Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Josh Wilson, Seattle's Most Popular Mediocre Player

When news broke that Josh Wilson had been traded, it piqued my interest enough to see what we got in return. A conditional fifth-round choice, that could upgrade to a fourth based on playing time seemed a little below my expectations. On the roster Richter scale, this registered as about a 5.0. It involved a likely starter, and brought back moderate returns, but was not something to spend too much time analyzing based on Wilson's relative importance. That is, of course, my perspective. Reading the Twittersphere gives a much different impression. You'd think we just traded Nnamdi Asomugha for a song.

It was the last (hopefully) in a series of reminders of how polarizing a player Wilson was. To be fair, the polarization may have been me vs. the rest of Seahawk Nation. Brock and Salk tweeted that the Seahawks have now traded the two best players off of their defense from 2009, Josh Wilson and Darryl Tapp. Ray Roberts ranted this morning (pre-trade) that it's absurd that Wilson has to fight for the starting job since he is clearly the best playmaker at CB. Even our own HawkGirl has professed her undying love for Wilson while chatting during past games.

Somebody has to be wrong here, and as usual, it's all of you. Asomugha is widely considered a top 1-2 CB in the NFL. A couple years ago, he was credited with giving up 65 yards...in 15 games! Wilson got carved up for 65 yards before halftime against the Cardinals. He is not a bad corner. The guy has a knack for making a play now and then. He battles receivers with gusto, and was an above average kick returner. Having him as the starter opposite Tru on opening day was acceptable, but it was a clear area in need of upgrade in the future. The Seahawks clearly decided it was time to see if we could upgrade it now. Roy Lewis and Walter Thurmond have had strong pre-seasons. More on that in a second, but the reality is that I will never mourn giving up a mediocre player, and that's what Wilson was. He gave up far more big plays than he delivered, and had very little room left to grow. Seahawks fans should cheer the front office not settling for mediocrity when they have younger players pushing for a chance. That's how you improve.

Walter Thurmond has gotten a lot of pub since early in camp, but Roy Lewis has shown me more than Thurmond. Lewis is playing physical, delivering tight coverage, making his own plays on the ball. Can anyone say for certain that Lewis (or Thurmond) is a lesser player than Wilson? Secondary coach Jerry Gray is not coming up from the college ranks. He is among the most respected coaches in the NFL, and I choose to believe that he has supported this move, and that he sees untapped talent he can use. Before you jump off the Aurora bridge, consider the possibility that we just *upgraded* our CB position *and* got a likely 4th round pick. Oh, and this same front office used one of it's two 4th round picks this year to draft...you guessed it...Walter Thurmond.

Take your moment to mourn, but realize this is another chance to get better, and that's fun to watch.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Will Herring Is Following Me

I have been kicking this blog around for the last four years, writing is almost total anonymity. There are my faithful three readers, and a few transients, but it's mostly just me and my laptop. That is, until tonight.

It was the first day of school for both of my boys today. My oldest, 9, is entering 4th grade, and my youngest, 6, is starting Kindergarten. Big day.

I left work a bit early to get home and hear how things went. Thankfully, all went well. After a nice meatloaf dinner (thanks HawkBloggerWife!), homework, a bath and bedtime for the young one, it was time to catch up on some Seahawks news.

After a few minutes of browsing, I checked my Twitter page and noticed my glacial climb to 100 followers had reached a new peak of 93! After a call to my therapist to help calm down from all the excitement, I decided to see who had bumped me from 92 to...93 (yeah baby!).

Take a guess who it was. No, seriously, take a guess. Nope, it wasn't the President. Good guess, though. Try again. Uh uh, it wasn't Emmanuelle Chriqui. I know. It's just a matter of time before she starts stalking me. Last chance. Bzzzzzzzz. I don't think Efren Herrera even has a Twitter account. Okay, I'll tell you.

It was Seahawks starting WILL (no pun inteneded) LB, Will Herring! He likes me. He REALLY likes me! What on Earth would an NFL player want to follow me for, you ask? Besides my abundant talent, sharp wit and stunning good looks that transcend the written word, I have chutzpah (look it up, people).

I have no problem writing what I think. I criticize where others praise. I decimate where others coddle. I openly contradict myself because I'd rather be right, now, then defend being wrong.

One such occurrence happened in my last post, following the Hawks/Vikings game. In it, I called out a certain Seahawk for being the worst player on the 1st-string defense that night. It was a player who had exceeded all expectations last pre-season and regular season by playing fast and making big plays. This was a guy who was almost exclusively a special teamer up until that point. It was a player who was third on the team in tackles against the Vikings, but none of them came in the backfield, and none of them appeared to occur with the Seahawk leaning forward. Players were running into him. He wasn't running into them, and unfortunately, that's been the pattern in the pre-season thus far. That player was Will Herring.

In my narcissistic mind, here's what happened leading up to that perfect moment when Mr. Herring clicked the "Follow" button. Almost immediately after posting my notes on the game that criticized Herring, it was automatically tweeted on my HawkBlogger twitter account. Twenty or thirty Seahawks were anxiously awaiting my analysis of their performance, and immediately read the post. After a few audible gasps on the plane, Herring asked Matt Hasselbeck what the commotion was about. Hasselbeck told Herring it was probably better that he didn't know. Herring pressed further, and the plane got eerily silent. Herring screamed, "WHAT?!?!" Hasselbeck turned his laptop (because he's too much of a man to own an iPad) toward Herring so he could read the stinging assessment of his play. Herring staggered back a few steps, stunned. "How could I have fallen so far, so fast," he wondered. After taking a few moments to compose himself, he realized the analysis was spot on.

He asked Hasselbeck, "Who is this guy?" Matt stared back at Herring and said, "He's the guy that's going to turn your career around." Herring let that sink in for a few seconds...nodded...and wandered back to his seat where he found my account on Twitter...took a deep breath...and clicked, "Follow."

Welcome to the fold, Will Herring. We'll treat you well.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Morning After: Vikings Beat Seahawks, 24-13

I play pick-up basketball twice each week. I've been playing pick-up basketball since I was 9 or 10 years-old. One of the best parts of the game is when you line up on a team that is clearly inferior to your opponent, and somehow you send them back to the sideline scratching their heads and cussing about an unfathomable loss. Effort beats talent.

It would be easy to walk away from the Seahawks 24-13 loss to the Vikings believing we may be more talented on defense than all of us thought. What I saw was inspired play by one team, going against another team that was relying on their talent. That's not to take anything away from what was perhaps the best Seahawks defensive performance in the last year (yes, I would rank this over our shutouts in regular season games last year). Seahawks fans should be ecstatic about the way the defense played on the road against a fantastic offensive line and a skilled offense. It simply tells us that our side can rise to the occasion. They can play above their talent level. That's about leadership, belief and coaching.

Lawyer Milloy set the stage early with big hits and jawing. Lofa Tatupu made his presence felt right off the bat with a tipped pass. Even Red Bryant bellied up to a few Vikings. Talent has a way of showing up when your defense is playing with speed and confidence. Chris Clemons led a great night from the defensive line by turning in a dominating performance. His early sack and forced fumble was just the start. He had the upper-hand much of the evening against LT Bryant McKinnie. He finished with two sacks, 1 official QB hit and a forced fumble. Brandon Mebane helped with his strongest performance in recent memory. Colin Cole and Red Bryant both were impressive as well, as the Vikings had very little luck running up the middle all night. You can pencil Red Bryant in for 4-5 sacks this year. He's going to have trouble closing the deal, but he's spent more time in the backfield than any other Hawk lineman. If you have the game on DVR, go back and watch at about the 6:45 mark in the 2nd quarter. Bryant tosses Steve Hutchison around like a rag doll and nearly forces a fumble.

The linebackers had a decent game. Tatupu really shows up on tape. During the goal-line stand on the Vikings second possession, he told his defense the direction the play was going to go on both third and fourth downs. On the Vikings third possession, he checked out of a play, and sacked Favre, forcing a fumble. The play was negated by an illegal contact penalty, but the reality remained that Tatupu makes his teammates better. Will Herring was possibly the worst player on the field for the defense. After a terrific pre-season, and solid regular season last year, he's been an easy target for offenses so far this year. I wonder if we'll ever see LeRoy Hill play a full game with Tatupu and Curry. Speaking of Curry, he has his best game of the pre-season. It wasn't a great game, but he made some impact plays. After re-watching the Packers game and watching Curry again last night, I'm starting to see signs that he is taking steps in the right direction as a pass rusher. Tyjuan Hagler and Matt McCoy continue to battle and make some notable plays.

The secondary gave the defensive line a run for their money as best unit on defense. Lawyer Milloy was everywhere. He blitzed. He made plays against the run, and well, he usually got burnt in coverage. Sorry, Lawyer. Trufant was flawless for the second straight week. Josh Wilson played his usual uneven game, with too much cushion on some plays, and great playmaking on others. He was the guy who knocked the ball into Earl Thomas' arms for the pick-6. Thomas responded wonderfully to a tough game against the Packers. The Seahawks could not script a better pre-season for Thomas who has started cocky, gotten burned, and then made an impact. It wasn't hard to predict that Thomas was going to make more and more plays after that interception. Sure enough, he made a great tackle on a screen play and a crunching hit on Percy Harvin. Thomas hasn't arrived, but the seal has been broken, and we should expect him to make plays all year.

