Saturday, September 1, 2012

Seahawks 2012 Season Preview: Breaking Down The Offense

HAWK BLOGGER 2012 SEASON PREVIEW PART IV: Breaking Down The Offense

Pete Carroll is a renaissance man. His football philosophy was developed under the likes of Bill Walsh and Bud Grant during the 80s and 90s. Walsh was known for explosive offenses and famous quarterbacks, but the heart of what Carroll learned from Walsh was the need to make the game easier for the quarterback.  Control the ball with reliable passes, establish an effective running attack, and build a defense that will create turnovers and short fields for the offense to score. It was an effective formula back then. Nine of the ten Super Bowl winners during the 90s had a rushing rank among the top 10 in the NFL. Green Bay was the lone holdout in 1996, and their rushing offense was ranked #11. Things changed, though, at the turn of the millenium. Only 5 of the last 12 Super Bowl winners, dating back to the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, have features a Top 10 rushing offense. Six of those twelve teams had rushing ranks in the bottom half of the league. The NY Giants won last year with the worst rushing offense in the entire NFL. 

It is not only Super Bowl Champs that have changed their emphasis. Less than half the teams that have finished in the Top 10 in rushing the last three seasons have made the playoffs. Compare that to 7 of the Top 10 passing offenses making the playoffs last season, and it becomes clear the league does not share Carroll's approach. 

Nobody will ever accuse Carroll of being a lemming. He believes in the approach, and has finally started to have a stable of players and coaches that can help him bring it to life. He is not completely alone. Jim Harbaugh found success with a very similar formula last season. Kansas City did well the season prior, and Atlanta could be accused of being a ball control offense a couple years ago. NFL historians may very well look back at this as the start of a new era of football, a return to football fundamentals. Carroll is in position to pass the torch onto a new generation of coaches, but first he must win, and win big.

Offense – Starters
Russell Wilson* – QB
Marshawn Lynch – RB
Michael Robinson**  – FB
Golden Tate* – WR
Sidney Rice – WR
Zach Miller - TE
Anthony McCoy - TE
Breno Giacomini – RT
J.R. Sweezy/John Moffitt* – RG
Max Unger – C
Paul McQuistan – LG
Russell Okung – LT
* New Starter or New Position
** Pro Bowl

Offense – Running Game
Tom Cable is arguably the most important assistant coach in football. Carroll knew he wanted an effective running game at the core of his offense, but was struggling to find the right person to implement it until Cable became available. There could not have been a more ambitious attempt to overhaul an offensive line than what the Seahawks did last season. No two players on the line had started a single game next to a guy playing beside him. Two of the five players were rookies and one was a 2nd year player who missed most of his rookie season. It was a predictably bumpy ride last year, but enters this season as a strength of the team. The Seahawks led the NFL in rushing during the pre-season after leading the NFL in rushing the last eight games of last season. A case could be made that the performance of this part of the team will set the foundation for everything else. The defense cannot be top nfl unit if they are on the field all game, or are regularly facing negative field position. The passing game will feature a rookie quarterback with tons of talent, but must be supported with a fierce running attack to relieve pressure. Look for Carroll and Cable to emphasize the run each game, for the Seahawks to be near the top of the NFL in rushing yards when the season ends.

Offense – Passing Game
Darrell Bevell was difficult to judge in his first season as offensive coordinator. He has a different job than most NFL offensive coordinators in that Cable is in charge of the running game, and is also the assistant head coach. Bevell is here to make the passing game go and call the plays. His judgment was questionable at times in his first season (e.g., consistently subbing Justin Forsett for Marshawn Lynch on 3rd and 1), but he also had some lesss than ideal puzzle pieces to work with. The offensive line gave up the 4th-most sacks in the NFL, and receiving talent was thin. He enters this year with a rookie quarterback that is meant to lead this franchise for the next decade.  All his receivers start the season healthy. He is under the spotlight to turn this into a productive part of the team. Everything else is clearly heading in the right direction. The parts are here for this to be an effective passing team. Bevell needs to step up and make it happen.

Offense – Quarterback
The quarterback competition between Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst last season was like a dunk contest on a 7-foot hoop. It was certainly nothing to brag about. The level of talent on the team this season at the most important position has increased dramatically, while miraculously costing less.  Russell Wilson becomes the third new starting quarterback for the Seahawks in as many seasons. He grabbed the job with a nearly flawless pre-season that showcased his ability to create plays and scoring opportunities. His ability to run brings a new element to the Seahawks offense, as he looks to become the first quarterback in franchise history to rush for more than 400 yards (Rick Mirer holds the record with 343). Many, including this blog, have compared Wilson to Drew Brees. That comparison comes because of their height, head, and talent. A better comparison may be Steve Young. It was Young who had four seasons where he rushed for over 400 yards and had a passer rating over 100. One of those seasons ended with a Super Bowl victory and a Super Bowl MVP trophy for Young. Wilson shares the cerebral approach to both passing and running that Young demonstrated, making him a quarterback that can run instead of a running quarterback. Wilson deserves comparisons to some of the greats, but he remains an unproven rookie who will undoubtedly struggle at times, and likely early. It will be imperative that coaches stick with him even if fans are screaming for his starter-quality back-up, Matt Flynn. Wilson is a valuable commodity as a player with true franchise quarterback potential. The coaching staff must line up behind him in order to help him become the player we all want him to be.

