The season is now one-quarter of the way complete. Seattle’s three losses have been @SF (3-1), @PIT (2-2), ATL (2-2). They have been competitive in each game, and arguably have improved play from every single position group on the team (more on that later today). The offensive line has rightfully been at the center of much of the fan discussion. Tom Cable, Pat Ruel and the players deserve major recognition for the transformation from game one to game four. The measure of the offensive line growth is more than that they gave up zero sacks. It is that Zach Miller had his most receptions and most targets in a Seahawks uniform. It is that Tarvaris Jackson threw for a career-high 319 yards. It is that Jackson averaged 8.4 yards per attempt, a number Matt Hasselbeck eclipsed only once in his 2010 season, including the playoffs. Watching this young line protect Jackson on a whopping 38 pass attempts when the opponent knew the running game was not a threat demonstrated skill and growth, not luck. Sure, the running game needs to improve. Yes, five rushes for five yards in the first half is unacceptable. Ten rushes for 48 yards in the second half is pretty darn good. The velocity at which the offensive line is improving can be measured in quarters, not weeks or years. That is astonishing. In a season where championships are out of reach, it takes a little bit more work from fans to assess team progress. Had the game played out the way it was heading after the first half, this would have been a much different review, but not because of the score.
The Falcons came out with the goal of making a statement. Winning was one thing, but winning by physically dominating through the running game was the aspiration. This Seahawks defense prides itself on stopping the run. If there was one thing Seahawks fans could breathe easy about heading into every game, it was their defenses ability to crush opponents rushing attack. That breathing become more labored on Sunday when the Falcons consistently gained big chunks of yards on the way to 90 yards on an average of 4.1 yards per carry by halftime. Both running backs were above, or near, 5.0 yards per carry. This, from a defense that ranked #4 in the NFL coming in at 3.1 YPC. This, from a defense that has allowed only 3.2 YPC in games Red Bryant has completed, dating back to last season. There are few more emasculating ways to lose a football game than to have a team simply run over you. The success running the ball also led to a frustrating 6-8 (75%) conversion rate on third downs, many of which were the 3rd and 1 variety. Two things correlate best to holding teams to low conversion rates on third downs, stopping the run and effective pass rush. The Seahawks have very little in the way of pass rush, so stopping the run is a must. Seattle’s defense, like their offense, made major strides in the second half.
Seahawks defenders held Atlanta to 31 yards and a 2.21 YPC after halftime. Remove Matt Ryan’s 10-yard scramble, and the running backs were held to 21 yards on 13 carries (1.62 YPC). Ten of the Falcons 14 second-half runs went for two yards or less. Their third-down conversion rate dropped to 37.5%. Make no mistake here, the offensive explosion was great, but it doesn’t happen without the play of the defense in the final two quarters. One of the biggest adjustments appeared to be allowing Earl Thomas to freelance more near the line of scrimmage. The team had zero tackles for loss into the 3rd quarter, but ended the game with four. Thomas had two of those, giving him four on the season after having only one all of last year. Thomas’ best plays so far this year have come against the run. It is a fascinating transformation of a player drafted for his ability to make plays against the pass. Unfortunately, Thomas is not putting both talents together yet. He has yet to make a big play in the passing game, and was beaten badly a couple of times through the air yesterday. He is too good to be an average pass defender. Kudos on the run defense, but he needs to step up a lot against the pass.
The player who stood out again versus the pass was Brandon Browner. He was left alone to guard Julio Jones or Roddy White much of the day. He had little-to-no safety help over the top. Jones had a big yardage total (127 yards), but only an 11.5 average per catch. Take away his big 45-yard catch, and that average drops to 8.2. The big play did happen, though, so Browner deserves a demerit there. It was a perfect throw and a great catch and Browner was right there, so it is hard to kill the guy when great players make great plays. Browner was in press coverage almost exclusively. He frustrated Atlanta’s receivers, and had two of the biggest hits of the day when the Falcons tried to throw quick screen plays. Teams are starting to learn that Browner is not a push-over. Many fans and analysts wrote him off after a bad game against Mike Wallace in Pittsburgh. They were wrong then, and some will continue to cling to their negative analysis even now to save face. People that say the Seahawks simply traded a fast, small player that gets beat for a slower, big player that gets beat are missing one of the great reclamation stories of the NFL this year. Browner has already made a more positive impact from the corner position in four games than Jennings did in some full seasons. He is not an All-Pro player. He is not a Pro Bowl player. He is a very solid starter that is contributing against the run and the pass, and that is worth celebrating.
Speaking of celebrating, something tells me Tarvaris Jackson went to sleep with a smile on his face. Not that he was happy with a loss, but how could anyone that has been through the fan bashing he has faced not get some pleasure out of out-throwing Matt Ryan? Jackson play in the first half was as uneven and miserable as the rest of the team. His touchdown to Sidney Rice was a heady play, but he had three or four bad plays for every good one. That will not do. He excelled in the no-huddle offense in the second half, largely because this is a player who is in his own head too much. Much of his problem this year has come from over-thinking in the pocket and holding onto the ball too long. The no-huddle simplifies his reads, and makes him a football player instead of a strategist. It probably is not the saving grace some folks will want it to be. Pete Carroll implied in the post-game press conference that they will employ it more, but it would be foolish to believe this offense will excel in that way just by switching to a no-huddle. One of the most important, but hidden, stories of Jackson’s performance was the explosive plays. The Seahawks had five explosive plays (20+ yards) for the second-straight week, after having only one through the first two games of the season. Rice is the clear difference-maker there, as he has four explosive plays by himself in only two games. Doug Baldwin continues to defy odds by making plays all over the field. He leads the team in receptions and yards, and can play all the receiver positions. Seeing seven players catch at least three passes was another great measure of progress. Anyone that appreciates symmetry in life had to smile when Jackson looked away from Mike Williams before coming back to him for a touchdown just one week removed from missing Williams in a similar situation.
In many ways, nothing would do more good for the Seahawks franchise than to lose every remaining game by two points with all these positives to take away. The reality is that the Seahawks look too good, and are improving at too fast of a rate, to think a one or two win season is a possibility. Their final record may not be close to .500, but the overall rebuilding effort is heading toward an undefeated season.