Losing their first two games was not exactly what the Seattle Seahawks had in mind when they started their NFC title defense.
Looking to advance to a third Superbowl in three years, the Seahawks were out of sorts at the beginning of the season, unable to stop opposing offenses. The team has since righted the ship, winning their last two games and doing so in typical Seahawks fashion, with their defense.
This Sunday, the Seahawks travel to Cincinnati to take on the red-hot Bengals, where their return to form will be put to the test.
The catalyst for Seattle’s revival has been the return of defensive team leader and superhuman Kam Chancellor, the team’s starting strong safety. Chancellor has been an integral part of the defense for several years, and his holdout adversely affected the team’s performance on the field and was a distraction off of it. Chancellor has made a tangible difference since returning, single-handedly saving their Week 4 win by dislodging the ball from the hands of Detroit wide-receiver Calvin Johnson when Johnson was diving into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Chancellor appears to be the key missing ingredient in the Seattle defense. In the two games without Chancellor, the Seattle defense gave up 30.5 points, 255 yards passing and 101.5 yards rushing per game. In the two games with Kam back, the defense has allowed only 5 points, 125.5 yards passing and 75.5 yards rushing per game. While the sample size is small and the opponents have been weaker, the improvement is still astonishing.
“He’s a big asset for us,” linebacker Bruce Irvin told Les Carpenter at The Guardian. “It’s everything. Leadership. Intimidation. Big plays. Knowledge. Presence. We needed it.”
Offensively, the Seahawks have relied heavily on quarterback Russell Wilson in the first four weeks of the season. Seattle has been run heavy over the last few years, but injuries to running back Marshawn Lynch and an underperforming offensive line has put the burden on Wilson this year.
Russell has thrown for 979 yards on 31.75 attempts per game, up from his 2014 numbers of 852 yards on 28.25 attempts. The quarterback has maintained his effectiveness though, posting a 61.1 QB Rating and a 100.5 QBR in his first four games this season, similar to last year’s 70.7 QBR and 95.0 QB Rating.
Meanwhile, the Bengals – and particularly their quarterback - are off to a stellar start.
Cincinnati is moving the ball on offense, both on the ground and through the air. It starts with Andy Dalton, who is off to the best start of his career, accumulating 1,187 yards and throwing nine touchdowns to one interception en route to an 87.7 QBR and a 123.0 QB Rating, both second in the league. To put those numbers into perspective, Dalton’s career best QBR is 56.8 and his highest QB Rating is 88.8.
Dalton and the passing attack are helped by an equally effective running game lead by Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. The two ball carriers have combined for 104 carries, 460 yards and six touchdowns early this season, good for second best in the NFL in terms of efficiency.
The common factor between the Bengals passing and rushing attack has been the exceptional play of the offensive line early on this season. The Bengals pass protection has only allowed two sacks so far this season, and according to Football Outsiders, their Adjusted Sack Rate, which measures sacks per pass attempted adjusted for down, distance and opponent, is tops in the NFL so far. Football Outsiders also measures the effectiveness of their run blocking at fifth best in the league in terms of adjusted rushing yards, which takes into account how yards were accumulated and the down, distance, situation, and opponent.
The two teams meet this Sunday at 1:00 PM ET in Paul Brown Stadium where the Bengals are favored by a field goal. The Bengals are the more in-form team, but if their offensive production is going to normalize, it would be against the Seattle Seahawks. Expect a low-scoring affair that eventually goes in Seattle’s favor.