Saturday, August 27, 2011

Spotlight On Coaches Tonight, Not Players

Sign a contract to play quarterback in a new city, and you can expect all the scrutiny in the world. Get picked in the first round round to play tackle, and you can expect similar dissection of your every move. Those scripts have played out pretty much as expected as Tarvaris Jackson, Russell Okung and James Carpenter have gotten the lion's share of criticism in the first two weeks of the pre-season. Now, what about the guys that are hired to be in charge of all those players on offense? Darrell Bevell was hired to run the offense and Tom Cable was hired as Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Line Coach. They are responsible for putting these players in positions to succeed despite youth, unfamiliarity, and limited time.Yet, when Bevell clearly was asking Jackson to test out longer drops and  routes in the game against Minnesota last week, despite heavy blitzing, it was Jackson that was criticized. When players were continually unaccounted for on blitzes, it was Carpenter that took the slings and arrows.

The first two games of pre-season football are about installing plays and evaluating players far more than trying to win. There is little-to-no game planning, and if a defense wants to blitz, they will probably enjoy far more success than they would in a regular season game. Now, it's the third game of the pre-season. This is the game where coaches treat it as closely to a regular season contest as possible. Some players will sit out with injuries that would not hold them out in a normal game, but the play-calling and preparation will mostly be there.

One of the biggest reasons Jeremy Bates is no longer the offensive coordinator in Seattle is the lack of commitment to running the football. There were plenty of jokes about 3rd and 1 or 4th and 1 play calls that had were targeting receivers 30 yards down-field. More than anything else, the thing that matters most tonight is the run/pass mix. It matters even more than the results of those runs and passes. How often do Cable and Bevell dial-up runs on consecutive plays? Do they come back to the run even if there is not success early? Do they stick with the run if they do have success early? While the bulk of discussion so far has been about quarterback play and pass protection, make no mistake that the effectiveness of the running game will determine the course of this season.

Take Carpenter for a second. He will be facing players like Von Miller and possible Elvis Dumervill this week. Carpenter will have as much as an 80 lb disparity with these guys. You don't have to be a football expert to know who has the advantage in a pushing match and who has the advantage in a foot race. Think about what it does to those undersized ends to have a 325 lb man launching himself into them over and over again. Not only is it physically taxing, but it impacts their ability to get off the ball when there is a passing play because they will have run defense etched in their brains. Now, that's not to say Carpenter is hopeless in pass protection either. Multiple sports radio guys this week said Carpenter doesn't have "fast feet" almost as if it's obvious a 320+ lb guy wouldn't. Carpenter displayed some of the best feet at the Senior Bowl this year, so don't believe everything you hear on that front. But I digress...

The Seahawks ran the ball 43 times in the first game of the pre-season.  The Seahawks did not run the ball more than 36 times in a game last season, and only ran more than 30 times four times. A 3.1 yards-per-carry (YPC) in that first game is nothing to get excited about, but the commitment to the run certainly is. The team dropped total rushes down to 31 last week as they clearly worked on more things in the passing game, but the YPC jumped to 4.8, helped by some QB scrambles.

Running is not the only thing that can alleviate pressure on a young line and limited quarterback. The Seahawks came out in the second half of last week's game with a focus on three-step drop pass plays, and simplified quick reads for Charlie Whitehurst. To the untrained eye, it made Whitehurst look like Tom Brady compared to Jackson. His pedestrian 5.1 yards-per-attempt proves otherwise. Mixing in some quick passes with a committed running attack can go a long way toward making the game simpler and reducing negative plays.

Moving down the field in short chunks is no way to score with any consistency, but it will at least give the offense a rhythm and confidence. It also may the team's best chance to score at this point, which would be an accomplishment by itself since the first team is yet to put a point on the board. So let's see what Bevell dials-up. Look for his ability to counter what Denver throws out there. Look for the repeatability of the plays that succeed. Golden Tate has rightfully been criticized, but he's yet to get the ball in space. That's on Bevell.

Cable is on the hook for reducing the mental mistakes by the blockers. That expands beyond the offensive line to the tight ends and running backs. Marshawn Lynch blew his blocking assignment on multiple plays last week that led to unnecessary pressure on Jackson. This will be another road game that will test the discipline of the line to avoid pre-snap penalties like false starts. The physical aspect of blocking will take care of itself over time. Coaching will be judged on people blocking the right person at the right time.

Neither Cable nor Bevell is on the hot seat. Their jobs are not on the line like some of their players. Seahawks fans should pay attention to their performance tonight nonetheless. It will impact the outcome of this season far more than what any individual player does.

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