It's hard to really talk about any of the backups who were a far cry from the starters. Roy Lewis showed up, and Cord Parks stood out on special teams.

The offense was not quite as disappointing as the score might indicate. We have no running game, regardless of the running back. The passing game is still a work in progress. What is encouraging is that the offensive line pass protected well, and the Seahawks are showing that big play passes are not an endangered species in Seattle anymore. We had the 51-yard play to Mike Williams in game 1, a couple of passes over 20 yards in game 2, and THREE passes over 40 yards in the Vikings game. I think you'd need to go back years to find a game where the Seahawks had three passes over 40 yards. The wide receivers look far more talented than their reputation would indicate. Deon Butler, Housh, and Branch all made nice plays. Golden Tate had his best game, but really does look like a project player who will make a bigger impact next year. And then there's Mike Williams, who has Pro Bowl potential. I honestly believe that. What we need to see is fewer mis-communications between Matt, Housh and Williams. It wouldn't hurt to see a tight end make an appearance in the seam either. Mansfield Wrotto and Mike Gibson started the game as the big story, with everyone predicting a major calamity. They ended the game as a big story with Gibson pushing Hamilton for a starting role and Wrotto making the coaches wonder if Sean Locklear is ready to be replaced. This is a great development.

Lastly, it wouldn't be a Seahawks recap without mentioning Jon Ryan. Has a punter ever won the league MVP award? Kidding...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Live Chat Up: Seahawks @ Vikins

Come on in the chat room for the game. I may not be there until right at 5, but make yourself at home.

Enter as a guest. I reserve the right to boot anyone that's bugging me. :)

Live Chat For Seahawks Game Tonight

I will host a live chat room for anyone who would like to watch the game together. Check back before the game for info.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Is Mike Gibson more important than Matt Hasselbeck?

Seattle fans and media appear in near-panic over this weekends pre-season bout with the intimidating Minnesota Vikings. As you know, we will be without our starting left tackle, our backup left tackle and our starting left guard.

Despite the fact that Mansfield Wrotto played the entire game last week at LT without looking silly, most people are convinced Matt Hasselbeck's life is in danger. It's certainly hard to argue given the opponent, the location, and this is the pre-season game that most closely resembled a regular season match. What I'm here to tell you is that Matt's health is not the most important thing on this football team anymore.

You read that correctly. Keeping our starting QB, and our best chance at winning games this season, healthy is not the most important thing for the Seahawks this year.

I won't give away too much of my season preview, but suffice it to say, the Seahawks are not Super Bowl contenders this year. The most important thing to come out of this year will be player development, not wins. If wins were the most important, Hasselbeck's health would be paramount.

Instead, I applaud Pete Carroll for sticking Matt out there with two new offensive lineman and seeing what comes of it. I don't for a second believe Carroll wants Hasselbeck to get hurt. He will do everything in his power to prevent injury there. Everything, that is, short of pulling him from the lineup.

What happens if Mike Gibson and/or Mansfield Wrotto surprise us? What if we find a young guard of the future to displace Ben Hamilton? How else will we ever develop the depth at offensive line we so desperately need?

The reality is that the franchise is better off learning more about how their young lineman perform with the #1 unit than it is coddling Hasselbeck. After all, what is there really to lose?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Formation Exploration: WR Drag Option

From time to time, I like to break down plays I see in the Seahawks arsenal, especially ones that I haven't seen before. In last Saturday's game, you probably noticed the Seahawks run a play that resembled a college option play to a WR. It was successful both times, with the second time resulting in the Hawks final TD. The basic premise of the play is to confuse the defense with misdirection by having the whole offensive line and running back drive hard in the opposite direction the play is intended to go, and then have a WR drag across in the opposite direction to catch a little pitch from the QB.

The formation starts with 3 WR, 1 TE and 1 RB. The RB is on the side opposite the two stacked WRs.

1. The flanker motions inside the slot receiver
2. The ball is snapped and the RB slides in front of the QB in what looks like a sweep right. The entire offensive line and TE are pulling hard in that direction to sell the play.
3. The QB keeps the football and starts drifting left with the dragging flanker who has now come all the way across the formation.
4. The QB pitches or throws the ball forward to allow the flanker to get the ball in open space.

This seems like a great play for a player like Golden Tate to get some space and make people miss. It worked wonderfully on the goal line to Ben Obamanu, and well enough inside the 20 to Mike Williams. It looks like something that may be part of the team's red zone package. I doubt we'll see it again this pre-season, but if you see a 3 WR set with the flanker motioning inside the slot receiver, you may be the first fan to know what's coming!

Click the arrow on the graphic to run through the play

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Last Sack Tidbit

Reader Mr Posh asked if there was a relationship between the decline in the total number of NFL players with 10+ sacks, and the overall team sack totals in the NFL. My earlier posts didn't answer that question directly, but take a look at this graphic:

Between 2006 and 2008, the overall sack totals for NFL teams declined by an average of 10.9%. During the same period, the number of players with 10+ sacks declined 33.33%. There is obviously some relationship there, but it would not be accurate to say that a drop in the number of 10+ sack players equals a drop in overall sack totals across the league. Instead, it appears sacks are being distributed more evenly across defenses.

It is, of course, debatable whether that trend is due to a lack of individual pass rush talent in today's NFL or it is due to new defensive schemes that are becoming vogue. What do you think?

The Elusive Pass Rush Part II: There's No "I" In Sack

In the first part of this series examining the challenges of sacking a QB in the NFL, we explored the role of the sack artist. Every team lusts after that dominant pass rusher that can pile up 10+ sacks and force the opposing team's offensive coordinator to lose sleep. But as we found out, those players are exceedingly difficult to find. Only seven out of every 100 linebackers or lineman will hit the 10 sack plateau, and many do not repeat the feat. So what do you do if you are defensive coordinator that knows they need to pressure the passer, but are highly unlikely to have an individual sack master on your team? Well, folks, that's why they get paid the big bucks.

From Buddy Ryan's 46 defense to the Tampa-2 to Jim Johnson's myriad of blitz schemes, defensive coaches have been devising ways to confuse offenses and sack quarterbacks. It is much like what offensive lines are attempting to do for their running backs. Both sides are trying to create open lanes and 1-on-1 match-ups that favor their side. The Seahawks offense got much of the focus during their Super Bowl run, but you may remember that they led the NFL in sacks that season with 50. You may also remember from part one of this series, that the Seahawks did not have a 10+ sack player that season. Bryce Fisher led the way with 9, but players like Lofa Tatupu (4) and LeRoy Hill (7.5) had their career highs in sacks during what was their rookie campaigns. Conversely, the Seahawks enjoyed their first 10 sack season from a player in a long time the next season (Julian Peterson), but were in the middle of the pack for total sacks as a team.

Looking at the chart above, it becomes more clear that having that stud sack master does not have a high correlation with pressuring the QB. The only time the team sack number had a strong correlation to the amount of sacks recorded by the sack leader was the year Patrick Kearney sacked 14.5 quarterbacks, and the year after. Otherwise, the team sack totals rose and fell mostly independent of the individual sack leader.

Even during the Super Bowl season when the Hawks led the NFL in sacks, getting pressure on the QB was still the talk of sports radio and fans. I remember multiple moments on Mitch in the Morning where Mike Sando, Levy and others were perplexed trying to explain how the team led the league in sacks and that it didn't "feel" like we were a good pass rushing team. Grant Wistrom certainly didn't scare anybody. So how have the Hawks fared versus the rest of the NFL in rushing the passer?

As you can see, the Hawks have been an above average pass rushing team over the last eight seasons. I know, I was surprised as well. The Seahawks have averaged 2.53 more sack per season than the NFL average during that span. Let's take a look at sacks/game:

The overall trend lines are identical, of course, but you can see here that the NFL average for sacks each game is a little over 2 (2.21). During that same period, the Hawks averaged 2.37 sacks/game. Not a huge difference, but still above the norm. At our best, we were sacking the QB over 3 times each game (3.13), and at our worst, we were sacking the QB under two times per game (1.75 in two seasons). Unfortunately, one of those 1.75 sack/game seasons was last year. The three year trend for Seahawks sacks is not pretty. As bad as we were, there were still five teams worse. In other words, we may have thought we saw bad pass rushing teams in the past, but we ain't seen nothing yet. In a stat, I find impossible to believe, the Jaguars had HALF as many sacks as we did last season. Pray that never happens to our boys.

One of my last questions was, "Do you need to be a great pass rushing team to make the Super Bowl?" After all, the one time we got there, we were #1 in the NFL. I decided to go back over these last eight Super Bowls and find the team rank for sacks for each Super Bowl participant. For example, in the 2005 season, the Seahawks rank was #1 and the Steelers rank was #3. Average those two ranks together, and you get 2. In that year, being a good pass rushing team seemed to have a strong correlation to making it to the Super Bowl.

