Sunday, December 30, 2012

Seahawks Come Back to Earth in a Winning Way, 20-13

Michael Robinson denies the Rams an upbeat ending.

I usually like to go against the grain, but today I'm just gonna go along with the general narrative. It's fully true - Seattle needed this game. They needed a "humility check", in Tim Ryan's words, before heading into the playoffs. Not because they were cocky or arrogant, exactly, but because there's nothing like experience to undergird a truth. Seattle isn't invincible and they're not going to be scoring 40-burgers all the time.

The Seahawks needed this style of game, a knock-down, drag-it-all-out brawl of a 20-13 victory over another physical team. The Rams are good. A few years of drafting has brought them back to respectability, and they have the head coach to make them a threat in any venue on any weekend. Kudos to Jeff Fisher and the Rams for a solid test for these Seahawks. Given the youth of these two teams, this, rather than the 49ers, is the rivalry that will probably last the longest in this era of the NFC West.

Let's be honest here - the Cardinals, Bills, and 49ers were not that challenging for Wilson. Losing Justin Smith doesn't entirely excuse the 49ers defense, but Wilson doesn't need that big of a crack. Give him anything and he'll break a game wide open with his mobility and cool head, and if that's not enough, try overcoming the additional momentum of Red Bryant blocking stuff. The blowouts were fun and got the Seahawks some much-appreciated national respect, but today, the Rams gave Wilson nothing. It was the most that any team has demanded of him this year. It was the toughest game of December for them, a grind and a scheme-tester.

And the Seahawks pulled it out. They hung in there. Despite a well-executed defensive setup from St. Louis, despite the offensive mistakes of youth coming back to haunt them, despite every effort from Jeff Triplett's referee crew to stifle both teams (apparently they wanted another tie), despite that horrible sinking feeling that the Miami game was repeating itself, Seattle pulled it out. They maintained focus, they never lost their heads, and they stayed in to live another set of downs. Eventually, the big plays finally started rolling in without yellow flags attached, and the offense trotted into the history books abreast of Peyton Manning (Wilson's 26 passing touchdowns for a rookie) and Adrian Peterson (Marshawn Lynch with ten 100-yard games in a season).

That's fodder for some serious pride, and it's a sign of maturity on this team. In my humble opinion, it says more about the Seahawks than any game since Chicago. Bring on the playoffs.

Since we're thinking about reality checks, this game highlighted some personnel issues than Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch have been covering up for weeks. Despite appearances that are understandably deceiving when your team is up by 20 points, Seattle's roster has some vulnerabilities heading into the postseason. If there is a playoff exit by this team, these seem like the likeliest avenues through which it will come.

It it comes. I give this team a legitimate chance to win it all.

Offense: Limited receiver separation

Give St. Louis their due for finally developing a strong plan for stopping Russell Wilson. The Rams D-line did a good job of containing the edges and keeping Wilson from slipping out into space. This left him pumping in the pocket looking for targets. Along with some well-timed stuffs of Lynch early on, the Rams were able to shut down an offense that had just scored 150 points in its last three games. Seattle's right-side O-line deserves some grace in light of the defensive line it faced, despite its horrid performance.

The Rams' plan in a nutshell: force Wilson to be Peyton Manning by stuffing the run, containing the edges, and requiring Wilson to beat the blitz through the air. In other words, a complete defensive effort. That's probably the closest thing to a blueprint for stopping this Seattle offense that exists at this point, though it required a very talented and well-coached defense to do it. (It's a little disappointing that Darell Bevell didn't try so much as a single screen or swing pass that I can offhand remember. A back-to-earth moment for him as well.)

How does an offense address this? If you look back over the last two months and watch Wilson's biggest plays with an objective eye, you'll notice that he's needing a lot of scrambling and improvisation to make it happen. He succeeds, so nobody questions them or looks for a cause. But it's an indicator that our wide receiving corps, now even more depleted than earlier, has nobody who gets quick separation or clears out zones consistently, leaving Wilson in the pocket tomahawking empty air with the football. He's not going to make a lot of risky throws (nor should he), so he needs that separation. And against defenses that can contain the edges, like St. Louis, that will leave him exposed, the O-line overburdened, and the offense jerky and stop-start like it was today.

