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Packers vs. Seahawks Q&A: Seattle’s defense ‘a lot worse’ without Earl Thomas

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Kenny Arthur of SB Nation’s Seattle Seahawks blog Field Gulls answers our questions about Seattle’s offseason coaching changes, the void left by Earl Thomas’ leg injury, and what he expects from Packers versus Seahawks.

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

On Thursday, the Green Bay Packers return to CenturyLink Field for the first time since the Seattle Seahawks’ infamous fourth-quarter comeback in the 2014-15 NFC title game. Kenny Arthur of Field Gulls was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the Seahawks and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.

APC: After back-to-back years of inconsistent offenses and poor offensive line play, the Seahawks fired offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and O-line coach Tom Cable this offseason, bringing in Brian Schottenheimer and Mike Solari as replacements. How have those change affected the offense?

I’m not sure I see the offenses under Darrell Bevell as “inconsistent” beyond the fact that they had some significant personnel changes in the last 2-3 years of his tenure that shifted the offenses in predictable ways. Offensively speaking, the Seahawks were 4th in DVOA in 2012, 7th in 2013, 5th in 2014, and 1st in 2015. The biggest personnel change from 2014 to 2015 was the beginning of the end for Marshawn Lynch, but Thomas Rawls more than carried the workload before breaking his ankle towards the end of the season. They were a top-4 rushing team in all four of those seasons and Russell Wilson was consistently among the league’s highest-rated passers. Then in 2016, left tackle Russell Okung left via free agency and problems along the offensive line began to emerge, signaling the end for Bevell and Tom Cable, pretty much.

I just don’t know where the narrative started to explode that Seattle had a bad offense during their very good seasons in which they made at least the second round of the playoffs in four consecutive years. I think a lot of it has to do with them being one of the only teams in the league that was run-forward and consistently among the those with the fewest pass attempts year after year in an era where the expectation is “you gotta pass for 5,000+ yards to be great.” We now see with the Saints though that even Drew Brees is a lot better when he’s not passing it 650 or more times. That being said, the Seahawks offense did get pretty bad when they were not able to consistently run the ball and tried to become a “passing team” with Jimmy Graham.

The left tackle situation killed countless drives until the trade for Duane Brown in the middle of 2017 and that’s really when Seattle started to right the ship, not the firing of Bevell and Cable. Not in my opinion. Add into that the drafting of Chris Carson in 2017 and that gives them a huge upgrade over Rawls and Eddie Lacy from a year ago, giving the Seahawks another “yards after contact” back like what they had in Lynch. This is also why they drafted Rashaad Penny in the first round, because he led the nation in broken tackles last season by a wide margin; typically they want to save money on the offensive line by incorporating backs who are able to create plays on their own even when it doesn’t appear that additional yards are there. This is a Pete Carroll/John Schneider type of philosophy and trust me when I say that all of the new coaching hires -- Brian Schottenheimer, Mike Solari, and defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr. -- were hired because they wouldn’t try to drastically change the Carroll gameplan. They were hired to keep the status quo and to shake things up so that fans knew that they were listening and aware of the outcry against those two offensive coaches. Anyways, believe it or not I could go on and on even more about how Cable’s place as the scapegoat is completely overrated by Seattle folks but I will finally answer your question? Sorry, I know this is the part where readers hate me for droning on about a tangential topic, so let me make the rest very quick:

The Seahawks are running the ball better than they did a year ago because of Carson, Davis, and Penny at running back over Rawls and Lacy. They are better at blocking because of Brown and free agent signees D.J. Fluker and J.R. Sweezy at guard. They are better at running perhaps because of Solari, but to what degree would be completely speculative; Solari coached the worst line in football in 2017 with the Giants. With that better running game, Schottenheimer has basically done his best to bring Seattle back to where they were under Bevell in the 2012-2015 era, ranking 1st in rush attempts and 32nd in pass attempts. Despite the low number of attempts, Russell Wilson is on pace for a career high in touchdowns (he has 21 in nine games with five interceptions) and his run game has even come along a little in the last few weeks, gaining a season-high 92 on the ground against the LA Rams on Sunday.

I’d say the Seahawks offense is overall somewhere around average because while they are fairly efficient, they have not made the plays they need to make in the fourth quarter and that’s why they’ve lost 4 of 5 games decided by one possession. They could have won the last two games but fell short on their final drives -- the offense lacks a killer threat in the pass game, partly because Doug Baldwin has been injured, and I think that’s one thing that will hold them back for the rest of the year.

