Sunday, November 17, 2013

Getting it together

Seattle stopped playing down to inferior opponents last week and put together a complete win over in Atlanta.

The patchwork offensive line--downright dreadful just a few weeks ago--crowned 3 weeks of steady improvement by dominating Falcons defenders, providing excellent pass protection and great run blocking. Center Lemuel Jeanpierre captained the unit credibly. O-Line Coach Tom Cable explored explored various combinations at guard and tackle to capitalize on the talents of rookies Alvin Bailey and Michael Bowie, still-raw prospects James Carpenter and JR Sweezy, and wily veteran Paul McQuistan, The younglings have played so well that the Seahawks can afford to limit the snaps of the starting linemen returning from injury today (center Max Unger and tackles Breno Giacomini and Russell Okung).

Marshawn Lynch busted out in full-throttle Beast Mode, barreling through Falcons defenders for a season-high 145 rushing yards, and deploying the meanest unflagged stiffarm facemask in NFL history. (Atlanta safety William Moore's neck must still hurt.)

Russell Wilson played an almost flawless game, allowing three wideouts to post numbers worthy of NFL starters (Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Golden Tate). Apparently, our receiving corps can cope without Sidney Rice. It's almost unfair that Percy Harvin makes his debut today further to fortify the unit.

After ignominiously getting gouged on the ground for more than 200 yards by St. Louis and Tampa Bay, the Seattle D finally figured out how to stuff the run, holding Atlanta to just 64 rushing yards. After letting backup quarterbacks Kellen Clemens and Mike Glennon move the ball at will, the Seahawks stuck Matty Ice in the deep freeze, holding Ryan--a two-time Pro Bowler--to only 172 passing yards.

While the Seahawks got it together and rose to 9-1, our strongest conference rivals continued to falter. New Orleans fell to 7-2 and San Francisco dropped to 6-3. Seattle just needs to keep winning to claim home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Vikings are winless on the road this season (0-4), so today's contest poses another test of character for Seattle: when faced with inferior competition, will we play down to their level, or dominate like the elite team we're supposed to be?

Minnesota is far from toothless. Our unreliable run defense must shut down Adrian Peterson, one of the greatest running backs in the history of the game, who shredded Seahawks defenders for 187 yards on the ground in Seattle last year. AP is running behind a less capable line this year, and it doesn't matter much who plays quarterback for the Vikings. A healthy Christian Ponder is probably marginally better than Matt Cassell, but Josh Freeman doesn't look capable of playing like Josh Freeman anymore.

Although their defense as a whole is statistically unimpressive, except in their generosity, the Vikings continue to field a frightening D-line including sackmasters Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. This is a matter of serious concern for a Seattle team that struggles to protect its quarterback.

Finally, the Vikings have great kick and punt return teams, so our coverage units will need to step it up.

Go, Hawks!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Toughest test yet

Unger and Bryant--the anchors of our O and D lines--are out. O line cornerstones Okung and Giacomini remain out. Rice is gone for good and Harvin isn't ready, yet. Our D can't stop the run, and the Falcons gouged us on the ground last year. Atlanta is a .500 team at home this year, but a bad team overall... and Seattle has been playing down to inferior opponents of late. Most signs seem to point to an upset. Only the clutchness of Beast Mode, DangeRuss and the Legion of Boom can save us. Go, Hawks! (First post ever by smartphone.)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Exposed again

Today/s game exposed the complacency of Pete Carroll and his defensive staff. After St. Louis gouged us for more than 200 yards on the ground last Monday, our defensive coaches failed to respond. Tampa Bay followed the Rams' blueprint, employed the same run schemes, and they worked just as well. Once again, our defense surrendered more than 200 rushing yards to a team with an unheralded O-line and backup running back. Just like last week, an effective run game enabled a lackluster quarterback to move the chains by completing intermediate passes almost uncontested by our linebackers and safeties. Our future opponents will continue to execute Brian Schottenheimer's offensive game plan until our defensive  coaches devise counter-schemes D can execute.

Today's game exposed the complacency of most of our players and the 12th Man. The Bucs took the field and played with intensity from the start, but through the first two quarters, our athletes came out flat and the crowd seemed quiet, both apparently assuming that they would not have to work hard to defeat a winless team.

Today's game exposed our defensive coaches continuing mystifying inability to capitalize on our talented stable of pass rushers to rattle inexperienced opposing quarterbacks.

Today's game exposed offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell as a slow learner. When Marshawn Lynch is in Beast Mode, there is no need to get cute with counterintuitive playcalls. Just feed the beast.

