The Seahawks-Eagles tilt set for this weekend’s NFL wild-card round pits two teams with wildly contrasting regular-season finishes against each other. On one side, a banged-up Philly squad―which appeared to be headed toward a potential top-10 pick after an embarrassing Week 13 loss to the Dolphins dropped the team to 5-7―clicked at just the right time, winning its last four games to secure the NFC East title. Seattle, on the other hand, has looked nothing like the red-hot group that came out of the same week at 10-2 and on track to capture a first-round bye. Following the division-deciding 26-21 loss to the rival 49ers in Week 17, the Seahawks find themselves limping into the playoffs having dropped three of their last four games.
Hamstrung by injuries, coaching blunders, and untimely mistakes during the final month of the season, Seattle faces a tougher than expected road back to Super Bowl glory. For the Seahawks to have any shot at making a deep postseason run, they need to fix the major issues that cropped up late in the year―and do it quickly. Here are the five things the Seahawks can do to right the ship and make some playoff noise.
Get Healthy, Fast
The Seahawks have been losing the battle of attrition that every team faces throughout a grueling NFL season. On offense, the team is dealing with a knee injury to left tackle Duane Brown and lost starting center Justin Britt (knee), tight end Will Dissly (Achilles), and running backs Chris Carson (hip), Rashaad Penny (ACL), and C.J. Prosise (arm) to season-ending ailments. Josh Gordon’s suspension exacerbated the Seahawks’ distinct lack of depth at receiver, too; Gordon, whom Seattle added in the middle of the season to help out on high-leverage plays like third downs and in the red zone, was missed late in the team’s loss to the 49ers on Sunday, when Russell Wilson could’ve used another big-bodied, playmaking target to throw to. Wilson repeatedly fed rookie receiver DK Metcalf the ball on the team’s final drive (which ultimately came up a yard short), but it was less than ideal that Seattle’s final two plays were designed for Jacob Hollister, a player who would’ve been the fourth or fifth option (or worse) in the passing game earlier in the season.
Defensively, Seattle’s already below-average secondary has struggled to make up for the loss of safety Quandre Diggs; Diggs’s replacement, third-year pro Delano Hill, has repeatedly taken bad angles or found himself out of position in his two starts in relief. There’s more than one culprit, but it’s no coincidence that Seattle’s defense has fallen apart since Diggs left with a high ankle sprain in the team’s Week 15 win over the Panthers. Hill was a liability against the 49ers, and his lack of deep range limits the types of coverage schemes and pressure packages the Seahawks can call.
Seattle has also missed the world-destroying version of Jadeveon Clowney it got for stretches earlier this season. Clowney laid waste to the 49ers offense in the Seahawks’ Week 10 win, almost single-handedly wrecking San Francisco’s game plan while racking up five tackles, five quarterback hits, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a touchdown. Battling a nagging core injury that kept him out of the previous two games, Clowney was mostly a nonfactor on Sunday night, tallying just one tackle in the loss. All in all, Seattle’s injury-ravaged unit did little to slow up the 49ers on Sunday: After notching two sacks on their first defensive series, the Seahawks failed to corral Jimmy Garoppolo the rest of the night. San Francisco ended the game with just two punts on nine possessions; Garoppolo averaged 13 yards per pass attempt, and the team’s run game picked up 5.8 yards per carry. The Niners’ 8.3 yards-per-play average was nearly double the Seahawks’ average (4.9).
The good news is that Seattle could get some much-needed reinforcements for the playoffs. Interior offensive lineman Ethan Pocic (who spent much of the season on the IR-return) is close to getting back to full strength, too, and could give the team a boost at either center or guard. Then there’s Marshawn Lynch, who turned 12 carries into 34 yards in his first on-field action since October 2018. Beast Mode was obviously still getting his feet under him in Sunday’s game, but he should see expanded work in Seattle’s injury-riddled backfield next week, giving the team the potential to get back some of its smashmouth identity on the ground.
Crucially, Diggs could return for the team’s wild-card matchup with the Eagles this weekend. The veteran safety provides a hard-hitting, rangy presence that none of the team’s reserves can duplicate, and based on the small sample we’ve seen of him in Seattle, he’s already established himself as one of the linchpin pieces for that group. As for Clowney, Seattle will have to hope that another week can help the superstar pass rusher return to something close to a peak level. If Clowney can get back to full speed, it’d provide a massive boost to Seattle’s punchless defense.
Let Russ Cook
That’s been a rallying cry of Seahawks Twitter for the past year-plus: a call to head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to abandon their dogged, almost-fanatical devotion to the run game and let their best player do his thing through the air. Carroll’s commitment to the ground game has been a foundational tenet for the Seahawks during the past decade, and it’s hard to argue with Carroll’s vision as a team- and culture-builder in Seattle. But while the longtime head coach’s hard-line adherence to some specific philosophies has helped on a macro level going back to 2010, the current iteration of this Seattle team simply can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes it made in a wild-card loss to the Cowboys last season.