Stepping back to the broader picture shows us that being a great pass rushing team does not give you a significantly better chance to make the big game. Hawks fans can also take solace in the fact that having a poor pash rush also does not preclude a team from advancing. Many of the Colts Super Bowl teams have been poorly ranked in the pass rush department even though they have one of the best individual pass rushers in the sport with Dwight Freeney. Contrary to the old adage, offense wins championships in the NFL.

Bringing this back to the Seahawks for a moment, fans should take a collective deep breath and realize we don't need Julius Peppers to have a successful pass rush and that we don't need a ton of sacks to win games. That does not mean, however, pressuring the opposing QB is unimportant. No stat can convince me that pressure-free time in the pocket for opponent's QBs is conducive to winning. Watch closely in game one of the regular season to see if the scheme is creating open lanes for pass rushers. This will be a defense that finds creative ways to get after the QB because we simply do not have the individual talent to succeed there.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Elusive Pass Rush Part I: The Sack Artist

Watching your team sack an opposing quarterback is among the most satisfying and exciting moments in football. It also is something the Seahawks have had a lot of trouble doing the past few seasons. If you tune into any local sports radio show, you will likely hear them talking about how the Seahawks need to generate a pass rush. Players such as Chris Clemons, Nick Reed, Aaron Curry and Dexter Davis are thrown out as hopeful sack artists despite none of them ever having more than 8 sacks in a season.

Ask the average football fan how many sacks a player needs to have in order to be considered a legitimate threat, the most common answer will be 10. Nobody would argue that 10 sacks is a good-to-great year for a pass rusher. Yet, I can only remember two Seahawks in the past eight seasons to reach that level (Patrick Kearney and Julian Peterson). Is it really that hard to get 10 sacks? That's only 0.6 sacks/game, or basically a sack every other game. I decided to do a little research to see just how hard it is to record 10 sacks or more in a single NFL season, and the results surprised me.

In baseball, hitting over .300 is generally considered a good year of hitting (OPS and other sabermetrics aside). How many hitters are having a good year in 2010? Twenty-three of 158 batters with enough at-bats to qualify (i.e., 15%) are hitting over .300 this year in baseball. By those percentages, finding a .300 hitter is a piece of cake compared to finding an NFL player with 10+ sacks.

Over the past eight seasons, an average of 15.38 players per season have had 10+ sacks. It's safe to say that sack leaders are always either defensive lineman or linebackers, and that there are seven of those on every team. With 32 NFL teams, that adds up to 224 players with 10+ sack potential. Amazingly, that means a scant 6.86% of starting NFL lineman and linebackers record 10 or more sacks in a season. Think about that for a second. Seven out of every 100 LB+DL. These guys certainly don't grow on trees.

In figure 1, you can see the total number of players in each of the last eight seasons that have recorded 10 or more sacks. It is worth noting the drastic drop-off across the league in the last few seasons after a rather steady increase from 2002 to 2006. It's unclear if rule changes, better lineman, or a reduced number of capable sack men are to blame. What is clear is that if you were a head coach in the NFL last season, you had less than a 6% chance of having a player reach the 10 sack mark.
Once a player gets to 10 sacks, there is not usually a whole lot separating him from the elite pass rushers. As you can see in figure 2, the average number of sacks recorded from the Top 5 sack masters in each season generally hovers around 14 sacks. That's the difference of 0.25 sacks more/game, compared to a player with 10 sacks. Other than DeMarcus Ware's 20 sack outlier, the league leader is often between 16-18 sacks. The absolute best sack artist in the league averages a little over 1 sack per game.

The Seahawks have had only two players reach the magical 10 sack level in the past eight seasons. Those 8 and 8.5 sack seasons from Chike Okeafor don't seem so pedestrian anymore, do they? In figure 3, you can see how the Hawks sack leader has performed.

It may be a coincidence, but the trend here correlates pretty closely to the one in figure 1. That is, as there were a growing number of players with 10+ sacks, the Seahawks sack leader had a growing total as well. Similarly, the Seahawks saw a massive decline in the last two seasons with their sack leader coming in at 5.5 (2008) and 5.0 (2009). In part two of this series, I will take a look at overall team sack numbers to see if we are seeing a general decline in sack numbers across the NFL, or just a diversification of who is getting those sacks.

What I walk away from this data now knowing is that 10 sacks is probably an unattainable goal for any Seahawk this season. The likelihood of finding a guy like that off another team's scrap heap (e.g., Chris Clemons), a late-round pick (e.g., Reed, Davis), or a player that recorded two sacks the year before (e.g., Curry) is almost nil. A reasonable goal for this season is to get someone back to the 8-sack level, something Chris Clemons has done before.

In part two, I will also explore the correlation between sacks and winning. Namely, does being a team that succeeds in sacking the quarterback make you significantly more likely to be a Super Bowl contender? Is it a prerequisite? We'll find out.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Morning After: Packers Beat Seahawks, 27-24

It is nearly a foregone conclusion that the NFL will go to an 18-game schedule after the new CBA is signed, cutting the pre-season from 4 games to 2. After nearly winning their seventh straight pre-season contest, I was starting to think the Seahawks should lobby to increase the pre-season schedule to 9 or 10 games. Ironically, they played perhaps their most inspiring game of those last seven in a loss to the Packers.

Before I get to the bad news about Okung and others, let me take a few minutes to do something I haven't done in many moons, lavish praise on the first-string offense. As was the case last week, the QB will get a lot of attention and kudos. This week, it was Matt Hasselbeck looking masterful in guiding the starters to two touchdowns in their first five possessions. That is not "masterful" by NFL standards, but getting into the endzone twice in one half would have had Hawks fans dancing in the street last season. The fact that one of that TDs was the result of a "look at me mommy, I wear big boy underwear now" 80-yard drive made it matter that much more. There were times last pre-season I remember feeling a similar sense of optimism, so it would be wise not to get too far ahead of our skies.

Matt, though, was not the star of this game for the Hawks. In fact, no player was. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates began to put his stamp on this offense and I loved what he's doing. We saw creative motion, clever misdirection, complimentary receivers patterns, and most important of all we saw space created for wide receivers to make plays. If you go back and watch the tape from last week's Titans game, you will notice that nobody was open with the first-team offense. There was throws and catches that could be made, but there was no separation between the receivers and the defenders. I attributed much of that to mud-footed starting receiving crew, but had private concerns about the offense. The hallmark of any good offense is its ability to create low-risk opportunities to pick up chunks of yards. The West Coast offense relies on precision-timing and shorter routes. Bates' offense appears to rely more on clearing out space via overlapping routes and misdirection. Whether it was the first Mike Williams catch where he ran over the top of the underneath receiver, the drag option route that had Matt pitching the ball forward, or a myriad of other plays, we saw receivers catching the ball with space. The best offenses in the NFL can make plays whether there is space or not, but all offenses need some breathing room sooner or later. The combination of good play design, good play calling, and solid execution was encouraging and fun to watch.

Mike Williams played exclusively with the starters tonight as the third receiver, and holy cow, he is a breath of fresh air. Through the most roundabout path one could imagine, I think Williams has become the best wide receiver prospect (he's only 26) the Seahawks have had since at least Koren Robinson. Williams flashed good-to-great hands, good speed and crisp routes. This may have already been obvious to all of you, but after watching so many short receivers for so many years, I forgot how beneficial it is to have tall receivers in intermediate routes. If you imagine the arc a ball needs to travel to go over the linebackers, but in front of the secondary, it absolutely matters if the receiver is 5'9" or 6'5". Hasselbeck could almost throw it on a line over the LBs and Williams was able to just pluck it out of the air. Not fair! I love that. Housh played a good game. Branch was a TD reception away from being bad. Carlson was horrible (more on that in a second). It seemed like every time Williams came in, the offense gained momentum. That's now two weeks in a row you could make that claim.

Now, I'm a big Carlson fan. I've been predicting Pro Bowl seasons for two years. The kid belonged in the Toilet Bowl last night. I have come to expect some challenges blocking, but the multiple dropped passes that hit him square in the hands can't happen. Carlson needs to wake up. He is sliding, and we need to see him progressing. Even if we expect him to struggle as a blocker, he cannot be putrid, and that's what he was last night. I'll watch again on DVR to see if I'm being too harsh, but at least a few of the running plays getting stuffed were due to linebackers tossing Carlson out of the way and waltzing into the backfield. We are simply not good enough to overcome that level of incompetence. Come on, John. We're pulling for ya.

Forsett and Julius Jones had almost identical numbers for the 2nd week in a row, and I still am happy to say without hesitation that Forsett is good and Jones sucks. Leon Washington burst onto the scene and reminded us there may be something even better in the arsenal. I don't think he's running at the same speed he once did, but his acceleration is still noticeable compared to the other backs. He also made a highlight reel block in pass protection of a blitzing safety. If he can prove to be healthy, expect to see lots and lots of him this season. Playmakers welcome.

