Seahawks predictions at NFL midseason: Why Devon Witherspoon will win DROY

RENTON, Wash. — The Seattle Seahawks have the same record as the division-leading San Francisco 49ers (5-3) through nine weeks of the season, with two games remaining against their NFC West rival. All things considered, the Seahawks are in a good position to achieve their regular-season goal of winning the division, and they have a 57.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to the model built by The Athletic’s Austin Mock.

To take home the NFC West title, Seattle will have to improve on both sides of the ball. Since we’re essentially at the midway point of the season, here are some second-half predictions regarding some of the Seahawks’ most notable areas of concern, along with a prediction on a future award winner.

Geno Smith’s numbers will improve (if the OL heals)

Right tackle Abraham Lucas hasn’t played since Week 1 because of a knee injury, but he is expected to return to practice by next week at the latest, coach Pete Carroll said. Lucas’ return should help an offensive line that has been inconsistent all season. Sunday’s lineup was the seventh different starting unit in eight games.

A healthier offensive line will help the entire offense, Smith included. Smith has been pressured on 42.5 percent of his dropbacks, which ranks fifth among QBs with at least 100 dropbacks (all stats provided by TruMedia unless stated otherwise). However, Smith’s expected points added per play when pressured ranks 13th, one spot ahead of Joe Burrow. And according to Pro Football Focus, Smith’s pressures result in sacks at the seventh-lowest rate in the league.

But there’s a limit to Smith’s ability to weather these storms. Since Week 4, Smith has been pressured at the highest rate in the league among qualifying quarterbacks, and his EPA per dropback ranks 27th out of 31 qualifying passers (though his pressure-to-sack rate is still league average). Quarterbacks have some control over their pressure rate, but when watching the Seahawks, it’s apparent how much of the pressure being allowed is due to a leaky line.

There’s reason to believe Smith will be better if the offensive line gets healthier and more consistent. That’s one reason why Carroll has been defending his quarterback in recent weeks.



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Seattle will have a top-five run defense

In Weeks 1 through 8, Seattle’s defense ranked third in yards per carry allowed (3.6) and first in success rate. In Week 9, the Seahawks had the second-lowest success rate against the run and allowed a league-worst 7.3 yards per carry. They’re still top five in success rate, but it’s early enough in the season that such an outlier performance can skew that yards per carry number, which is now 4.2 and ranks 21st.

Five of Seattle’s final nine games are against offenses that rank top 10 in rushing success rate — Washington Commanders, 49ers (twice), Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles — so the road isn’t much easier, but the Seahawks’ track record prior to that meltdown at M&T Bank Stadium is enough to be optimistic about the run defense.

The Baltimore Ravens game is also easy to chalk up as an outlier because the players spent most of the second half trying to strip the ball rather than make fundamental tackles. That was uncharacteristic and something you can imagine the coaching staff and the team’s veterans emphasizing in practice and meetings so it doesn’t become a habit.

Playing a team led by Lamar Jackson can skew a team’s rushing numbers as well, but Seattle doesn’t face another quarterback who’s as heavily involved in the run game until Week 15 against Jalen Hurts (and he’s dealing with a knee injury). Seattle’s next nine games are likely to look like the first eight as far as the run defense is concerned.

Boye Mafe will break the double-digit sack drought 

Mafe has a team-high six sacks through Seattle’s first eight games, putting him on pace to be the first Seahawk since Frank Clark (13) and Jarran Reed (10.5) in 2018 to have at least 10 sacks in a season. Mafe has a sack in six consecutive games, and while that pace is unlikely to be sustained the rest of the regular season, he is pressuring the quarterback at a rate that suggests he’ll have no issue recording four more sacks across the next nine games.

Mafe ranks third among all edge rushers in pass rush win rate, a metric created by ESPN that tracks whether a player beats his blocker within 2.5 seconds. Only Dallas’ Micah Parsons (33 percent) and Cleveland’s Myles Garrett (32 percent) have higher win rates than Mafe (27 percent). Out of the 106 pass rushers who primarily play on the edge, Mafe ranks 37th in pressure rate. Mafe is rolling to start the year.