As logical as it may seem to tailor game plans to specific opponents, the Seahawks don’t always adopt that method, instead typically preferring to play their style with little regard for who they’re up against any given week. That was clear against Dallas last January, when the Seahawks repeatedly and futilely slammed their running backs into a stacked Cowboys box, finishing with just 73 yards and 3.0 yards per carry on 24 totes while waiting far too long to unleash their all-world quarterback on a suspect pass defense. (Wilson finished the game averaging 8.6 yards per attempt on 27 passes, throwing for 233 yards and a touchdown.) The Eagles defense has been better against the run than the pass this year; should the initial game plan go awry, the Seahawks can’t wait too long to adapt: Seattle rushed for 174 yards the last time these two teams met, in Week 12, so expect the Seahawks to look to re-create that magic. Seattle had Carson and Penny splitting backfield reps and a fully healthy Brown manning the left tackle spot in that game. If the Seahawks can’t get Lynch and rookie Travis Homer going early, they must lean on the arm of their dynamic signal-caller and attack Philly’s obvious weaknesses in the secondary.
Speaking of Lynch: While the veteran back managed to inject a few moments of energy into Seattle’s offensive group on Sunday, it’s doubtful he’ll be a panacea for all the team’s offensive woes. The veteran back is still tasked with running behind a cobbled-together offensive line that wasn’t all that good when it was healthy. If Seattle heads into the postseason pinning its hopes on the 33-year-old Lynch, it could be in for a short ride. Ultimately, it’s Wilson’s play that will determine just how long Seattle’s postseason run will last: If the Seahawks are willing to put the game in their playmaking quarterback’s capable hands, he’ll give even this injured and flawed group a shot against any other playoff team.
Scheme It Up
Getting Wilson on a hot streak that could carry Seattle on a deep postseason run is about more than adjusting the team’s run-pass ratio, though. Schottenheimer and the team’s offensive staff will need to regroup this week and figure out how to create a spark for what’s been a mostly listless unit―both on the ground and through the air―over the past month. Even factoring in Seattle’s feisty second-half comeback attempt against the 49ers on Sunday (which was preceded by the team’s first scoreless first half in two years), the Seahawks have been one of the worst overall offenses in the NFL over the past four weeks. From Week 14 on, Seattle has ranked 25th in points (19.0 per game), 21st in yards per play (5.2), tied for 21st in total touchdowns (nine), and tied for dead last in sacks allowed (13).
That sack total certainly stands out, and while Seattle has been dangerous this season on slower-developing, deep-drop downfield throws, those types of plays also put Wilson at risk of getting gobbled up by opponents’ pass rushes. Against the 49ers, Wilson struggled against the blitz, perhaps in part due to Seattle’s reliance on deeper routes.
The 49ers typically rely on a 4-man pass rush to generate pressure but broke tendency tonight vs Russell Wilson (46% blitz rate). Wilson struggled against the blitz...— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 30, 2019
vs Blitz: 9/18, 86 yards (63.7 passer rating)
vs No Blitz: 16/21, 147 yards, TD (126.5 passer rating)#SFvsSEA pic.twitter.com/kL00Qutfqj
While Carroll has noted that he’s not a big fan of the dink-and-dunk approach, the team may be forced to dial up more short and intermediate pass routes to help Wilson get rid of the ball quickly, avoid drive-killing sacks, and keep the chains moving. The Seahawks could look to Wilson’s Week 2 performance against the Steelers as a benchmark: In that game, he completed 29 of 35 passes while averaging just 1.89 seconds in time to throw, making him easily the quarterback with the quickest release that week.
Throughout his career, Wilson has excelled when running an up-tempo passing attack that spreads the field and helps him quickly find the open man. The ball-control-minded Seahawks just rarely take that tack, at least until they need to. We saw glimpses of that in Seattle’s fourth-quarter offense on Sunday when the team needed to rally from a big late-game deficit.
This is what has been missing from the Seahawks offense in the 2nd half of the season. They have the best slot WR in football in Lockett. Moving the chains should be far easier than it has been. Hopefully they can build on this. pic.twitter.com/miDjCcWTrc— Parker Lewis (@ParkerLewisJR) December 30, 2019
In addition to getting Tyler Lockett more involved as an underneath threat, Seattle may look to shifty rookie John Ursua more to help convert third downs on quick routes over the middle of the field. At tight end, Hollister’s emerged as a replacement for Wilson’s early-season security blanket in Dissly (who’s out for the year), and rookie running back Travis Homer showed some pass-catching chops on Sunday, repeatedly giving Wilson a reliable and dynamic check-down option when deeper routes were covered.
