Despite 3-0 start, Seahawks' defense more Big 12 than Legion of Boom

SEATTLE -- With a downward gaze and a hushed voice in his postgame news conference on Sunday, linebacker Bobby Wagner looked and sounded like a player discussing an 0-3 start.

In fact, his Seattle Seahawks had just improved to 3-0 and moved into first place in the NFC West with their 38-31 win over the Dallas Cowboys. But that victory, like the Seahawks' first two, was much more in spite of their defense than because of it -- even with that unit coming up with game-saving plays in consecutive weeks.

"It's not something I am accustomed to," Wagner said. "It is not something I'm going to be accustomed to."

As one of the Seahawks' longest-tenured players, Wagner has been manning the middle of their defense since the heyday of the Legion of Boom. Through three games this season, Seattle's D has allowed offenses to put up numbers that look like something out of the Big 12: 497 yards per game (32nd in the NFL) and 6.57 yards per play (31st).

With Dak Prescott and the Cowboys racking up 522 yards on Sunday, it marked the first time in franchise history that the Seahawks have allowed at least 450 yards in three straight games, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.

Most of that damage has come through the air, with Seattle allowing 434 passing yards to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1, 397 to the New England Patriots in Week 2 and 461 against Dallas. The league-worst 430.7 passing yards per game the Seahawks have yielded so far are 80 more than the next-closest team, Atlanta, at 350.3.

Some -- but not all -- of that could be attributed to the Seahawks jumping out to big leads that have forced opponents into catch-up mode, which has meant a lot more throwing than running. Seattle has faced the most passing attempts of any team through three games (155) and the fifth-fewest rushes (67).

"We'll make the changes," Wagner said. "We just need to get off the field. We need to make our plays. I think that's really it; just need to be a little more locked in, a little more sound, and make our plays when they come to us and get off the field. I think we are hurting ourselves in a lot of facets, and we have to get that out of our ball."

The Seahawks have come up with some big plays on defense, including three takeaways plus a safety against Dallas and a game-saving goal-line stand against New England. They've needed them -- not to mention Russell Wilson's historically hot start -- to overcome everything that's gone wrong on that side of the ball.

Wagner's comment about needing to get off the field identified one of several areas where Seattle’s defense has struggled. It has allowed opponents to convert on 51.2% of their third-down tries, the fourth-highest rate in the league.

But that poor third-down performance is more a symptom of several other problems. Among them: a lack of pressure on the quarterback and coverage lapses.

In a realization of the defense's biggest concern entering the season, the Seahawks are 27th in pressure rate (21.2%), according to ESPN charting, which measures the percentage of dropbacks on which the quarterback was sacked, hit or under duress. They have fared much better in ESPN's pass rush win rate -- ranking 13th at 45% -- but only have five sacks to show for it, which is tied for 22nd.

Cornerback play was problematic on Sunday, as the Seahawks were without Quinton Dunbar because of a knee injury. His replacement on the right side, Tre Flowers, committed the cardinal sin in coach Pete Carroll's defense by letting Michael Gallup get over the top of him for a 43-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. On the next possession, Flowers missed an opportunity to redeem himself by letting a sure interception bounce off his chest, then missing a tackle that allowed Dallas to convert a third down.

Shaquill Griffin had the first of Seattle's two interceptions of Prescott but was beat deep by Gallup on Dallas' third-quarter touchdown drive.

Another Prescott touchdown was the result of a busted coverage, with linebacker K.J. Wright not getting the help he was expecting, according to Carroll.

"It's just too loose," Carroll said of Seattle's coverage on Sunday. "It's working together, with rush, with coverage, to make our plays. We gave up 60 yards ... rushing, again. [Ezekiel Elliott] averaged 2 yards a carry and had 20 yards rushing today, or whatever it was. Those things are working. We're playing the running game really well, and there's not a big opportunity to give them the run so that you can stop the pass, like you might think. We just have to do a lot better."

The Seahawks' defense had question marks heading into the season, but few expected it to be gashed through the air, as it has been, especially with a secondary that added Dunbar and All-Pro safety Jamal Adams.

Adams has done his part, making more big plays than mistakes and giving the Seahawks their lone consistent pass-rush threat as a blitzer. But he left Sunday's game in the fourth quarter with what Carroll called a first-degree groin strain, putting his status for next week's game at the Miami Dolphins in question.

It's one of several injuries the Seahawks are dealing with on defense. They also lost rookie linebacker Jordyn Brooks on Sunday to a first-degree knee strain. His status for this week is also in question. He was making his first career start in place of Bruce Irvin, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Week 2. The Seahawks also lost nickelback Marquise Blair to the same injury in that same Patriots game.

None of those players was on the field on Sunday when Adams' replacement -- Ryan Neal, who was just elevated from the practice squad -- picked off Prescott's final throw in the end zone to seal Seattle's win.

"Those moments are cool to be on the field and be able to stop a team from scoring and ... winning the game," Wagner said. "They're fun. But we shouldn't have been in that situation."