Now to the line. Oh dear. I must admit this may be my fault. I am not only a fan of the Seahawks, but of the Trail Blazers and Mariners as well. My teams have some bad luck when it comes to #1 picks getting injured, and it happened again last night with Russell Okung. This kid was on the expressway to the ring of honor before rolling an ankle in the first series. The total lack of optimism from Pete Carroll and the uttering of the dreaded "high ankle sprain" means Hawks fans should brace for the worst. I've read tweets to not expect Okung to play in the opener. Thanks, Captain Obvious. The average high ankle sprain seems to take 6-8 weeks to heal. That would put us out past the bye in week 5, with a return in week 6 against the Bears. This just sucks. I don't want to talk about it anymore. Let's hope for the best.

The defense is bad folks. Just admit it. I promise it feels a tiny bit better when you assume we are the worst defense in the NFL, and then are pleasantly surprised when we make a play or force the other team to punt. We have not seen Tatupu, but for god sakes, stop acting like he's a massive difference-maker. Tatupu is only as good as the lineman in front of him, and even then, he's become an average MLB in the NFL. He certainly is a better coverage guy than David Hawthorne, who got mis-aligned and beat multiple times including the wide open TD to the Packers TE. The linebacker group is sliding down the charts here. Aaron Curry is not in the box score. Let me say that again: "Aaron Curry, the #4 pick in last year's draft, who played almost 75% of the game last night, did not register a sack or a tackle." Ear muffs, kids. Fuck me! Son of bitch! Do I need to abandon the hope that Curry is even a passable starting linebacker, let alone a Pro Bowl caliber player?!? To be fair, I did see a couple QB pressures, and a moment where he blew up a play in the backfield, but come on. This defense was designed for Curry as much as anyone else, and he's invisible. As good of a sign as Okung's play was for the offense in the first game, that's how bad of a sign it is for the Seahawks defense if Curry continues to play like this.

Chris Clemons was also nearly shutout, registering a whopping 1 tackle. Red Bryant looked good, but is unlikely to ever successfully chase down a QB that sees him. EJ Wilson showed up a little, which was good to see. Kentwan Balmer played, but I didn't expect that and wasn't looking for him, so I'll look again on DVR. Vickerson was not nearly as disruptive this week, and Craig Terrill should be on the roster bubble. I don't think he offers anything anymore. On the plus side, my man Dexter Davis had another notable game. He shot at the QB like a missile on that sack, forced fumble and recovery. I turned to my friend and said, "who the hell was THAT?" Don't book his trip to Canton yet, but at least he shows up in the game.

Earl Thomas had a great game. That's right. He got burned multiple times, including on the opening play, and Seahawks fans should rejoice. The kid is really young, bursting with confidence, and used to making plays. That combination equals burnt toast in the NFL. Last night's game won't eliminate the potential for bad reads and rookie mistakes, but it will start him on the path to being a legit NFL safety. It would have been ideal for that to happen in game 1 of the pre-season, but game 2 ain't bad.

I missed a fair chunk of the fourth quarter on the bus ride home to relieve the babysitter, so if anything else jumps out at me after watching it on DVR, I'll be sure to share. For now, feel free to add your thoughts. Great loss!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Vincent Jackson or Vincent Price? Depends on who you ask

News came down today that the Seahawks have entered in contract negotiations with Chargers Pro Bowl WR Vincent Jackson. Jackson, 27, is a 6'5" 230 lb beast of a wideout. Not surprisingly, he is known for making plays over the top of defenders and being a target for fade routes in the end zone. His career average of 17.2 YPC tells us he's a big play guy as well.

The news about Jackson comes on the heels of news that the Seahawks had invited former 49er WR Brandon Jones in for a visit as well. While the Seahawks don't have an established #1 receiver, they also are loaded with bodies.

Make no mistake about it, a few Seahawk WRs are squirming after hearing this news. Bringing in a player like Jackson means somebody has to go. Butler, Tate and Mike Williams are young with upside and smallish contracts. Housh was gone the last three days for the always curious "personal reasons." He has to be noticing how few balls are coming his way in practice. It would be a surprise, though, if he was on the way out. He is guaranteed $7M this season, so releasing him would be pretty rash. They might be able to get something of value in a trade, and it would clear some cap room for a #1 like Jackson. I'm not ready to give up on Housh yet. People keep forgetting he caught 79 balls in a "bad" year last season.

Deion Branch has had a strong camp, but is a terrible pairing with Housh. Neither can stretch the defense, and will likely lead to teams rolling up a safety to clog the underneath routes. Branch has no guaranteed money on his deal if he doesn't make the 53-man roster. That certainly doesn't help his chances.

It's possible to imagine the Hawks using the acquisition of a player like Jackson to knock a player off the bottom of the WR ranks like a Ben Obamanu if they are planning to keep six on the roster (Housh, Branch, Jackson, Tate, Butler, Williams). That would mean Branch would likely slide into the slot, leaving Housh and Jackson to play the outside. I don't think that's the worst thing in the world, but I'm not sure I like the idea of reducing the playing time of the younger receivers with a team clearly rebuilding. If you don't jettison Housh or Branch, acquiring Jackson means less time for Williams, Tate and Butler.

The meta-message through all of this is the front office is never going to stop looking for ways to improve the talent on the roster. I love that. For all the talk about Pete Carroll running a "soft" camp, he will continue to get the most from his players if they know they have to bring it every day or risk being replaced. Is Jackson the answer at WR? I'm not sold that he is, but I love that we are kicking the tires.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

From Leo to SAM, meet your new defensive front

The acquisition of Kentwan Balmer and trade of Lawrence Jackson have led to numerous conversations about why one first round bust would be any more desirable than another. I found myself explaining the Seahawks new scheme to a few people, and though the rest of you may find it valuable as well.

The Seahawks have been a 4-3 defense for as long as I can remember. That is, four defensive lineman, and three linebackers. The ideal defensive end was generally 6'3"-6'6", weighed between 265-285 lbs and had the combination of speed and strength to rush the passer while also holding the edges on running plays. Defensive tackles varied from the massive run stuffers to the bowling ball gap crashers, with sizes ranging from Chuck Darby to Sam Adams.

Linebackers included the SAM (strongside) LB that lines up across from the TE, the WILL (weakside) LB, and the MIKE (middle) LB. SAM LBs tend to be larger, knowing that they will tangle with the TE more often. WILL LBs tend to be your best open-field tacklers, and may be your fastest linebackers as they need to be comfortable in open space. Middle LBs are often the field generals who are intended to patrol sideline to sideline, fill the gaps left by the d-line, and cover receivers in the short-middle of the field.

The 2010 Seahawks will feature a 4-3 defense, in that it will have four lineman and three LBs, but it will play a lot like a 3-4. That might sound confusing, but stick with me because it really is pretty simple.

There are three significant differences from a typical 4-3 alignment:
  1. The SAM LB often plays off the line of scrimmage in a 4-3. The Seahawks will play our SAM (Aaron Curry) right on the line of scrimmage almost every down.
  2. The strongside DE is usually asked to do the same thing as the weakside DE. We will feature a strongside DE that plays more like a DT. Instead of rushing the passer or shedding blocks, Red Bryant will be asked to occupy both the TE and the RT to free up our SAM.
  3. Our weakside DE, called a LEO in this defense, will be a constant pass rusher.
You will sometimes hear the strongside DE be referred to as a "5-technique" lineman. That means he lines up with his nose on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle, in-between the tackle and the TE.

It should look something like this:

There are few implications to playing this sort of defense. First, you obviously covet a larger 5-technique DE than normal since he will be asked to occupy two blockers on almost every down. Second, you need a SAM LB that is an effective pass rusher since they play the role a typical DE plays while the 5-technique occupies blockers. The SAM must also be quick to recognize running plays or screens since there will be little help behind them if they let the RB slip past them. The very first play of the Titans game was an example of what happens when the SAM doesn't seal the corner.

Third, the LEO must be a terrific pass rusher. He will be facing the opposing LT, and will be the only player constantly going after the QB. The Seahawks have decided a good LEO is going to be around 250 lbs. He will be light by NFL standards, but will have the WILL and MIKE backing him up. Chris Clemons (254 lbs) is the starter here, with Nick Reed (247 lbs) and Ricky Foley (245 lbs) fighting to back him up.

When you have one defensive end that being asked to play like a DT, and likely weigh north of 300 lbs, and the other defensive end being asked to be a speed pass rusher weighing closer to 250 lbs, a 275 lb defensive end like Lawrence Jackson has a hard time finding a home. Similarly, a 315 lb lineman like Kentwan Balmer has a better chance to fit in.

Things to watch for with this new alignment will range from whether Aaron Curry and Red Bryant can keep teams from running around them to the outside, to whether Chris Clemons is strong enough to hold the edge against LTs across the NFL. The MIKE is critical to help support all across the line.

Give the coaches credit for designing a defense that lends itself to the strengths of their personnel, but not too much credit until we see it work.

