Are the Seahawks Super Bowl Contenders Again?

Should Seattle's Week 12 win teach us anything new about their offense and defense?

No one is scared of the defense anymore.

That was the popular sentiment expressed following the ending of the game between the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon. That feeling was meant for the defense of the Seahawks; no one has been scared of the Steelers’ defense for some time.

It’s not particularly hard to fault those who felt that way after a game in which the Seattle defense allowed 456 passing yards to Ben Roethlisberger, a franchise record for passing yards by an opponent. While the secondary was able to limit the damage done by Antonio Brown -- 6 catches for 51 yards on 12 targets -- Roethlisberger was able to find other options, notably Markus Wheaton.

But while the defense gave up an inordinate amount of yards and points, the offense was able to come through and pull out a victory -- the first of Russell Wilson’s career with the opposition scoring more than 24 points. Seattle scored 39 points thanks, in part, to five touchdown passes from Wilson, a career high.

So the pass defense is a mess, but the pass offense is now explosive -- if we’re going by this one game sample. Seattle is now 6-5 and currently sitting in a Wild Card spot for the playoffs, so what should we be making of this version of the Seahawks?

Death of a Defense?

Let’s not get too carried away here: the Seahawks are still among the league’s best teams in stopping the pass, according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. Seattle entered the day ranked fifth against the pass by Adjusted NEP per play, and while that’s not the number-one ranking many are used to, that’s still quite good.

Now let’s take the Steelers, who have done fairly well throwing the ball this season. Entering Week 12 Pittsburgh had the ninth best passing offense by Adjusted NEP per play, and that comes with a combined 121 pass attempts this season from Michael Vick and Landry Jones. Ben Roethlisberger has been among the league’s best quarterbacks even with the amount of time he’s missed due to injury. Entering the week he was 10th in Passing NEP, while being the only quarterback in the top-15 without at least 300 drop backs. Among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs, Roethlisberger ranked fourth heading into the week in Passing NEP per drop back behind Carson Palmer, Tom Brady and Andy Dalton.

This wasn’t the Seahawks giving up 450 passing yards to the St. Louis Rams. This was a good defense giving up yards to a good passing offense that threw the ball 55 times. Very few teams have the offensive firepower the Steelers bring to the table with Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, and even the Steelers brought more than usual against the Seahawks.

Markus Wheaton caught 9 of his 13 targets for 201 yards and a touchdown. Prior to this game, Wheaton had 16 receptions on 32 targets for just 272 yards. Part of this was picking on Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead in coverage, but much of it was also Wheaton playing to a level he’s never played before -- he nearly doubled his Reception NEP on the season, 16.16 per numberFire Live on top of 18.08 from the first 11 weeks of the season.

There are some concerns, sure. The reason Lane and Shead were in coverage is because free agent signing Cary Williams was a healthy scratch, 11 games into a three-year, $18 million contract. (Per Spotrac, the Seahawks can free up a little more than $3.8 million by cutting ties at the end of this season.) Lane, though, is still easing back into action after a lengthy recovery from a broken wrist suffered in the Super Bowl. Lane’s injury put Tharold Simon in an increased role in that game, one the Patriots targeted often. Lane played his first 34 snaps of the season on Sunday and could be a helpful piece to add to a secondary that’s already fared well during the season, even with disappointments like Williams this season.

Unleashing Potential

While one game isn’t enough to bury the Seattle defense, it did show just enough to keep hope alive for a resurgent offense. Pittsburgh’s defense has been a pleasant surprise this season, as it came into the week ranked eighth in Adjusted NEP per play. Much of that comes from the second ranked defense, which showed in holding Thomas Rawls to just 81 yards on 21 carries. But the passing defense has been above average as well, 11th in Adjusted NEP per play. Seattle came into the game as a league average passing offense by Adjusted NEP per play, ranked 16th in the league.

Russell Wilson showed the best of both worlds in this game, matching his efficiency -- 21 of 30 passing -- while adding in big plays that have lacked in the Seattle offense this season. The Seahawks are among the middle of the pack in passing plays of 25 or more yards this season, but they had their share against Pittsburgh.

Wilson was aided with some yards after the catch, especially on Doug Baldwin’s 80-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, but he also added in a few big plays downfield which helped him be the second best quarterback by Passing NEP in Week 13 behind Matthew Stafford.

A concern with the offense now, of course, is the loss of Jimmy Graham for the remainder of the season. Graham and the Seahawks have struggled to find a middle ground between his skillset and Seattle’s scheme for much of the year, but in this game the two finally looked to have merged, especially with the deep throw for 36 yards in the third quarter. The loss will have an impact on Seattle -- but in a weird way not as big of an impact if the Seahawks had been using Graham to his full potential from the beginning. Backup Luke Willson had been just about even with Graham in Reception NEP per target this season -- Graham at 0.72 and Willson at 0.70 -- though Willson had seen 49 fewer targets.

What’s Next?

With the win, the Seahawks brought their record to 6-5, the first time they’ve been above .500 all season. They also pulled in front of the Atlanta Falcons for sixth place in the NFC, which would potentially place them in a playoff game against the winner of the NFC East, against whom they’d likely be favored. But that’s still a few weeks down the road.

Our numbers here have been high on the Seahawks all season, despite some of their losses, and now they’re finally playing up to how we’ve viewed them. Per our nERD metric -- our calculation of how good a team really is, based on expected point differential against a league average team -- Seattle has not ranked worse than eighth after any week this season.

Now with a legitimate shot at the playoffs and an upcoming stretch in the schedule that features Baltimore, Cleveland and St. Louis starting in Week 14, Seattle could again be making a run towards postseason contention.