Monday, November 7, 2011

Seahawks Progress Report @ Season's Midpoint

Good teams judge their seasons by only one metric, wins. Great teams judge their seasons by one game, the Super Bowl. The 2011 Seahawks are neither good nor great, so their season must be judged differently. Eight games into this season, the team is 2-6, but there continue to be reasons for excitement as a Seahawks fan. Players and position groups crucial to the team's future success are heading in the right direction, some at startlingly fast rates.

I wrote those exact same words (with minor updates) five weeks ago in my Quarter-Pole Progress Report, and they apply to these last four games as they did to the first four. Despite some very disappointing performances the past few weeks, there are some clear signs of growth.

Summary Stats (Rankings)
Offense
Scoring - 15.2 +0.7 (28th +1, meaning they were 29th after four games and have improved 1 spot in rankings since)
Rushing Yd/Game  - 88.2 +20.7 (30th +1)
Yards Per Carry - 4.0 +0.6 (T20th +5)
Passing Yd/Game - 207.9 +21.4 (23rd +5)
Yards Per Attempt - 6.6 +0.3 (24th +2)
Sacks - 29 +15 (30th -3)
QB Rating - 71.2 -8.8 (29th -8)
Turnovers - 15 +9 (10 INT +6, 5 Fumbles +3)

Defense
Opp Scoring - 23.1 -1.1 (22nd -4)
Opp Rushing Yd/Game - 110.4 +5.4 (13th +1)
Opp Yards Per Carry - 3.4 +0.2 (T2nd +1)
Opp Passing Yd/Game - 242.4 +5.9 (18th -2)
Opp Yards Per Attempt - 7.6 +0.2 (20th -5)
Sacks - 13 +8 (T29th no change)
Opp QB Rating - 87.7 +4.0 (22nd no change)
Turnovers Forced - 10 +8 (8 INT + 6, Fumbles 2 +2)

Offensive Line
Back in my first progress report, I chose a few indicators to help us see if the offensive line is improving. These were: yards-per-carry in the running game, sacks allowed, Zach Miller targets (i.e., how often is Miller being thrown the ball?), and yards-per-attempt. The Miller stat is one simple way to get a view of how often he is being asked to stay in and block versus go out in pass patterns. The better way to measure progress on that front would be counting each snap a tight end stays in to block, but let's leave that to someone else. Yards per attempt are in there because it is an indicator of bigger plays in the passing game that take longer to develop, and therefore require better protection.

I have updated that table with the last four games. Note, the items in red indicate something different about that stat for that week. For example, Miller was injured early in the NYG game and did not play against CLE. Similarly, Tarvaris Jackson did not play against CLE, which is noteworthy for YPA. For the games Zack Miller missed, I substituted targets for the other tight ends, Anthony McCoy and Cameron Morrah because that still indicates tight ends were out in patterns instead of blocking.


No group will have a bigger impact on whether this team grows into a contender than the offensive line, so let's look a little deeper.

Note the upward trend for the running game through eight games
Going from back-to-back sub-3.0 YPC games to start the season to a 5.4 YPC game against a Top 10 rushing defense on the road is growth. The coaching staff has been the biggest obstacle to success here due to a lack of willingness to stick with the run the last few weeks. That changes in Dallas as the team had its first game with as many rushing attempts as pass attempts. It also was the first game of the season where the Seahawks had a higher time of possession than their opponent. These things are all linked.


This was the most surprising of all the analysis. It was clear protection had improved, but it still felt like there were a bunch of sacks every game. Stepping back and seeing the linear trend gives the impression there is rather significant growth here. Look at the difference between the first three games and the last three. The Seahawks surrendered an average of 4.6 sack/game in the first three, but have allowed an average of only 2.6 in the last three. Solid improvement.


The improved protection has had a direct effect on the quarterback's ability to throw down-field. The Pittsburgh game may not have even had a five-step drop in the game plan, let alone a seven-step. It was all quick three-step throws to avoid sacks. That's no way to run an offense, and results in short gains like you saw in the first three weeks where the YPA never eclipsed 5.0. The worst YPA team in the NFL is the Jaguars who sit at 5.2 YPA. Even with the injury to Jackson, and the blight on humanity that was that Cleveland game, the trend is still going in the right direction.

The targets to the tight end are relatively level. Miller's injury makes that stat a little less interesting than before, but we can continue to track it to see if that changes. Seeing zero targets for him in the Dallas game was interesting, and an indication the coaching staff was really worried about DeMarcus Ware (for good reason).

It is not just about the stats either. Russell Okung has stayed in the lineup, and had one of his better days in pass protection against Dallas. He blocked Ware one-on-one multiple times and succeeded. James Carpenter still has a long way to go in pass protection, but has improved a lot there. He is also adding some dominating run blocking that makes it possible to imagine him becoming a Top 5 run-blocking right tackle. Fans may need to get used to a different type of great right tackle. Sean Locklear was a superior pass blocker in his day. Carpenter probably will never be that. He very well could be more dominating in run blocking than Locklear ever was in pass protection. The growth he has shown in this short period of time is a great indication that he should continue to get better after a full off-season and more experience playing with John Moffitt. ProFootballFocus.com recently mentioned Max Unger as one of the better centers in the league. Lots of positives from this group.

Scoring
One thing that has come up a lot has been a belief that the additional yards are meaningless because they are not leading to points. Take a look at the scoring trend so far:

Scoring is flat so far
The data supports the theory. Scoring has not improved since the season began. It is hard to ignore the injury to Jackson, and what impact that may have had on this trend. Things were looking up considerably in the two weeks up until his injury, but have regressed since. Baltimore comes to town next week before a much easier home stretch that could see scoring increase just due to reduced quality of opponent. This is worth watching the rest of the year.