Dexter Davis lurking behind Aaron Curry

When a team redesigns a major part of its defense in the hope that it better suits your talents, you know you have some juice. That's exactly what happened with Aaron Curry in this off-season. In a post I'll publish later tonight, I'll explain what has changed and what to look for. For now, I want to focus on one of the positions, the "SAM" LB. The strongside, or SAM, LB lines up across from the Tight End. It is called the strong side linebacker because the offensive tackle has the assistance from the TE in blocking.

Aaron Curry is our starting SAM. As you've likely read elsewhere, Curry will be lining up on the line almost exclusively this season. The hope is that Curry can be more single-minded in moving forward at the QB or RB. Attack. Attack. Attack.

The problem thus far (albeit only one pre-season game) is that Curry still has a bad habit of running really fast right into the chest of his blocker, often taking himself immediately out of the play. He has not shown the ability to get consistent pressure on the QB, or wreak havoc in the backfield.

In comes Dexter Davis. Davis played DE at Arizona State, and was known as a fierce pass rusher that was undersized for a DE. The Seahawks drafted him in the 7th round, and have started to play him at SAM. Last Saturday against the Titans was the first glimpse of the experiment, and by all accounts, it was a rousing success. Davis recorded a sack, and had multiple QB pressures. Granted, he did this against backup lineman, but his presence was felt nonetheless.

Nobody in their right mind would predict that a 7th round choice would eventually unseat a #4 overall pick after seeing one pre-season game. I never claimed to be in my right mind. I don't care what Pete Carroll says about competition, the only way Aaron Curry comes out of the lineup this season is if he's hurt. But next season? If Curry is a flop again this year, don't be shocked to see Dexter Davis or someone like him, force Curry to the bench.

You heard it here first.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Roster Gymnastics: What's Next?

A couple days back, I challenged DE Lawrence Jackson to put up or shut up. In the 48 hours since, Jackson took the field for his first training camp practice, the Seahawks traded for another DE in Kentwan Balmer, and then Jackson was dealt to the Lions for a 6th round pick. Who knew I had such sway with the Seahawks front office?

On the roster Richter Scale, these moves check in at 3.5. More than the imperceptible sway caused by the comings and goings of non-roster invitees, but not enough of a tremor to cause more than the most avid fan to take note.

Carroll and Schneider have already been lauded for their massive roster turnover with well over 120 moves in the last year, with some moves registering as 8.5 level quakes like drafting franchise cornerstones in Russell Okung and trading for possible future franchise QBs in Charlie Whitehurst. The vast majority of the moves have been the 1.5-2.0 non-roster moves where you see 98% of them go back out the door, and a few (e.g., Mike Williams) climbing up the ranks.

Hawks fans should expect an increase in auditions for offensive lineman. Ray Willis is out with knee surgery on a knee that already is arthritic. We have very little depth at tackle, and almost no quality depth at center or guard. Chester Pitts will hopefully be a great option, but he is also a very large man recovering from knee surgery.

The defensive line may still see a stream of searching in the hopes that we can pull a disruptive rabbit out of the hat, but with Balmer's addition, I think things will slow there a bit. The next "known" name at risk? DT Craig Terrill. You heard it hear first.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Whitehurst as a future starter

Starting QBs in the NFL need to be more than just good players. They need to be solid leaders who can go from motivating and commanding frothing grown men on the field of play, to handling 360 degree questions from the media. Matt Hasselbeck is the best I've seen in my time as a Seahawk fan. He's approachable as a fan, but has always clearly had the team in his corner. He's a guy's guy, and might even be a girl's guy if he wasn't follicly-challenged.

As successors to Matt have auditioned over the years, I was almost as focused on their off-field leadership capabilities as I was on their on-field performance. Seneca Wallace was never going to be the personality that Matt, Dave Krieg, Warren Moon or Jim Zorn were. Charlie Frye finished a fantastic pre-season game at SD in his first real audition, and it only took 15 seconds of interview time to realize this guy was never going to be *the* guy on a winning football team.

During the two training camp practices I attended this season, I noticed a few things about Charlie Whitehurst. First and foremost, this guy is quintessential Southern California. He comes across as a guy without a care, at least in part due to his 70s era bearded sex appeal. Multiple female Hawk supporters could be heard "noticing" Whitehurst, and this was during the stretching drills folks. There was no football ability to notice at this point. That's okay, though. The goal is to make Hawk fans swoon, and getting a few ladies on board won't hurt.

At first, Whitehurst comes across as a space cadet. He's not really engaging with his teammates or coaches. He doesn't smile much. If not for his red QB jersey and his long hair/beard combo, I'm not sure you'd have any reason to notice him at all. Matt, on the other hand, is all smiles and conversation. He is the BMOC.

Whitehurst looked largely mediocre during the first practice I saw, and was much improved the next day when he got all of Matt's reps (maybe he got more confident after winning the HR derby the previous night). There was no difference in his demeanor. Even keel. Rolling with the flow. Waiting for the next wave.

The more I observe the guy, the less I think he's a space cadet. Instead, I think he's not a guy that feels he has anything to prove. This can work against him if he doesn't rise to the occasion during a competition for playing time, but it can also work for him when he enters a hugely important first game as a Seahawk with no jitters. The big stage does not phase the guy. That's a clear plus.

His performance was even more impressive after watching it again on DVR. No rushed throws. Solid reads, not always to the primary receiver. He very rarely locked onto one guy with his eyes. He was poised in the pocket and threw with authority and touch.

I'll now be looking to see how his teammates respond to him. That interception he threw looked like it was his fault on first blush, but on replay I'm not so sure Mike Williams didn't run the wrong route. Williams also appeared to be late getting his head around on a pass further into the game that hit him in the hands. Whitehurst didn't throw up his hands or stare up into the sky. He didn't show up his receiver. After the game, Williams made a point to tell people his TD was mostly due to Whitehurst making a pre-snap read of a blitz and adjusting his route. Is Williams always that deferential, or did he owe Whitehurst for not calling him out?

These may seem like inconsequential questions, but being a Super Bowl-level NFL starting QB requires all of these things. There are cases where a QB may be so talented on the field he can overcome off-field leadership or personality issues (Ben Roethlisberger), or so talented off-field leading his team that he can overcome on-field shortcomings (Trent Dilfer), but those are the exceptions.

Whitehurst is a looooong way from having my vote as a future starter in Seattle, but he has already proven to have the best combination of on-field talent and off-field presence we've seen in a backup since Matt came along.

Put up or shut up: Lawrence Jackson

First round draft picks are supposed to be immediate, impact starters on your team in the NFL. Players are often considered "busts" if they are just mediocre starters. The bar is high. For the Seahawks 2008 1st round pick, DE Lawrence Jackson, mediocre would be an improvement.

Jackson has done very little to distinguish himself in the time that he's been a Seahawk. He hasn't been stout against the run. He hasn't been a pass rusher. He had a brief 3-4 game sprint at the start of last season when he registered a handful of sacks, but it hardly registered as a blip on the radar.

Now, we see his former coach take over the reigns of the Hawks. This certainly has to be Jackson's last stand, right? If anyone is going to get the most out of Jackson, you would think it would be the guy who coached him at his peak value in college.

Instead, all we've seen is Jackson sitting out due to a mysterious hamstring injury for the entire camp. No practices. No games. No heart.

It doesn't happen often, but this may be a situation where a 1st-round pick does not make the cut two years after being drafted. EJ Wilson looked great on the goal line this weekend, and may be a viable stout DE. Chris Clemons, Nick Reed, and Ricky Foley may all be better pass rushers than Jackson. Red Bryant has all but sealed the other starting DE position.

You need to ask yourself, if you're Pete Carroll or John Schneider, has Jackson really shown you enough to keep him over another player on the roster? Cameron Morrah is great example of a guy who is having a great camp, but is likely the 4th TE when teams generally keep three. Do you cut a guy like that loose for the sake of keeping Jackson?

Compete, Lawrence. Compete.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Morning After: Seahawks Beat Titans, 20-18

I started yesterday with a case of the "maybes." Maybe we're going to be better than people think. Maybe Pete Carroll is going to take pre-season more seriously than other NFL coaches, and we'll blow someone out. Maybe Matt's great camp will translate into multiple marches down the field for TDs. Maybe our new playmakers like Golden Tate will burst onto the scene. Maybe Aaron Curry will finally look like a great player. Or...maybe not.

Pre-season victories never feel worth celebrating, but this one felt especially hollow. It took only the opening series to slap fans out of the happy trance we'd surrendered to in an energizing off-season and training camp. Our defense looked very familiar, and not in a good way, as the Titans waltzed down the field to score an easy touchdown. No pressure on the passer was applied. Massive buffers by the secondary led to relaxing receptions and runs. Aaron Curry looked like exactly the same player he was last season while getting sealed on the 1st play of the game in what led to a 6-yard gain, and then looking lost and slow in coverage as the RB slid by him for a simple reception. Nowhere to be seen was the difference-making defensive presence that constantly disrupts an offense. All too often, the Seahawks defense has felt like the little kid swinging away wildly while the big brother holds him at arms-length with one hand. Even while it was great to see Chris Clemons get a sack, there was nothing close to consistent pressure on the QB, or disruptions in the backfield. Linebackers were not flying through holes making great plays. And getting back to Curry for a second, his tough guy act is getting tired. Woofing at the offensive players and getting in their faces while they are KICKING YOUR ASS is embarrassing. His personal foul penalty on the extra point was the perfect example. Grow up, get better, or shut your mouth. False bravado is for losers.

