Week 7 Wrap-up: The Mighty Start Falling

What a rough 72 hours to be a Seahawks fan. On Friday, the Seahawks unexpectedly gave up on wide receiver Percy Harvin and traded him to the Jets, which must have caused Seattle fans to spend hours deleting their tweets and message-board posts from over the summer about how he was going to revolutionize the offense. Things got even worse Sunday. St. Louis’s stunning 28-26 victory dropped the Seahawks to 3-3, leaving them with as many losses as they had during their entire 2013 run to the Super Bowl. When expectations are this high, two losses in a row qualifies as a crisis.

I had enough to say about the Harvin trade that it justified its own article; about why the Seahawks decided to move on from Harvin, the sort of benefits it will offer them in the future, and why it’s a smart move for the Jets. After Seattle lost on Sunday, though, I wanted to figure out what’s happened to the engine that pushed Seattle to its Super Bowl title in 2013.

Seattle’s offense has been about as good as it was a year ago, at least in terms of raw scoring output. The Seahawks scored 26.1 points per game during the regular season last year; after Sunday’s loss, they’re actually averaging 26.5 points per game. The problem, instead, has been on the defensive side of the football. After rating out as one of the best defenses in football history last year while allowing just 14.4 points per game, the defense has allowed 23.5 points per game in 2014.

Why has the defense fallen off? I can identify four key issues that have caused the Seahawks problems through six games:

They can’t get much of a pass rush: My colleague Robert Mays wrote about the missing Seattle pass rush on Friday, a problem that also hurt the Seahawks against the Rams.

St. Louis got out to an early lead and then stuck with a run-heavy approach, so Austin Davis dropped back to pass only 21 times, but Seattle got virtually no pressure on Davis when he did throw. The Seahawks didn’t sack Davis once, never forced him to scramble past the line of scrimmage, and knocked him down only three times. Those three knockdowns came from Bruce Irvin, O’Brien Schofield, and Michael Bennett, all players who primarily suit up on the outside. The Seahawks continue to lack the interior pass rush from the likes of Clinton McDonald that they had a year ago.

They’ve stopped creating takeaways: When you think about the Seahawks, you think about that legendary secondary stepping in front of passes for interceptions and forcing the ball out with big hits. Or maybe you think of James Carpenter; I dunno, but I think most people associate the Seahawks with stifling defense. And indeed, last year, the Seahawks forced 39 turnovers, more than anybody else in football.

It’s almost impossible to post a dominant turnover margin year after year, and the Seahawks haven’t been anywhere near as effective in creating takeaways this season. After failing to force a turnover Sunday, Seattle has created just five takeaways in its first six games, leaving them on pace for just over 13 takeaways this season.

Some of that is simply bad luck. The Seahawks have forced nine fumbles, including one against the Rams, and recovered just three of them. And the secondary simply hasn’t been creating takeaways. Richard Sherman, who was just the fourth player since the merger to pick off eight or more passes in consecutive seasons, has no interceptions. Earl Thomas, who had 15 interceptions across his first four seasons, also has no picks.

Byron Maxwell and Kam Chancellor each have one, and those have come even though teams have been targeting Chancellor and Maxwell (before his injury) at a higher rate in coverage than ever before. There also haven’t been any linebackers catching tipped passes or getting in the way of throwing lanes for turnovers. That’s a problem.

They’ve been among the league’s worst red zone defenses: If you did somehow manage to move the ball downfield on the Seahawks last year without turning the ball over, they still managed to shut you down in the red zone. It’s not hard to imagine a defense full of freak athletes squeezing the field even tighter inside the 20, and that’s exactly what happened. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Seahawks allowed opposing teams to score an average of 3.7 points per red zone trip last year, the best rate in football.

In 2014? Not so much. The Seahawks came into Sunday’s game without a single stop for zero points in the red zone, having allowed 5.7 points per possession, the fourth-worst figure in the NFL. And on Sunday, the Rams ventured into the red zone three times and came away with three touchdowns. The Seahawks are now allowing a league-worst 5.8 points inside the 20.

