In two straight games, the run defense of the Seattle Seahawks has been a serious weakness. Both the St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were able to eclipse the 200-yard mark on the ground against the Seahawks.
Neither of those teams had been good at running the football prior to playing Seattle. The Rams ranked 29th in rushing, and the Buccaneers ranked 23rd in rushing prior to piling up the yards against the Seahawks. Both of those teams were in the bottom third of the league in running the football, and yet, they were able to move the ball with ease on the ground against the Seahawks.
When a phase of the defense breaks down this badly, there is rarely just one underlying cause. That is true in this case. The Seahawks run defense has been falling apart in fairly catastrophic ways.
Failed Two-Gap Assignments
Seattle's starting defensive line has been solid against the run this season in large part because of the ability of nose tackle Brandon Mebane and defensive end Red Bryant to each occupy two gaps. When Seattle's run defense is clicking, these two players are usually why.
Over the past two weeks, both Mebane and Bryant have struggled to shed their blocks and fill gaps in the same way that they usually do. This has created running lanes that weren't there earlier in the season.
Here is an example that demonstrates the problem. Tampa Bay running back Mike James is running through the space directly between Mebane (labelled No. 1) and Bryant (labelled No. 2). Both are in good position, setting up to shed their block and make a play on James.
Unfortunately, neither is able to do so. James is able to run right past the two defenders and into the secondary.
It is easy to see why the blocks were not shed properly. Take a look at the players' heads. Mebane is facing the blocker and isn't looking at the runner. Bryant's head is on the wrong side of defender, making it impossible for him to properly see the back and time when he needs to shed the block.
This has been a common issue over the last two weeks. Seattle's defensive scheme depends on the ability of these two players to two-gap, and neither of them has been able to do so like they did earlier in the season.
Given their importance to the team's run defense, the Seahawks need Mebane and Bryant to return to the form they've both shown in the past and stop making these types of fundamental mistakes.
Picking on the Pass-Rushers
One of the difficulties for Seattle at defensive tack is that there are no true backups. The reserves are pass-rushing specialists who don't have the skills required to hold up against the run. When the Seahawks rotate on the defensive line, they become vulnerable on the ground.
This isn't a new problem. The Seahawks have lacked a run-stopping backup DT since they released D'Anthony Smith back in September. The difference is that in the past two weeks Seattle has gotten caught with the wrong personnel on the field much more often than they did before that.
Here is a play that demonstrates the true nature of the problem. Nose tackle Clinton McDonald was able to get upfield penetration but only attacked the quarterback. He made no effort to stop the running back who clearly had the ball.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the worst problem on this play. Rookie Jordan Hill, who was lined up in the 3-technique position on this play was pushed completely out of the play. The orange arrows show the distance from where he lined up to where he was when James reached the line of scrimmage. This was done without Hill being double-teamed.
Hill was unable to anchor and hold his ground. Combined with McDonald's complete disregard for run defense, this caused a complete breakdown of Seattle's gap integrity on the inside. James was able to burst through the center mostly uncontested for a 21-yard gain.
Just a few plays later in that same drive, these defensive tackles again showed their deficiencies against the run.
On this play, Clinton McDonald was left completely unblocked. A quick move upfield would have stopped this play for a loss. Instead, McDonald hesitated and then made no move to do more than just provide containment on the backside.
Hill was actually blocked into the running lane and was in position to stop this play at the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, he was unable to do more than attempt a one-handed arm tackle, which wasn't enough to even slow James down.
Compounding the problems on the defensive line has been additional mistakes by the linebackers. Most of these mistakes fall into the category of "trying to do too much," where players leave their assigned responsibility to try and help elsewhere, only to succeed in creating additional holes in the defense.
Here is an example that demonstrates this problem. The Seahawks have strong safety Kam Chancellor down inside the box just off the screen to the right, creating a situation where each defender has a single-gap responsibility.
After the snap, strong-side linebacker Bruce Irvin leaves his gap responsibility and moves to the inside of the formation. This was likely done to help the DTs who'd struggled against the run earlier in the drive.
The pulling guard is able to block Chancellor, who does a good job of setting the edge. The back then cuts upfield right into the space that was vacated by Irvin.
Irvin isn't the only linebacker making these types of mistakes. Both middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and weak-side linebacker K.J. Wright were guilty of similar mistakes throughout the last two games.
Putting It All Together
In trying to figure out exactly what is going on, it is possible that it all comes down to one thing: fatigue. Seattle's defenders look tired, both mentally and physically. This is especially true for the starters on the defensive line.
Fundamentals are falling apart. Players are losing their gap discipline. These are mistakes that the defenders weren't making a couple weeks ago.
The Seahawks have two more games before their much-needed bye week and rest that this defense needs. In the meantime, the Seahawks need their offense to sustain more drives and keep their defense off the field. It also wouldn't hurt for them to build a lead and force the opposing teams to throw the football.
Luckily for Seattle, most of this is fixable with the talent currently on the roster. The mistakes being made by Mebane, Bryant and the linebackers are mental errors and not ones that are typical for these players.
This suggests the team should be able to re-focus and get back to playing competent run defense in the coming weeks.