The most promising part of the 1st-team defense was when Kevin Vickerson substituted for Colin Cole. The pairing of Vickerson and Red Bryant on one side of the line provided the most consistent disruption of any group. Colin Cole was playing well into the second half, and may be on notice. Josh Wilson made a great play on his interception, and continues to be a playmaker at the CB position. He gets burned quite a bit as well, but on a team dying for people who can make a play, he stands out. Kelly Jennings was shown as the starter, and has played there in training camp, but Wilson appeared to be the starter opposite Trufant. Earl Thomas did not stand out, which is good and bad. Neither safety made a memorable play.

The backup defense was notable in a few ways. First, we are really thin at LB. Our 2nd team linebackers do not appear to be legit NFL players, let alone backups. Dexter Davis was someone I'm eager to watch on DVR as his stats tell the story of a disruptive presence, but I didn't see it live. Nick Reed was invisible, often because he was being slammed to the ground on running plays. It was interesting to see Roy Lewis getting backup minutes considering he was getting burned in training camp, and he looked good on special teams and in coverage. Jamar Adams continues to be a player to watch. I have him ahead of Kevin Ellison at this point. He hits hard, and looks confident back there. I was long gone to the bus by the time my man Kam Chancellor sealed the game with a long INT return. He continues to be my favorite player that I've never seen play.

On offense, Matt looked somewhere between decisive and robotic. The throws were coming out quick, but not necessarily to an open receiver. While Deion Branch was being targeted, he wasn't creating much separation. In fact, none of the starting skill positions created much excitement. Justin Forsett was announced as the starter on the PA system, but Jones got the starter carries. The people sitting around me got an earful for a quarter as we were forced to watch Jones SUCK AS USUAL. I won't rant about it again, but the guy offers NOTHING. NOTHING!! The combination of Jones, Housh, Branch, Carlson and Baker will have defensive coordinators around the league sleeping like babies before facing the Hawks. Who is the gamebreaker there? I brought a friend to the game that was new to football, and I found myself telling him to wait for the second unit offense, because all the playmakers were there. I wonder how Hasselbeck would have done if he was surrounded by Forsett, Mike Williams, Deon Butler/Golden Tate, Anthony McCoy and Cameron Morrah. Great example was when Matt threw a quick WR screen to Housh, and you got to see him churn those long, slow legs for about 1.5 yards. Fine play call. Wrong personnel.

The offensive line acquitted itself pretty well for its first game together. Pass protection was solid to good. Run blocking was sub-par. Russell Okung looked great. He never looked silly out on an island, and he is surprisingly agile. He was getting to the second level of the defense with regularity. I even saw him cut block a player, get up off the ground, and make another block on multiple occasions. Whitehurst will get a lot of kudos for his game, but for my money, Okung was the most impressive Seahawk of the evening. Max Unger also had a solid game, with more than a couple of pancake blocks. Sean Locklear was just short of horrible. Most, if not all, of the QB pressure was coming from his man. He got no push on running plays. He seems checked out, and I wonder if we'll see more of Ray Willis at RT.

The 2nd unit on offense was a clear step forward. I was disappointed that Mike Williams only had one ball thrown his way. He stands out so much with his size, strength and speed combination. I'd like to see them allow him to compete for some balls against DBs. Williams also stood out with some nice blocking. Deon Butler and Golden Tate were rarely targeted, but Butler made the most of his chances, including a gorgeous 4th down catch where he blew by his defender. Quinton Ganther is a better version of Julius Jones. No nonsense, but some punch. Chris Baker and Cameron Morrah looked solid. Anthony McCoy caught a TD, but Morrah was the best TE in the game. Ben Obamanu also had a nice game. And then we have Charlie Whitehurst.

Whitehurst had the whole stadium wondering if there might be a QB controversy after all, until he reminded everyone how punishing inexperience can be with a brain dead interception that stole a FG away from the offense. To be fair, it's possible that INT was on Mike Williams for running the wrong route. Only folks in the locker room know that. Whitehurst was not as agile as I had been led to believe when chased from the pocket. His throws were accurate and sharp. He got rid of the ball quickly as well. I'm happy he had a good first game, if for no other reason than to take some of the pressure off of him. Fans entered this game calling for JP Losman, and left the game quite happy with Whitehurst.

The coaches and schemes did not stand out, and that's mostly a good thing. Bates appears to favor two TEs to a fullback, and the TEs were targeted a lot in the passing game. They ran a lot of trips, usually with a TE. I'll continue to look for tendencies, and diagram any plays that appear to be staples.

Fans that aren't drunk on Carroll Kool-Aid will leave this game with a more realistic expectation for what this season will be. Season goals should center around, establishing Okung and Thomas, finding a playmaker or two on offense, and seeing if we can develop a disruptor on defense (I wouldn't hold my breath on that last one).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Unanswered questions heading into pre-season game #1

For the first time in at least a half-dozen years, I'm going to attend a pre-season game tonight. It never seems worth the hassle, especially when the express buses aren't running. The primary reason behind my unusual journey is the sheer number of questions I have about this team, its players and the new coaching staff. When you have a team that has not only been bad the past two years, but nearly unwatchable and boring, it is the unknowns that represent hope and excitement.

Here are but a few of the things I am looking for tonight, and throughout the pre-season:

- Can Red Bryant hold the corner on running plays, or are running backs able to run sweeps around him all night long?

- Can Chris Clemons hold the corner on running plays, or are teams able to push him around?

- Is Kevin Vickerson noticeable in the DT rotation?

- Can Red Bryant collapse the pocket at all?

- Does Aaron Curry look like a star linebacker in the making?

- Do Ricky Foley or Nick Reed show up in the pass rush?

- How many yards are teams getting on first down? Are we forcing 3rd and long?

- Does our defense look any different than last year rushing the passer?

- Is Marcus Trufant really back?

- How many false steps is Earl Thomas taking at safety? Does he impact the game more positively than negatively?

- What role does Kam Chancellor play? If asked to cover, how does he do?

- Which backup safety looks better: Jordan Babineaux, Jamar Adams, or Kevin Ellison?

- How fast does Matt play, and how accurate/well-timed are his throws?

- Which receivers stand out?

- Is Julius Jones going to play well enough to force us to watch him during the regular season? Please no!

- Will Forsett assert himself?

- Does this offense throw to the running back very often?

- How often will we see two TE sets, and of those, how often will we run out of them versus pass?

- Has John Carlson improved as a blocker?

- How good of a blocker and receiver is Anthony McCoy?

- Is Deion Branch really experiencing a revival?

- Is Deon Butler going to force the coaches to find reps for him?

- Is Golden Tate the impact player we all hope he is?

- Can Leon Washington play at the speed he used to?

- Does Okung look stable against the pass rush and dominant in run blocking?

- How is the overall pass protection?

- Where are the primary passing zones in this offense? Short? Intermediate? Deep?

- How often does Matt progress past his primary receiver? Does he look confident going through his progressions?

- Does Whitehurst earn some respect?

- How believable is Carroll about competition, when it could make him look bad? In other words, will Losman get enough reps to make Whitehurst look like a 3rd string QB?

- Will we score TDs or FGs? Does the red zone offense look sharp?

- Do Mike Williams and Housh get on the field together at all, and how do defenses match up to their size?

The reality is you can find many false answers during pre-season. The Hawks went 4-0 last pre-season, and Nick Reed was a sack machine. Even so, a strong performance would be encouraging and a weak performance would be discouraging. Looking forward to seeing it unfold!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Comparing Seahawks O-Line To Past Alex Gibbs' Lines

Despite being among the most anonymous and mundane parts of football team, the offensive line gets a ton of attention. Seahawks fan, in particular, fixate on the line after witnessing one of the most dominating left sides in history take them all the way to the Super Bowl.

Many teams build up a line using the classic formula of a dominating left tackle (usually 6'5"+ and athletic), bulky guards over 320 lbs and a tenacious line leader at center. Alex Gibbs flew in the face of convention as he built one of the lightest and least intimidating lines in the NFL. He rose to fame when those Denver Broncos lines led to multiple Super Bowls and countless no-name 1,000+ yard rushers.

Gibbs accomplished these feats by valuing athleticism over bulk, and smarts over talent. His lines were known for giving defensive lineman fits with leg whips, cut blocks and flawless teamwork. When I look at the current Seahawks offensive line, I can't help but wonder how it will work to mesh Gibbs' philosophies with lineman inherited from past regimes, built largely under old-school philosophies.

My impression is that the Seahawks line is too bulky to be effective at the cut blocking that Gibbs loves. I can't help but wonder how much the Hawks preferred Trent Williams to Russell Okung because of his drool-worthy athleticism for a tackle. Spencer seems far heavier than the classic Gibbs centers like Tom Nalen. Locklear is athletic, but quite big as well. Like I often do, I decided to go quantitative on your asses, and see how the Hawks line stacked up in height, weight and age to previous notable Gibbs' lines.

