It’s been an NFL season of unpleasant surprises. We thought Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers would stave off Father Time forever. Now, they’re both fighting him. We thought Matt Ryan would finally end the Colts’ quarterback carousel. Instead, he took a shorter ride than most who’ve ridden it. We thought the 2021 quarterback class would become the next great thing. They’re all still trying to find their footing.
One of the few pleasant surprises this season has been the Seattle Seahawks. They were supposed to be the butt of the Russell Wilson joke, as the Denver Broncos rode their franchise quarterback to the AFC playoffs. But another unpleasant surprise: Denver is bad (like, really bad). Instead, it’s Seattle who looks like a potential playoff squad, with consecutive wins against the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Chargers that have put the team atop its division at 4-3.
At this stage, Seattle is still a plucky upstart—but with a home game against the New York Giants, a rematch against the Cardinals, and a Munich bout with the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers awaiting them before their bye week, Seattle can go from cute story to real postseason contender quite quickly. Having watched the film of their recent games, I think they will. Seattle’s surprising start is the result of quality coaching and performances from a myriad of places, and as all of those pieces continue to coalesce, the Seahawks will only get better.
Here I’ll highlight the three things that have led to Seattle’s pleasantly surprising start to the season, ranked in ascending order of pleasantness and surprisingness.
3. They’re evolving defensively.
It may seem pedestrian, but this is an important quote from Seahawks defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson.
Quinton Jefferson says #Seahawks had to go through a "feeling out" period and growing pains meshing into a new system with some new players.— Corbin K. Smith (@CorbinSmithNFL) October 27, 2022
By Week 6, it became apparent they needed to let the front line play more aggressively, which carries more responsibility with it.
As Jefferson mentioned, they were playing more Tite fronts early in the season with him in 4-tech alignment, but recent weeks, they're lining him up in 3-tech slide a bit more inside as a one-gapper in Tuff alignment.— Corbin K. Smith (@CorbinSmithNFL) October 27, 2022
Players talk a lot about coaches “letting them get more aggressive”—but in the case of the Seahawks, we can actually see this in practice. This past offseason, the Seahawks fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and promoted defensive line coach Clint Hurtt to take his place. But with that internal promotion came a schematic switch. Hurtt, who has a background in Vic Fangio–style defenses, brought in another Fangio disciple in Sean Desai and began installing a radically different defensive approach in Seattle. Less Cover 3; more quarters. Fewer penetrating, upfield rushes; more slow, controlled rushes with an eye on the running game.
Some of it worked. A lot of it didn’t. Through five weeks of the season, the Seahawks defense ranked 31st in expected points added per play surrendered. This, despite quality play from newly acquired players like Tariq Woolen, Coby Bryant, and Uchenna Nwosu.
The issue was scheme, and the Seahawks made the switch. Up front, Seattle went back to the bear fronts they had often played in the 2021 season, putting their defensive tackles more directly into gaps and giving them license to get upfield to disrupt. We can see that change directly in Jefferson’s alignment, as he himself highlighted.
The change in the front has been a clear benefit to the Seahawks run defense, which was third best by EPA per rush surrendered in weeks 6 and 7. Instead of trying to hold the point of attack and keep the linebackers clean, the defensive line is disrupting upfield, and the linebackers are playing fast into the gaps created by that interior havoc. This does put a new challenge on the Seahawks’ linebackers: to remain disciplined against play-action and avoid surrendering too much room in the passing game. But so far, the returns on the investment are positive.
Once put into a position to succeed, the talent on Seattle’s front becomes more evident. Ex–nose tackle Poona Ford continues to build an impressive résumé of reps in wide alignments over guards and even tackles. Quinton Jefferson, originally a Seahawks draft pick who struggled to find success at other landing spots, looks like his old self in a Seahawks uniform again. Off the edge, free-agent addition Uchenna Nwosu is coming off a career-best 11 pressures in his Week 7 revenge game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Uchenna Nwosu leads the NFL in QB pressures (31) this season after a Week 7 performance where he generated a career-high 11 pressures.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 25, 2022
Nwosu (Career, since 2018): 15.1% pressure rate (6th in NFL, min. 900 pass rushes)#Seahawks pic.twitter.com/CiIyJnswPn
With Shelby Harris, Darrell Taylor, rookie Boye Mafe, and Al Woods, the Seahawks defensive line isn’t an elite, star-studded unit—but it is talented and deep. What suddenly was a liability feels like a strength.
