Sunday, September 25, 2011

Defense carries the day

That was more like it.

The Seahawks defense played inspired football today, applying consistent pressure on Cardinals' QB Kevin Kolb, and imposing smothering coverage on his receivers. Seattle held All-Universe wideout Larry Fitzgerald without a catch in the second half, though it Trufant got flagged for PI once in the process.

Brandon Browner stopped being a victim, using his size and strength to harry Fitzgerald and other Arizona receivers.

Kam Chancellor came up big by jumping a route and picking a pass intended for Arizona tight end Todd Heap.

Earlier in the game, Trufant nabbed a nice interception, and his excellent tackling prevented our opponents from capitalizing when they did catch the ball. How good is Trufant? Not only is he always in position to tackle the man he's covering, he's often in position to tackle other receivers, too.

The image of Chris Clemons rushing around the edge will likely haunt Kevin Kolb's nightmares for weeks to come.

Our defense held Arizona to 10 points, though they received an assist in the form of Jay Feely's inability to convert long field goal attempts. Since he once missed 3 easier attempts in Seahawks Stadium a few years back--when he played for the Giants--Feely must hate playing in Seattle.

The defense was good enough to compensate for our own special teams miscues, including a 10-yard punt, an uncharacteristic lapse by the normally clutch Jon Ryan, who earlier had launched some balls with ICBM-like trajectories.

The Seahawks defense was even good enough to compensate for our offense, which gave its least anemic performance yet. Our O-Line perpetrated some passable run blocking, permitting our most competent ground performance to date in 2011. Unfortunately, they continued to allow opposing pass rushers to abuse Tarvaris Jackson--who endured 5+ sacks, again.

Our offensive coaches finally gave T-Jack a game plan that allowed him to capitalize on his mobility. His chemistry with Sidney Rice met expectations, but someone should introduce him to Mike Williams, the big target who usually lines up on the opposite side of the field.

Jackson's performance showed heart, particularly his touchdown run.

But 13 points isn't enough to win most NFL games.

Today represented a huge leap forward for our defense, but the offense still needs significant work.

Still, we just recorded our first victory of the season, and against a divisional opponent at that.

Well done, Seahawks. That'll do, birds.

Gut check time

Last week in Pittsburgh, we learned that Seattle's defense isn't as good as we imagined.
For me, the defining play of the game came early in the first quarter, when Ben Rapistburger completed a short slant to Emmanuel Sanders. Brandon Browner--the cornerback responsible for covering Sanders on that play--gave chase, but the receiver turned upfield, easily outpacing the defender.

When Kam Chancellor approached, Sanders froze him with a juke and then broke right, freezing the safety and eluding him niftily.

The move worked so well that the receiver used the same juke-and-break-right combination on Earl Thomas, who dived futiley and fruitlessly in the escaping wideout's wake.

Pressing his luck, Sanders tried the juke-and-break-right combination for a third time on linebacker Matt McCoy. It worked yet again.

The receiver might have juked eight more Seahawks and scored, if only the field had been wider. Mercifully, Sanders had neared the right sideline by now, and Kam Chancellor hustled to push him out of bounds.

That simple alchemy allowed Sanders to turn the dross of a 4-yard slant into the gold of a 30-yard gain.

As the drive continued, it underscored the frustrating inconsistency of our defense. Cornerback Brandon Browner committed pass interference in the end zone, giving Pittsburgh the ball on our one-yard line. (The difference between PI and great defense? Look for the ball, Browner.)

On first and goal from the one, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald smothered a run up the middle for no gain.

On second down, Atari Bigby sacked Rapistburger for a 10-yard loss, but the defense let Big Ben scramble within inches of the goal line third down.

On 4th and goal on the one yardline, little Earl Thomas stuffed Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, preventing a score and causing a turnover on downs.

Few other drives had such happy endings. Later, Mendenhall--not a particularly big back--stoned linebacker Leroy Hill with a stiffarm. (Of course, Hill has been stoned before.)

