After blowing out the defending NFC champions 40–7 on Sunday night, the Seahawks moved to 8–3–1. If they win out, they’ll lock up the 2-seed, clinch a first-round bye, and guarantee themselves at least one home game. But you wouldn’t have known any of that if you were in Seattle on Sunday night.
The season-ending injury to Earl Thomas hung over the win like a pall, dampening much of the excitement from an otherwise dominant performance in prime time. The four-time All-Pro free safety suffered a broken leg early in the second quarter when he collided with teammate Kam Chancellor while jumping for an interception. Thomas has been a mainstay in the back of Seattle’s defense for six seasons — he missed his first game as a pro … last week against the Buccaneers — so we don’t really know what the Seahawks defense will look like going forward without its rangy, ferocious center fielder. It certainly wasn’t a great omen that on the first play after Thomas left the game, Cam Newton hit Ted Ginn Jr. deep down the middle for a 55-yard touchdown strike. Gulp.
Thomas plays an integral role as the last line of defense in Pete Carroll’s system: He’s a 5-foot-10, 208-pound anthropomorphized version of Sonic the Hedgehog responsible for covering huge swaths of the field in Seattle’s primarily single-high scheme, which asks Thomas to cover the ground normally assigned to two safeties. Along with Rob Gronkowski’s and J.J. Watt’s season-ending back injuries, you could make the argument this is one of the three highest-impact nonquarterback injuries a team will have to endure in the NFL this season.
So, is this something the Seahawks can overcome? Can Seattle still win it all? The Seahawks are going to have to change the normal calculus for how they win games, and the loss of their superstar safety will be a death knell to their championship hopes — unless the offense lives up to its preseason expectations.
For four years running, the Seahawks have given up the fewest points in the NFL, and with the defense surrendering a league-best 16.3 points through 12 games, they’re on pace to tie the record of five in a row set by the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s.
"We play man-to-man or Cover 3, not much more than that," as Chancellor put it in 2013. "It’s not a secret." The linchpin of the Cover 3 is Thomas, who patrols the deep middle of the field with one primary edict: Don’t let anything get over your head. Thomas is responsible for two routes — the post and the seam — and if teams send multiple routes in his direction, it’s his job to split the difference between them and choose which receiver is getting the ball based on subtle tells from the quarterback. It’s Thomas’s incredible decisiveness, range, and tenacity that allows Seattle to run this riskier strategy in the secondary and still limit opposing quarterbacks so well.
Without Thomas on the prowl, Carroll could change his defense to a Cover 2 or Cover 4 scheme, which would give more protection against big plays in the back end without asking someone who isn’t Earl Thomas to be Earl Thomas, but that would also take one more player away from near the line of scrimmage, so don’t expect Carroll to do that. The reason he believes so strongly in this single-high look — a scheme that "[makes] it easier on the quarterbacks [because] they know what they’re dealing with," as he admitted in November — is that it allows Seattle to stack the box and stop the run. "The counts [defensive players vs. offensive players] that occur at the line of scrimmage, because you’re playing with two deep safeties, just makes it that much harder, and the running game is a gimme [for the offense]."
With Thomas’s incredible speed and innate play-recognition skills, Seattle regularly leads the NFL in defending seam routes down the deep middle of the field. Through 12 weeks, the Seahawks had posted a minus-74.7 percent DVOA on deep middle passes, per Football Outsiders’ charting (negative numbers are good on defense), more than twice as good as the second-best Giants. Per NFL GSIS’s tracking, Seattle has given up just four deep completions over the middle of the field, and two of those came after Thomas had left the game on Sunday. Thomas has been impossibly good at his job: We all saw what happened to Gronk when Tom Brady tried to sneak a pass to his tight end up the numbers, and it’s plays like that that discourage opponents from even trying him in that area of the field. A big part of Seattle’s success comes from opposing quarterbacks rarely bothering to attack Thomas in the first place.
The responsibility of replacing Thomas now falls, in a big part, to fourth-year pro Steven Terrell. An undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M in 2013, Terrell signed with the Seahawks before the 2014 season and has rarely been called upon to play Thomas’s role because of the incumbent’s impeccable health. While Terrell lacks on-field experience, he’s been immersed in Carroll’s scheme for three seasons. Plus, he’ll be aided by veteran corners Richard Sherman, Jeremy Lane, and DeShawn Shead. Thomas is one of a kind, but Seattle’s corners do make his job easier by jamming, disrupting, and rerouting receivers at the line of scrimmage and giving as much support as possible down the middle. It also doesn’t hurt that Michael Bennett is back after missing five weeks with a knee injury, which will make things harder for opposing quarterbacks, and that Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are among the best coverage linebackers in the league.
