Sports

Defense having trouble getting off field

Tyrod Taylor is a guy.

Tom Brady is “The Man.”

That’s the biggest concern among a few right now for the Seahawks.

The NFC West leaders (5-2-1) are going from holding off Taylor’s Buffalo Bills late for a win Monday night to facing Brady and his rolling New England Patriots (7-1) in Foxborough, Mass., on Sunday night.

Yes, it’s Seattle’s heralded defense that’s currently a bigger issue than its running game. And that’s saying something. The Seahawks on Monday night gained their fewest yards rushing in a game (33) in more than five years – with just 10 yards by its two tailbacks combined – yet still beat Buffalo 31-25.

In January, Seattle’s defense became the first to lead the NFL in fewest points allowed four consecutive seasons since the 1950s Cleveland Browns. Here in November, it’s getting worn down. The Seahawks allowed Buffalo a 17-play drive for the Bills’ go-ahead touchdown in the first half Monday. That was the longest drive for points against Seattle since Dec. 1, 2011, when Philadelphia also marched 17 plays to score.

The Seahawks also allowed scoring drives of 13 plays and 12 plays by the Bills. They allowed the league’s 24th-ranked offense 425 yards – almost 100 yards more than the Bills were averaging.

The reason? The defense suddenly can’t get off the field. It allowed Buffalo to convert 12 of 17 third downs, at 71 percent double the Bills’ usual success rate. That was the highest conversion rate on third down against Seattle in 74 games, since Detroit went 12 for 16 (75 percent) in its 28-24 win over the Seahawks on Oct. 28, 2012.

In the last two games, Seattle has allowed New Orleans and Buffalo to convert 21 of 32 third downs (66 percent). That is a prime reason the Seahawks have allowed 50 points in those two games.

Into the second quarter Monday, Seattle had allowed points on nine consecutive drives.

If things don’t change before Sunday night, Brady and the Patriots might light up Seattle more than Tyrod Taylor could ever dream to.

“We’ve definitely got to do a better job of getting off the field,” Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said Monday night. “Third downs are big. We’ve got to take care of that. We coming away with a win, it’s always good. But there are a lot of things we can go back to (work on). Even giving up this many points, that shouldn’t happen.”

Wagner is doing his part. He had a career-high 16 tackles Monday. That was one more than he had the week before in the 25-20 loss at New Orleans. He also had half a sack and three tackles behind the line of scrimmage against the Bills.

But many other defenders did not tackle, at least not as they normally do. Even end Cliff Avril, Seattle’s most consistent defender this season who has nine sacks in eight games, missed a tackle with Wagner on Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy in the second quarter. That turned a short catch in the red zone into an 11-yard gain and a first down at the Seattle 8. The Bills took a 17-14 lead on a field goal four plays later.

“I thought our tackling was maybe the sloppiest it’s been,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “But, there’s nobody harder to tackle than ‘Shady’ McCoy. He’s the most elusive guy that plays in this game right now, in my opinion. And Tyrod Taylor is as hard of a guy as you can possibly play against at quarterback, to tackle. And those two guys, they made it hard on us (Monday). Our guys were trying, but it looked like a lot of slipping and sliding that we haven’t seen from our team.”

There are other factors that could explain why the defense has been uncharacteristically missing tackles and getting smacked more than doing the smacking.

Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett has missed these last two games. He had arthroscopic knee surgery last week and is expected to miss perhaps two more games.

Four-time Pro Bowl strong safety Kam Chancellor has missed the last four games with a pulled groin. Carroll said following Monday’s game he expects Chancellor to play at New England.

Another possible factor, one Carroll isn’t acknowledging but at least one of his players is: fatigue.

The 800 yards, 50 points and 66 percent conversion rate on third downs the last two games have come since the grueling, 6-6 overtime tie Oct. 23 at Arizona. The defense played 95 snaps that night, a league record for a team that did not allow a touchdown in a game.

Seattle’s entire secondary played every snap of that one. Strong safety Kelcie McCray, Chancellor’s replacement, played 108 snaps that night, including special teams. Wagner, cornerback Richard Sherman and many other starters needed intravenous fluids during and after the game. Sherman was shaking at his locker in Arizona and had medical personnel suggesting a stretcher for him to get to the team bus.

Monday, Seattle’s defense allowed Buffalo’s offense to run 86 snaps.

The last three games, Seattle’s D has been on the field for 123 of a possible 195 minutes – 63 percent of time. It was out there for 40:17 of 60 minutes Monday. The Bills got to the 10-yard line in the final seconds before throwing an incomplete pass on fourth down.

“Just empty, our bodies are on empty when we are out there,” tired-looking linebacker K.J. Wright said Monday at his locker after he played all 86 defensive snaps. “But we just keep finding a way, we look at each others’ eyes and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get it done.’ That’s just something 20 years down the line we will remember just how special this team is. How much we care for each other. How much we just find a way to win.

