After finishing the 2013 regular season tied for eighth in the NFL with 44 sacks, the Seahawks are struggling to generate a pass rush through the first six games of 2014. Seattle has seven entering Sunday’s matchup with the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium (10 a.m., CBS).
The nadir may have come last week against St. Louis Rams former third-string quarterback Austin Davis, an undrafted 25-year-old making the fifth start of his NFL career. A player so unknown before this season that security guards at the team facility, on occasion, failed to recognize him.
Using a short passing game, Davis completed 17 of 20 throws for 155 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, posting a career-high 97.1 QBR (out of 100). Related: The Seahawks failed to record a sack. They also didn’t force any turnovers, another ongoing issue, and lost 28-26 to fall to 3-3 after a weekend filled with rumors about a locker room divided over the trade of WR Percy Harvin.
“We don’t feel like we were as disruptive as we were,” coach Pete Carroll said. “That’s pretty easy to see that.”
During Wednesday’s weekly meet with local and national media outlets, players were left to answer questions about why a defensive line so stout during their run to Super Bowl XLVIII has limped out of the gate.
“If you watch film, we’ve hit the quarterback a few times,” said DE Cliff Avril, who has six tackles and a sack. “We feel like we can get there. It’s just not going that way right now.”
What’s different from last year? FS Earl Thomas, who hasn’t had the same impact as a year ago, said the defense isn’t as disciplined.
“We just not being disciplined — we’re not seeing it all the way through,” he said. “We’re not finishing plays. We used to have so much confidence that if (the Seahawks were up) 10-0, we feel like we were going to win. We just have to get that mojo back and understand that we’re going to get everybody’s shot.”
The Seahawks also shed players whose absence is being felt. Needing to trim salary, the Seahawks parted ways with DT Clinton McDonald, DE Red Bryant and DE Chris Clemons. That’s meant more responsibility, plus more snaps, for Avril and DE/DT Michael Bennett. Carroll pledged earlier this week to change the scheme to get more pressure, but decreasing Avril and Bennett’s time on the field might also be a priority.
“We’re going to make sure we do a good job of keeping our guys fresh and paying a little more attention to that so we keep our rotation a little bit more like we like it,” Carroll said. “It got a little bit heavy” for Bennett and Avril.
Both maintained Wednesday they aren’t affected by the increased workload.
“I don’t feel like a different pass rusher,” said Bennett, who leads the team with three sacks.
Judging by the Rams game, teams are attacking differently than last year — using short, quick routes to combat the rush. Sunday, Davis was hit three times.
“I would do the same thing, too. Getting the ball out quick,” Bennett said. “We need to get our hands up or something and stop them from doing that or get them in longer situations where they have to throw the ball.”
A look at the injury report also accounts for part of why Seattle’s rush has sagged. MLB Bobby Wagner (turf toe) and CB Byron Maxwell (calf) are out. On Thursday Bennett did not practice because of a toe injury, a new development of unknown severity (Carroll won’t be available until Friday to explain).
Second-year DT Jordan Hill, expected to boost the interior rush, has made minimal impact since being selected out of Penn State in the third round in 2013. Hill missed the Rams’ game with an ankle sprain, and is likely out for the Panthers.
Rookie DE Cassius Marsh, a fourth-round pick in 2014, broke his his foot last week in practice. He will miss the rest of the year.
“We’re a guy short there from what we were (in 2013) and we were developing Cassius’s role and we do miss him,” Carroll said Wednesday.
“In my mind, it’s going to happen,” Carroll said. “We’re just going to keep working until it does because we know it’s there.”
Thomas said it’s up to players to call out one another on the field when something is amiss.
“If you see something you have to tell a guy,” he said. “You can’t just let him go out there on Sunday, and he’s not seeing the details like he’s supposed to. You want to be tough on guys — we understand that we’re going to take criticism from each other. At the end of the day, it’s about us.”
As teams play carefully against Seattle, avoiding sacks and turnovers (their five turnovers are 29th in the NFL), chances increase for a win. Not only does the defense have to overcome injuries and departures, it has to overcome its reputation and figure a fresh way to become disruptive.