As for the team’s typically dangerous deep passing attack, Seattle needs to focus on making Lockett and Metcalf the two clear focal points. Lockett’s had a rough second-half stretch while dealing with a serious leg injury and illness, but the Seahawks need to commit to scheming up multiple shot plays for the dangerous downfield speedster in every game. Same goes for Metcalf, who’s battled inconsistency at times as a rookie but possesses top-tier speed and elite size to outmuscle smaller opponents. After giving Metcalf just five total targets in the team’s two previous games combined, Wilson force-fed his big playmaker on Sunday, targeting the rookie 12 times; Metcalf caught six of those passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. Schottenheimer can’t let the Eagles (or any opponent) dictate which pass catchers get targets; he must aggressively design ways to get his two best receivers involved, early and often.
This is totally oversimplification, but...— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) December 30, 2019
It is shocking that the Seahawks struggle to feature Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf and Co. for stretches of games, while Kyle Shanahan can seemingly manufacture touches for any player at any moment.
More generally, while it’s not realistic to expect Schotty to conjure up a Kyle Shanahan–style offense in a week, the Seahawks can certainly borrow some of the foundations of the 49ers’ scheme they saw on Sunday, including heavy doses of motion, misdirection, and play-action. For a team with plenty of issues in pass protection, deception can help mitigate personnel deficiencies, getting defenders thinking instead of reacting from play to play. Seattle’s just too banged up to simply line up and impose its will on an opponent at this stage of the season. It may be time for Schottenheimer to pull out some of the plays he’s been saving for a rainy day.
Flash back to 2011, when Carroll described his decision to hand it to Lynch on a fourth-and-goal from the Cincinnati 3-yard line with 14 seconds in the first half as a mistake, or “what happens when a coach gets hormonal and tries to jam it down their throat for a touchdown at the half.” Lynch got stuffed, the Seahawks came away with nothing, and they went into halftime trailing the Bengals 17-3. Seattle ended up losing that game 34-12.
But while Carroll may still view those types of decisions as mistakes, this banged-up Seattle squad may need its increasingly conservative head coach to rediscover some of the Big Balls Pete persona he took on during his days at USC, when it almost became a given that the Trojans would go for it on fourth down. This season, the Seahawks have done almost the exact opposite, typically punting the ball away and trying to play the field-position game. But over the past few weeks, Carroll’s given the green light in a handful of fourth-down situations, signaling, perhaps, some openness in reconnecting with his former, more-daring self.
The bottom line: The Seahawks may not have to pull out all the stops and turn their aggressiveness up to 11 against a similarly beat-up Eagles squad this weekend, but to make a deep postseason run, Carroll must, at the very least, stop coaching like he’s protecting a subpar quarterback with the best defense in the world; he has neither.
Limit Coaching Snafus
I wanted to use the word “eliminate” instead of “limit” here, but after witnessing Carroll’s in-game decision-making throughout his 10 seasons in Seattle, I decided to settle for something slightly more realistic. In any case, the Seahawks will need Carroll and Co. to be sharper in that area now than they’ve been for most of the regular season.
Seattle’s penchant for big-moment coaching mistakes took center stage on Sunday, when the Seahawks came up a yard short of a division title thanks in large part to the team’s perplexing inability to substitute following a clock-stopping spike from the 1-yard line with 23 seconds to go. Per Carroll, Seattle’s coaching staff was late communicating the changes as they attempted to switch from a light two-minute-drill personnel grouping to a heavier run-focused one. And instead of running a play from the 1-yard line on second-and-goal, Seattle took a delay of game and was forced to move back to the 5-yard line. Wilson missed his first two passes before connecting with Hollister over the middle on fourth down, but Hollister was stopped at the 1-foot line by San Francisco linebacker Dre Greenlaw. Turns out that 5-yard penalty, uh, mattered.
Game management has been a huge issue for Seahawks all season, from poor clock management to indecision in key moments, or sometimes both. That’s a potential vulnerability for a team that consistently operates on a razor’s edge, testing, prodding, and feeling out its opponents throughout the game instead of simply coming out swinging―sort of like a boxer who’s trying to win on the cards. The Seahawks were extraordinarily successful in one-score games this season, finishing 10-2 in those situations, but as we saw on Sunday, the Seahawks’ strategy of relying on out-executing opponents late in games can come back to bite even the most clutch players and teams. In the playoffs, opponents are better and the margins for error shrink; Seattle may not be equipped to survive the types of coaching blunders we’ve seen from Carroll and his staff this season.