Part of averting any sophomore slump for Wilson, in my opinion, lies with restacking our WR corps. They're obviously not going to leave the roster with four guys including Jermaine Kearse, so this is moot. But I'm looking forward to guys who can break off crisp routes and flash open quickly, and/or offer a deep threat to draw coverages away. Give Wilson even more options, hand Lynch a couple more yards up front, make defenses work even harder. Perhaps not in the first round, because Wilson's height will hide some of the shorter stuff anyway and thus can't fully justify a big WR investment. Cobi Hamilton of Arkansas has recently caught my eye as fitting the PC bill; I might write more about him soon.

Defense: Interior pass rush, slot cornerback

Seattle's pass rush was once again unaccounted for, negating the best coverage efforts of our secondary (even Marcus Trufant had a couple wily plays from the slot). Worse yet, today was the worst home performance we've seen from this unit all year. This will not do, either against Tony Romo or Robert Griffin III, to say nothing of who comes afterward. DT Jason Jones' move to IR has proven his value in retrospect, but even he may be too oft-injured to be the answer. An answer is needed, because despite Bruce Irvin's eight sacks this year, his impact has been spotty. Like Aldon Smith, he needs a lightning bear next to him to open up opportunities up the middle, and he needs experience, more pass-rush moves, and more discipline. As it is, he's still sorta the delayed-gratification pick he was in Week 1.

Earlier last week, CB Walter Thurmond tweeted that his season had come to an end. The Seahawks never confirmed that they had moved Thurmond to IR. Don't hold your breath expecting him to wind up there this week either, as neither Marcus Trufant nor Jeremy Lane performed particularly well in his absence. Lane has promise, but remains as raw as a rug burn. Pete Carroll has established a habit of making roster moves based on what other talent he has available on his roster. It says a lot about Thurmond's potential that Pete drafted him in the fourth round after a gruesome college injury and then hung onto him up until this point. He might still have a place on this team.

The linebacking corps is not a glaring need nor necessarily demands a first-round move, as few 4-3 defenses are known for their linebackers. Also, only a churl would complain about the linebackers on the #1 scoring defense. But you could say that OLB is perhaps not "competition-proof". Perhaps we should just settle for a stud defensive tackle and see what Malcolm Smith and KJ Wright become.


The Seahawks have defied my expectations. A young team with a bunch of rookies and sophomores, especially at vital positions - I figured 10-6, but with my projected wins concentrated in very different parts of the schedule.

Instead, the Seahawks have played tough, persevered through ups and downs and some undeserved criticism from fans and media alike. The result: the 3rd 11-win season of the franchise against incredibly touch competition, the #1 scoring defense, a rookie QB breaking records and vying for Offensive Rookie of the Year (who cares, go to the Super Bowl!), five Pro Bowlers and a gaggle of alternates including the best cornerback in the league, all the love that DVOA can muster, a playoff berth that was an agonizing Braylon Edwards drop away from being the #2 seed...

...and most importantly, validation. The Rams handed this team a knuckle sandwich today, and they spun around and jumped right back into the fray. They are alive in January with the experience, credibility, and self-confidence to be considered a legitimate NFC title contender. Imagine them after this upcoming draft, rich in all the missing pieces this team needs.

This could get really, really good.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

You Were Here When the Butterfly Opened its Wings

150 points in 3 games.

For comparison, the 1992 squad scored 140 points in that entire season. Now, 100 consecutive points at home with no answering score from the whoever the hell was forced to endure a trip to Seattle. Annihilation, destruction, havoc and Jim Harbaugh's face left blank. It all adds up to the team nobody wants to play. Drop to your knees and thank the lord of schedule making, Indy, you get to keep living in your paper palace. Nobody knows what a fraud you are, because you don't have to face the Seahawks.