On the whole, however, the defense did not do too badly. Yielding 24 points to a capable offense like Pittsburgh is not a bad day...

Unless your offense can't score at all, which seems to be the case for Seattle.

In just two games, Brandon Browner has become more of a whipping boy than Kelly Jennings ever was. Targeted relentlessly by opposing offenses, the former CFL player continues to disappoint.

Not satisfied with our defensive performance, Gus Bradley has shaken up the starting lineup by benching linebacker Aaron Curry, who dropped a sure pick six last week. Bradley explained, "Competition is the theme here."

Except when it comes to the quarterback position.

Tarvaris Jackson will enter a hostile Seahawks Stadium, facing fans who have yet to see him impress, either in the preseason or in the first two regular season games. I'm expecting chants for "Charlie" before kickoff.

Our offensive schemes and playcalling actually made more sense last week, but it didn't matter, because our players failed to execute pretty comprehensively.

There is little cause to hope for improvement this week as we field our third offensive line in three weeks.

O-Line Coach Tom Cable promises a breakthrough soon, but we've heard that before.

Coach Carroll continues channel Tammy Wynette, standing by his man at quarterback, but the Seahawks faithful is not wrong about Tarvaris Jackson.

Little else has changed on offense.

Last year, we had a bad offensive line and no running game, but in Matt Hasselbeck we had a quarterback who was willing to take chances, who forced the ball sometimes to compensate for the lack of talent around him. Sometimes this led to disaster, but in other cases it led to victory.

Seattle doesn't need a quarterback who merely avoids mistakes if that means we can't score at all. You can't win with a goose egg on the board. The best you can hope for is a scoreless tie, and those don't happen in the modern NFL.

We need a passer who can make something happen. T-Jack needs to show that he's that guy, or the coaches need to let the Lord lay hands on our offense.

The special teams improved last week insofar as they did not hurt us.

Seattle needs to step up today against Arizona. This is the friendliest matchup in a tough early-season schedule. If we're going to eke out a victory before our October bye, this is our best bet. No one in the NFC West looks particularly good, yet, so--incredibly--we're not out of the division title chase at this point. But we will be soon if we start dropping division games at home.

We need the 12th Man more than ever this afternoon.

Go, Seahawks.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Don Quixote in Steeltown

Last week's collapse in San Francisco was hard to take. Our fiery young defense kept us in the game, despite our pass rush's almost total inability to pressure Alex Smith. Good run defense and pass coverage bought time for our offense, which squandered the first half, unable to move the ball on the ground or through the air. The O-Line continues to manifest our worst fears. Tarvaris Jackson struggled throughout the first two quarters, but settled down and made some plays after halftime.

Unfortunately, our special teams were a liability all game. The return teams repeatedly stymied our offense with poor field position. After several poor returns by Leon Washington suggested that returning a kickoff from your own end zone is a bad idea in 2011, Ted Ginn proved it could pay off handsomely, scorching an injury-depleted Seattle kickoff coverage unit. Minutes later, Ginn incinerated our punt team for another touchdown.

Winning today in Pittsburgh is about as probable as hitting the Powerball jackpot. The Ravens destroyed the Steelers in Baltimore last week, providing extra motivation for our opponents in their home opener. We shall be the scapegoats for what Pittsburgh endured last week.

It is probably best to think of this as an exhibition contest. As a team, our players need to show that they won't quit, even against nigh-impossible competition in a hostile environment.

For our defense, today is an opportunity for our defense to build on its successes from last week, and to try something new, like pressuring, hitting and sacking the opposing passer.

If our special teams don't lose the game for us, that would be progress.

Moreover, the contest gives our starting offensive line their first chance to work together since the first preseason game, assuming Robert Gallery returns from injury as planned, and assuming that James Carpenter plays well enough to keep Breno Giacomini on the bench. Any success running the ball or protecting the passer would be welcome.

