Seahawks' defense comes up big late against Patriots, but questions remain

SEATTLE -- If correct predictions were an NFL stat, Bobby Wagner would have gotten credit in the official gamebook for his role in the decisive play of Sunday night's game.

Instead, that credit came in the form of praise from teammates for how Wagner put the Seattle Seahawks' defense in position to stop Cam Newton at the goal line. Having already rushed for two touchdowns from 1 yard out earlier in the game, the New England Patriots quarterback might have had a third if not for some All-Pro intuition from Seattle's middle linebacker.

To be sure, anyone watching the closing seconds of the Seahawks' 35-30 win could have guessed that the Patriots would keep the ball in the hands of their best offensive player. They didn't exactly disguise that intention when they lined up in a heavy package that included no wide receivers.

But Wagner knew where Newton was going.

"That ball's going right," safety Jamal Adams said after the game, relaying what Wagner told the defense in the huddle. "That ball was going straight right."

So Wagner made the call for Seattle's defensive line to slant in that direction. That put L.J. Collier, lined up at right defensive end, in perfect position to bring down Newton after splitting two blockers. Newton said afterward that he should have bounced outside instead of running straight into traffic that safety Lano Hill helped create when he took on fullback Jakob Johnson off the edge.

"They were running the same thing all game," Collier said. "Bobby came to us before that and said they were going to run the same play and that we were going to slant on it just to go with it. I really just followed my captain and went with him and we came up with a big-time play. So really, credit to [defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.], Bobby and the rest of the defense."

Hill included.

"That was a hell of a play just to turn it back to the defense," Collier said. "I feel like if I wouldn't have made it, somebody else would have came and made the play, too, so big-time credit to Lano."

Hill might not have been on the field for the Seahawks' goal-line stand had they not lost Quandre Diggs and Marquise Blair earlier in the game. Blair had moved from nickelback to free safety following Diggs' ejection before going down with a knee injury in the second quarter.

Coach Pete Carroll delivered a double whammy of bad news Monday when he confirmed both Blair and Bruce Irvin will need season-ending ACL surgery, a massive blow to what was already a suspect defense.

Blair's absence means the Seahawks won't get to enjoy what was shaping up to be a breakout season for the 2019 second-round pick. He played sparingly as a rookie safety -- a mystery to many given his strong showings in limited action -- then was one of Seattle's standouts in 2020 training camp while making a smooth transition to nickelback.

In a sign of how much excitement there was for Blair's second season, linebacker K.J. Wright said before the opener he doubted the Seahawks would repeat their base-heavy approach from 2019 -- which had them rarely subbing out a linebacker for a nickelback -- because "we've got to get Marquise on the field."

But that no longer feels like a given now that Ugo Amadi is replacing Blair as the fifth defensive back. The shorter Amadi is built like a traditional nickelback and doesn't have the same physicality as Blair, who also excelled as a blitzer.

It's not clear what the Seahawks will do without Irvin, who filled a dual role as the strong-side linebacker in base packages and an end in pass-rushing situations. One possibility is moving Wright to strong-side linebacker and inserting rookie Jordyn Brooks in the weak side. That would take Wright out of his most comfortable position but would get the first-round pick and his speed (4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash) on the field.

Brooks has played 15 defensive snaps this season, while another starting-caliber linebacker, Cody Barton, also has remained in a backup role.

The Seahawks don't have the same kind of surplus of pass-rushers. That was already their biggest question before losing their most accomplished piece in Irvin. Even with Irvin, the early returns were supporting the widely held concerns about the Seahawks' lack of firepower without an obvious primary threat like Jadeveon Clowney.

Through two games, they rank 29th in pressure rate at 17.5%, according to ESPN charting. That metric measures the percentage of opponent dropbacks on which the quarterback was sacked, hit or under duress. They're 12th in ESPN's pass rush win rate at 44.7%, which is right around last year's mark of 42.8%. But that has only translated to three sacks, and two have come from a blitzing Adams.

Adams had their lone sack Sunday night even with Newton dropping back to pass on 47 of 69 plays. Carroll said the sack stat was misleading because of how close they came to bringing Newton down a handful of other times. But they only finished with five official hits, a lack of pressure that became problematic as Newton nearly rallied the Patriots back from multiple double-digit deficits in the second half.

"We struggled," Carroll said of Seattle's pass rush. "They did a nice job against us. They're historically a really good pass-pro team. Both teams were good pass-pro teams the first two games. We have to be creative, we have to work more stuff to help those guys out. They're trying like crazy. We'll see. Let me get to the film and evaluate it."

With more heat on Newton, the Seahawks might not have needed a goal-line stand to escape with a win.

"As a defense, we like to be in those moments, but we don’t like to be in those moments," Adams said. "It's just so fun and so exciting to get that win and pull it off like that."