How do you give up nearly six points per red zone trip? There are lots of ways, but stupid penalties like the one cornerback Tharold Simon took Sunday certainly help. When Brian Quick took what was in itself a dumb unsportsmanlike conduct call to push the Rams back from the 5-yard line and set up second-and-goal from the 22-yard line, the Seahawks could have forced the Rams to settle for a field goal. Instead, Simon responded on the very next play by grabbing the face mask of a blocking Quick and pulling his helmet off on a play during which Tavon Austin was being chased down by a gang of Seahawks for a loss. No really, look:

Instead of third-and-goal on the 25-yard line, the Rams were given new life and a new set of downs on the 12-yard line, from which they would score three plays later. Thomas complained after the game that the Seahawks were playing the officials, too, but which official made Simon grab a face mask for no reason?

Their much-vaunted depth is gone: The Seahawks have been able to enjoy virtually unmatched depth on defense over the past few years thanks to having the likes of Thomas, Sherman, and Bobby Wagner on rookie contracts. That’s no longer the case. Thomas and Sherman signed long-term extension this offseason, and in the process, the Seahawks let a number of veterans leave for new organizations. And they didn’t really bother to replace the guys they let go.

In 2013, the Seahawks had 17 players play 450 defensive snaps or more.1 Five of those players left town this offseason, including three defensive linemen (Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, and Clinton McDonald) and two cornerbacks (Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond). While they managed to prevent a sixth from leaving by re-signing Bennett, they did little else to replenish their defensive cupboard. They signed 34-year-old defensive tackle Kevin Williams to a one-year, $2.1 million deal and didn’t draft a defensive player until the fourth round.

Naturally, the Seahawks expected the players who were here a year ago to play bigger roles. That hasn’t necessarily worked out. Maxwell struggled before suffering the calf injury that kept him out Sunday. Fellow cornerback Jeremy Lane suffered a groin injury in Week 1 that sent him to short-term injured reserve. Marcus Burley has been better than the Seahawks could have hoped since they acquired him in a trade at the end of training camp, but he was supposed to be the team’s fifth cornerback, not its third.

More problematic have been the expanded roles given to the veterans who are left. Bennett and Cliff Avril are both very solid defensive ends, but one of the reasons they excelled last year is that they were often fresh by virtue of the team’s defensive line rotation. Avril played just 57.5 percent of the defensive snaps last year, while Bennett was up at 54.7 percent.

According to the snap data available through the first five games, both of those guys are playing far more frequently this season. Avril’s defensive snap percentage was up to 65.9 percent, while Bennett was all the way up to 80.3 percent. Of course, if you’re Seattle, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. If you leave Bennett on the bench, you’re taking one of your best pass-rushers off the field, which is going to hurt your sack rate. And if you leave him on the field, you end up with a player who isn’t going to be able to deliver as much on a per-snap basis. Last year, the Seahawks could line Bennett up when and where they wanted, pushing him inside in passing situations to line up next to Clemons and Avril as a mismatch for guards. Now, they can’t be as flexible.

Would I be worried about all of this if I were a Seahawks fan? Yes and no. On one hand, there’s probably not a stud defensive lineman hiding on the back of the roster waiting to give Bennett snaps off and provide a dominant pass-rushing force from the interior. If there is, Pete Carroll should turn to him right now. The depth issues are real.

On the other, I don’t think Seattle is going to forget how to force turnovers and utterly capitulate in the red zone all year, either. I can’t promise the Seahawks will suddenly turn into the vicious bulldogs of 2013 any time soon, but even if they became an average defense in terms of those two categories, it would be a big step forward from how they’ve played through the first six games.

They’ve also played an incredibly difficult schedule. While the Rams aren’t anybody’s idea of a powerful offense, four of Seattle’s first six games have come against attacks ranked in the top eight in offensive DVOA: Denver (first), Green Bay (third), San Diego (sixth), and Dallas (eighth). They don’t face a single offense currently ranked in the top 10 in DVOA over the rest of the season.

