It’s obvious why the Seahawks are considered to be among the NFL’s best teams: Few clubs boast a passing attack as impressive as Seattle’s. Quarterback Russell Wilson has played at an MVP level through much of the season, and receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett propel a unit that entered the week ranked third in pass yards per game (289) and Football Outsiders’s passing efficiency rankings.
When Wilson and Co. are clicking, the Seahawks are hard to stop. However, Seattle’s 44-34 loss to the Bills on Sunday emphasized an issue that could overshadow the Seahawks’ offensive success: Their pass defense is one of the worst units in the league, and its continued struggles could cap the potential of Pete Carroll’s squad.
Entering the week, Seattle’s defense ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’s pass defense efficiency, and after Sunday, it may get only worse. Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen has had an up-and-down first half of the season, leading the Bills to a 4-0 start and then cooling off in sketchy wins against the Jets and Patriots. Allen didn’t flinch against Seattle, though. He completed 31-of-38 passes for 415 yards and three touchdowns. “[Buffalo] made it look easy,” Carroll told reporters after the game. “They didn’t even try to run the football.”
The Bills passed on 38 of their 64 total plays against Seattle, and Allen became the fourth player to throw for 397 yards or more against the Seahawks this season. The Seattle secondary is now giving up 362.1 pass yards per game, and through eight games, seven of the eight quarterbacks Seattle has faced have thrown for 299 yards or more. The Bills knew they needed to rack up the score to have a shot at winning, and they did so, fully exploiting Seattle’s Achilles’ heel. “We gave them some stuff with some misplay,” Carroll said. “We did not plan to be as off them as much as it looked like.”
Wilson also had an uncharacteristically uneven afternoon, turning the ball over four times (two interceptions and two fumbles), so some of the blame for this loss certainly falls on his shoulders. Sunday marked the first time Seattle was minus-4 in turnover margin in four years, and the Bills made them pay, scoring 16 points (three field goals and one touchdown) off of them.
But while Wilson has rescued Seattle’s defense on several occasions this season, the unit had no hope of returning the favor on Sunday. A common critique of the Seahawks has been their inability to generate pressure against opposing passers—they entered this week with the fifth-lowest sack rate (3.5 percent) and the 11th-lowest pressure rate (20.3 percent) in the league. They tried to address that issue at the trade deadline by acquiring Bengals veteran pass rusher Carlos Dunlap, who played Sunday. Dunlap made an impact against Buffalo, producing one sack and three tackles for loss, and Seattle’s defense managed to sack Allen seven total times. But the sacks did little to mitigate the big gains the Bills racked up through the air. Seven of eight Buffalo players who recorded a catch on Sunday registered at least one gain of 20 yards or more.
The Seahawks’ secondary is the team’s most glaring weakness, and if Seattle has Super Bowl aspirations, it has to improve. When the Seahawks acquired All-Pro safety Jamal Adams this offseason, he was expected to help, but he wasn’t expected to be a quick-fix solution to all of their issues in pass coverage. Adams is one of the best box safeties in the league and has at times been Seattle’s best pass rusher. But entering Sunday, he’d missed each of the past four games with a groin injury. Seattle is hoping that his consistent presence will help turn things around. But even with Adams back in the lineup, other secondary members—such as Quinton Dunbar, who was benched during Sunday’s loss—need to improve. Coming into the game, Seattle’s starting cornerback tandem of Dunbar and Shaquill Griffin (who was out Sunday with a concussion and a hamstring injury) ranked 82nd and 88th, respectively, in Pro Football Focus’s cornerback player grades and 104th and 96th, respectively, in coverage.
There is still time for this defense to flip a switch. The Seahawks are halfway through the regular season and are 6-2, despite fielding what’s on track to finish as one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history. Wilson is bound to bounce back from his poor showing, and even with four turnovers, the offense still scored 34 points. Perhaps that will be enough to propel Seattle through the rest of the regular season—of the team’s remaining opponents, only the Rams boast a passer who’s ranked in the top 10 of passing yards (Jared Goff, ninth).
But if the Seahawks don’t correct their massive flaw by the postseason, it could be the thing that undermines them. Only two of the top seven teams in the NFC standings—the Rams and Bears—rank outside of the top 10 in points per game, and both clubs have managed to win behind sturdy defenses. The Seahawks are still contenders in the NFC. But unless they improve their pass defense, their potential will be limited to just that.