2. The rookie class has been incredible.
It is heresy to compare any rookie class to the 2012 class that brought Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, and Russell Wilson to Seattle and defined Seahawks football for a decade. Or the 2011 class, which brought in K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman, and Byron Maxwell—all on day three. Or even the year before that, when the team got Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Golden Tate, and Kam Chancellor. That run of unbelievable drafts sent Seattle to multiple Super Bowls, and placing such an expectation on any other Seattle draft class would be unreasonable.
OK. With that said. Man, the Seahawks 2022 draft looks special. No team has gotten more snaps out of their rookie class this season, and the Seahawks have two who have started every game: Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas. Those aren’t just two random ol’ rookies—they’re the Seahawks’ starting tackle duo!
Year-to-date snap rates for each team's top six 2022 draft picks pic.twitter.com/a80ctbUYBH— Anthony Reinhard (@reinhardNFL) October 26, 2022
Seattle entered the draft with major needs at offensive tackle after letting 2021 starters Duane Brown and Brandon Shell walk last offseason, and so far, rookies Cross and Lucas look awesome. Usually when teams force picks at positions of need and shove those rookies into starting roles, the rookies play poorly as they develop their sea legs. Perhaps at no position is that a more reasonable expectation than at offensive tackle, where early-drafted players like the Panthers’ Ikem Ekwonu and Cowboys’ Tyler Smith have taken significant lumps to start the year as they adjust to NFL speed. Both of the Seahawks’ offensive tackles have had their shaky moments, but over seven weeks, this is one of the league’s better tackle duos.
Seahawks rookies Abraham Lucas and Charles Cross rank 14th and 22nd in pass block win rate among 64 qualifying tackles.— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) October 24, 2022
(ESPN Analytics / Next Gen Stats)
Cross in particular has settled into high-quality play the past few weeks, including a rock-solid performance against star Chargers pass rusher Khalil Mack.
apropos of nothing, here's five snaps of Charles Cross going one on one against Khalil Mack in pass protection.— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) October 26, 2022
(love the swipe Cross uses in the 2nd clip) pic.twitter.com/ECFkonvagv
Lucas didn’t come with the same pedigree as Cross, but as a third-round pick, he’s immediately settled in as a quality pass protector. Offensive line analyst Brandon Thorn called Lucas the best rookie tackle through the first month of the season.
Abraham Lucas has been the best rookie OT that I've seen in the NFL this season and he was the 7th OT and 15th overall OL taken in the draft. His play strength is serving as the foundation of his game & is really impressive. pic.twitter.com/k0FRVmSfIM— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) September 30, 2022
Lucas is also a feature on many of the explosive runs ripped off by the Seahawks in recent weeks. And speaking of explosive runs … Kenneth Walker III looks awesome.
Forced into the primary running back role following a season-ending injury to starter Rashaad Penny, Walker has heeded the call with gusto. An aggressive runner who challenges tacklers with a great blend of agility and contact balance, Walker has both the ability to turn a 3-yard run into a 5-yard run and a 10-yard run into a 70-yard house call. While the latter is certainly sexier, it’s the former that keeps the Seahawks offense on schedule and gives the coaching staff faith in using Walker as a 20-plus-carry option on any given game day.
Cross, Lucas, Walker—already a prime class, and we haven’t gotten to perhaps the best pick of the lot. The pick most reminiscent of those early 2010s drafts that John Schneider dominated: fifth-round cornerback Tariq Woolen.
Woolen looks … I mean, he just looks awesome, man. He was billed as a massive project coming out of UTSA, but one worthy of investment given his elite measurables—and I mean elite measurables.