However, our offensive game plans remain suspect. Our first-half struggles in San Francisco owed as much to predictable playcalling as they did to poor execution on the field. One thing hasn't changed since last year: Our O-Line can't manhandle anyone. If the opposing defense knows we want to run the ball, they will shut us down every time. Thus, you can't forfeit every first down by handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch and running between the tackles.


If we ditched Hasselbeck and brought in Tarvaris Jackson for his mobility, why are we still running an offense largely predicated on the notion of a stationary pocket passer? Where are the frequent rollouts, sprintouts and quarterback draws calculated to compensate for poor pass protection and to encourage defenses to back off on the blitz?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A tale of two divisions

Had Seattle brought back Matt Hasselbeck, I would pick them to win the NFC West again.

Without Hasselbeck, the Seahawks seem like a long shot. As much as it sickens me to pick them, the St. Louis Rams look like the favorites. Years of failure gave them an opportunity patiently to stock up on talent through the draft. They have a settled starter at quarterback, as opposed to the question marks hanging over the position in the rest of the division.

Now that Hasselbeck is in Tennessee, the Titans are my pick to win the AFC South. Indianapolis needs to show they can play without Peyton Manning. Jacksonville just canned David Garrard, its longtime starting quarterback. And Houston is... Houston, perpetual disappointers.

I like Hasselbeck's odds of making the playoffs a lot better than Seattle's.

Doubling down on T-Jack

Earlier this week, Seahawks players elected Tarvaris Jackson as one of their offensive captains. Designating the starting quarterback as a team captain is often an obligatory gesture; Jacksonville just fired David Garrard partly because his teammates declined to give him that honor. Of course, Garrard was a longtime veteran, while T-Jack is new to Seatle, so few would have noticed or commented had the Seahawks named Justin Forsett as the offensive captain.

Thus, this represents a strong statement of support for the starting quarterback from his teammates.

Responding to Jackson's critics, wide receiver Mike Williams said, "I just want to tell everybody, 'Back the hell up.' Let him play. Let him have his shot to work and come out here and do his thing."

The big wideout--a notorious first-round bust in Detroit--knows what it feels like to be doubted and reviled, so it's not surprising that he is so vehement in his defense of his teammate.

Displaying uncharacteristic consistency, Coach Carroll has stood steadfastly behind his anointed starter, even as evidence mounted in exhibition games suggesting that Charlie Whitehurst is probably our best bet at quarterback.

The preseason showed that our O-Line can't reliably provide adequate pass protection, and exposed Jackson as generally unable to cope with the blitz. Although T-Jack fared better in the final scrimmage against Oakland, we can expect opponents to continue to subject our quarterback to relentless pressure until our offense proves that blitzing won't work against us.

Jackson's true trial by fire commences tomorrow. Vic Fangio, San Francisco's defensive coordinator, showed at Stanford that he likes to go for the jugular and call blitz after blitz.

Moreover, our offensive line never achieved consistent chemistry in the preseason. Left tackle Russell Okung sat out most of the games with yet another high ankle sprain. James Carpenter struggled at right tackle, giving way increasingly to practice squad graduate Breno Giacomini, who'll start tomorrow while Carpenter slides inside to fill in at left guard until Robert Gallery recovers from a sprained knee.

If Tom Cable can field an effective front five this afternoon, he will confirm his reputation as one of the league's elite line coaches.

Although Seattle tends to struggle on the road, ir is probably good for T-Jack that the season opener is not at home. If it were at Seahawks Stadium, the 12th Man might be chanting for Charlie before kickoff. Playing in San Francisco today give Jackson a chance to perform at a high level, to show that he deserves the chance the coaches have given him, to seize an opportunity to win the hearts of Seattle fans before coming back for the home opener.