APC: Earl Thomas spent much of 2018 battling with Seahawks management over his contract only to suffer a broken leg in late September. How has the Seattle defense adjusted to his absence, and what do you think Thomas’ prospects will look like this offseason?

The defense is a lot worst without Thomas. They held up okay in the first 2-3 games without him because they were not facing the best of quarterbacks, but in the last three (Stafford, Rivers, Goff), they’ve given up an average of like 275 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no interceptions. They’ve also been eaten up on the ground by running backs quite a bit too. Thomas was the best or second-best player on the defense next to Bobby Wagner and probably was still the best free safety in the league. Backup Tedric Thompson is ... not. He might start for some teams but it’s just far too noticeable when replacing ET.

Coming off of his second broken leg injury in three years, I think Thomas will have a hard time getting a guarantee beyond 2019. I hope he decides to bury the hatchet and return to Seattle, because they really need him and I think they’ll have a really hard time running Carroll’s defense without a free safety similar to his caliber. They might be able to move Bradley McDougald to free safety and then just search for a strong safety to replace McDougald, but I’d rather they just had both. Maybe a one-year, $10 million could do it, but ET seemed quite upset with the Seahawks when he was carted off the field. I would not be surprised at all of Thomas didn’t sign with a team until August just because the market for safeties is weird and so is Thomas.

APC: The Seahawks spent their first-round pick on Rashaad Penny back in April, the team’s most significant investment at the position. Yet, Penny’s 63 total touches ranks a distant third among the running backs behind Chris Carson (119) and Mike Davis (99). Why have the Seahawks buried their first-rounder most of the season and could his role change before the end of his rookie year?

Because Carson is one of the best running backs in the league. The question is more along the lines of, “did they really need to spend a FIRST on Penny?” and you’d probably still get a No from me, but they went out and did it anyway because they anticipated more injury problems from Carson, who has never been a full-season running back in his life. That’s proving to be a wise acknowledgment on the part of the Seahawks: Carson has missed 2.5 games this season already and Penny was basically the starter on Sunday against the Rams. The result: Penny is really damn good.

12 carries for 108 yards and a touchdown against Ndamukong Suh, Aaron Donald, and the best defensive line in football.

Another thing is that Penny missed most of August with a broken finger and so as a rookie, he was well behind the other two guys in terms of preseason and training camp reps. Davis is also not a bad player to have on the team and his results as the backup were pretty good. They wanted to bring Penny along slowly and see him as a long-term investment who will take centerstage more along the lines of 2019-2022, I think. That was the plan when they drafted him too because they are well aware of how good Carson could be: he won the job as a 7th round rookie over Rawls and Lacy last year coming out of the preseason then broke his ankle in Week 4. I just don’t think the running back position is one that I’d worry about filling in the first round but as far as running back prospects go, I think Penny is great.

I would not be surprised if Penny led the team in touches the rest of the way, nor would I be surprised if he remained in third place. Nothing would surprise me because the role(s) of all three backs seems to change each week.

APC: If you were game planning against the Seahawks, how would you attack them on offense? On defense?

Run on the Seahawks, they are 29th in yards per carry allowed. With Aaron Jones in the fold, he should not struggle to get 100 yards and 6+ yards per carry. That’s a pretty clear issue and I’m not sure that outside linebacker K.J. Wright is anywhere near where he was before offseason knee surgery. Passing-wise, they seem to be allowing big gains on third down over and over again, with a lot of that damage seemingly done by number one receivers now that Richard Sherman is in San Francisco. I would think Davante Adams could have a big day.

Offensively, I’m not sure that many defenses could stop the Seattle run game right now, but I wouldn’t really want to. If you can pressure Wilson early, he’ll tend to collapse and take bad sacks for huge losses. Or he’ll make a poor throw, either too high or too low. Don’t get me wrong, Wilson is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but he can be pretty frustrating to watch once a defense gets pressure on him, especially since right now he doesn’t seem to have a go-to target like he did with Baldwin for so many years.

APC: Finally, it’s prediction time. Which team wins on Thursday and why?

Y’all gonna hate me for this one maybe but I think traveling on Thursday night is very difficult. Road teams are 2-8 on TNF and many of those are blowouts. It’s just a weird night of the week to play football and seems to favor the home team. Given that both teams are playing below expectations, and are roughly even in that respect, I’ll go with the home team. Seahawks 26, Packers 22

We’d like to thank Kenny and Field Gulls for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there, as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Seahawks. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Thursday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Packers versus Seahawks.