By Brady Henderson
The Seahawks began the regular season with what was considered a strong run defense and finished it with a top-10 ranking, allowing just over 103 yards per game.
The final numbers, however, belie the issues Seattle had against the run at times this season. Whether or not the Seahawks can avoid those issues in the playoffs is a leading storyline as they prepare for their wildcard matchup against the Redskins and their top-ranked rushing offense.
"It's going to be tough," linebacker Leroy Hill told "The Huddle" on Thursday. "We've got our hands full."
For six games, Seattle's run defense lived up to its billing, allowing an average of just 70 rushing yards while jumping out to a 4-2 start. It all came crashing down during a Thursday night loss to the 49ers, when Frank Gore and company gashed the Seahawks to the tune of 175 yards on the ground, more than twice as many as Seattle had previously allowed in one game.
Afterward, members of Seattle's defense chalked it up to San Francisco's scheme, saying it was something they simply weren't prepared for and implying that it wouldn't be a recurring issue.
It would be, though.
Seattle's opponents averaged more than 146 yards over the next five games. Two weeks after the loss to San Francisco, Adrian Peterson ran wild against the Seahawks, finishing with 182 yards and two scores on just 17 carries. Minnesota finished with 243 rushing yards that game. Seattle allowed 189 and 132 yards rushing against the Dolphins and Bears, respectively.
Players and coaches often say "trying to do too much" is the reason for some defensive lapses, which sounds like more of a cop-out and less a proper diagnosis of the underlying issue.
But Hill, as other Seahawks have this season, explained it this way: if a player is responsible for a certain gap, abandoning that responsibility in an attempt to make a tackle leaves two defenders in one place and an open hole for a running back to run through.
"Trying to do too much" is another way of saying "trying to do another player's job."
"When you have a defense as good as ours right now, people [were] sort of searching for stats, everybody wants to get in on a tackle," Hill said.
Washington's Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III combined for more than 2,400 rushing yards this season. (AP)
Sunday's game should provide an answer as to whether or not those issues are a thing of the past. Washington's offense is similar in many ways to Seattle's in terms of style and personnel. Both teams run a variation of the option, each with a powerful running back and a dynamic rookie quarterback who can beat teams with his arm and legs.
Robert Griffin III, hobbled in recent weeks by a knee injury, led all quarterbacks with 815 rushing yards. Rookie running back Alfred Morris was the league's second-leading rusher, finishing with 1,613 yards. He ran for 200 yards and three scores in a Week 17 win that put Washington in the playoffs.
"He's a downhill back, he's coming straight for you, he runs hard, breaks a lot of tackles," Hill said of Morris.
The Seahawks fared well this season against Carolina's Cam Newton and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, both mobile quarterbacks operating in offenses similar to that of Washington.
Defending option offenses comes with its own set of challenges, like locating the ball carrier through all the fakes and misdirection.
"That's why you can't really just watch the ball," Hill said. "Everybody do their assignment. You have somebody for the dive, you have somebody for the quarterback, you have somebody for the pitch. You can't worry about the dive when you don't have the dive."
But against the Redskins, that will only be half the battle.
"Even though you have the back on your assignment, you have to tackle him. You have the quarterback – he creates open space where he can make you miss. So just because you have that assignment, you still have to make the play. It's tough," Hill said.
"They have players that can create problems for the defense, but you have to stay on your assignment and you have to make the play when it's time for you to make the play."