Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images
Charged on by breakout young stars Devon Witherspoon and Boye Mafe, the Seahawks defense is back — after a long, frustrating hiatus — to being the strength of this team.
By Sam Robb O’Hagan
See if you can find Devon Witherspoon on this play.
Witherspoon will play his sixth professional game on Sunday. He’s already one of the most impressive defenders in the league. And he makes sure it isn’t difficult to figure out why.
Witherspoon is everywhere. Rapidly closing on a receiver in the flat to make an immediate tackle; relentlessly sticking to opposing receivers and disrupting the catch point; rushing the passer with his head on fire.
After his second career game against the Carolina Panthers, Witherspoon was asked if he felt like his opponent, who targeted him 13 times, was purposely testing him.
“I feel like they were, that would come with being a rookie,” Witherspoon said. “I was just trying to prove who I am, and let them know that I’m one of the best corners —” he catches himself.
“Trying to be one of the best corners.”
If nothing else, and there is a lot else, Witherspoon has let his opponents know that he’s trying to prove himself. And he lets them know as suddenly, mercilessly, and loudly as any young corner the NFL has seen.
It would be difficult, through the first seven weeks of the NFL season, to find many defensive players that have had a greater influence on their unit and, perhaps more importantly, it would be about as difficult to find many defenses that have had a greater impact on their team.
Since Week 2, when Witherspoon made his NFL debut, Seattle’s defense is second in expected points added (EPA) per play allowed, fifth in EPA/dropback allowed, sixth in overall success rate against, and first in rushing success rate against, per rbsdm.com.
And, in the three games since Week 4, as Seattle’s offense has averaged just 17 points a game, the defense leads the league in EPA/play, success rate, and EPA/dropback.
This, after the Seahawks finished last season in the 20s in two of those categories and after a Week 1 performance against the Rams that was second and third-worst in the league by EPA/play and success rate, respectively.
Good luck finding anyone with that on their bingo card for the 2023 NFL season. Well, anyone except Witherspoon, of course.
It has been a remarkable, potentially season-saving turnaround, and Witherspoon is at the center of it all. Because the same relentless motor that drives Seattle’s breakout rookie corner drives the defenders on the field with him.
Seattle’s secondary clicks and closes on targets like few others in the league, and it’s not just Witherspoon. Watch how suddenly Jamal Adams broke on this developing screen from the Bengals. Once he realized it was coming, he was gone. As Derrik Klassen of The 33rd Team pointed out, there was fellow safety Quandre Diggs, along with Witherspoon, immediately smothering a wide screen in that same game.
Here was Diggs, this time against the Cardinals in Week 7, careening downhill from his deep safety position to blow up a checkdown on third-and-5. Or utility man Julian Love, doing the same on third-and-6 on the very next drive.
The Seahawks’ back-end defenders play so fast, and with so much energy, that anything in front of them is immediately vulnerable. The safety nets that every offense relies on — quick screens on long-distance downs, check-downs on third-and-mediums, runs on second down to set up manageable third downs — are so much harder against Seattle, because the Seahawks’ secondary sniffs them out and closes on them quicker than just about anybody.
It’s one of the reasons the Seahawks are so good against the run (first in rushing success rate against, since Week 2). It’s also one of the reasons they’ve allowed the eighth-lowest yards after catch on completions against them, according to Pro Football Reference.
But everything beyond the safety nets is harder against Seattle, too, because this defense does more than just hunt check-downs, screens, and runs. On traditional, got-to-have-it passing downs, the Seahawks finally have the horses to keep up.
And the star of that show is Boye Mafe, the second-year edge rusher who is quickly becoming the leader of Seattle’s defensive line.
So far this season, Mafe leads the entire NFL in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric. He’s winning his pass-rushing reps almost one-third of the time — higher than Myles Garrett, higher than Nick Bosa, higher than everybody.
Check out this move that Mafe put on Cardinals’ tackle Paris Johnson, disrupting the quarterback and forcing an incompletion. And then this punch against Johnson on the very next snap that led to a sack and got the Seahawks off the field.
Mafe already has more sacks this season than he did over his entire rookie campaign, and his emergence is critical for a Seahawks’ pass rush that has searched, mostly unsuccessfully, for impact players for years.
Now, with Uchenna Nwosu out for the season, Mafe is the leader of an improving defensive front that is fifth in the NFL in sacks and is getting pressure on the quarterback at a rate two percent higher than last season.
Charged on by Mafe and Witherspoon, the Seahawks’ defense finally has teeth again. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Seattle is 4-2, not a catastrophe by any stretch of the imagination, but a rocky start for a team with playoff aspirations. That sentiment is particularly true on offense, where the Seahawks are still playing with clipped wings — held back by injuries and a quarterback that, while brilliant, plays himself into trouble when he tries to do it all by himself.
This, of course, wasn’t how it was supposed to go. The Seahawks entered the season with lofty expectations almost exclusively attributed to the offense — a high-flying unit last year that played with little margin for error as the defense struggled.
Last season, wherever the offense went, the team went with them.
With that in mind, see if you can find Devon Witherspoon after this play — the first career touchdown of rookie wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
It’s been a slow start to life in the NFL for Smith-Njigba, much like it has been for his offense this season. But, critically, there’s a margin for error now, one that keeps getting bigger and bigger with every sack that Mafe records, every booming hit that Witherspoon lays.
Maybe, then, Witherspoon celebrating Smith-Njigba’s touchdown, those little moments that prove the offense is starting to figure it out, was the most important image yet of Seattle’s breakout rookie corner.
It showed that Seattle’s defense is finally leading this team again.