Sunday, October 27, 2013

Surprising, improbable, precarious

As Seahawks near the middle of the regular season, they have--surprisingly, improbably and precariously--managed the best start in franchise history.


Seattle's success so far is surprising, because while the team's greatest strength remains its defense, that unit has displayed alarming vulnerability at times.

After Matt Schaub had his way against us throughout the first half of the Texans contest last month, the Sea-fence adjusted and recovered to salvage a victory, leading this fallible correspondent naively to declare that "the defensive vulnerabilities Houston exposed last week are literally the least of our worries."

Of course, Andrew Luck and his receivers exploited those selfsame weaknesses with seeming ease all game long in Indy. Fueled by indignation over smacktalk from the Legion of Boom, Luck caught our defensive backs gambling and dealt Seattle its sole defeat thus far this season.

Even Titans backup Ryan Fitzpatrick managed to move the ball briskly at times two weeks ago in Seahawks Stadium. (Garbage time drives conducted by Jacksonville's Chad Henne and Arizona's Carson Palmer don't count; they made those games appear closer than they really were, but yards and points gained at the expense of reserves laying back in a prevent defense are meaningless and no cause for alarm.)

Certainly, the Sea-fence is generally sound: We rank third in the league in yards and points allowed. Only four teams allow fewer rush yards than Seattle. Only Houston permits more passing yards.

The pass rush appears to be coming together, when frequent rotation can keep fresh legs on the field. But Schaub and Luck shredded our D by running up-tempo offenses that denied our defenders opportunities to substitute.

If the Seahawks are serious about winning a championship, then we need to establish that our defense can shut down capable quarterbacks who run fast offenses from behind solid lines, choosing among multiple talented receivers. Our remaining regular season schedule appears to offer only two opportunities to do this: When Seattle travels to Atlanta next month, and again when we host Drew Brees and the Saints in December. These tests matter because the opponents we would likely meet if we make the playoffs will likely feature passing offenses that range from functional to fantastic.


Seattle's success so far is improbable because our offensive line has been absolutely dreadful to this point.

The Seahawks have continued to win, even with two cornerstones sidelined by injury in Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung and his counterpart on the right side, the oft-flagged Breno Giacomini, a serviceable, vicious veteran. Paul McQuistan, normally our starting left guard, has slid over to play Okung's position, but is barely adequate in that role. At right tackle, Michael Bowie has looked a lot like the 7th-round rookie he is, and certainly no threat to Giacomini's hold on the starting job. (No one can hold like Breno.) Rookie free agents Alvin Bailey and Caylin Hauptmann appear to be nothing more than development projects and emergency reserves at this point.

James Carpenter and JR Sweezy have each struggled at guard. Left guard Carpenter--originally drafted to play tackle--seems resigned to embrace the role of first-round bust. At right guard, Sweezy still looks raw, an eccentric and incomplete experiment in converting a college defensive tackle into a pro O-lineman.

When healthy, All-Pro center Max Unger is the only glue giving any semblance of cohesion to this hangdog unit. His backup, Lemuel Jeanpierre, helped the team go 1-1 during Unger's two-week absence from the lineup.

This makeshift offensive line actually run blocks reasonably well, but not as well as one might assume upon seeing that Seattle ranks second in the league in rushing yards.

Only two backs in the NFL have more yards per game than Marshawn Lynch. This is not because the O-line is gouging huge holes in the defense. It's because Lynch has lived in Beast Mode, busting creases open, knocking down opponents, and dragging hapless defenders with him down the field.

Seattle's second-leading rusher is Russell Wilson. Averaging 46 yards per game, DangeRuss ranks 25th in the league in rushing, ahead of several starting running backs, and ahead of every quarterback except for Oakland's Terrell Pryor.

Most of Wilson's ground gains do not come on designed runs facilitated by good blocking. On the contrary, they happen because the O-line so often fails to provide pass protection in the pocket, forcing our quarterback to run for his life and improvise far too frequently.


This is what makes Seattle's success this season so very precarious: the O-line is so bad that it's downright dangerous out there for DangeRuss.

Everyone agrees that Wilson is under too much pressure and is getting hit too much.

Quarterbacks tend to get far too much credit when things go well (and far too much blame when things go wrong). There are too many passers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and too many quarterback MVPs in the history of this game. Reflexively labeling a quarterback as a team's MVP is normally intellectually lazy and indicative of a limited understanding of the game.

But not in this case.

Without a doubt, Wilson is the franchise's most valuable player at this point.

No other quarterback in the league could have led Seattle to a 6-1 record. No other quarterback has the astonishing gridiron acumen and athleticism that allows Wilson to move the offense when the line can't protect him, when his receivers can't get open, and even when Lynch can't find running room.

Wilson is smart, durable and--so far--lucky in that he hasn't suffered an injury. Two years ago, we saw what Tarvaris Jackson could do under similar circumstances, which underscores the fact that DangeRuss remains this team's red wheelbarrow.

so much depends

a young quarter

glazed with rain

behind a bad

Fortunately, two consecutive prime time contests have given Seattle something of a mini-bye: 11 days between games. This respite should have given the Seahawks some time to rest and address the aforementioned shortcomings.

More good news: As the Diehard predicted back on September 2, Seattle has re-signed Pro Bowl fullback Michael Robinson. This should help with run blocking and pass protection, as well as improving team morale and leadership. It looks like Rob is back for the season, since Spencer Ware went on injured reserve with his high ankle sprain, leaving hamstrung Derrick Coleman as the only other fullback on the roster. Like the proverbial broken clock, the Diehard occasionally gets it right.