Here's what I found:

I picked two Broncos lines. The first, 1997, was the first of their two Super Bowl wins. The same line returned for the 1998 season. The second, 1999, was a sample of a line in transition (like the Seahawks), which I thought would give me some insight into how Gibbs likes to build a line when acquiring new players. A few things jump out. First, the championship line was old, with only one player under the age of 31. Second, they were light, weighing in at an average of only 290 lbs. They were lanky, though, with an average height of 76.5 inches (6'4.5"). When Gibbs had to replace two key members on his line, he did so with young players, not veterans. He also made the line *lighter*, dropping the average weight to a tight-endish 286.5lbs. Now, we should take into account that the average weight of NFL lineman has likely increased in the 11 years since the 1999 Broncos line, but I am old enough to remember they were tiny even by 1999 standards.

The Texans 2008 line cleared the path for Steve Slatton to run for 1,282 yards and 4.8 YPC. That group looks nothing like the Broncos lines of old. Every player is over 300 lbs, and the average age is under 26. It's worth noting that Gibbs approved bringing over the heaviest of those Texans lineman, Chester Pitts, to play for the Hawks. That should at least tell us that Gibbs doesn't think being light is a prerequisite to being effective in his scheme.

The Hawks line doesn't look so bulky, too old, or too young by these standards. Now, I think the roster showing Russell Okung weighing the same 310 as Sean Locklear is suspect, but I'd bet the other weights for the other team's lineman are equally suspect. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the Broncos lineman were even lighter than what's shown online.

This information isn't enough for us to draw any conclusions, but it does help me feel a little less skeptical that our personnel will match up with the new scheme, especially given the Texans makeup.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

We are learning about Pete Carroll

The prevailing opinion of Seahawks fans when Pete Carroll was hired was ambivalence. Most of us knew he had become a historic college coach, but it was unclear how much of that had to do with coaching, and how much of it had to do with recruiting. Since recruiting is largely a wasted talent in the NFL, it was hard to get all that excited about Carroll as a coach.

There were similar reservations about his previous NFL coaching experience, and the potential for his need to prove himself getting in the way of sound decisions. The Charlie Whitehurst trade fanned those flames, but they were all but doused after a stellar draft that most ranked as the best in the NFL.

Fast forward a few months, and we get a lot of stories about his "energy" and the speakers playing music at practice, but nothing of any substance. That is, at least until Tuesday. On Tuesday, a few scuffles broke out at practice. Bill Cowher or Rex Ryan may have reveled in it. Mike Holmgren may have focused on the the QBs involvement, chastising Matt for putting himself in harm's way. Jim Mora may have jumped into the middle of it. Pete Carroll spoke to his team to tell them that they must stop short of doing anything that would result in a penalty during a game.

Sounds sensible, right? It also tells us a little about Carroll as a coach, and his state of mind. He is not posing, or grandstanding, telling long stories to reporters of fights he's seen during practice in the NFL. He's not trying to create an image for the team as getting "nastier." He isn't apologizing for it. He handled it without hesitation or drama. For a guy who was the Big Show in Tinsel Town for nearly a decade, that says a lot.

In that small moment, Carroll gave me some hope that he is here for the right reasons, and will be an earnest leader of this team. If that's true, his players will play for him. If that's true, there will be no favorites and no sacred cows. What remains to be seen is how he and his staff can match up on the X's and O's with other NFL coaching staffs. Saturday will give us a clue. How he leads the team through a likely losing season will tell us much more.

For now, I will admit that I'm slowly finding myself in Pete Carroll's corner, and that's not where I expected to be.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A final word on Super Bowl XL

Something has been missing from the whole debate about Mr Leavy admitting to making game-changing mistakes in the Super Bowl. As has become customary in America, there is no middle, only extremes. One extreme tells you that the refs cost the Seahawks the game, ignoring the myriad of dropped balls from Jeremy Stevens and the crippling injury the Marquand Manuel. The other extreme says that the Steelers won the game fair and square, and that blaming the refs is nothing more than sour grapes.

The real story here is not what those calls did to effect the outcome of the game. The real story is that now Seahawks fans have been given back the opportunity to be gracious losers. For five years, Steelers fans, had both the victory and the higher ground. They could tell us we were whining poor sports. Now, Steelers fans can't argue with the fact that there were critical game-changing calls. Seahawks fans need not even bring it up. In fact, we should only ever talk about the Seahawks mistakes and injuries.

I tried this new tactic with a Steelers fan at work, and the immediate response was, "yeah, and those calls didn't help any." You see, Leavy did us the universal favor of tarnishing the Steelers victory.

Don't waste time arguing about whether those calls decided the game. Just enjoy your newfound perch looking down at those shamed Steelers fans.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Final "Teams within the Team" Pre-Season Rankings

Here's how things stacked up:

What do you think? How would you rank them?

Ranking The Teams Within The Team: #1 - Quarterbacks

Just for kicks, I decided to take a look at the various units on the Seahawks team and attempt to project how good, or bad, they may be in the upcoming season. I ranked the units based on their top-end potential as well as their low-end potential, and also how much confidence there was in predicting their performance. Here are the units that I ranked (in no particular order):

Offensive line
Running backs
Wide receivers
Tight ends
Defensive line

#1 - The Quarterbacks

Potential Stars in 2010: Matt Hasselbeck
Hasselbeck has been on a steady, injury-plagued, decline over the last two seasons. He had a career-high 17 picks in 2009. He's now 35, and playing behind a highly suspect offensive line. All that said, he's still a potential Pro Bowler when he's right, and there just aren't that many Pro Bowl-capable QBs in the NFL. Savor his time here, folks.

Potential Disasters: Hasselbeck, Whitehurst
I would never have put Hasselbeck on this list before last year. His decision-making and accuracy was far below his standards. I choose to believe it was an abberation, especially after watching a few training camp practices, but the possibility remains that he is washed up. Whitehurst has never succeeded at any part of an NFL. He owns a career 65 QB rating in the pre-season. Given the other moves that seem brilliant this off-season, we should all give Carroll and Schneider the benefit of the doubt, but fans already are showing (in training camp!) that they're ready to boo this kid at the first sign of trouble.

Easiest Players To Project: Hasselbeck
We've all seen him for years. His deep passes have improved over the years, but Matt's bread-and-butter is timing patterns on intermediate routes. He's a maestro in the red zone, and the best leader this team has ever seen.

How in the world can someone rank the QB position as the best on the Seahawks? We've got a 35-year-old starter who looks closer to retirement than to NFL starter, an untested backup, and a washout from Buffalo. The easiest answer is that Matt Hasselbeck is the best player on the Seahawks at the league's toughest position, and it's not close. People can point to the injuries and age, but that ignores the fact that he plays his position at a level unmatched elsewhere on this team when he is healthy. If Hasselbeck played for the Cardinals or 49ers, they may be Super Bowl contenders. Without him, they may not even win their divisions. You cannot overestimate the importance of a good QB. After Hasselbeck, you have two players with the potential to grow. Losman looks like a guy that could step in right now, and Whitehurst could surprise people. Let's hope we don't see either of those guys do anything but kneel-downs in 2010.

Ranking The Teams Within The Team: #2 - Tight Ends

Just for kicks, I decided to take a look at the various units on the Seahawks team and attempt to project how good, or bad, they may be in the upcoming season. I ranked the units based on their top-end potential as well as their low-end potential, and also how much confidence there was in predicting their performance. Here are the units that I ranked (in no particular order):

Offensive line
Running backs
Wide receivers
Tight ends
Defensive line

#2 - The Tight Ends

Potential Stars in 2010: John Carlson
Carlson was a major disappointment last season. I would have never guessed he would decline in both receptions and yards, even with the state of the offense. He became a liability as a blocker and started to drop passes, which forced coaches to question how often they wanted him on the field. Carlson will be surrounded by better talent this season, and will be pushed by talented newcomers. He still has Pro Bowl potential, and it would not shock me to see it realized this year.

Potential Disasters: None
The strength of this unit is the total lack of downside. Each of the top three TEs are good at what they do. Carlson is close to a disastrous blocker, but his other qualities shine bright enough that it's hard to imagine him ever being a disaster.

Easiest Players To Project: Chris Baker
Baker is the veteran. He's played eight seasons, and will get you 15-30 catches a year with a few TDs and solid blocking.