And losing to the Rams doesn’t prove the Seahawks aren’t going to win a Super Bowl. Remember that the Seahawks were down 20-3 at halftime against the Texans in Week 4 last year and were basically down to their last gasp at 20-13 with 2:51 to go when Matt Schaub hand-wrapped a pick-six for Sherman, tying the game and sending it into overtime. The Seahawks needed something close to a miracle to win that game and got it, which wouldn’t have been much different from them recovering the Tre Mason fumble on the run that sealed up the game Sunday afternoon. The 2012 Ravens lost to the 4-12 Eagles in Week 2. The 2011 Giants opened up the year with a loss to 5-11 Washington. The 2010 Packers lost to two different 6-10 teams. It happens, even to Super Bowl winners. Seattle — and its defense — will be better.

Johnny-on-the-Spot

The one place Seattle didn’t have a serious problem before Sunday was special teams. The Seahawks came into the game with the league’s fourth-ranked special-teams DVOA, but the Rams ate their lunch. Outside of Greg Zuerlein missing a 52-yard field goal, the Rams couldn’t have done much more on special teams to win the game than they actually did.

I’m going to throw the 75-yard Benny Cunningham kickoff return that set up St. Louis’s first touchdown out of the way, if only because there’s so much else to talk about. The Rams followed that up with a bit of special-teams sorcery, as they ran what literally amounted to a trick play to spring Stedman Bailey for a 90-yard punt return touchdown. It’s pretty impressive in its own right, but even more so given that the Seahawks allowed just 82 yards on punt returns during the entire 2013 season.

I don’t even really know how to explain what happened. Seahawks punter Jon Ryan punted the ball diagonally to one sideline to avoid to try to avoid giving Tavon Austin space for a return, but both Austin and the Rams blockers sold that the punt was heading to the opposite sideline, and none of the Seahawks were aware enough to realize they were being duped. Bailey, nominally a blocker on the outside of the coverage unit, peeled off from the play, fielded the punt, and returned it straight up the sideline for an easy score.

It seems wrong to disparage the Seahawks coverage unit for not recognizing that the punt was heading in a different direction, because I haven’t covered an NFL punt before, but at the same time, doesn’t it seem a little ridiculous one team could totally fool the other into thinking the ball is heading to a totally different part of the field?

Then again, this has happened before! The Bears ran a very similar play under special-teams guru Dave Toub in September 2011 against the Packers. That return produced an 89-yard touchdown for Johnny Knox that was called back for holding. It worked under many of the same circumstances: The Bears had a returner the other team was afraid of (Devin Hester), the opposing punter tried to angle a punt to the sideline, Hester ran toward the opposite sideline and drew the attention of both the blockers and coverage guys, and Knox had the entire side of the field to himself, his personal protector, and Packers punter Tim Masthay. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Rams special-teams coordinator John Fassel saw this very play and pocketed it away for a similar situation.

You can be sure every special-teams coach in the NFL is going to be instructing his coverage unit to take a brief glance up to figure out where the ball’s actually heading, so this play is probably going to be out of commission for a while. In a few years, though, somebody with a hot return guy will use it to throw off the opposing team and manufacture a touchdown.

If that weren’t enough, the Rams took a huge step toward sealing their win with one of the more incredible fake punts you’ll ever see. Rams punter Johnny Hekker took the ball up 28-26 on fourth-and-3 on his own 18-yard line with 2:55 left and spun a perfect pass to Cunningham, who took advantage of what amounted to a legal rub and picked up 18 yards for a first down.

It was almost definitely one of the most shocking fake punts I’ve ever seen. It’s also somehow both a great idea and a really stupid idea at the same time, which doesn’t seem like it should make sense. Let me explain. The whole point of a fake punt, of course, is to pick up a first down in a situation when the other team doesn’t expect you to do anything but execute a typical punt. If that’s the logic behind a fake punt, what better time to do it than when the game’s on the line and the other team would never think you would even consider having the gumption to fake it?

At the same time, Hekker has a history of this. The fake punt marked his fourth completion in five tries as a pro, but I mean that he has a history of trying fake punts in absolutely terrifying situations. He was part of two fake punts in one game against the 49ers in 2012, one of which was just downright insane, as he attempted a fake punt on his own 10-yard line with 49 seconds left in the first half and pulled it off. That was a play with virtually no upside (eliminating the chance the 49ers would return the punt for a score, I guess) and enormous downside (any sort of failure would give the 49ers an almost-guaranteed field goal and probably a touchdown).

