Why Seattle's run defense has surprised so far this season

The Seahawks brought back DT Jarran Reed in the offseason and he's made a difference so far defending against the run. Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

SEATTLE -- Run defense was the Seattle Seahawks’ Achilles' heel in 2022, a glaring weakness that was exposed often during their 9-8 finish.

It was their biggest question mark heading into 2023, and the “yeah but...” to any assertion of optimism about a young and talented roster whose arrow was mostly pointing up.

So go figure that through three games, stopping the run has been the Seahawks’ biggest strength -- and the lone constant for a defense that’s giving up a lot of yards through the air and isn’t getting off the field on third down.

All those trends continued Sunday as Seattle (2-1) shut down the Carolina Panthers’ run game in a 37-27 victory at Lumen Field. After allowing only 2.9 yards per carry over the first two games, the Seahawks held Carolina to 3.1 YPC and 44 yards overall.

“That's a team that likes to run the football,” coach Pete Carroll said. “They were determined and wanted to do it, and after a while they couldn't. It’s a great job by our guys. That's just something that we have to hang on to and be part of our team.”

Carolina attempted 14 rushing plays Sunday -- including two Andy Dalton scrambles -- but that was more a product of Seattle discouraging the run than it was the scoreboard forcing the Panthers to abandon it; they led 13-12 at halftime and stayed within 10 points for most of the second half.

The 2.9 yards per carry that Seattle has allowed through three games is third-best in the NFL, and is two full yards better than their 4.9 YPC average from last season, which was seventh-worst. They gave up the third-most rushing yards (2,554) of any team in 2022.

“That was the biggest emphasis for the defensive side of the ball this offseason was we’ve got to stop the run,” inside linebacker Jordyn Brooks said. “We thought last year’s performance as far as stopping the run was embarrassing, and not the standard that’s been upheld here. So that’s been the emphasis, and I think we’ve gotten better each week. We just want to keep rolling and keep that mentality.”

The turnaround has been keyed more by changes in attitude and personnel than in scheme. “Buy-in” has been the buzzword.

“I think you get what you emphasize,” Brooks said. “And then just having a better understanding of how we want to attack the opposing offenses as far as stopping the run. I think last year we were a little bit discombobulated, not everybody being bought in. I think it’s been the exact opposite of that this year. I’m just proud of the guys, front seven especially, of accomplishing that thus far.”

It also helped that the front seven got an offseason makeover. Of the 13 linebackers and defensive linemen who played at least 100 snaps for Seattle last season, seven were either released or not re-signed. The Seahawks brought back nose tackle Jarran Reed in March after his two seasons away, and while he wasn’t considered the centerpiece of an overhaul that also included Dre’Mont Jones and Bobby Wagner, so far Reed’s return has arguably made the biggest difference.

Reed had eight tackles Sunday as well as 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and a pass defensed. Carroll called it the best game he’s ever seen Reed play and noted that he was toughing it out on a strained groin.

If only Quandre Diggs could have worked his magic earlier.

The Seahawks’ Pro Bowl safety, and unofficial free-agent recruiter, said he’d been lobbying for Seattle to bring back Reed for two years. It never seemed likely given the way Reed left under acrimonious circumstances in 2021, when he was released after refusing a restructure of his contract that would have paid him the same amount of money that season while freeing up cap space that Seattle needed amid the pandemic crunch.

The reunion became a reality this past March, when Seattle brought him back on a two-year, $9 million deal.

“That’s my guy,” Diggs said. “I know what he’s going to do, I know what he’s going to bring -- pass rush, stopping the run. He brings it every down. He’s holding those guys up front accountable and I know he’s going to do that. He holds me accountable, and we do the same thing. I’m excited for him. I’m proud of him. He’s going to continue to do that.”

Reed’s full sack came on a fourth-down play late in the fourth quarter, ending any chance of a Carolina comeback. The Seahawks otherwise had a hard time getting off the field, allowing Carolina to convert on 10 of 19 third-down tries. They rank second-to-last in third-down defense through three games at 57.4%.

They’re also 31st in passing yards allowed at 328 per game, though Carolina’s total of 334 on Sunday was skewed by the fact that Dalton attempted 58 passes. Seattle sacked him three times and finished with 11 official hits, a good sign for a pass rush that’s been hot and cold.

But that group got banged up Sunday when Dre’Mont Jones (hip) and Darrell Taylor (shin) were both hurt. Seattle also lost cornerback Tre Brown (concussion), who started with Riq Woolen (chest) on the inactive list.

Carroll didn’t have an update Monday on Jones’ status but said Taylor may not have to miss time. The Seahawks are optimistic that Woolen will return this week and are expecting safety Jamal Adams, who hasn’t played since tearing his quad tendon in Week 1 of last season, to make his 2023 debut when they play the New York Giants on “Monday Night Football.”

Those would be welcomed developments for a defense that has allowed at least 27 points in all three games and still has plenty of question marks -- just not the one that would have been expected.

“I definitely think we’re taking the steps in the right direction,” Reed said. “We can’t get complacent. We have to stay hungry. We have to stay practicing hard. We have to stay executing our plays and playing as one on defense.”