Monday, January 3, 2011

The Morning After: Seahawks Dominate Rams For Division Title, 16-6

There was little doubt which of the two teams playing on Qwest Field deserved to be crowned 2010 NFC West Division Champs. The Seahawks, led by a suffocating defense, beat the Rams with one hand tied behind their backs. A backup quarterback, a beat-up offensive line, and a reeling defense with crippling injuries had this game well in hand from the opening snap. Any talk of the 2010 Seahawks being no better than the 2009 version can be put to rest. The coaches and players showed the intensity and energy of a winner. They ran through the Rams like they were the cheesy paper banner held in front of every High School football team as they burst from the locker room onto the field. If winning this game was going to propel the Rams into the next phase of their growth, losing it the way they did has to plant some seeds of doubt. They were feeble in all aspects of the game, all the way down to a horrendous off-sides penalty on a late Seahawks field goal attempt to give the Hawks a first down while draining precious seconds off the clock.

Franchise savior Sam Bradford was curiously asked to win the game by himself while Pro Bowler Steven Jackson was left filing his nails with a paltry 11 carries. Bradford rarely threw the ball more than 10 yards down-field, finishing with a pitiful 4.3 yards-per-attempt and 52.4 QB rating. When the Rams did throw deeper, receivers dropped the ball time and again. There is such a total lack of talent surrounding that kid, it makes their season even more impressive. The Seahawks, though, deserve a ton of credit for making him look like a rookie. He's had this same cast of characters for a while, so it can't be thrown out as a unique excuse for this game. Seattle started by taking away Bradford's #1 security blanket, Danny Amendola. Amendola led the Rams in receptions this season with 85. The next closest guy had 32 fewer catches. Amendola only averages 8.1 YPC, so the Seahawks clogged the short parts of the field, shadowing him wherever he went. Bradford adjusted in the first half by hitting his secondary safety blanket, swinging the ball to the RB out of the back field. When the Seahawks made their own adjustment in the second half and took that away, Bradford looked lost. The Rams didn't have a drive over 29 yards after halftime. In fact, their other six second half drives averaged 3.33 plays and 6.5 yards. That's domination.

Credit can spread around on defense, starting with the coaches who found a way to get this team ready to play. Say what you want about the Rams offense, this same Seahawks defense made the 49ers look like world beaters a few weeks ago, and gave up two touchdowns to Carolina. They've proven they can get destroyed by even the weakest of offenses. The players came out and played with energy and discipline, a potent combination. It also became clear they saw something on film that caused them to tell defensive players to bat down passes. There were at least a half-dozen deflections at the line of scrimmage, after probably having that many in the last dozen games combined. That's too many to be a coincidence. After the coaches, there were a variety of players that stood out. The whole defensive line played well, including a surprisingly strong performance from Kentwan Balmer who had a season-high five tackles. Brandon Mebane played with power and quickness. Colin Cole plugged up the middle again. And then there was Raheem Brock. He officially ends the season with 9.0 sacks (I believe further review will take it down to 8.5 and reward Aaron Curry with the other 0.5), and must be added to the list of superb roster moves by Carroll and Schneider. He was picked up off the scrap heap, and was put in position to have a career-high in sacks. His pass rushing partner, Chris Clemons had a few hits on the QB and pushed his season total to 11 sacks. For the math-impaired, that's 20 sacks from two defensive ends, or more than double the 9.5 sacks Patrick Kerney and Lawrence Jackson had last season.

The linebackers also had a fantastic game, led by Will Herring's interception and 9-yard tackle for loss on a reverse. Their underneath coverage on Amendola and run fits were on point all night. David Hawthorne finishes the season with 106 tackles. Even the much-maligned secondary chipped in with solid coverage. Earl Thomas stood out to me for things he did before the snap and after the whistle, as much as anything he did during the plays. He did his best 2005 Lofa Tatupu imitation by moving people around pre-snap, including one play where he ran up and pushed Aaron Curry to the outside receiver so he could cover the slot. It was an odd thing to see Curry out wide, but Thomas clearly saw something as the pass came to the slot receiver and Thomas had him blanketed for an incompletion. He also got in David Hawthorne's ear-hole after Hawthorne blew a coverage assignment on a swing pass to a WR that Thomas had to fly up and cover for. Those two moments showed a growing confidence, recognition, and leadership ability that will be valuable for years to come. His partner in crime, Lawyer Milloy, would be proud.