Here, the risk-reward proposition was better, but still extremely difficult to justify. Had Hekker’s fake failed, the Rams would have handed the ball over to the Seahawks near the St. Louis 18-yard line. Down two points with less than three minutes to go, the Seahawks would have almost surely come away with a minimum of a lead-changing field goal, with the possibility of scoring a touchdown and/or taking the remaining time off the clock in the process. The upside wasn’t quite as obvious, as a successful fake still meant the Seahawks could get the ball back with 30 seconds or so after a stop. If it were a guaranteed victory by succeeding with the fake, I might be onboard, but it would still be tough. As it is, I think the Rams were probably too aggressive to try the fake, given the incredible downside lurking in the case of a failure.

Then again, plugging the numbers into the Advanced NFL Analytics Win Probability Calculator, the Rams have a 49 percent chance of winning the game as they’re about to line up for the punt. Here’s how the win probability changes based on their decision, assuming a 40-yard net on the punt, the 18-yard gain on a successful fake, and an incomplete pass on a failed fake:

You know what? Good for the Rams. I can’t be too upset when a team does something aggressive to try to win a game, given how so many teams in the NFL just try to hold the time of reckoning off and not lose for as long as possible. You play to fake punt the game!

Reid Option

One of the other major upsets of the day took place in San Diego, as the Chiefs took Andy Reid’s record after bye weeks to 14-2 in a 23-20 victory over the Chargers. Denver’s subsequent win on Sunday night knocked the Chargers out of first place in the AFC West, while Kansas City’s victory puts it at .500 in what’s shaping up to be a race of as many as seven teams competing for the final wild-card spot in the AFC.

So, how did the Chiefs beat the Chargers? Well, they out-Chargersed them, which is hard to say, let alone do. Although they’ve become a more complete team this year as their defense has improved, the 2013 Chargers won games by running the ball well and converting a crazy-high percentage of their third downs, generating points while keeping their defense off the field. Time of possession is often an extremely overrated statistic, but it was a very good measure of how the 2013 Chargers wanted to play and how they succeeded in doing so.

The Chiefs lived out that life Sunday. While their defense did hold Philip Rivers to a line of 17-of-31 for 205 yards, they won this game by holding on to the ball and going 7-for-14 on third down. That doesn’t include two third downs the Chiefs converted thanks to San Diego defensive penalties, and two would-be conversions that were dropped by Dwayne Bowe and Junior Hemingway. The Chiefs focused on short, sound throws designed to move the chains, and a Chargers pass rush that sacked Alex Smith three times really couldn’t do much about it.

The result: a bunch of long drives. The Chiefs ran a nine-minute, 31-second drive in the second quarter that went just 56 yards in 14 plays and ended with a Cairo Santos field goal. Then, after a three-and-out, they came back in the second half and held the ball for the first six minutes and 25 seconds before kicking another Santos field goal, later adding a drive of seven minutes and 43 seconds that ended in a touchdown. Combined, those three drives chewed up more than 23 minutes of game time, and the Chiefs held the ball for exactly 39 minutes overall. That’s the first time a team has held the ball for 35 minutes or more in regulation against the Chargers since Washington in Week 9 last year.

The Chargers did their part, meanwhile, by struggling on third down. They went just 3-for-10, a 30 percent conversion rate that is well below the 53.8 percent mark they had before Sunday’s game. They faced an average of 9.9 yards to go for each of their conversions, again much worse than the 6.7 yards to go they faced on third downs before this week. Some of that boils down to a third-and-25 they were up against in the first half, but they required double-digit yards for a conversion on four of their 10 attempts.

They also helped with one of the most confounding uses of a timeout you’ll ever see from a head coach. When the Chargers came up with a stop of the Chiefs on third-and-2 on the San Diego 30-yard line with 30 seconds left in the game, they still had a lot to play for. If Santos missed the 48-yard kick to come, the Chargers would need to drive only about 25 yards to get into Nick Novak’s field goal range. If Santos hit the field goal to put the Chiefs up by three, the Chargers would still have Rivers, his receivers, and three timeouts, which would allow them to use the entirety of the field for as long as possible before being limited to sideline throws. Teams have scored on 9.5 percent of similar drives since 1999.

