'Playing lights out': Seahawks' defensive turnaround key to NFC West title

SEATTLE -- Before Jamal Adams lit his victory cigar to celebrate the Seattle Seahawks clinching the NFC West title, the Pro Bowl strong safety said something that would have seemed inconceivable at midseason.

"For everybody out there, they need to start putting respect on this defense's name," Adams said. "Because this defense is playing lights out. And to me, we're the best defense in the league. You can quote that, you can do what you want to do with it."

He wasn't just blowing smoke.

By the most important metric of all, no defense has been better over the past six weeks than Seattle's, albeit against some bad offenses. The Seahawks' defense has allowed 13.7 points per game since Week 11, the lowest in the league in that span and 1.5 points better than the next-best team. During that stretch, Seattle has allowed the second-fewest yards per play (4.43) and recorded the second-most sacks (21).

Maybe defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. knows what he's doing after all. And maybe that Week 11 win over the Arizona Cardinals -- which was preceded by an "aha" moment for Norton's crew --- was the turning point that Pete Carroll believed it would be.

The turnaround started when they held Kyler Murray and the Cardinals to 21 points, then a season low and 16 fewer than the Seahawks allowed in an overtime loss to Arizona four weeks earlier.

It continued Sunday, when the Seahawks held the Rams to three field goals -- 14 points fewer than Los Angeles scored in its Week 10 win over Seattle. The Seahawks sacked Jared Goff three times and pressured him on 24 of his dropbacks. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that was the most pressure Goff has faced in his career, the third most the Seahawks have generated under Carroll and most since 2015. That was despite blitzing less Sunday (21.2% of Goff's dropbacks) than they had over the first 14 games (33.3%), per ESPN charting.

Carroll agreed it was the Seahawks' most comprehensive defensive performance in a while.

"But this is how we've been playing," he said. "This has been a string now. I know you look at who we're playing against, but you can tell the way and the style was all there today. Our coaches and Kenny were able to fix things during the game, our players adjusted, and Bobby [Wagner] was able to make adjustments up front and all that. It's just a together group."

No one was talking about Seattle's defense like that early in the season, when it was setting or threatening NFL records for futility. The Seahawks allowed the most passing yards through nine games in league history -- and needed only eight games to do it. The low point was a 44-34 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 9, the most points Seattle has allowed in the Carroll era. The Seahawks' defense allowed the third-most points per game in the NFL over the first 10 weeks -- an average of 28.8 -- more than double what they've allowed since.

Carlos Dunlap has been a difference-maker, injecting life into a pass rush that had been stagnant before he was acquired in an October trade. D.J. Reed has emerged as a playmaker, and fellow cornerback Shaquill Griffin has gotten healthy on the other side. Adams has picked up where he left off since returning from a groin injury that sidelined him for four games.

Adams didn't add to his record sack total Sunday but broke up a pass and tied for the team lead with eight tackles. One of them saved a touchdown, as he chased down Darrell Henderson from the back side and brought him down at the 2-yard line. Adams stopped Malcolm Brown shy of the end zone two plays later, part of a goal-line stand in which the Rams ran four plays from inside Seattle's 5 but came away with no points.

"I knew going into it that we were going to win because we had a great week of practice," Adams said. "Just preparing from our coaches getting tips and alerts in film study and guys picking each other's brains: If he does this, if he motions here, if they're in 12 personnel, 11 personnel, here comes the motion, fly motion. Things like that is where you make that leap."

That comment from Adams illustrated what the Seahawks cite as another reason for their defensive turnaround: continuity they didn't have over the first two months while breaking in players following a condensed offseason and no preseason.

"It starts with Coach Norton and him putting us in great positions to be successful, and the rest of the coaching staff," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "We figured it out, we figured it out. Guys are just starting to be accountable, we're communicating like no other. To hear the other guys' voices each and every play is truly special."

And yes, it also helped that four of the six quarterbacks they've faced during their turnaround are either below-average starters or backups. The only unquestioned exception is Murray. Among quarterbacks who have attempted at least 100 passes this season, he ranks 14th in Total QBR (69.1). Goff, a two-time Pro Bowler, is 24th this season in Total QBR (58.6). The since-benched Carson Wentz is 34th (49.4), Sam Darnold is 39th (42.0) and the since-waived Dwayne Haskins is 43rd (30.7). Colt McCoy's Total QBR is 36.3.

Unless the Seahawks face the Rams again in the wild-card round, the tests will get tougher in the playoffs, especially if they run into Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers or Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Rodgers is first in Total QBR (83.9) and Brees is seventh (76.1).

"Defense wins championships," Wright said. "We know that going down the stretch there are going to be some tough battles. Playoff time is around the corner, and defense wins championships. We're just getting started, we've got to keep it going down this stretch and just finish strong."