But despite that day-three draft capital and project label, the Seahawks started Woolen in Week 1 and haven’t taken him off the field. That’s a credit to Woolen’s work in the preseason, but more importantly, it highlights a note for all of these Seahawks rookies: Seattle got them playing time right away. The initial plan was just developmental reps: Get some young players out on a rebuilding team and let them grow. But when your rookies hit the ground running, those developmental reps suddenly become quality reps, and they lift the floor of your team altogether. Seattle is much better than they thought they’d be, and the play of Woolen (and fellow rookie CB Coby Bryant, who stepped into the starting nickel job following an injury to Justin Coleman) is a big reason why.
The on-ball production from both Woolen and Bryant was the saving grace of the Seahawks defense early. Seattle’s 12 forced turnovers are tied for the third-best mark of the season, and of those 12 turnovers, seven have seen the rookies involved: four interceptions from Woolen and three fumbles forced by Byrant that were recovered by Seattle. (Bryant has forced four fumbles on the year, more than any other player in the league.)
Any player with five interceptions through seven games is the beneficiary of some luck, but Woolen’s speed lets him match smaller receivers who would otherwise burn tall corners, and his size lets him swallow up those smaller receivers at the catch point. When challenged with size and strength, the same principles apply: Woolen is big enough to hang at the catch point with the NFL’s best, and with his speed, he’ll rarely surrender separation.
The fact that Seattle’s rookies are contributing this much this early is an indication of just how surprising this Seahawks season is. They did not plan for this. For as much credit as we must give John Schneider for his middle- and late-round drafting, no team thinks they’ll be 4-3 if they have five rookie starters. That’s a credit to the quality play of the rookies, but also a credit to the single most surprising part of Seattle’s season.
1. Geno Smith looks like a multiyear starter and high-end quarterback.
I almost don’t know what to say here. I just want to run a curated selection of the most impressive Geno throws from the past few weeks and let you judge for yourself.
Leave your preconceptions at the door and tell me that doesn’t look like a rock-solid starting quarterback. Forget about Russ and Eli Manning and the 2023 QB class and tell me you wouldn’t hitch your wagon to that quarterback.
Earlier in the season, the most impressive thing about Geno was the way he was running the Shane Waldron offense. By hitting digs and benders and seams—routes that developed between the numbers and behind linebackers who were biting on play-action passes—Geno was maximizing the system in a way that Russ never did during his time with Waldron in Seattle. Geno wasn’t necessarily elevating the offense (save for a throw here and there), but he was certainly helping the machine run.
But as his confidence has grown and Seattle has played some tough opponents, Geno has started to feel it. He’s uncorking more aggressive throws earlier in the down and earlier in the game, looking to attack. He isn’t checking over his shoulder anymore and simply trying to avoid mistakes to ensure he doesn’t disappoint as a backup or spot starter. He’s trying to win some football games.
Geno continues to stand apart from the rest of the quarterbacking landscape in how he wins. He’s no. 1 in the NFL in completion percentage, finding a receiver on 73.5 percent of his passes. And he’s not dinking and dunking; rather, he’s pushing the ball downfield, averaging 8.14 air yards per passing attempt, the 12th-highest figure among passers this year. Put those two stats together and Geno’s completion percentage over expectation (a measure of how often a quarterback completes his passes, adjusted for the difficulty of those passes) is comfortably ahead of the next closest quarterbacks (Kenny Pickett, Patrick Mahomes, and Joe Burrow).
Geno finds so many completions downfield because of how much trust he has in his arm and his receivers. The variety of trajectories that Geno uses to deliver the ball into tight windows—often at a spot only his receiver can play on the ball—is a sign of a top-tier passer who knows his receivers will pay him off if he gives them a shot. The potential loss of DK Metcalf to a knee injury, while bad news for the offense overall, won’t deter Geno—he’s been trusting Colby Parkinson and Marquise Goodwin and anyone else the Seahawks give him downfield.
Talk about a franchise-changing season. Geno will be a free agent after this year; if I were Seattle, I’d be blowing his agent’s phone up with an extension offer right now. Geno is 32 years old and hasn’t signed a major extension at any point in his career, so Seattle won’t need to back up the Brink’s truck. But they can secure multiple seasons of above-average quarterback play as they load up the roster with the extra money (and draft picks) afforded by having a starting passer already on the roster. Then make a Super Bowl run with Geno. Why not? He’s playing well enough now that the Seahawks—the plucky, young, upstart Seahawks—are in control of the NFC West.