Despite all the things in place to make his job easier, there’s going to be a significant drop-off from the All-Pro to the novice. The Seahawks will almost surely give up more big plays than they would with Thomas out there. They’ll probably give up more points. They’ll probably blow more coverages — it’s just impossible to replace years and years of experience playing together in a system that relies on chemistry and communication to keep everyone "tied on a string" — playing together to cover all their vulnerabilities — as Thomas often puts it.
There’s no way the defense won’t drop off without Thomas, and so the Seahawks will need their offense to step up.
We haven’t seen Russell Wilson and Co. live up to their potential on offense this year. There have been short glimpses of it — they dropped 40 points on Carolina, thanks to huge games from Jimmy Graham and Tyler Lockett — but the explosive, physical run game disappeared with Marshawn Lynch’s retirement after last season. Additionally, Wilson hasn’t been as dynamic as a runner this season as he’s fought through injuries. With opposing defenses able to ignore the threat of Wilson scrambling, he’s been less efficient of a downfield passer.
That was the mediocre. Now for the good: Center Justin Britt came back on Sunday after missing a game with an ankle injury, and his return galvanized Seattle’s offensive line. After giving up six sacks to the Bucs in Week 12, the Seahawks cut that number in half. The difference Britt’s presence made was obvious in the Seahawks’ effectiveness on the ground, as Britt made a key block that opened up a huge hole on Thomas Rawls’s 45-yard touchdown run. Wilson is a also huge component to Seattle’s run game, and after struggling with an early-season high-ankle sprain and an MCL injury, he appears to be getting healthier every week; he ran for a season-high 80 yards last week in Tampa Bay. Plus, Rawls is rounding back into form; after undergoing surgery in the offseason to repair a broken ankle, the punishing back finally looks like he’s back to full speed, rushing for 106 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carries against Carolina. It appears the Seahawks ground game finally has some punch: The team ran for 240 yards on Sunday and has broken 100 yards rushing three games in a row.
But if this team is going to make any noise in the playoffs, Seattle needs consistency from Wilson, who has thrown just 12 touchdown passes in 12 games this season. With Lynch gone, this is Wilson’s offense now; while injuries have been a major factor in his struggles, the fifth-year passer has not lived up to preseason MVP hype. We’ve all seen what Wilson can do without Lynch and behind a badly flawed offensive line: During Seattle’s three-game win streak starting in Week 9 — in which the Seahawks knocked off the Bills, Patriots, and Eagles — Wilson threw for 902 yards, six touchdowns, and no picks on 9.6 yards per attempt, while posting a 67 percent completion rate and a 119 passer rating. Those are MVP-caliber numbers — hell, he even caught a touchdown pass from Doug Baldwin on a trick play against Philly — and Seattle needs that Wilson to show up every week.
With Thomas now out for the rest of the year, the Seahawks can no longer afford performances like the one we saw from Wilson in Week 12 against the Bucs (17-for-33 passing with two interceptions). There’s just no margin for error anymore; Seattle’s defense isn’t going to be able to save the offense’s bacon if Wilson has an off day or looks like anything less than the guy that returned to form in Weeks 9, 10, and 11, or that lit defenses up in the second half of last season.
Seattle has four games to go: at the Packers, home for the Rams and Cardinals, and a Week 17 visit to the 49ers. The Seahawks are still in the driver’s seat in the NFC West and carry 99 percent odds to make the postseason. The injury to Thomas certainly damages Seattle’s shot at another Super Bowl berth, but the big loss comes in a season in which there really are no great teams. Every contender has a major flaw — even the Cowboys, whose defense is still susceptible to giving up big plays.
Without Thomas, the Seahawks are worse now than they’ve been in the past — but so is the rest of the league. If Seattle is going to win the Super Bowl this season, the team will have to do it with a different equation than the one it’s utilized in the past four years. It’s one that’s been heavily weighted toward the Seahawks’ dominant defense, but for the rest of this season, Seattle’s offense finally has to carry the weight.