Welcome to the Week 4 edition of What to Watch, where we take a look at a key matchup of position groups that are likely to effect the outcome of the game. Instead of looking at positions of strength this week, I actually think it will be a battle of weak links that tell the story of the game. Detroit lost possibly the two best players on their Defensive Line last season with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley leaving town. Seattle lost who some believe was a glue guy and who for sure was one of the best two players along the Offensive Line when they shipped Max Unger to the Saints in the Jimmy Graham trade during the offseason.
In what sets up to be something of a slap fight with likely both fan bases leaving the game frustrated with their teams’ crew, the battle in the trenches with the Seahawks on offense is quite likely the biggest reason the Lions might be able to keep the game somewhat close.
Detroit had two significant subtraction from their defensive line in Suh and Fairley, but they did have a big (literally) add in the form of Haloti Ngata. However that lack of pressure coming up the middle has shown this year as their pass rush efficiency numbers have dropped. The defense has combined for 36 Hurries, 10 Hits, and 4 Sacks so far this year, and they are getting pressure on about 24% of plays, but their pass rush efficiency from the outside has almost completely disappeared. They had hoped to see Ezekiel Ansah build on a promising 2014, but though he has 2 sacks so far on the year he doesn’t even lead the team in pressures. To put it another way, all of their DE’s combined have one less QB pressure than Cliff Avril has all by himself. To put it even another way, Michael Bennett only lines up on the right side about 45% of his pass rush snaps and his stats from the right side alone would lead all Lions DE’s in pass rushing. That both means that we have 2 extremely good Defensive Ends in Seattle and that the Lions do not.
So we have established that the Lions pass rush is not in elite status, but how about defending the run? While Ansah is the best outside run stopper the team has, his numbers still are only good enough for 14th among 4-3 DEs, and nobody else on the team cracks the top 20. As with the pass rush, the team’s numbers overall aren’t bad, but they also aren’t great. Also as with the pass rush, the edge of the Defensive Line appears to be a weakness that teams have been able to exploit so far this year. They have allowed 3.7 YPC over the first 3 weeks, but that number is slightly skewed by the anemic Denver running game visiting last week and hanging a pathetic 2.2 YPC. I think a comparison more like what Seattle tends to put out would be what they saw with the Vikings in Week 2 going off for 4.7 YPC. Part of that may depend on a healthy Marshawn Lynch, but Rawls certainly held his own against the Bears.
Get ready for some numbers that look awfully familiar coming up. So far this year the Seahawks have allowed 35 Hurries, 7 Hits, and 10 Sacks. 12 Total sacks have been given up, but 2 of them can be hung squarely on the shoulders of Russell Wilson holding the ball. However, I would also argue that there are a number of plays that would have been sacks with a less athletic and evasive QB. It has been an equal opportunity horror show so far this year, with the misery spreading all along the offensive line. Russell Okung has the closest thing resembling a decent rating overall, but he and Garry Gilliam were victimized by the Rams in week 1 for 3 combined sacks and a lot of pressures. Britt and Sweezy have looked consistently overmatched and given up at least one head scratching miss every game so far, and though Nowak has yet to give up a sack so far it is difficult at times to tell how often he is missing on his help assignment in the middle. Last week was by far the best showing by the Offensive Line in pass protection, but I think all of us have to wonder if that was a product of the Bears just being really bad.
Luckily for the Seahawks, the story in the running game is a bit different. So far this year they have average 4.7 YPC, and I know part of it is Russell’s ability to out maneuver the defense and Lynch’s ability to bully and push a pile the fact of the matter is that where our Guards are weak in pass protection they are both solid run blockers. Numbers aren’t very kind to Britt as his tendency to completely miss a block on occasion he really does get out and up the field in the running game. This is one time I feel watching the player tells a lot more than the stats will. The big question for the Seahawks is whether or not Marshawn Lynch will be playing and if he isn’t healthy enough to go was Thomas Rawls’ coming out party the product of playing the Bears or the product of a decisive runningback playing in a system that plays to his strengths.
The big piece of this to look out for is on the inside. The Offensive Line for Seattle is stronger on the outside at Tackle, but struggles (especially in the passing game) on the inside at Guard. That is the exact opposite of Detroit who is stronger up the middle but can’t count on a showing from the edge of their line. If the inside of the Seattle line can play decently, that ought to be enough to give the edge to the Seahawks, but if not it could be difficult on Seattle trying to move the ball.
In a lot of ways the Lions feel a lot like if the Bears had a healthy offense – they are going to score a few times, but turnovers have a chance at shutting them down and their defense just doesn’t seem like enough to win a close game. I think something that has to be considered is that even when pressure is there, though he has struggled some against the blitz, Russell Wilson has completed 66.7% of his passes for 7.0 YPA and 2 TDs to 1 INT when being pressured. Throw in the fact that the Detroit coverage game hasn’t been great this year and they really lack a good matchup for Jimmy Graham and I could see the Seahawks picking them apart or Russell taking off and out running the pressures.
A combination of Russell Wilson being able to play with pressure and the running game being strong gives the edge in this battle to the Seahawks in my opinion. Moreover, with the fumble issues the Lions have at RB and the interception issues at QB and this looks like a game that the Seattle Defense could take right out of the Offense’s hands.