault from tied for second-to-last to the top five (according to 2019’s stats).
I know that’s a huge leap forward, but it’s possible. And I for one won’t count the Seahawks out before they’ve had a chance to show me what, or rather who, they’ve got in 2020, which is easily the strangest year in quite some time.