Seahawks: Room for Improvement Despite Hot Start
When it comes to the 2023 Seattle Seahawks, there really shouldn’t be any surprises. They packed enough of those into the 2022 season.
Last year’s Seahawks were pretty much a complete unknown. They had just traded their franchise quarterback away, leaving themselves with two backups to duke it out as a succession plan. Seattle started a pair of rookies at tackle as well as a rookie and a first-time starter at cornerback. At best, the Seahawks looked like a mediocre franchise looking to tread water for a year before making a real comeback. At worst, people pegged Seattle to be squarely in the running for Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, and Anthony Richardson at the top of the draft.
Of course, after setting up all that pretext, we got the only logical outcome. Geno Smith, who hadn’t held a full-time starting quarterback role since 2014, finished top-10 in DVOA while leading the league in completion percentage over expected. The rookie tackles held up just fine, as did the inexperienced cornerbacks. Instead of ending up near the basement of the league, the Seahawks made the playoffs in their first year without Russell Wilson. Smith locked up Comeback Player of the Year, as a cherry on top of it all.
Given all that success, the Seahawks should pretty much be a known quantity. The bar has been established. Teams have Seattle on their radar. Their top-10 DVOA standing through four weeks is impressive, but it shouldn’t be wholly unexpected.
The good parts of 2022 are still, mostly, keeping up. Smith hasn’t kept up the league-leading CPOE, but a sixth-best 5.7% CPOE (per Next Gen Stats) is a solid sign of stability. His passing DVOA and DYAR are also maintaining the top-10 placement he finished 2022 with.
Now other members of the offense are catching up to the party. Kenneth Walker is 12th in both rushing DYAR (57) and DVOA (10.3%) (min. 30 carries), a far cry from his -35 DYAR, -12.3% DVOA rushing performance in his 2022 sophomore season. DK Metcalf ranks ninth among receivers (min. 20 targets) with a 109 receiving DYAR and fourth with a 44.5% DVOA. Noah Fant (67.2%, first) and Colby Parkinson (16.0%, ninth) are among the league's most efficient tight ends with at least 10 targets.
Defensively, the Seahawks are on pace to have their first above-average season by defensive DVOA in five years. In the meantime, they have all but eradicated their biggest weakness from last year. By scrapping all four interior defenders and replacing them with the likes of Dre’Mont Jones and Jarran Reed, Seattle’s defense went from 24th in rushing DVOA in 2022 to third through the first four weeks of 2023. Bobby Wagner gets a welcome homecoming to Seattle after a year as a stopgap in L.A. That return is made even more impactful by reuniting Wagner with his protege Jordyn Brooks. The two have combined for 92 tackles in four games, the highest total among any linebacker duo in the league.
The pass defense has taken a step back, down from 17th last year to 24th through four weeks. There’s some reason for optimism, though. After 2022 rookie cornerback Riq Woolen earned Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration, Seattle’s fifth overall pick Devon Witherspoon picked up the torch and ran with it. Witherspoon is one of four rookies with at least four passes defensed; he’s played one game less than the other three. If that wasn’t enough, Witherspoon’s 2.0 sacks put him in a four-way tie for the rookie sack lead. On Monday night, Witherspoon became the third rookie (and first rookie cornerback) to record two sacks and a pick six in the same game. Captain Munnerlyn is the only other defensive back in NFL history to post that stat line.
And don’t get me started on that 11-sack performance Monday night. Chalk part of it up to Daniel Jones and the Giants’ offensive line, but that pass rush hadn’t been in the cards for Seattle in quite some time. A decent start to the season coupled with an incredible Monday Night Football performance bumped Seattle up to fourth in ESPN’s pass rush win rate and placed three different edge rushers (Boye Mafe, Darrell Taylor, Uchenna Nwosu) and a defensive tackle (Reed) into the top-20 in individual PRWR at their respective positions.
So, the 2023 Seahawks improved their roster year-over-year, maintained Geno’s anomalous comeback season, addressed their biggest defensive weaknesses, and added young talent at crucial positions on both sides of the ball. Seems pretty cut-and-dry, no?
Well, there is one surprise Seattle has left up its sleeve: It is downright shocking how much room there is for improvement.
Offensively, the 2022 Seahawks weren’t the most aggressive offense in the world, but they also weren’t this tepid. Smith’s 6.3 aDOT ranks 29th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks in RBSDM’s measurements, down from 7.8 last year. NFL Next Gen Stats measures Aggressiveness as a percentage of throws made into windows of one yard or less. Smith’s aggressiveness is down from 13.1% to a third-lowest 9.8% in 2023.
Aside from Metcalf and Seattle’s tight end trio, Seattle’s receiving corps is having an odd year. Tyler Lockett’s 22.3% target share leads the Seahawks, but that coincides with a career-high 7.4% drop rate and a career-low 9.6 aDOT. First-round receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba was supposed to make the Seahawks a passing juggernaut, rounding out a wide receiver corps with the upside to be one of the league’s best trios. Smith-Njigba’s 0.68 yards per route run is 89th out of 100 receivers with a minimum 100 snaps played.
While the run defense has been stellar, the passing defense is getting gashed. Seattle has given up 19 pass plays of 20+ yards, tied for most in the league. Seattle’s pivot to a Fangio-style defense under Clint Hurtt should have helped eliminate some of those explosive plays. Yet the Seahawks average a fourth-highest 57.1% completion rate on deep passes when in zone coverage. Through four weeks, Seattle’s 744 air yards completed against are the second highest in the league according to Pro Football Reference.
Moreover, the Seahawks are managing this top-10 total DVOA performance while pretty much blowing it across the board in crucial situations.
Despite getting to just 47 third-down attempts, third fewest in the league, Seattle is averaging a league-worst -11.1% third-down conversion over expected. And although they make it to the red zone a ton—their 17 red zone trips through four weeks are fifth-most in the league—they have converted a 14th-ranked 58.8% of them into touchdowns.
An even stranger wrinkle: those 10 touchdowns in the red zone account for all of Seattle’s touchdowns on the season. The Seahawks’ longest touchdown of 2023 is a 10-yard pass to Metcalf.
The defense is just as bad in both areas. The Seahawks defense has faced 67 third downs, tied for second-most in the league. They allow a 13.7% third down conversion rate over expected and a 0.54 EPA/play on third down, both second highest in the league behind the Chicago Bears through four weeks. While their defense has faced just eight red zone trips, third lowest in the league, they have allowed touchdowns on seven of them.
All this comes with a relatively steady variance—eighth lowest in the league, in fact. So Seattle is pretty consistent in their play, for better and for worse.
Seattle enters their Week 5 bye feeling good. Rubber’s going to hit the road fast, though. The Seahawks have the third-hardest remaining schedule in the league by DVOA. They still have two contests against the top-dog 49ers and the awfully scrappy Cardinals, as well as a road rematch against a Rams team that smacked Seattle around in the second half of Week 1. That doesn’t even include running through the entire AFC North or the trip to Jerry World.
The Seahawks have the opportunity to build onto something genuinely promising. They can maximize their receiving trio, maintain this run defense, and harness a potentially elite young cornerback duo to put this season into another gear. They also have the chance to do a beat-for-beat repeat of the surprise 2022 season: sputter out down the stretch and limp into the postseason.
Come on, Seattle. Surprise us.