Is the Seattle Seahawks' Offense Good Enough to Survive the Loss of Earl Thomas?
The Earl Thomas injury in the second quarter of Sunday night’s game between the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers has the potential to change everything about the NFC playoff race. While it was reported on Sunday night that Thomas would miss the remainder of the season, Pete Carroll confirmed on Monday there’s no chance Thomas can return, even with a deep playoff run. It’s one of the biggest hits any contending team could take outside of losing their quarterback.
Heading into the playoffs, little changes in terms of the odds. At 8-3-1, the Seahawks are still firmly in the lead of the NFC West -- with a 98.5 percent chance of winning the division -- and comfortably in place to secure the No. 2 seed in the conference. But without Thomas deep in the secondary, everything fundamentally changes for Seattle in how they play. No team relies more on a single-high safety to cover sideline-to-sideline than the Seahawks do with Thomas. His ability to range all over the field has been the backbone of Seattle’s Cover-3 concepts under Carroll.
If you want to know they type of plays Thomas can routinely make in the secondary, just take a look at the play he got injured on against the Panthers. Cam Newton dropped back and saw that tight end Greg Olsen had gotten inside the coverage of Kam Chancellor down the right seam. Thomas was lined up on the left side of the field on the snap, but read Newton the whole play. He moved across the field and was able to break up the pass before he collided with Chancellor.
These are the types of plays Thomas makes on a regular basis. All other responsibilities on the defense are lessened because of what Thomas can cover up. Immediately following Thomas’s injury, Carolina went deep down the middle of the field for a 55-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr.. That likely doesn’t happen with Thomas on the field. Since Thomas came into the league in 2010, the Seahawks have given up the fewest yards on passes labeled “deep middle”, per Pro Football Reference. The Seahawks have also seen less “deep middle” passes attempted on them than any other team during that time.
But while everything on the defense might have to fundamentally change to adjust for the loss of Thomas, how the defense recovers might not be the key to postseason success. That could come down to the play of the offense.
Carrying the Load
The Seahawks entered the week just 16th in Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play on offense, and they had just come off a game with only three offensive points against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the offense was out in full force against the Panthers Sunday night. It wasn’t just beating up on a bad opponent, either. The Panthers entered the week ranked 12th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, though they were without Luke Kuechly, who’s similar to Thomas in how central he is to Carolina's defense’s scheme.
Still, Seattle scored 40 points against this defense in the most dominant performance by the offense this season. Everything the Seahawks wanted to do worked, both on the ground and through the air, and the result bumped the Seahawks up two spots as they now rank 14th in Adjusted NEP per play.
Due to injury, Seattle has gone through a rotation of running backs during the year, but now the expected starter, Thomas Rawls, is fully healthy. Against the Panthers, Rawls reminded everyone why he was expected to be the top Marshawn Lynch replacement in 2016. Last season Rawls was second among 44 running backs with at least 100 carries in Rushing NEP per attempt, and against Carolina, he carried the ball just 15 times for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also had the highest Rushing NEP per attempt of the week among running backs with 10 or more carries.
The ground game performance against the Panthers in Week 13 was enough to bump the Seahawks up from 24th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play to 16th. Still, that’s not a place this team has been accustomed to on the ground in the Russell Wilson era. But now with Rawls back (he was cleared of a concussion), there’s a solid foundation for the running game, which could help take some pressure off Wilson. At this point, he might need it.
Taking A Pass
For much of 2016, the Seahawks have been a good passing team when the team gets time to pass. However, time to pass has come up as a recurring issue. Seattle ranks 10th in Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back after Week 13, but there have been a few games like the Week 12 contest against Tampa Bay, where the pass rush overwhelms the offensive line and sends the whole offense into a funk. Even during the game against the Panthers, Wilson was sacked three times. During the season, Seattle has allowed the second-most pressure on offense, per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders. That can throw off the timing and effectiveness of any offense, and it has at times with the Seahawks this season.
Though even as the overall efficiency is there for the offense, the scoring hasn’t always been. Over the past three games, Wilson has thrown two touchdowns and three interceptions. That comes after two games against the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots when Wilson looked like the best possible version of himself.
Seattle’s schedule is mixed with good and bad pass defenses for the final four games. The good comes from the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams, ranked 4th and 11th, respectively, by Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play,. The bad bookends the remaining games with the 25th-ranked Green Bay Packers up next and the 24th-ranked San Francisco 49ers in Week 17.
The Seahawks do have a good mix of playmakers who can take advantage of opposing defenses. Doug Baldwin has been one of the most efficient players in football throughout the season, even when the offense as a whole was struggling. He’s currently eighth in Reception NEP per target among 75 wide receivers with at least 50 targets. While Tyler Lockett hasn’t completely broken out in his second season like many expected, he was a big factor against Carolina with a long kick return, a 40-yard reception and a 75-yard touchdown run to kick off the second half.
Then there’s also Jimmy Graham, who could become an even more vital piece to the offense. Clearly healthy now, Graham has been used to stretch the middle of the field and has been the main red zone threat for the offense, leading the team with 15 targets inside the 20. Overall, he’s sixth in Reception NEP per target among 23 tight ends targeted 50 or more times.
If the Seahawks are going to make a deep run in the playoffs, the defense is going to have to stay afloat, sure, but the offense might have to be the unit to carry the team. The second half of the season last year showed the offense was capable of doing such things. There’s been flashes of it this year, but if Seattle is going to be a real contender, they’ll have to sustain a little more than flashes heading into the postseason.