Many pundits would place the tight ends as the best unit on the Seahawks. During much of this series, I had them there as well. You can see why when you have a young starter who has Pro Bowl tools, a rookie in Anthony McCoy who may end up being better than Carlson since he can block and catch, a vet in Baker and a very solid fourth in Cameron Morrah. The thing that knocked this group down a notch for me was that too much of their value is still in the "potential" category. There are no Pro Bowlers here. It's possible teams may eventually fear the Hawks two TE sets, but they don't yet. Regardless of where they rank, this is undoubtedly the group that is least likely to make fans cringe in 2010.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ranking The Teams Within The Team: #3 - Linebackers

Just for kicks, I decided to take a look at the various units on the Seahawks team and attempt to project how good, or bad, they may be in the upcoming season. I ranked the units based on their top-end potential as well as their low-end potential, and also how much confidence there was in predicting their performance. Here are the units that I ranked (in no particular order):

Offensive line
Running backs
Wide receivers
Tight ends
Defensive line

#3 - The Linebackers

Potential Stars in 2010: Lofa Tatupu, Aaron Curry, LeRoy Hill, David Hawthorne
All of our top four linebackers either have been stars, or could be. Reality has been that only Hawthorne has played at a Pro Bowl level in the past few seasons. He started 12 games and amassed 110 tackles in those games for an average of 9.16/start. Patrick Willis led the league in tackles, and averaged 9.5/start. Hawthorne was better than Tatupu. Tatupu and Hill's best seasons were their rookie years. We need them to step up...a lot. Curry could be the best of the bunch if reality catches up with potential.

Potential Disasters: Curry
Curry was a major disappointment last season. The line we are getting that Lofa's injury was the reason Curry started to struggle is complete and total bullshit. Curry was missing open field tackles, blowing coverage, and disappearing from games before and after Lofa got hurt. Curry had one pass rush move, which was to try and blow by tackles. After people learned this, they just gladly guided him past the pocket. Curry was a liability last season. That's unacceptable in his second year.

Easiest Players To Project: Hawthorne, Hill
Hawthorne makes plays whenever he's on the field. Hill is a steady open-field tackler that seems to have peaked below a pro bowl level.

Money and legacy may hold this unit back. Lofa and Curry are unlikely to be taken off the field for any reason other than injury. If Lofa is still averaging 5.3 tackles, as he did last season before getting injured, we are far better off with The Heater stepping in. Depth here is a concern as we only have Will Herring after the top 4. No more excuses. This unit must lead the defense, and make impact plays, or else it is time to restock the cupboards.

Ranking The Teams Within The Team: #4 - Wide Receivers

Just for kicks, I decided to take a look at the various units on the Seahawks team and attempt to project how good, or bad, they may be in the upcoming season. I ranked the units based on their top-end potential as well as their low-end potential, and also how much confidence there was in predicting their performance. Here are the units that I ranked (in no particular order):

Offensive line
Running backs
Wide receivers
Tight ends
Defensive line

#4 - The Wide Receivers

Potential Stars in 2010: TJ Houshmandzadeh, Golden Tate
Housh had a subpar season last year and still caught 79 balls for over 900 yards. All the off-field talking distracts from the reality that he is still a talented playmaker. Tate has the name, the college credentials, and the potential to be a dynamic part of the Hawks offense for years to come.

Potential Disasters: Mike Williams, Deion Branch
Williams seems poised for a breakout year, but when you have a player who has underachieved for as long as he has, it would be unwise to ignore the downside potential. Branch looked so good in the time I saw him practice, it made me really question my expectations for him. I had written him off in the Julius Jones category of wasting a roster spot for a vet who won't be here when we are ready to be contenders again. If he is the player I saw in practice, he may be our leading receiver. If he's the player we've seen on the field the last few seasons, he will be a disaster.

Easiest Players To Project: Housh
While Housh has not been a focal point of the offense so far, we all know what he will bring each week. His talent is fading in a way that should not effect his production.

Branch, Williams, Housh and Tate will have a lot to say about whether this is viable NFL receiving corps, but Deon Butler could steal the show. He looks confident and explosive from the slot, and his chemistry with Hasselbeck is promising. With Butler and Tate stretching the defense, and Branch, Williams and Housh working the underneath-to-intermediate routes, there is some symmetry that we have not enjoyed at this position in recent past. Williams and Housh could be a handful in the red zone, especially when teamed with our big TEs. Lots of media, including Hugh Millen, are writing the receivers off as among the worst in the NFL. There are a fair number of unknowns, but I like what I see so far.

Impressions from Training Camp 8/7/2010

Thanks to my mis-read of the training camp reservation system, I found myself back out there for the 2nd straight day (as opposed to next week). I hit the early morning practice with my oldest friend, who is an avid Ducks fan that I'm trying to lure into Seahawks nation.

Coach Carroll didn't help the cause by holding the entire practice on the West field, farthest from the berm. Players line the East sideline, waiting to get in, which acted as screen to fans. Basically, I didn't get to see all that much, and they ended up making it a brief 90 min practice instead of the customary two hours.

What I did notice was the Hawks installing a bunch of trick plays for Golden Tate. Most were reverse options where Tate, a lefty with a surprisingly strong arm, had the choice of whether to throw or run. During the offense-only portion, Tate mostly threw the ball. Each time, it was a tight spiral, and appeared on target. The fact that he is left-handed may increase the surprise of the play for at least the first few times they run it.

When they reached the scrimmage, they ran the play a few more times and Tate often ran.

It's hard to say who stood out for the reasons I mentioned above, but I noticed Leon Washington appearing more confident and making people miss. Mike Williams, again, is hard to miss due to his size and the #1 on his chest. Red Bryant blew up at least one play. Ricky Foley did the same. Walter Thurmond looked a little more gimpy with his knee than he did the day before. Kam Chancellor was back in pads, but I never saw when he was in.

Okung looked strong in the drills I saw him play. He appears to get into the lineman with confidence and is strong enough to control them. Earl Thomas is a spark plug. That kid likes to talk, and adds some needed competitive fire to the team. Running backs regularly "finish" runs, even after they are called down. Thomas, on at least two occasions, went after the running backs and knocked the ball out of their hands. His battery mate, Lawyer Milloy, loves to break into dance with the music blaring. The two of them together could make for some fun on the field.

Matt Hasselbeck was given the practice off, so we saw a lot of Whitehurst and Losman. Both looked competent. Whitehurst looked much better than the day before, putting most of his passed on the money. Neither QB looks as decisive as Matt has thus far.

Houshmandzadeh continued to be MIA. He made a sparkling catch, which was one more catch than he had yesterday, but I'm wondering if he's a large part of this offense.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Impressions from Training Camp 8/6/2010

If you live in the area and haven't already gone out to see a Seahawks training camp practice in the Renton facility, you really need to do it. The cost is $5 (for transportation), and you certainly get your money's worth. It's a great place to watch the team, and see behind the curtains of an NFL franchise.

I had the good fortune to see Russell Okung's first official practice as a Seahawk. I didn't see him out on the field until later in the afternoon, but I saw enough to be able to tell you he did not appear overwhelmed or overmatched. He's a physical specimen that won't be pushed around. I'd expect him to excel in run blocking right out of the gate, and we'll just have to see about pass blocking. He looks more like a mauler than a quick-footed blocker. We'll learn a lot after he faces elite pass rushers.

The surprise of the afternoon for me was Deion Branch. Not only did he make the most plays of any receiver in practice, but he made the plays by running crisp routes and having clear chemistry with Hasselbeck. The timing of a couple of throw and catches was remarkable. Contrast that to Houshmandzadeh, who may have gone without a catch the whole practice. Other receivers that stood out included Deon Butler, who got behind the defense multiple times, and Mike Williams who looks fit and flashed solid hands catching the ball against coverage. Golden Tate had a bad practice, dropping at least one touchdown and not showing up in general.

Hasselbeck is as advertised. He looks much more confident making his reads and delivering the ball in this offense. His completion percentage had to be 85-90% on the day, including at least one drop of a perfectly thrown ball to Anthony McCoy in-between two defenders. No other quarterback looked close. If Pete Carroll wanted to push Matt with competition, he hasn't done it yet. Whitehurst seemed more journeyman than future star, and the crowd was noticeably anti-Whitehurst. I heard multiple calls for JP Losman. Losman got a few snaps, and was sharp with what he did, although they were all simple short crossing patterns. If I'm the Seahawks coaching staff, I keep Losman off the field for much of training camp and the pre-season to avoid having to answer LOTS of questions about Whitehurst.

This tight end group is going to be a tight race. We all know about Carlson, and may have read about new draft pick McCoy. Chris Baker from the Jets got at least some publicity. The guy, though, that is flying below the radar is last year's 7th round draft pick, Cameron Morrah. He stood out a few times streaking down the field and making some nice catches. I don't know that I see us keeping four tight ends, but we may get away with stashing Morrah on the practice squad if we're lucky.

It started as a special teams practice, with punt coverage drills. Tate, Forsett, and Walter Thurmond took turns returning kicks. Each of them looked extremely comfortable and confident fielding the booming kicks from Jon Ryan. There were some massive blasts off of Ryan's leg.

Defensively, there were a lot of big names missing. Lofa, Curry, Kevin Vickerson, and Kam Chancellor watched practice. New DE Chris Clemons was bigger than I expected. I may just be hopeful, but I have a good feeling about the impact he's going to have on the pass rush. Red Bryant is a load! There are a lot of big men out there, but he makes everyone look small. Marcus Trufant got beat a few times, but finished strong with two great interceptions. There were no signs of him being washed up. Jamar Adams, though, stood out with some jarring hits and good coverage. He showed up on a number of plays, and could be our starting safety next to Earl Thomas as some point.