Today's game exposed the devastating impact of poor officiating. In the first quarter, the referees robbed free safety Earl Thomas of a spectacular interception, flagging him for pass interception on the basis of a relatively innocuous arm bar. That adverse call, followed by a more legitimate PI flag against Brandon Browner, seemed to demoralize the Seattle defense, which helped Tampa Bay leap to a 21-0 lead. (The poor officiating happened to hurt Seattle more, but at least one call went against Tampa Bay: Ricardo Lockette's catch was not a catch.)

Today's game exposed Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin as mere mortals. DangeRuss threw two costly picks. Having caught literally everything thrown his way in the first 8 games of the season, Baldwin dropped the first two passes thrown to him today.

Today's game also exposed Wilson and Baldwin as clutch players who rally from mistakes. DangeRuss proved as relentless as ever, making key plays over and over again with his arm and feet. After his two drops, Baldwin reverted to form, catching several balls at critical junctures to keep drives alive and score the game-tying touchdown.

Today's game exposed the growing maturity of Golden Tate and Marshawn Lynch. Like many Seahawks, Tate played the second half and into overtime in a state of cold fury, declining to taunt his opponents or celebrate, even when he made huge plays like his 71-yard punt return near end of third quarter. Even after Bevell robbed the Beast of the game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter by calling a pass on first and goal at the 3-yard line--a pass that the Bucs intercepted to end the drive without a score--Lynch did not pout. Instead, the Beast stood helmetless on the sidelines, coolly waving his arms to incite the 12th Man to eardrum-bursting frenzy in support of the defense.

Today exposed our O-line's ability to open running lanes and provide some decent protection for Russell Wilson, even when led by backup center Lemuel Jeanpierre after All-Pro center Max Unger left the game with a concussion.

Today exposed our ability to break the will of an opposing team when Lynch is in Beast Mode and we pound the rock relentlessly. We win when we rediscover our identity as a running team.

Today exposed the grit and resilience of our defense. After surrendering 21 points in a disastrous second quarter, they yielded only 3 in the third, none in the fourth quarter and zero in overtime.

Today's game exposed the Seahawks as a team with enough talent and character to survive self-inflicted wounds and gut it out to 8-1.

Go, Hawks!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Lessons and beauty in an undeserved victory, and why Lynch should have been benched

In a just world, the Seahawks would have lost to the Rams on Monday night. That's what's supposed to happen when you get outcoached and outplayed.

Lowering the Legion of Boom

Last week, I opined that the Seattle defense "is generally sound."

Yet, the Rams ran the ball down our throats. Everyone knew that was their game plan, but it didn't matter. St. Louis offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer cracked the code, drawing up inspired schemes to exploit previously unsuspected weaknesses in the Seahawk run defense. Those schemes were effectively executed by an average offensive line and by Zac Stacy, a 5th-round rookie who had never cracked the century mark in three previous starts, but then busted out for 134 yards against a defense stacked with high draft picks, pricy free agents and All-Pro and Pro Bowl talent.

Before Monday, the Seahawks had the 5th best rushing defense in the NFL. After giving up more than 200 yards to the Rams, Seattle's rank fell to 15th.

Last week, I wrote that the "pass rush appears to be coming together," but the Seahawks managed only three sacks.

Last week, I wrote that Seattle's "remaining regular season schedule appears to offer only two opportunities" (against the Falcons and the Saints) to "establish that our defense can shut down capable quarterbacks who run fast offenses from behind solid lines, choosing among multiple talented receivers."

I was wrong. You don't need a capable quarterback, quick tempo or multiple gifted receivers to challenge Seattle's pass defense. Between runs, Schottenheimer found ways for career benchwarmer Kellen Clemens to complete passes to a gaggle of inexperienced receivers at the expense of the vaunted Legion of Boom (and against our justly less-vaunted linebackers). The humble backup threw two early picks and missed several easy throws to wide-open teammates. A more accurate passer would have cut our defense to ribbons, but if your all-world defense can't shut down the passing attack of an undistinguished journeyman like Clemens, then maybe it's not really an all-world defense.

Yes, our defenders stepped up in the end with a heroic goal-line stand that saved the game. In the end, the Seahawks' superior athleticism barely trumped better coaching and execution by the Rams.

Future opponents will study and steal the schemes Schottenheimer used to shred the Seattle defense. Coach Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn failed to adjust adequately during the game on Monday night, but I hope their postmortem analyses have helped them figure out how to counter Schottenheimer's schemes, because our future opponents will execute them with better offensive athletes than St. Louis can currently field.

Time will tell whether St. Louis exposed an overrated defense, or if Monday represented a rare lapse for an otherwise solid unit.