Charlie Whitehurst played his team to the NFC West Division Title. If he does nothing else the rest of his Seahawks career, he has gone a long way toward justifying the price Seattle paid to get him. He was given a conservative game plan, and should be given a lot of credit for playing within that plan to ensure he did not lose a game his team was poised to win. He avoided the crippling mistakes Matt Hasselbeck has made in recent weeks. His decisions and accuracy were improved, in part, due to simpler choices put in front of him. Nobody can predict what Pete Carroll will do, and many fans will be calling for Whitehurst to start against the Saints, but I'm here to tell you Whitehurst and this game plan would be a disaster against Gregg Williams' Saints defense. Whitehurst went through his progressions precious few times. He stared down his #1 option on a play, would sometimes swing the ball to a back, and often would take off running at the slightest hint of pressure. One of the few times he did visibly survey the whole field before throwing was the 61-yard pass to Ruvell Martin on the first drive. Even with that big play, Whitehurst averaged a scant 5.3 yards-per-attempt. On his other 35 attempts, he averaged a microscopic 3.74 YPA. When he was asked to throw deep, he was off target every single time. His fade patterns to Mike Williams were 3-5 yards out of bounds. Even his deep ball to Martin was under-thrown. Whitehurst's athletic ability was a positive in avoiding the rush, and his lack of turnovers was the biggest plus. The solid game Whitehurst played, and the conservative game plan Bates employed, only looks good when your defense gives up six points. You can almost guarantee the Saints will score over 20, and would not be kind to a quarterback playing like Charlie did. Call it "hating," but it is reality. It would be a huge boon for this franchise if Whitehurst was good enough to take on the Saints. He is not. He was good enough to beat the Rams, and that's pretty darn important all by itself.

Matt Hasselbeck has faced Williams schemes twice in the playoffs (2005 & 2007) when he coached the Redskins defense, and was 2-0. Hasselbeck also threw for 366 yards against the Saints in New Orleans this year. It would be a tough situation for Matt to play in. His own fans will be against him at the first sign of trouble. The Saints won't be caught off-guard this time. It could be a great final chapter in his Qwest playing career, or a sad way to see him go out. Here's to hoping he is treated with the respect he deserves by Hawks fans no matter what the outcome.

The running game was slow to start, but finished strong with nearly 150 yards on the ground. Give Jeremy Bates credit for sticking to a balanced attack with 35 carries compared to 36 pass attempts. I'd like to see the distribution of those carries shift a bit more toward Justin Forsett and Leon Washington who had a combined four carries for 32 yards. Forsett, alone, averaged over 9.0 YPC. Giving a guy three carries when he averages over 9 yards per carry is not cool. His 21-yard scamper on 2nd and 17 in the 3rd quarter was special. The offensive line persevered through another series of injuries. Mike Gibson and Russell Okung stood out for their efforts. Chris Spencer played a nice game as well, and has had a solid season that's gone largely unnoticed. Left guard is a joke. Tyler Polumbus and Chester Pitts are just not good there.


It was a great night for the team and the fans. It capped a terrific Seattle sports week. Oddly, I took less joy in it than I could have ever predicted. The last few weeks I have been saying that whether we win the division or get a high draft pick, we benefit either way. Each time the games would start, I'd get sucked in and be cheering for a win like I always do. Yesterday was different. Before the game started, I saw that the Seahawks would own the seventh pick in the 2011 draft if they lost. Russell Okung was picked with the sixth pick, in case you forgot. Visions of Blaine Gabbert, or some other franchise-defining talent danced through my head. I expected that by game time, my heart would take over and I'd be just as pumped as ever. Hasselbeck appeared on track to play and have a great stage for redemption. When it was announced Whitehurst would start, it blew me back a bit. It was less about disliking Charlie, and more about not being able to cheer on Matt. Whatever the reason, I was screaming as loud as any other game I've been too, but for the first time in my life, my heart wasn't in it. No matter how hard I tried, I could not shake the feeling that this was fool's gold. The day the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Greg Oden, I was walking across the street with two of my Seattle SuperSonics (R.I.P.) friends, and told them I had real reservations about picking Oden over Durant. Whether or not you believe that is largely irrelevant. The point is that gut feeling of, "we just did something great that fans are cheering for, so why am I distraught," is exactly how I felt while cheering on the Hawks on Sunday.  I fundamentally believe the Seahawks do not have the foundation of talent necessary to build toward being the best team in the NFL, and need transcendent superstar players to build that foundation. The 2011 draft offers some of those players. Division opponents like SF and ARZ will dip into that rich pool while the Seahawks wait. Seattle also inherits a first-place 2011 schedule: Home games: ARZ, SF, STL, PHI, WSH, BAL, CIN, ATL. Away games: ARZ, SF, STL, DAL, NYG, CLE, PIT, CHI. This team needs to do more than just make the playoffs this year. They need to have a brilliant off-season to avoid looking back and saying, "we lost out on [insert star player name] for that?"

Nobody wants to hear such talk after a stirring victory and division title. Even a buzz kill like me stayed up to 2AM re-watching the game, and started scouting out the path to the Super Bowl. The Saints may be the toughest matchup of the bunch. A win against New Orleans and a Green Bay win over the Eagles would send Seattle back to Soldier Field where the Seahawks have already won this year. Atlanta was not nearly as dominating as the score indicated in their win here. New Orleans lost three key players to injury in yesterday's finale, and they already were trailing a large injury report. Worrying about the long-term is my nature, but I'll be immersed in the present for as long as the Seahawks allow it.

1 comment :

Jeff said...

Great game last night. I havn't heard qwest that loud in a while...good work 12, lets bring it again this week!!