Chargers head coach Mike McCoy had other ideas for his timeouts, though: He decided to use his precious first timeout to ice Santos. Never mind that the empirical evidence for icing is pretty slim. Forget that Rivers really could have used that timeout as part of a game-tying march downfield. McCoy’s timeout in that spot is an exercise in amateur psychology.

By using a timeout there, McCoy either thinks the game is over if Santos makes the kick or thinks that the power of icing is so impossibly strong that it’s worth significantly affecting his chances of tying or winning the game after the kick. If McCoy literally could have pelted Santos with ice as he attempted the kick, it probably still wouldn’t have been worth using that timeout. McCoy has made some curious decisions in the past, including attempting a 50-yard field goal over trying to convert on fourth-and-inches to seal up a game against the Colts last year. His team probably loses this game anyway, but McCoy actively made it harder to win.

Wash Cycle

Here’s a table of how Washington quarterbacks have performed when they’ve come in off the bench as backups this year as opposed to what the starters have done:

While it would not have been a surprise before the year to see Kirk Cousins’s status change around Week 7 as part of a benching, few expected Cousins would be the one getting benched. Just weeks after a source close to head coach Jay Gruden suggested that Cousins had been the better fit for Gruden’s offense all along, two first-half turnovers were enough to push him back onto the Washington bench. His run as the starter likely finishes with 11 turnovers spread across the better part of six games. He and the legions of Cousinsaholics will always have the 2014 preseason.

The latest stop on the Gruden train takes us to former Browns starter Colt McCoy, who began his day with a 70-yard Pierre Garcon catch-and-run for a touchdown before finishing 11-of-12 for 128 yards and that score. His version of the Gruden offense harks back to the earlier days of Griffin, when virtually every pass was targeted near the line of scrimmage. The average McCoy pass on Sunday traveled just 3.3 yards in the air, the league’s fewest air yards per pass in Week 7. The last time he was a starter, in 2011, his passes traveled an average of 7.2 yards in the air. That sounds like a massive improvement, but it was the second-shortest distance in the league for starters that year behind Tyler Palko, which might have qualified as proof of tanking.

Benching Cousins for McCoy is a much more depressing move than benching Griffin for Cousins because it’s basically a sign that you’re giving up or something close to it. While there were reasons to be skeptical of Cousins, there was at least some subset of the Washington fan base who believed they were about to give a chance to a passer with a legitimate shot of becoming a franchise quarterback. It’s difficult to envision that occurring with McCoy. Truthfully, it’s difficult to even envision it happening with Griffin at this point.

As much as I would like to envision a world in which Washington benches its quarterback in the first quarter every game as a good-luck charm before bringing a random old Washington quarterback out of the tunnel as the new replacement,2 there’s an easier explanation for how they’ve managed to come away with two wins in the two games they’ve changed quarterbacks. Those two games came against the Titans and Jaguars, two of the worst teams in football. Washington is 2-1 against the AFC South with a point differential of plus-22, and the team is 0-4 against the rest of the league with a point differential of minus-54. The bad news is, Washington has only one AFC South game left, and the even worse news is that it’s against the Colts, who might be the best team in football.

The question now, I suppose, is where Gruden goes next. Griffin is on his way back from his ankle injury with the Cowboys and Vikings coming up before the bye. Do you try to rush Griffin back into the lineup, knowing you’re risking an injury to a player who hasn’t been able to stay healthy for virtually his entire professional career? Do you let him rest and recuperate until the bye, knowing you don’t have anything to play for this year, and hope you can make it through with McCoy at the helm? And if that’s the case, is it just smarter to go back to Cousins and hope he has another two-game hot streak in him before the trade deadline? None of those choices seem very appealing. Barring a 2012-esque second-half winning streak, it feels like another irrelevant season in Washington.

Filed Under: NFL, Seattle Seahawks, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins, Jay Gruden, Colt McCoy

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell