Sunday, October 26, 2014

Seattle's youth bungle, then salvage Carolina victory

Today was a go/no-go for the Seahawks. Fork in the road, with a left turn leading straight to <.500.

Today the Seahawks picked the road less traveled by, sneaking past the underrated Carolina Panthers with a gorgeous TD throw by Russell Wilson down the seam to tight end Luke Willson. I likes.

With all the injuries hampering our play on both sides of the ball (and if you ask me, the injuries haven't gotten nearly enough credit for the team's struggles), it was good to see the Seahawks get back to winning ugly instead of losing pretty. That they did it on the road was reassuring. That they quietly cut down on the penalties was even more promising. That they gave their young bucks an opportunity to contribute and benefited from it - despite an infuriating stream of simple mistakes and missed opportunities from top to bottom - the young play may have been the most important feather in Pete Carroll's cap today.

The Seahawks' struggles lately are very simple: they're a victim of their own success. They've reminded the league how to play football. Other teams are adopting physical play, reliance on the run, and tools like the zone read. They're also taking the same strategy to Seattle's defense that one would Peyton Manning: keep 'em off the field. A steady dose of patient playcalling from the last few opponents has left Seattle's defense worn down by the end, prone to last-minute heroics. Teams have found ways to hurt Seattle right in its philosophy.

Today, Carolina ignored that strategy and paid for it in the final minute against Seattle's refreshed defense. Kudos to Russell Wilson for that final drive, but honestly, greater kudos to him for maintaining longer drives earlier in the field. It left the defense ready to close the deal.


It was good to see Seattle's youth step up, because it's time the coaching staff started closely examining what they've got on the bench. Keeping a Super Bowl team together is financially impossible, but it's starting to feel like the Seahawks hit reloading mode a little sooner and a little harder than even the most realistic of us expected. Left tackle is a question mark again. Our front seven is starting to show some holes. In general, the defensive line isn't getting the push they used to, and today's improved performance came against an injury-ravaged offensive line.

So when our rookies and sophomores started filling in the gaps, it was welcome. But...that's all they did.

We've got some backup linebackers that can flash and make some nifty plays in Kevin Pierre-Louis and Brock Coyle (go Griz!), but that's starting to feel like a good description for starter Malcolm Smith as well. Luke Willson and Cooper Helfet - look, it needs to be said, they're not Pro Bowl material. They're simply coming through on a weapon-starved team. They're raw on their fundamentals. But they stepped up when they were needed and never gave up. (Schools, corporations, and armies win on the backs of such people.) It still remains to be seen whether Bruce Irvin can become a consistent force at DE, and he's had quite a while to prove himself. Robert Turbin and Christine Michael are not the future. They're spot players, with due credit to Turbin for the hardy catch-and-runs he's showing lately. The staff needs to make more use of him there.

Then there's receiver. Until the Seahawks find themselves a Kelvin Benjamin, they'll probably be scrambling to win ugly more often than not. Don't get me wrong, we've had extraordinary luck with the receivers we have; scrappy, hard-hitting, full of fire, including what's looking vaguely like a possession receiver in Paul Richardson. These guys make the most of their opportunities, and I stand by that despite the numerous drops this month. But there's just no substitute for a catch-soaking #1 who can drag defenders deep and outleap even the tightest of coverage. You saw those benefits for Carolina today. It would just open up so much for the offense, which up until this point has looked like it's playing in the redzone all the time because of the limited ground our receivers cover. They just don't use space like they could.

Between all these shades of grey, it's not insane to think that Seattle could still benefit from another trip to the draft. Perhaps they have the bullets already waiting in the wings. Injuries have a silver lining: they afford a showcase for unknown talent on the bench. Countless NFL talents have gotten their chances that way. But there are some pieces that remain elusive for Seattle (and indeed for most teams, like that epic #1 receiver) that will not be found on the bench.

Whatever. We won. My criticisms aside, all our guys showed up and played hard when it counted. Sixty minutes.

And that's the most encouraging component of today's victory. The Seahawks showed character and resilience against the Panthers. With rumors of locker room divisions and departing stars swirling around the team like so much fog the last couple weeks, and with so many starters on the bench...most teams would not have been in a position to steal a win from a physical, promising conference rival like Carolina, especially in their house. But Seattle pulled it off. And they did it with their usual formula - run, physical, turnovers, Wilson's legs. It was a relief to see that the formula is not defunct.

Execution needs a shot in the arm. Max Unger and Zach Miller (underrated cogs in the run game, both of them) are sorely missed. Bobby Wagner is missed. Byron Maxwell was admirably covered for today, and you'd hope so given Seattle's emphasis on DB depth. And what is with the 12-men-on-the-field penalties lately?

But this team still has a lot of fight in it. The flaccid 2009 team was marked not so much by lack of talent as lack of hope. This team is not that team, nowhere close. And as long as that fight is there, the Seahawks can do what they did last year: hunker down and wait for their starters to return from injury.

Next week, the intrepid and unexpected Raiders QB Derek Carr has to demonstrate the patience and decision-making of Rivers and Romo if he expects to keep Seattle's offense off its own field. The Carolina game was a good matchup for Seattle, as Cam Newton is not the type of QB to avoid feeding the Legion. Carr is efficient and minimalist, closer to the necessary mold, but his running game is off track despite its talented backs. Their defense is pitiful.

Just what the doctor ordered.

Quick rant: another day, another game where careful study shows how overrated the importance of the offensive line is. Seattle's pass protection bounced back from last week's undeniably bad showing, but once again, far too much is being assumed. On the go-ahead touchdown throw to Luke Willson, the announcers immediately and instinctively credited good pass protection. Watch the TD again. It's a three-step drop from shotgun. Step, plant, throw. A quick timing play. The role of the offensive line is minimal in that kind of play - delay your man for a split second and you've got it. Yet instead of such nuances, the announcers just tossed up the idea that pass protection must have been amazing since Russell didn't run and the pass was complete. That's ignoring a lot. Broadcasters trade in cliches, and many of them are valid, but this is an instance of how excessively and reflexively chalking up good throws to the performance of the offensive line is a longstanding roadblock to fans' understanding of the game.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

When Your Team Takes a Step Back

When a football team struggles, especially after a xenith of accomplishment like the Super Bowl, we fans look for one problem. We like to look for one problem. It gives us a comforting feeling of control, a sense that the solution is close. It's easier to fix one thing than to fix a multitude.

Because fixing a multitude of problems often requires a draft or three, or perhaps a coaching change. We don't want to hear about that.

No, I'm not advocating either action for the Seahawks. But after seeing Seattle edged out at home by a good NFC team they're probably going to see in the playoffs, I'm willing to say there are problems with the Seattle Seahawks. Small problems. Surmountable problems. But nonetheless, a multitude.

I don't think this really surprises any of us. We did win the Super Bowl. But many of us have, way in the back of our minds, the quiet nagging feeling that we won it despite. We won it despite inconsistent play-calling. We won it despite of injuries. We won it despite certain traits missing from our WR corps. We won it despite an offensive line that hasn't yet fully gelled.

Now, on one hand, if we can win a Super Bowl with all those issues, it says a lot of good things about the Seahawks. On the other hand, it leaves us riding the razors' edge. Twice this year, the Seahawks have slipped on the edge and lost to good but beatable teams. Now it's happened at home, and it's got me going back to my blog.

(Disclaimer: We're still 3-2, and have lost fairly narrowly to playoff-bound teams like our own. Put the rope away.)

It's been said lately that people are beating Seattle by using Seattle's game: smashmouth, leatherhelmet play focused on big hits, the running game, and a QB less focused on being the all and more focused on simply completing each pass that comes. This is true, but it's even more true than people say. Other teams are playing Seattle's game in a way that many have not acknowledged: they're simply not making mistakes. 

This is the secret of Russell Wilson's success. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. You're not seeing him throwing Hasselbecks into double coverage. This is the explanation for some of the passing game's struggles in Seattle: what you're actually seeing is an ordinary passing game with all the risky throws removed. Seriously, all. With most other QB's, you'd be seeing a lot more cringe-inducing Favres. Wilson's are so rare that you can remember them by the month.

Tony Romo and Philip Rivers have beaten Seattle with this philosophy. They're contenting themselves with easier throws, taking what the defense gives them, filling in the gaps with heads-up improvisation, and they're doing it for four quarters. That's a patience reserved for few quarterbacks - the ones that appear in the playoffs. As for their defenses, missed tackles are rare and coverage assignments are tight. There's a lot to be said for staying out of one's own way, because it leaves the other team free to choke on its own miscues.

Seattle's miscues are not huge. But they're adding up. A good football game is a teeter-totter of tiny mistakes, and twice this season, Seattle's end has been just low enough to leave Wilson's theatrics out in the wind by the close.

Now...I feel good about Seattle losing to the more complete performance.

And I feel good that teams must resort to physical, mistake-free football (Seattle's philosophy) to beat them.

But we're still losing. And we're losing in a very gradual manner.

Today, Luke Willson, Doug Baldwin, and Jermaine Kearse all dropped (or had interfered with) clutch catches they usually make. The receivers on Dallas' side, on the other hand, didn't drop theirs.


On 3rd and 20 with 4:46 left to play and Dallas trailing, Bruce Irvin broke free on an edge rush and then whiffed twice on the sack of Tony Romo, who flashed a Wilson scramble and then got the ball into the hands of Terrence Williams way downfield.


Early on, Byron Maxwell had his mitts all over a sure pick-six on the Seattle goal-line. Instead of triumphing, he dropped it. After last week's contest Seattle currently leads the universe in dropped picks.


Over and over, DeMarco Murray and whatever nimble Swiss-army-knife guy to whom Tony Romo was slinging the ball would sidestep a Seahawks tackle and take it for another five yards. Our guys couldn't see to get into free space.


Both teams had their injuries. Bobby Wagner on the sidelines is ugly. Seattle's cornerback depth is like the Mars rovers - you can't believe how long it's lasted, but you live every second expecting its sudden implosion. Dallas also lost key guys, but it didn't stop them like it stopped us. Hello, Marcus Burley on the outside.


Dallas' offensive line had a couple of key holding penalties at crucial moments, enough to keep the game in question. But Russell Okung had his quickly-becoming-requisite two false starts to throw on top of a false start by the backup center.


Dallas gave DeMarco Murray his touches. Seattle did not reciprocate with Marshawn Lynch. I'm not about to jump all over the playcalling, which is a series of responses to a constantly shifting and evolving animal whose results only seem to look like a philosophy and are judged by fans without context. None of you would do better. Neither would I. Personnel problems go into playcalling as well (having a backup center doesn't boost a coach's confidence in the run game). But despite that, at the end of the day, Dallas gave DeMarco Murray his touches. Seattle did not reciprocate with Marshawn Lynch.


Losses like these are built brick by frustrating brick over sixty minutes by tiny mistakes. The score is close by the end, but you can always trace the loss back to a handful of moments. There is no one that stands out. It's the amalgamation of them that kills you. This is why I rarely gripe about officiating. There are always bad calls. They go against both teams. But even in Super Bowl XL, there were numerous opportunities Seattle missed that still could have changed things.


Attrition has now struck twice this season, and the league is starting to smell blood.

Who would like to see Seattle in command of these games as Dallas was, instead of racing to make up for their own mistakes and building an offense more through broken plays than intentional ones?

I wish I could point to one thing, say "fix this", and leave you feeling like that's all it takes. Many writers are unconsciously led by that impulse. But it would be dishonest. Seattle amassed small chinks in every phase and in every unit today, kept themselves in it with gut and the Cowboys' perennial CenturyLink Field special-teams collapses, and then shattered at the end. A common story in the NFL. That sinking late-second-quarter feeling of "the mistakes are starting to pile up and we'll be vulnerable to a couple of clutch plays in the fourth quarter" is starting to become familiar. Indianapolis. Arizona. San Diego. Dallas.

Credit where credit is due. And that's just it. The victory was earned by Tony Romo, who played one of the finest games of his career today. Seattle has shown that they can only be beaten by complete performances from solid teams. But that doesn't change the fact that they have been beaten. We need to be the solid team with a complete performance. That's how we won last year. Well, no - not really. Not often enough. Too often, we were the team with Russell Wilson's legs and a lot of sprightly luck. It's starting to feel like the Mars rovers.

Complete football. It's what we need to attain. There is no substitute for it. No "Seahawks philosophy" or talented personnel pickup has ever been a substitute for it. Solid, mistake-free football.

I wish I had a handy "this is the way out of worry" solution to suggest to fans while the Seattle coaching staff ignores it. Many of you came here hoping for one. But there isn't one. Resist the temptation to think along those lines. It's rarely the case. The Seahawks simply have to go back to the tape, work on their craft, and cut down on the mistakes. There isn't much more to say. There isn't much more to do.

And when you boil it all down, that's actually a really good thing to say about your football team.