It's being said that the Seahawks' defense is now shutting down teams by mere reputation.
In the last two weeks, Seattle has beaten two teams - Baltimore and St. Louis - who abandoned the run very early on after a token showing, then turned around and placed the game on the shoulders of their QB. Word is that their offensive coordinators, aware of Seattle's ability against the run, were planning a pass-heavy attack for that reason even before the game began. If opponents are smart enough to throw out entire facets of the offense before the game even begins, then hey, we must be pretty good.
There's a massive assumption in there: that relying on the passing game made sense for those teams. It's a faulty assumption. It actually made even less sense than trying to run against the brick wall of Seattle's defensive line. If you're going to kill the run, not only do you have to be craftier about it then giving Ray Rice only five carries, but you had better have a quarterback who can carry the team. Otherwise, the results write themselves.
Ravens fans are starting to lose patience with QB Joe "Perpetually One Weapon Away" Flacco. There is obviously still time for the fourth-year QB to improve, and his newest toy, Lee Evans, hasn't been on the field long enough this year to develop chemistry with him. But Flacco looked awful against Seattle, all on his own. His intermediate/deep accuracy is badly wanting. The OC assigned him a playbook similar to the dink-and-dunk checkdown offense that people were hoping Charlie Whitehurst could mince along with ("Hey, it beat the awful 2010 Rams in a game that just happened to be, through no accomplishment of Whitehurst's, a playoff-deciding win! So the Whitehurst Offense must be viable! Right?"). It just didn't have any punch, netting Flacco an appallingly measly 4.9 YPA and bearing a stark resemblance to the same listless offense that pulled Baltimore out of last year's playoffs. Overrated but quality RB Ray Rice was given no chance to help him, limited to five carries.
Speaking of the Rams, their decision to go with a pure passing approach was even more baffling. The Rams have handled Sam Bradford pretty poorly so far. He's stuck with an offensive coordinator who's overloading him just as much as Pat Shurmur underloaded him, and his general manager has only recently become aware of the wide receiver position. Against the Seahawks in particular, St. Louis was starting two backup offensive tackles (which has a ripple effect across an entire offensive line) and had just gotten Brandon Lloyd back on the field. And Bradford, for that matter. This is not a set of circumstances that supports a pure passing approach - at all.
But sure, let's take Pro Bowler Steven Jackson out of the equation entirely and telegraph our intentions all day by emptying the backfield and running spread formations with mediocre weapons, a QB with terrible stats in 4+ WR formations, and a crippled line. (Congratulations, Chris Clemons, you demolished a third-string tackle who'd just been pulled off the practice squad! Here's your national recognition!*)
Abandoning the run game is something you do when your QB is Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers, someone who can shoulder the load. It's not something you do when your QB is Sam Bradford or Joe Flacco. The latter is on a run-first team by design; the former is still very early in his development and is looking more and more like a slow-maturing player. What he needs right now is support, not the Peyton treatment.
As for the reputation of our run defense, teams have flourished against the Pete Carroll Seahawks with a pure-passing approach before, so it's not a death sentence to be forced away from the run. It could be argued that Baltimore's 52 passing attempts was equal parts respect for Seattle's run defense and disrespect for its pass defense, given our struggles against any QB with more in his playbook than "Checkdown" and "Green 25, Screw It Go Deep". You just have to be smart about abandoning the run. Seattle has abandoned the run a lot in the last three seasons, and it hasn't helped.
It's easy and comforting as fans of the winner to jump on the idea that our defense might finally be keeping coaches up at night, but the approaches of Baltimore (only five carries for Ray Rice) and St. Louis (lots of empty backfield) really don't make sense objectively. You don't run schemes that your personnel can't support, and killing the run to that extreme takes away your pre-snap flexibility and play-action, makes you one-dimensional. Even a defense bereft of talent, which Seattle isn't, can scrape by if it knows exactly what's coming. Even if that RB on the field isn't expected to make a play, the defense still has to account for him. Maybe, just maybe, some rookie defender will make a rookie mistake and allow a game-changing long TD (KJ Wright on Jason Witten, anyone?).
This play-calling doesn't feel like adaptation. If the running game had been given at least the occasional chance, maybe it's understandable. But this extreme just feels like imbalance, overreaction, neglect of the team's best personnel. Especially coming right after DeMarco Murray had gotten done proving that good RB's are not necessarily impotent against this team. The most sense I can find in this thought process is the heavy emphasis on running backs as receivers, as Seattle's pass defense is ranked #31 in DVOA against RB's.
If we're going to point out that some of those teams' personnel problems are out of their control, like the Rams' injury issues, then that deserves a place in the discussion. But in that case, we're back to the part where Seattle is just grinding out wins through playing inferior competition, rather than through defensive excellence as is the word on the street now. There's talent on this defense, but defeating a completely unsupported Joe Flacco or Sam Bradford is not a quality test and racking up three sacks on a practice-squad tackle shouldn't really be causing a shift in popular perception towards the entire defense. It's too little too soon. I don't want to see another "pretender" defense like 2007's. We need a real trial here, from a full offense, legitimate QB, and an offensive coordinator who isn't on his third team in four years.
* This is more a diss on the purveyors of national recognition than on Clemons. He's one of the most underrated pass defenders in the NFC and is playing hard and disruptively on an island in Carroll's scheme. Frustrating that only sack numbers get you any kudos in this league.