For four weeks — most of the last four seasons, really — opponents have used the tedious drip, drip, drip of short, quick passing to combat the Seattle Seahawks’ top-rated defensive secondary.
Foes averaged just 10.7 yards per completion in 2012, 9.9 in ’13 and 10.2 last season. Through four games this season, it’s 10.0 yards.
That game of keep-away is a large reason why the Seahawks’ defensive backs enter Sunday’s game against the unbeaten Bengals without an interception. That four-game streak is the longest since one-time University of Pacific defensive back Pete Carroll became Seattle’s coach in 2010.
“It eats at me,” Carroll said of the drought.
The parched “Legion of Boom” is about to get a rare fire hose pointed directly at it inside packed Paul Brown Stadium.
Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton is one of the league’s top two rated passers. Dalton has nine touchdowns, just one interception and is competing more than 67 percent of his throws.
But the most telling number of how these Bengals strike is 15.2. That’s Dalton’s whopping average yards per completion, tops in the NFL.
Led by go-long receiver A.J. Green’s 16.7 yards per catch, these Bengals have been getting more than a first down and a half each time they’ve completed a pass. Green had an NFL season-high 227 yards receiving in a win at Baltimore.
For perspective: Seattle hasn’t had a 200-yard receiver in 28 years, since Steve Largent’s 261 at Detroit on Oct. 18, 1987.
But to the jamming, over-the-top specialists in the Seahawks secondary, danger never felt so good.
“What they do best is what we emphasize,” Seattle’s defensive coordinator and recent defensive backs coach Kris Richard said.
It’s strength versus strength in the biggest regular-season game in Cincinnati since Carson Palmer was throwing there to a receiver with the legal last name of Ochocinco. That was five years ago. The Bengals have a rare sellout of their 65,500-seat stadium, after crowds of less than 58,000 for each of their first two home games.
Those Ohioans may be in for some show.
The Seahawks haven’t felt this good about their defense and specifically their secondary since before February’s Super Bowl. After starting with losses in overtime at St. Louis (34-31) and at Green Bay (27-17), Seattle has allowed three points total in wins over Chicago and Detroit.
Seattle is first in the NFL at denying third-down conversions, second in yards allowed and tied for third in points allowed.
Its secondary is now complete with the return two games ago of strong safety Kam Chancellor, in time to save Monday night’s win over Detroit with a forced fumble at the goal line late. That and the emergence of new cornerback Cary Williams mastering Seattle’s step-and-kick technique of jamming at the line opposite All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman make this unit whole again.
All-Pro safety Earl Thomas says having Chancellor back from his 54-day holdout means he doesn’t have to restrict himself with the responsibilities of calls and arranging teammates before each snap, that he can go back to seeking the ball.
“I can be myself now,” Thomas said. “I don’t have to worry about any indecision. He’s going to be in his spots. I can create off of that.”
Thomas and Chancellor are the Seahawks’ keys Sunday. The Bengals feature seam routes down the hash marks and post routes deep to the middle, forcing safeties to play like cover cornerbacks rather than roaming and helping with the ball outside.
Seattle’s usual coverage is with the free safety as the single, “high” DB in the deep middle and Chancellor, the strong safety, up closer to the line to clobber receivers running shorter routes. So Thomas will often get Green or Cincinnati tight end Tyler Eifert, who is second on the Bengals with 16 catches and tied with Green with three touchdowns.
“They’re going to take shots,” Thomas said. “I understand what they’re trying to do, and it’s exciting for me. I get a chance to try to make a play.”
Asked what his key will be to eliminating Cincinnati’s deep routes, the ultra-intense Thomas said: “I’m just going to try to own it. I don’t know any particular scheme to try to do that, but I’m just going try to do my best to own every seam and every post.”
