Five questions about the state of the Seahawks' defense

The bottom line: Bobby Wagner leads a star-studded defense in Seattle. AP Photo/John Froschauer

RENTON, Wash. -- Pete Carroll was asked earlier this week what stood out about the Seattle Seahawks' defensive performance in Sunday's 39-30 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"It was great to get the turnovers, to make the plays when we had to and give us a chance against a wide-open team that was bombing away," Carroll said.

But what about the 456 passing yards?

"They were firing it. That’s kind of how it goes sometimes," Carroll continued. "You guys forget how many yards Peyton [Manning] threw for in the Super Bowl. We’ve had a lot of yards thrown on us at times. When guys are really committed to throwing the ball, you can make a lot of yards, and that can happen. This doesn’t seem such a crazy deal to me, just that they played great. I thought Ben [Roethlisberger] was awesome, and his receivers were fantastic. We made some mistakes that gave him some chances that we normally would like to eliminate and we’ll get better at."

While Carroll publicly downplayed the issues on defense, players have acknowledged that the Seahawks need to clean up some things. The defense has shaped the team's identity in recent years, but it's not playing at an elite level right now. Below are five questions and thoughts about where this group stands:

1. How different does the 2015 defense look from the 2014 unit?

Scheme-wise, there's not much of a difference. But by any statistical measure, this year's group is not performing at the same level. Football Outsiders has the Seahawks' defense ranked seventh in efficiency, compared to first last season. Seattle is allowing 20.18 points per game (eighth), compared to 15.88 (first) in 2014. They're giving up 5.25 yards per play (eighth) versus 4.63 (first) last season.

Put simply: They were the best defense in the league in 2014. They have yet to reach that level on a consistent basis this year.

2. What has been the biggest difference?

The Seahawks have allowed 39 pass plays of 20-plus yards through 11 games. They allowed just 32 all of last year. But it's not the deep bombs that have been their biggest issue. According to data tracked by ESPN Stats & Information, opposing QBs are completing 30.6 percent of their attempts 20 yards or more downfield. Last year, the number was 31.5 percent. So they've actually been a little better there.

Where the numbers look bad are on throws 10 to 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. Quarterbacks are completing 68.5 percent of those passes and averaging 12.47 YPA. Last year, they completed just 43.6 percent and averaged 6.89 YPA.

The Seahawks still play a lot of Cover 3. But offenses have found ways to attack the area between the four underneath defenders and the three deep defenders. Players often talk about being connected on a string and moving together as one unit. Too often this season, gaps in the Seahawks' zones have been exposed, and they've been vulnerable to play-action passes as well.

3. What about the pass rush?

Pressuring the quarterback is always tied to coverage on the back end. But there's not much of a difference here. Last year, the Seahawks produced sacks on 6.6 percent of opponents' dropbacks. This year, the number is 6.3 percent.

And the Seahawks have produced pressure by blitzing less. They sent five or more defenders 26.6 percent of the time last year. This year, it's down to 22.2 percent.

4. What are the reasons for optimism?

The obvious one is personnel. The Seahawks still have Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. The defense is loaded with talent, and all of those guys are healthy.

They're forcing opponents to punt 50 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders data tracking. That ranks second in the league and is better than last year (49.1 percent). They're getting three-and-outs 29.2 percent of the time (second), which is also better than last year (24.2 percent, eighth).

Those are signs of a sound defense. And the upcoming schedule is favorable. The next four opponents rank 14th, 19th, 27th and 32nd in offensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.

5. What are the reasons for pessimism?

There aren't many signs that the Seahawks have an answer for big plays through the air. Granted, they've faced two of the top downfield passers in recent weeks (Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer), but the pass defense has looked vulnerable.

Cary Williams started the first 10 games at right cornerback, but he was inactive last week and replaced by DeShawn Shead. Carroll said Thomas did not play one of his better games against the Steelers and was trying to do too much. Chancellor has had issues at times. And since Week 8, the Seahawks' sack rate is 4.4 percent (21st).

The offense seems to be hitting its stride and looks capable of doing more than it has done in the past. But at some point, the defense will need to step up against a quality opponent. That will require Carroll, defensive coordinator Kris Richard and the players themselves to find a way to cut down on the big plays and gaps in coverage.