“We preach grit all the time. It’s just something that’s special. It goes back to when they drafted us. They just pick certain guys that they know won’t give up, that they know will fight to the end.”

As Carroll said last week heading to the midpoint of the 16-game regular season: “It’s go time now.”

The last time the Seahawks faced Brady, he moved the Patriots up and down the field in Super Bowl XLVIII in Arizona 21 months ago.

“It’s going to be corrected. We’re not going to be out there as much as we go down this (home) stretch,” Wright said. “We are going to find a way to figure out how to get off the field on third down – and be a more dominant defense.”

Carroll had a positive view of all the work the defense has had to put in.

“Our defensive guys have been thru so much challenge the last month,” he said Tuesday on his weekly day-after radio show on Seattle’s KIRO AM. “They are getting stronger.”

Sunday in New England, in one of the sternest tests the NFL has, we will all find out how true that is.

Seahawks’ next opponent

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (7-1)

5:30 p.m. Sunday, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Against the Seahawks: This is the 18th meeting. You might recall the last one: Feb. 1, 2015, Tom Brady rallied the Patriots with two touchdowns in the final 10 minutes. That turned Seattle’s 24-14 lead in Super Bowl 48 into a crazy, 28-24 New England win for the NFL title — sealed by Malcolm Butler’s interception of Russell Wilson at the goal line in the final seconds in Glendale, Arizona. Each team has won eight times in the regular-season series. This is Seattle’s first game in Massachusetts since Oct. 17, 2004. Corey Dillon ran for two touchdowns, Brady completed 19 of 30 throws with a touchdown and interception, and New England won 30-20 after intercepting Matt Hasselbeck twice and sacking him three times. The Patriots last home loss to Seattle was in 1993, when Rick Mirer beat Drew Bledsoe.

Line: Patriots by 7  1/2.

What to know: Guess who is the NFL’s highest-rated passer. Again. At the age of 39, after a four-game NFL suspension at the start of this season for the DeflateGate ball scandal, Tom Brady is off to the best start of his 17-year career. His 133.9 passer rating is 15 points higher than another else. His 73 percent completion rate is 3 1/2 points ahead of Matt Ryan. He has 12 touchdown passes and no interceptions. He’s gaining a league-best 9.8 yards per pass attempt. And so on. … Brady is two wins short of Brett Favre’s 199 career victories and three victories away from Peyton Manning’s NFL-record 200 wins. … One quasi-surprise indicative that Seattle’s isn’t the only winning team with an offensive line full of issues: Brady’s been sacked eight times in four games. Cincinnati got him three times and Buffalo four times — yet New England won each game by 18 and 16 points, so big whoop. … LeGarrette Blount and Martellus Bennett (Michael’s brother) are the latest to resurrect their careers by merging into the Patriots’ winning ways. Blount co-leads the NFL with nine rushing touchdowns. His 609 yards on the ground is 10th in the NFL, and he’s balanced New England’s offense more this season. The Pats are eighth in rushing, ninth in passing, sixth in points per game (27.1). … Julian Edelman is still Brady’s top receiving target (41 catches on 62 targets). But Bennett, the tight end the Patriots often split out, has four touchdown catches. That’s already short of the former Cowboys and Bears castoff’s career high for an entire season. … New England’s defense is middle of the NFL pack in everything — but surrendering points. The Patriots are second, allowing just 16.5 points per game. That’s just ahead of Seattle’s 16.8. … They don’t sack the quarterback a lot — Jabaal Sheard leads the team with 3 1/2 sacks through eight games and New England’s 13 total sacks are 28th in the league. The Patriots were second in the NFL with 49 sacks last season. … The Patriots are 15th in total defense, 15th against the run and 18th against the pass. … New England had the league’s optimal bye: after eight games, at the exact midpoint of the regular season. The Patriots are rested. The Seahawks are coming to Boston Friday after winning at home over Buffalo late Monday night. … Coming back from that bye, Patriots had a rare Tuesday practice this week to begin preparing for the Seahawks. … Common opponents: The Patriots lost at home to Buffalo, 16-0, without Brady, then won at Buffalo, 41-25, with him in their last game. New England beat Arizona with Jimmy Garoppolo at QB in the opener in the desert, 23-21, and beat Miami in week two without Brady, 31-24. The Seahawks beat the Bills at home, 31-25, tied at Arizona last month in overtime, 6-6, and beat Miami at home, 12-10, in their opener.

Quotable: “It’s pretty early, so, there’s a long way to go. Seven wins, it’s a good place, I think. Decent position. But coach always says ‘Seven wins won’t get you anything in this league.’ He’s right. We’ve got a lot of football ahead.” — Brady, to Boston’s media including The Associated Press, on everyone anointing the Patriots as AFC champions with a pass straight to February’s Super Bowl 51 in Houston.

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