Even if you believe--as I do--that Charlie Whitehurst should be our starter, it is madness to hope for T-Jack to fail. Today makes the first division game of an unusually challenging season schedule that includes many East Coast road games. We need this win, and we already have our work cut out for us, between injuries and high turnover among our starters, exacerbated by a lockout-shortened offseason. It is hard to imagine us winning without a good showing by our quarterback.

Jackson detractors (like me) need to cultivate a sense of humility. We've drawn our conclusions based upon a limited data set: what we know of his stint in Minnesota, plus his performance in exhibition contests as a Seahawk. Seattle coaches, on the other hand, have run and monitored practices, and have studied game film more closely than any fan or journalist. Evidently, that additional information has led them to conclude that T-Jack is The Man. I fear they're wrong, but I hope they're right, so I wish Jackson, the coaches and the rest of the team the best in today's game.

Go, Seahawks!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Guarded optimism

I always enjoy the last exhibition game, especially the fourth quarter. By then, the network has long since lost interest, barely remembering to cut away from sideline interviews with starters to televise the action on the field. That's a shame, because the final period of the final game is the most compelling action of the preseason, a valiant struggle wherein fired-up long shots strive mightily to distinguish themselves, young athletes flying around with reckless abandon, giving everything they have. They compete as if every snap were their last chance to play in the NFL, because for most of them, every snap really could be their last chance to play in the NFL.

The fourth quarter also features fading talents trying to salvage their careers. I almost felt bad for Kyle Boller. Oakland's third-string quarterback--once a top draft pick and starter for Baltimore--got pressured and pulverized by Seattle's scrubs, a bunch of kids, most of whom will likely hit the waiver wire sometime today. A  few of those youngsters may wind up on the practice squad, but veterans like Boller are ineligible for that. Of course, he is a millionaire and a Raider, which helps keep my sympathetic impulses in check. Moreover, the abuse to which Seattle's defenders subjected Boller contributed to an encouraging Seahawks victory.

Our defense was particularly impressive, smothering a series of Raider drives. I remain skeptical of Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley's schemes, and I realize that shutting down Oakland's anemic offense in an exhibition contest does not necessarily foreshadow regular season success, but I appreciate the hustle,  passion, and effectiveness displayed by our defenders last night, and I hope to see more of the same in San Francisco next Sunday.

The O-Line looked better last night. They showed that Tarvaris Jackson can play functionally when he has a little time and protection. Unfortunately, the line's only real veteran--left guard Robert Gallery--went down with a sprained knee, making him questionable for the season opener, and endangering the fragile chemistry that has taken so long to develop among our starters. Since Russell Okung has missed the last few games, the entire left side of our line may be in flux for the season opener.

Aside from throwing a touchdown-forfeiting pick, T-Jack probably performed well enough to persuade Coach Carroll to stick to his guns and start the Minnesota castoff against the 49ers. However, backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst continues to impress, so Seattle should not hesitate to call on the Lord should Jackson falter. (If I were coaching the team, I would consider deploying Jesus of Clemson as early as our second offensive series in the season opener.)

Golden Tate secured a roster spot for himself last night with a generally strong performance. However, there remains a lot of room for improvement. Leon Washington's heads-up Immaculate Reception play--wherein the diminutive running back scooped up a pass deflected by a Raiders defender--was made possible by Tate's failure to come back to the ball, which allowed the Oakland DB to jump the route in the first place. We were fortunate that the pass was not intercepted.

With regard to special teams, I miss Olindo Mare. If we had kept him, I'm not sure our opponents would have been able to return a single kickoff all year, since Mare routinely nailed touchbacks when the ball was spotted on the 30. Now that kickoffs have moved up to the 35 yard line, Mare's probably sending the ball through the uprights and into the upper decks. At this point, every pro placekicker should be putting the ball in the end zone every time. Jeff Reed--our new kicker--hasn't been able to do that consistently. His accuracy is decent on field goals, but his short kickoffs make us vulnerable in the return game.

Beating the Raiders is always fun, even in the preseason. I can't wait for the real football to begin.