I'm betting on the latter, and I'm betting the defense and the 12th Man come out to re-establish our reputation for domination against a bad Bucs offense. I would hate to be quarterback Mike Glennon tomorrow.
Losing our identity as a run-first team

Last week, I predicted that the Seahawks would "pound the rock relentlessly."

Wrong again. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell gave up on the run. The Rams surprised everyone by playing good run defense, but Seattle made no attempt to grind them down. Marshawn Lynch only carried the ball 8 times for a mere 23 yards.

Fullback Michael Robinson was woefully underutilized, taking the field for only 11 offensive snaps. What's the point of re-signing a battering ram if you're not going to use him?
Not running the ball enough meant attempting too many passes, calling too many designed runs by the quarterback, and Russell Wilson taking too many sacks and quarterback hits. Most of those plays yielded no yardage, or negative yards.

Consider the strategic options we had against the stout St. Louis defense:

1. Hand off the ball and run. This allows your offense to attack the defense. Your O-linemen fire out and hit defenders. Your wideouts get a chance to put a lick on the corners for a change. Your fullback becomes a guided missile who's going to make someone pay. Your big running back is going to dish out some punishment before he goes down. Your quarterback gets out harm's way.

2. Try to pass the ball. This allows their defense to attack your offense. Their corners bump your receivers. Their D-linemen and linebackers run over and around your hapless O-line and crush your little quarterback, over and over and over again.

If you're not gaining any yards, it is better to hit than to be hit. The nice thing about option #1 is that it tends to wear down the defense and create holes where none existed formerly.

Even when the Legion of Boom put our offense in great field position, Bevell's playcalling nearly prevented us from scoring. In the first quarter, a convoy of defenders helped Richard Sherman return a Clemens interception 38 yards to the St. Louis 26. A quarterback run and a Rams penalty then made it first and goal on the one yard line. Rather than line up in the I-formation and let the O-line and Rob clear the way for Lynch to pound the rock into the end zone, we came out in the read option on first and second downs, and Wilson twice ran the ball, taking unnecessary hits and losing a yard. A touchdown pass to Golden Tate salvaged the drive, but the poor play calls compounded Lynch's growing alienation and subjected our franchise quarterback to unnecessary physical punishment.

I was correct last week to characterize Seattle's offensive line as "absolutely dreadful," but I failed to anticipate our coaches' complete failure to account for the fierce Rams pass rush. For most of the game, Bevell and O-line coach Tom Cable left backup tackles Paul McQuistan and Michael Bowie stranded on an island, alone against stud defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Predictably, Long and Quinn racked up 3 sacks each, plus innumerable brutal quarterback hits.

Something must be done. Cable says Seattle will start the same five offensive linemen again this week, so personnel changes are evidently off the table until starting tackles Breno Giacomini and Russell Okung return from injury.

Clearly, we need to establish the running game to preserve the health of our quarterback. When we do pass the ball, tight ends and running backs need to stay in to help with pass protection.

Unfortunately, establishing the run against Tampa Bay won't be easy. The Bucs rank 7th in the league in rushing defense. After completely shutting down Seattle's ground attack on Monday, St. Louis still ranks just 22nd in the league in stopping the run.

Why Lynch should have been benched

You read that right. I know Marshawn Lynch wants the ball. I want more Beast Mode, too. However, his frustrations don't give him the right to flip off his coaches two weeks ago in Arizona when Bevell didn't call his number in the red zone. He pouted again during and after the game last week. It is not known how they team responded to Lynch's obscene gesture. However, on the way back from St. Louis, Carroll sat by the moody prima donna on the plane and consoled him.

Lynch should have suspended for a game without pay for flipping the bird to his coaches in Arizona. Robert Turbin and Christine Michael could have carried the load in St. Louis. When coaches fail to draw the line against that kind of misconduct, they imperil team morale and discipline.


Anyone who has ever endured losing seasons knows that there is really no such thing as an ugly win. When you have been forced to subsist on a steady diet of defeat, you learn to savor every victory, to find the beauty in each win.

The 80-yard bomb from DangeRuss to Golden Tate was beautiful. Wilson underthrew the ball, but Tate adjusted brilliantly to rob the cornerback of an interception and score. Sadly, his showboating and taunting penalty detracted from what was otherwise arguably the best play of his career. (Prompt contrition brought partial redemption, however.)

Everything about the way Earl Thomas plays free safety is beautiful. At one point, he rocketed out of nowhere to blow up a running Kellen Clemons. On the game's penultimate play, he knifed into the scrum to help clutch backup linebacker Heath Farwell stop the Rams runner one yard short of the goal line.

The goal-line stand itself was beautiful.

7-1 is beautiful.

8-1 would be even more beautiful.

Go, Hawks!