On offense, the Seahawks have spent the week owning the fact they must improve pass protection before quarterback Russell Wilson gets ruined. Chicago entered the game two weeks ago with zero sacks — and left Seattle with four. Detroit had four sacks in three games before dumping Wilson six times last week, with Wilson miraculously escaping six more.
Wilson also lost two fumbles to let the Lions back in the game. He has nine turnovers in his last six games after three seasons of exquisite protection of the football.
“We just have to play better,” Wilson said. “It starts with me.”
Cincinnati has 11 sacks this season, already more than half the 20 it had all last season. How Seattle handles Bengals linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins will largely determine if Wilson can get more time to make calmer, more planned plays.
“We have to be better,” Seahawks line coach Tom Cable said of his blockers. “That’s the bottom line.”
With RB Marshawn Lynch out and fellow RB Fred Jackson questionable to play because of a high-ankle sprain, the Seahawks signed rookie RB Rod Smith off their practice squad onto the 53-man roster Saturday by the league deadline for him to be able to play against the Bengals. Smith and fellow undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls are the only fully healthy tailbacks on the roster. Smith impressed coaches with his physical running in training camp and preseason games. ... To make roster room, the team placed oft-injured CB Tharold Simon (dislocated toe) on the season-ending injured-reserve list.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (2-2) at CINCINNATI BENGALS (4-0)
10 a.m. Sunday, Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
TV: Ch. 13. Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM, 1030-AM.
The series: This is the 19th regular-season meeting. Each team has won nine times. This is Seattle’s second game in Cincinnati since 1993, when John Kasey kicked four field goals and Rod Stephens returned a fumble for a touchdown in the Seahawks’ last win there, in old Riverfront Stadium next door to the newer place. The Bengals won the last meeting, 2011 in Seattle, 34-12.
SEATTLE’S KEYS TO VICTORY
Seamless coverage: Here’s comes the NFL’s deepest downfield passing game, right at the “Legion of Boom,” which is now whole again. Unless Cincinnati suddenly changes what got it to 4-0 — unlikely — Andy Dalton will be firing long passes down the hash mark and A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert will be running seam routes right at safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. It’s strength against strength, and a prime challenge for Seattle to get its long-overdue first interception of the season. If the Seahawks are as good as they think they are in the back, they could win the game here.
Block somebody. Anybody: Seahawks coaches are out of patience with the remade offensive line, and Russell Wilson is out of time to throw. The Bengals’ pass rush has revived this season with 11 through four games; they had 20 all of last season. End Carlos Dunlap against Seattle right tackle Garry Gilliam and tackle Geno Atkins against the middle of the Seahawks’ line are the key matchups. If the Seahawks can get at least a draw in either place, Wilson may get enough time to actually find Jimmy Graham consistently, for a change. If not, look out No. 3!
Give that line help: Even with rookie Thomas Rawls starting at tailback, the Seahawks must get more early in games for the rushing offense to slow opposing defenses from teeing off on Wilson and Seattle’s iffy line. Rawls had just 9 yards on his first eight carries last week against Detroit and with backup Fred Jackson questionable because of a high ankle sprain, another rookie — Rod Smith — could see time.
Seahawks, 23-21. Dalton and Green throw one too many deep balls Thomas’ and Chancellor’s way, Seattle’s offensive line does just enough to get a running game going, and Wilson makes some ridiculous — even for him — improv plays to pull off a huge win.
Could say he’s key every week. But especially needs to create his own plays —
again — behind this iffy line.
Lockett already has a punt return and a kickoff return for TDs, and Cincinnati is
22nd in the NFL in punt coverage.
For weeks he’s been frustrated by foes throwing underneath him. Cincinnati will
go at him deep.
Maligned for playoff failures, he is the NFL’s second-rated QB behind Aaron
Rodgers. Will he stay this good?
He has 3.5 sacks in four games and will be zeroing in on Seattle right tackle
Garry Gilliam off the edge.
A menace on every down and has three sacks. Seattle’s offensive line must know
where he is before each snap. Or else.