It was great to see the 12th Man make an appearance on the road the Thursday before last. It must have been demoralizing for Arizona when vastly outnumbered Seattle fans generated more noise against the Cardinal offense than the home crowd managed when the Seahawks had the ball.

Since the World Series will likely deplete the home crowd in St. Louis on Monday night, I'm hoping that the 12th Man might once again manage to conquer an opposing stadium.

Seattle can't afford to underestimate the Rams. Every NFL team is dangerous, but Jeff Fisher is a great coach with a knack for knocking off division opponents.

The St. Louis defense is having an off year, but our O-line needs to step up to ensure that their once-fierce pass rush does not return to form. The Rams have struggled to stop the run, so expect Seattle to pound the rock relentlessly.

The Rams haven't run the ball well all year, but they were having some success through the air with Sam Bradford. Watch Seattle stack the box and dare backup Kellen Clemens to challenge the Legion of Boom.

I never get tired of beating the Rams. Seattle leads the all-time series, 18-12. We're 15-6 since joining the NFC West in 2002. Since the disgraceful 3-game sweep of the 2004 season, the Seahawks have owned the Rams, winning 15 of the last 17.

Let's make it 16 of 18. Go, Hawks!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

12th Man intervention

The 12th Man ranks among the best home crowds in the world of professional sports, but we need a little fine tuning to maintain that distinction and demonstrate that we not only number among the best, but that the 12th Man is the best.

To begin with the glaringly obvious: We need to take back the world record for loudest outdoor stadium from the Kansas City Queefs.

It is shameful that harassment of opposing fans has gotten to the point that Seattle police officers have to go undercover at home games and don enemy jerseys to discourage that kind of disgraceful behavior. Being rude to visiting fans doesn't prove that you're hardcore; it just shows that you're a bully. The overwhelming majority of decent Seahawk fans need to step up and shut down the haters in their midst, to excise these embarrassing tumors.

It's great that so many Seattle fans can travel to road games. I was on a flight from Seattle to Phoenix last night. Most of the passengers wore Seahawks and Huskies regalia, and there was a pep rally atmosphere in the terminal in Seattle and on the plane. I was ashamed, however, that people wouldn't shut up when the pilots and flight attendants addressed us. One of the distinguishing regional characteristics of the Pacific Northwest is supposed to be a degree of politeness bordering on Canadian, both figuratively and literally. But people on that plane probably came away with the impression that Seahawks fans are boors who drink too much.

Here's hoping the 12th Man brings enough noise tonight to drown out the timid Cardinal home crowd.

Go, Hawks!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Diagnostic win

Seattle escaped from Houston with a win last week, but the Texans exposed weaknesses that other teams will try to exploit.

Throughout the first half, Matt Schaub dissected our vaunted secondary, moved the ball efficiently, and built a commanding lead. The Seahawks made adjustments in the second half, turned up the pass rush to 11, shut out Houston for the rest of the game and forced overtime when Richard Sherman baited Schaub into an unwise throw and returned the ensuing interception for a touchdown to tie the game. Seattle will encounter many other teams this season that field fine quarterbacks who throw to capable receivers from behind solid O-lines with support from strong running games, including the Colts today. Our defense can't continue to let opponents run up the score for a full half before responding to the challenge. Fortunately, the return of Bruce Irvin should improve our pass rush from impressive to oppressive, so the defensive vulnerabilities Houston exposed last week are literally the least of our worries.

The greatest concern is Seattle's patchwork offensive line, with backups playing four of the five positions. Right guard JR Sweezy is the only starter playing his own position. Left guard Paul McQuistan must continue to impersonate a left tackle, while James Carpenter masquerades as a starting left guard and Lemuel Jeanpierre does his best to fill in for Max Unger at center. Rookie right tackle Michael Bowie, repeatedly steamrolled last week by JJ Watt, gets to show if he learned anything today. These replacement parts produced decent run blocking last week, but they failed utterly in pass protection: quarterback Russell Wilson got hit or sacked on 16 of 34 dropbacks in Houston. Indy's defense is nearly as good, and to compound matters, Zach Miller is unlikely to play today. One of the best blockers on the team, he often functions as a sixth offensive lineman. The only real remedies here are...
1. The backups must execute better
2. Seattle needs to establish the run and minimize passing downs
3. Our offense must employ maximum protection schemes on passing downs
4. Our receivers need to make their blitz reads and get open fast so Wilson won't have to hold the ball

DangeRuss willed the team to victory last week, using his legs to elude pressure and find room to throw and run for first downs. It is nice to know that your quarterback can do that for you, but we can't afford to make a habit of relying on it. Wilson is good at ducking big hits, but if he continues to get pummeled as often as he did last week, then we will eventually lose him to injury. Defenses have chosen to respond to the pistol by punishing running quarterbacks, by exploiting every opportunity to brutalize them. One unlucky hit can end a season. Today, the rest of the offense needs to step up to help Wilson.

Last week, three developments enabled Seattle to win. First, the defense responded after halftime. Second, Houston's defense faltered after losing wild man linebacker Brian Cushing to a concussion. Third, Russell Wilson took the team on his shoulders. (Honorable mention to kicker Steven Hauschka, who has been incredibly clutch all year.)

Today the Seahawks face another daunting challenge, another complete team in another loud dome, again with a 10:00 a.m. kickoff. Seattle's defense needs to smother Andrew Luck, a better and more versatile quarterback than Matt Schaub. The offense must account for linebacker Robert Mathis, an elite pass rusher.

The Seahawks must resolve to dominate. As the Huskies learned last night, fickle fate and bad officiating can rob you of victory in a close game.

Go, Hawks!