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The upcoming quarterbacks present favorable matchups. Here are some of Seattle’s future opponents and their sack rates (the league average is 7 percent): Sam Howell (11.1), Will Levis (8.1), Dak Prescott (7.7), Kenny Pickett (6.9), Hurts (6.7) and Brock Purdy (5.9). It’s unclear whether Seattle will face Matthew Stafford in Week 11; his new backup is Carson Wentz, who has a career sack rate of 6.7 percent. Arizona’s Kyler Murray has gotten better at avoiding sacks, but he has a sack rate of 12.6 percent against Seattle the past two seasons.

Rushing numbers will see a boost 

The Seahawks rank sixth in EPA per attempt on designed carries, but they’re 22nd in designed rush rate. In the last two games, Ken Walker III and Zach Charbonnet have carried the ball only 26 times — the same number of carries Walker had on his own against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 7. Carroll went into the Ravens game wanting to run the ball more often, but they had no success early and eventually had to abandon the run because of the score.

The Commanders (10th) are the only team on Seattle’s remaining schedule with a top-10 run defense by success rate. The other upcoming opponents hold the following ranks: Eagles (16th), Pittsburgh Steelers (17th), Tennessee Titans (18th), Rams (19th), Dallas Cowboys (25th), 49ers (29th), Cardinals (31st).

Seattle ranks 16th in designed rushing yards per game (89.6), and that number is likely to improve in the second half of the season. The Seahawks need to be better on third down to extend drives — they’re 30th in plays per drive and have the sixth-highest three-and-out rate — and one way to get that done is to have better success running the ball to make the conversion attempts more manageable. The remaining schedule works in their favor.



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“We have the guys to get it done. We need to pull it off, make it happen and come to life,” Carroll said. “It’ll affect our entire football team if we do.”

Devon Witherspoon will win Defensive Rookie of the Year 

Witherspoon, the No. 5 pick in the draft, has the second-best odds (+300) to win Defensive Rookie of the Year behind Philadelphia defensive tackle Jalen Carter (-300). Detroit Lions defensive back Brian Branch, Houston Texans defensive end Will Anderson Jr. and Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu are also in the mix.

Witherspoon was the NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 4 and the Defensive Rookie of the Month in October. He has 39 total tackles, two sacks, an interception returned for a touchdown and nine total passes defensed, which leads all rookies and is tied for sixth among all defenders. Witherspoon has 16 “splash” plays, which are plays that result in any of the following: a turnover, sack, tackle for loss or no gain, stop on third or fourth down, pass defensed or pressure leading to a throwaway.

Witherspoon is in a four-way tie among rookies in splash plays along with New York Giants cornerback Deonte Banks, Texans linebacker Henry To’oTo’o and Rams edge rusher Byron Young. That’s not the only stat worth using when assessing defensive players, but it’s an interesting one that can help measure players at different spots.

What’s going to continue to work in Witherspoon’s favor is his ability to play outside cornerback and slide over to nickel, a spot that has more responsibilities against the run and pass. Whereas defensive linemen can be double-teamed and outside cornerbacks can be avoided (unless they’re in man-heavy schemes), it’s hard to keep Witherspoon away from the ball when he can rush the passer, make tackles in the run game and guard everyone from running backs in the flat to tight ends over the middle and wide receivers deep down the field. Seattle’s scheme puts him in position to make plays, and that’s going to help him when it’s time to vote.

Another, albeit less significant, factor: Witherspoon makes plays that garner national attention. On top of his accolades, Witherspoon has a pick six on “Monday Night Football” and a big tackle on Rondale Moore that went viral. It’s a small variable, but if Witherspoon continues to have those impact plays, particularly in prime time, it’ll help his chances.

(Photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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