Offense – Offensive Line
I expressed concern in my season preview last year that Max Unger might be the weak link on the line. He very well might be the bedrock of this group after a breakout 2011 season. Unger probably should have been in the Pro Bowl, and could eventually be an All-Pro. The team recognize this by signing him to an extension this year that put him as the 4th-highest paid center in the NFL. Keep in mind, this front office does not spend money it does not have to. Breno Giacomini plans to make James Carpenter the Wally Pipp of Seahawks right tackles after grabbing hold of the position last season following Carpenter's season-ending injury. He fit the Cable mold perfectly. Nobody finishes blocks better than Giacomini. He drives his opponents into the ground, often past the whistle. His teammates love him. Lynch calls him "The Big Russian" despite his Italian dissent. He needs to improve in pass protection, but will be the starter at RT until someone beats him out. Paul McQuistan  was a shocker last year. The mulleted red-head found himself filling in all over the line, from right guard, to left guard to left tackle. It was the first time I ever saw a guard slidee over to tackle, and to do it at left tackle, and to do it ably, was impressive. The mullet is gone, but the impressive play continues as he earned the left guard job. Carpenter will be fighting him for it as he rreturns to health in the first half of the season. Russell Okung managed to stay healthy all the way until he got hit with a cheap shot from the Eagles Trent Cole. Health is the only thing that stands in the way of Okung being a Pro Bowl-level left tackle. His is an eye-popping athlete with a solid work ethic. His run blocking is ahead of his pass blocking, but the hope is that a healthy season will allow him to ascend into the elite group of tackles in the NFL. John Moffitt is finding that Carroll and Schneider will not just challenge older veterans with new young talent. J.R. Sweezy very well may earn the starting right guard position this year after the team spent a 3rd round pick on Moffitt just last year. There will be those that call Moffitt and Carpenter busts for being back-ups a year after they started. Those that know better understand that the best players play on this team. Don't count out either of those guys just yet.

Offense – Backfield
Lynch exploded in the last half of 2011 to lead the NFL in rushing during that time. He is backed up by 2012 draft pick Robert Turbin. Turbin is a significant upgrade over Justin Forsett as a capable fill-in for Lynch. Turbin can run inside, convert short yardage, break explosive plays, catch the ball and block. It is not clear whether Turbin has elite talent, but the fact that question is even being asked demonstrates how much better the backfield talent is this season. Leon Washington fought off some other challengers to return for his third season in Seattle. He is joined by Kregg Lumpkin who specializes as a receiver out of the backfield. Michael Robinson reprises his role as a Pro Bowl fullback.

Offense – Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Wilson may be a rookie quarterback, but no position group on the team enters the season with more questions than the wide receivers. Sidney Rice is a breath-taking athlete who has not proven he can stay healthy. Doug Baldwin led the team in receiving as an undrafted rookie, but has been injured much of the pre-season. Golden Tate is getting a lot of praise from coaches and media, but has not demonstrated his production in pre-season games. Braylon Edwards is a a promising new addition that can make plays on passes in the air, but was injured much of last season. Ben Obomanu is a rock, but will not be the group's savior. Charly Martin was a great story, making the team as a 28-year-old free agent, who can contribute on special teams. He is the type of player that could become a fan favorite by making tough catches and being a reliable target. He also may not last the season if the team believes they can upgrade the position another way or decides to go with five reeivers later in the season. The most bullish prognostication for this group would include a heallthy Rice, Edwards, and Tate taking full advantage of Wilson's willingness to throw the ball up for grabs down the field. Each excel in those situations. Baldwin could be a Victor Cruz-level player, but probably not in this offense with his slot-only role. He could still be a nightmare for opponents who find themselves focused on sideline plays to the taller edge receivers, stopping Lynch, and covering the tight ends.

Those tight ends are solid, maybe more than that. Zach Miller did fantastic work as a blocker last season, and should expand his role in the passing game.  Anthony McCoy is a great blocker who is starting to show he can be a weapon in the passing game.

This receiving group, in general, is well constructed. They are missing top-shelf speed. It will be interesting to see if they can take the top off the defense. Much of the yardage will come via play-action, bootlegs, and other run-dependent plays. It is hard to see a receiving star emerging from this offense. Baldwin led the team with 51 receptions last season. Will anyone catch 70 balls this year?  Tate has worked hard to get this chance at the starting role. He needs to work even harder to keep it.

Offense – Overall 2012 Outlook
Seattle's offense was in the bottom half of the NFL last season. They need to be better. A solid offensive line, talented running backs, and a precocious young passer give the team a real shot at being much improved. The key will be converting on 3rd downs and in the red zone. Wilson has shown a knack for that in college and during the pre-season. His running ability will frustrate many defenses, and delight Seahawks fans, but it is important that he grows as a pocket passer as much as possible.  The defense should give the team short fields to work with, and require among the least point in the NFL from its offense to win. This still does not look like a team tha can win a shootout, at least not yet.

Teams that stack eight men in the box and play press coverage will be a good test for Wilson and his receivers. This line may be good enough to be effective against even eight-men lines. A productive and reliable passing attack would leave defenses without a foothold, and put the Seahawks on the fast track to contending for big things.

Only a story like Wilson's could eclipse the excitement surrounding Seattle's defense. The next segment of the Hawk Blogger season preview will take a look at the best this team has to offer.

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