It didn’t take long for Jamal Adams to make an impact with the Seattle Seahawks. Adams was one of two Seahawks defenders, along with Bobby Wagner, to play all of the defensive snaps in Seattle’s opening 38-25 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
Seattle paid a high price for Adams in the offseason: two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and safety Bradley McDougald. With that price — and the looking contract extension to come — Adams needed to be a game-changer for the Seahawks and he was a defense-changer in Week 1.
Last season, the Seahawks used the highest rate of base defense in the league at a 67% rate. The next highest team used base on just 37% of its defensive snaps. Seattle used a nickel package on 27% of snaps and dime on only 4% of snaps.
Heading into the 2020 season, it looked like the Seahawks had planned to double down on that approach. Wagner was always going to stay on the field and K.J. Wright would play a majority of the snaps. Then the Seahawks took Texas Tech linebacker Jordyn Brooks in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Quinton Dunbar had been acquired in a March trade to serve as a slot cornerback and then the move for Adams was made at the end of July. That gave the Seahawks a much stronger secondary, at least on paper, than they had last season.
While there was a shift in philosophy on offense, with more aggressive fourth-down decision making and allowing Russell Wilson to throw more, there was also a shift on defense. The Seahawks came out against the Falcons with 32% of their defensive snaps in base, 35% in nickel, and 33% in dime. The league average rates across Week 1 were 24%, 63%, and 12%, respectively.
NFL Defensive Personnel Groupings, 2019-2020
Adams’s ability to play all over the field was the driving force of that shift, as illustrated by Adams’s pre-snap alignment against Atlanta:
Jamal Adams’ pre-snap location heat map from today, per NGS. He rushed the passer 10 times. pic.twitter.com/RHcQuv3a4x
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) September 13, 2020
He was whatever the Seahawks needed him to be. He was the extra linebacker that made nickel feel like base. He was the deep safety who could protect against any shot plays. He was the extra pass rusher need to bring pressure off the edge.
On Atlanta’s first pass of the game, a 2nd and 11 from the Falcons’ 44-yard line, Adams aligned as a deep split safety and broke on a Julio Jones route to defend the pass.
Adams again showed up on the next drive on a 1st and 10 from the Seattle 47-yard. Adams lined up in the box, stepped up to fill his gap on play-action, dropped back into his zone for coverage, and then closed in on a check down to Todd Gurley for no gain.
His most impressive play might have come on a 3rd and 11 near the end of the first half. Adams lined up as a split safety to the defense’s left, where Julio Jones was the iso receiver in a 3×1 set. Jones ran a shallow crossing route across the field and Adams tracked him the entire way, through traffic, and stopped Jones after just a five-yard gain.
Throughout the game, Adams spent a lot of time around the line of scrimmage and made an impact behind it. He finished the game with two tackles for loss and two quarterback hits. Per Sports Info Solutions, Adams had nine pass rush snaps in the game which is the most Seattle has sent a defensive back to rush the pass since at least since 2015, as far as the SIS tracking goes back. The next highest raw number of pass rush snaps came from McDougald with five in a 2018 Week 13 game.
Adams rushed on 16.1% of his pass snaps and recorded a pressure on four of them (55.6%). Last season with the New York Jets, Adams was one of the most blitz-heavy and productive defensive backs in the league with a 14.1% rush rate and 29.5% pressure rate.
In the second quarter, the Falcons started a drive with 1st and 10 from their own 25-yard line. Adams aligned just off the line in the left slot. At the snap, he read the play-action bootleg to his side and rushed in on Matt Ryan. Adams’s pressure, along with Bruce Irvin, forced a rushed throw out of bounds.
Five plays later, Adams got his sack on a 3rd and 6. Before the snap, the Falcons motioned Hayden Hurst from Adams’s side of the field to the other. Adams bounced around then crept up to the line as the Seahawks showed seven potential rushers just before the snap. Gurley moved to the middle to pick up a blitzing Bobby Wagner and Adams got to the quarterback untouched in 2.72 seconds, the sixth-fastest sack of the opening week per NFL Next Gen Stats.
While Adams’s sack was the main attraction, that play also highlights another way in which the Seahawks defense could adapt in 2020. Last season Seattle rushed four 72% of the time, which tied for the seventh-highest rate in the league. Adams’s ability to rush the passer has certainly already helped, but the Seahawks also used other defenders on blitzes in the game.
Seattle defenders with a pass rush in Week 1 included safety Marquise Blair (2), K.J. Wright (1), Quinton Dunbar (1), and cornerback Shaquill Griffin (1). Blair had just one pass rush snap on 147 pass plays all of last season and Griffin had two on 567 snaps. This is a more aggressive Seattle defense.
Perhaps more importantly was the rush rate of Bobby Wagner. Wagner rushed the passer on seven of his 56 pass snaps in Week 1, a 12.5% rate. And while he didn’t pick up a charted pressure, he did have an impact — such as Gurley leaving Adams unblocked as the back went to pick up Wagner in the play above.
Wagner isn’t a stranger to blizting but how often and how effective he’s been has changed over the years. Last season, he blitzed on 11% of his pass snaps, but that was almost a necessity due to Seattle’s overall ineffective pass rush. Wagner, himself, wasn’t a highly productive blizter when he did rush. Before 2019, Wagner last rusher the passer on over 10% of his pass snaps in 2016 (12.6%) and that came out of a team strength, thanks to the rest of the talent on the defense.
Bobby Wagner Pass Rush Production, 2016 & 2019
The question now becomes will that blitzing come from strength or making up for weakness during the 2020 season? Seattle finished 12th in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate during Week 1. That’s a step up from the 16th-place finish the Seahawks had last season with Jadeveon Clowney and Quinton Jefferson, two defenders in the top-seven at their positions who are no longer on the roster.
For as much as Adams flashed throughout the game, the Seahawks left Week 1 just 21st in defensive DVOA per Football Outsiders. Much more of the defensive impact came in run defense (eighth) than it did against the pass (22nd).
But the Falcons are built to pass and were forced to do so based on Seattle’s lead. In Week 2, the Seahawks face Cam Newton and the New England Patriots in a game where run defense might matter more and Adams’s ability to play well all over the field will be more important.
Adams is clearly already the superstar the Seahawks expected when they made the trade but for his impact to be sustained, the rest of the defense will have to reach his level. Luckily for them, his ability should make it easier.