Secondary
This group continues to perform well despite numerous key injuries. Walter Thurmond and Marcus Trufant are done for the season, but Richard Sherman has stepped forward with three forces turnovers in the two games he has started. Brandon Browner continues to be steady on the other side, and is realizing his promise as an above average starter.

Kam Chancellor has been the most dynamic player on the defense outside of possibly Chris Clemons. He has answered the question of whether he could replace Lawyer Milloy and be a starting safety. Earl Thomas has frankly been a little disappointing. He leads the team in tackles, but has only one interception all year and one tackle for loss in the last four games. This should be a year where he is ascending into the elite class of safeties in the NFL. Teams should fear him. I doubt that is the case so far. He needs to bring it in the second half of the year.

Defensive Line
The Red Bryant Effect continues for this team, but there are signs of decay.



That is now 14 games where Bryant has played the whole game at defensive end, and the run defense has been elite, allowing a combined 3.4 YPC. This is not all Bryant, but his role cannot be overstated. Only once this season, and four times in all, has an opposing team even averaged 4.0+ YPC. Seven times, the opponent has not reached more than 3.2 YPC. The trend, however, of the last four weeks is unsettling. The YPC has increased in each of the last four games. This defense has been out on the field more than any other than the Colts, and these are signs of a group that is wearing down.

The pass rush has modestly improved with eight sacks in four games after netting only 5 in the first four. The team is still near the bottom of the league in this category. The coaches are blitzing, but players are not getting home. The flip side of Bryant's massive frame blocking the run is his massive frame not rushing the passer. Add to that a disappointing start from Raheem Brock, and you have a problem. The secondary has held up remarkably well considering the total lack of pass pressure. It is hard to see how this will change this season. This becomes a priority in the draft, but the problem is more complicated than that. Nobody wants to pull Bryant, and you cannot predict run versus pass. That likely means the rusher needs to be a linebacker or situational player. We will see if the coaching staff starts using Leroy Hill or K.J. Wright more as a blitzer the rest of this year.

Linebackers
Speaking of linebackers, this group has raised it's level of play the last four games. David Hawthorne has battled through injury to start making some plays, and Hill has been solid. Wright has the starting job to himself after Aaron Curry was traded. He is sixth on the team in tackles, and looks to be gaining steam as he gets more experience. A number of coaches and analysts have had glowing reviews of Wright. We have not seen a great play from him yet. He appeared to blow a coverage against Jason Witten for a touchdown, but has otherwise looked assignment-correct.

Fellow rookie Malcolm Smith has not seen much action, but did get some snaps against Dallas. Perhaps his speed will be part of the solution to the pass rush problem.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Sidney Rice is quietly on pace to become the rare 1,000 yard Seahawks receiver. He leads the team with 435 yards receiving right now, and is averaging 72.5 yards/game, which puts him at 1,015 after 16 games. Doug Baldwin is on pace for 50+ catches and nearly 900 yards. Both players suffered with the Whitehurst experiment. Face it, everyone suffered.

The area where improvement needs to start showing up is Mike Williams and Zach Miller. Williams is on pace for 24 catches and 260 yards, while Miller is on pace for 22 catches and 198 yards. Yikes. These guys both should see double those numbers in the second half of the year. They both have some culpability, but neither one is being targeted more than 2.6 times per game. They should each be getting a minimum of 6 targets a game, even with the depth this team has at receiver and tight end.

Running Backs
Marshawn Lynch ran like the player everyone hoped he would be against Dallas. If he can continue that through the rest of this season, the team may not spend one of its first three picks on a running back next year. Resigning him to an expensive deal would be foolish, but he's a good fit for this team if he can just quit dancing around and hit the hole with anger.

Justin Forsett may be playing himself off the team. Vai Taua caught my eye in the one pre-season game he played, and is on the practice squad. He's a one-cut runner with power who may be more valuable to the Seahawks than Forsett. If a team makes a play for Taua, don't be shocked if the Seahawks sign him and cut Forsett instead.

Leon Washington is averaging 6.1 yards per carry. LEON WASHINGTON IS AVERAGING 6.1 YARDS PER CARRY!! Play the man!

Quarterback
Jackson has been better than advertised. He has done nothing, and can do nothing, to change the fact that this team needs to spend its first round pick on a quarterback next year. He has, however, made the idea of him starting for another year less horrible. His injury is throw-to-throw. It could tear beyond use at any moment. Making it through the rest of the season is unlikely, and evaluating him fairly will be near impossible. What we do know is that he is a better quarterback throwing left-handed than Whitehurst is right-handed.

Josh Portis should be getting reps in practice, and should get the chance to rise in the depth chart. Playing Whitehurst if Jackson goes down does nothing for the team. Portis is at least young enough to gain something from the experience. Losses would happen either way.

OVERALL
The Seahawks not only had a killer opening schedule with opponents who own a 39-26 record, but five of the eight games were on the road and four were at 10AM PST. Things get much easier in the second half with two games against St Louis (1-7) and one against Arizona (2-6). They also get Washington at home. The next four games are BAL, @STL, WAS, PHI. Lots of home cooking. If Jackson is healthy enough to play, the team can win any of those games. Winning more than one of those four, though, would be a little surprising.

The offense needs to start scoring earlier and more often. The defense is weakening. If the offense can't improve quickly, this could get very ugly, and lots of good progress could be lost. This team cannot survive a defensive collapse, but that's what might happen if they are on the field as much in the last half of the season. Win or lose, the offensive line playing together will be key. Every snap is a chance to learn. Many fans will be cursing at Pete Carroll, Tarvaris Jackson and others, but the wise ones will sit back and get to really enjoy what's coming next season. 

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