Seahawks defense struggles in spite of investments

Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Fans of the Seattle Seahawks entered the offseason with hopes that the team could improve in 2021 and progress deep into the playoffs for the first time since 2014. This was particularly true for many fans hoping the improvement on the defensive side of the ball, where opponent scoring dropped significantly in the second half of 2020, would continue, while the offense could recover to perform at first half levels. Unfortunately, neither has truly transpired.

However, what has transpired is that a defense that has received significant investment in recent seasons has regressed back to its first half of 2020 performance levels, while an already struggling offense now faces its first stretch of Russell Wilson-less games in nearly a decade.

The Seattle defense currently ranks 22nd in points allowed per game, in part because opponents have been content to chew the clock on long drives and the Hawks have been largely unable to stop them. By DVOA the defense ranks 25th so far this season, and there are plenty of metrics in which they rank in the bottom quarter of the league, including:

Yards allowed per play (6.2, 27th)
Net yards per attempts allowed (7.5, 28th)
Sack rate (4.9%, 24th)
Rushing yards allowed per attempt (4.5, 24th)
Opponent time of possession per drive (3:12, 30th).

All of this has come in spite of, as noted, the significant investments which were made in the defense during the offseason, including several key free agents such as:

Carlos Dunlap ($13.6M over two years)
Benson Mayowa ($7.62M over two years)
Kerry Hyder ($6.5M over two years)
Ahkello Witherspoon ($4M for one year)
Al Woods ($2.5M for one year)

Just five games into the 2021 season Witherspoon is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Woods is tied for second on the team in sacks (1.0) and cornerback remains a position in flux with Week 1 starter Tre Flowers first benched then waived.

Now, it’s not as if any of these noted free agents were overly expensive, as their contracts totaled barely $34M even before the Steelers agreed to take on $1.5M of Witherspoon’s $4M. That said, the production so far has been extremely limited. Here are the statlines for the four defensive linemen signed as free agents:

Dunlap: 6 tackles, 0 TFL, 0 sacks, 2 QB hits
Mayowa: 6 tackles, 2 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 QB hits
Hyder: 13 tackles, 2 TFL, 0 sacks, 4 QB hits
Woods: 12 tackles, 2 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 QB hits

So, while the team certainly didn’t splurge in free agency, they certainly haven’t seen their defenders perform at a level that is significantly above what the team might have expected had it simply run a bunch of undrafted free agents onto field.

Further, the investments on the defense haven’t come just in free agency. Significant draft capital has been spent on the defense in recent years as well, including:

2022 first round pick (Jamal Adams)
2021 first round pick (Jamal Adams)
2021 third round pick (Jamal Adams)
2021 fourth round pick (Tre Brown)
2020 first round pick (Jordyn Brooks)
2020 second round pick (Darrell Taylor)
2020 fifth round pick (Alton Robinson)
2019 first round pick (L.J. Collier)
2019 second round pick (Marquise Blair)
2019 third round pick (Cody Barton)
2019 fourth round pick (Ugo Amadi)
2019 fifth round pick (Ben Burr-Kirven)
2019 sixth round pick (Demarcus Christmas)
2018 third round pick (Rasheem Green)
2018 fifth round pick (Shaquem Griffin)
2018 fifth round pick (Tre Flowers)
2018 sixth round pick (Jacob Martin)
2017 second round pick (Malik McDowell)
2017 third round pick (Shaquill Griffin)
2017 third round pick (Lano Hill)
2017 third round pick (Naz Jones)
2017 fourth round pick (Tedric Thompson)
2017 sixth round pick (Mike Tyson)

Since 2017 that’s four first round picks, three second round picks, a half dozen third round selections, a trio of fourth rounders, four fifth round picks and three sixth rounders all coming together with a unit that has the highest paid safety in football and a linebacker who was the highest paid in the NFL at the time his contract was signed.

And yet, in spite of all that investment in cap space and draft capital, the results on the field have been, in a word, horrific. The defense has largely been unable to slow down opposing offenses, and a team that entered the year hoping to improve on a 12-4 season will instead be looking to avoid a 2-4 start.

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