This was not expected by even the devoted. Not this. Until we saw it with our own eyes, this offense was an exercise in potential. There was no proof it was even possible, with 30 points being the most we had scored in a single game all season.

What happened? I was pretty vocal about the playcalling up to and after the Miami game, and I felt validated about those criticisms when Pete acknowledged they could have thrown it a bit more. Our offense was multiple, but there was a governor on the throttle, and that governor was a call sheet and Motorola mic in the hands of Darell Bevell. But it wasn't really. Pete was afraid of turnovers, and he had to learn just like everybody else to put his faith in Russell Wilson. Pete was the governor on our throttle.

Our offense has consisted of Run and Deep Shots, and if the safety is covering too, roll out and throw it away. We played that game for most of the season and 55 minutes in Chicago. Sure, there was the occasional changeup to the formula, but it felt like 55 minutes of dueling with wooden practice swords more than strategic playcalling. The governor was still in place, and a defense that had played great was looking like it would get the blame for giving up 14 measly points. Because we had 10. 

And with Seattle's backs against the wall, Pete finally removed the governor. He finally allowed Russell to be the player the other team has to worry about. He finally let the point guard decide when he drives and when he dishes. 

When that warrior had secured the victory, we could have gone back to the old way of doing things, but Seattle's defense really did blow it this time.

 And that was the best thing that could have happened to our team. Really.

Yes, allowing a team to drive the field in under 30 seconds and take a game to overtime was the best thing that could have happened to the Hawks, you heard me. Because Seattle kept the governor off the offense yet again, and yet again Russell proved he is to be trusted fully and completely to do the right thing.

The whole team needed those two drives. The explosion of takeaways that has resulted is from those drives. Our defense had slowly gone from aggressive to conservative in approach, knowing how much our game plan depended on them not making any mistakes. In every game, they had to choose to either attack or control the offense, and the result was a run defense that was not aggressive and what felt like a defense in slow decline because they had been carrying the rest of the team.

In all games since, Seattles offense has found points quickly in the first quarter, and the defense has responded with formerly repressed aggression. All three phases of the game are working together as a single unit for the first time all year. Because of two drives on the road in Chicago.

Pete will always build around the run, so in a sense, that governor will always exist. But that is a very good thing; to attack through the air always is to sacrifice physicality for precision, and physicality has to be part of our identity. Physicality is play action, is the basis of run option, and is just plain vital to the attitude of our offensive line. The governor on the quarterback is gone though, and that is how the ugly little caterpillar has become something beautiful. Gone are notions of making the quarterback climb the pocket because the play calls for it. Gone are the notions that the West Coast Offense must have the quick slants that Russell will always struggle to complete. Gone are the notions of smoke screens as the best option to get the ball from quarterback to receiver.

Pete trusts Wilson. Now this is the NFL, and stuff happens, and Wilson will make more mistakes, maybe even some mistakes that cost us games. But Pete knows he won't make them from bad habits, won't make them from trying to make the impossible happen, and won't make them because the overall pressure of the game has gotten to him. I was afraid that in the future we would have to deal with a coach who struggled to give up control to his ever growing quarterback, and those fears have evaporated. That speaks volumes about Pete. For a "defensive" coach to give up control isn't easy, and Pete's near phobia of turnovers can't make it easy to surrender control. Pete preaches humble, and he walks it too, at least to the extent you can in that profession. I would compare what Pete is doing to a music teacher who realizes he has this one truly special student, and one day he realizes this student just doesn't need sheet music anymore.

The bandwagon is going to fill up fast. More casual fans than you, the reader of this too-long article, will now begin to annoy you as they make it harder and more expensive to get tickets. This board is going to be gaining fans who are more fans of players than the laundry they wear, and who enjoy success more than the process. Fans who are fickle when we lose, and just as quick to let a little adversity make them complain as they are to let a little success go to their heads. 

That's OK. You were here when the butterfly opened its wings.