Monday, September 17, 2012

The Morning After: Seahawks Dominate Cowboys, 27-7

The ear-splitting screaming coming from the row behind me would not stop, "Go Cowboys! GO!" I could not agree more. Go Cowboys. Take your classless, obnoxious fans. Take your sniveling, whining defenders. Take your over-hyped, overconfident, out-manned, and thoroughly outplayed team. Take your pot-bellied "genius" defensive coordinator who was out-coached by Seattle's own stout assistant. Take your unprepared FOX broadcast team that spent an entire game scrambling after clearly preparing to talk about a Cowboys team the whole game. Take your national pundits that explain this loss as "playing down to the Seahawks level." Take them all. Ahhh. Silence never sounded so sweet. Now, let me introduce you to your 2012 Seattle Seahawks.

It took a week longer than expected, but this is the team that inspired faith after such a disappointing start. This defense demonstrated why yielding 20 points to the anemic Cardinals offense was worth criticizing. Good defenses will stop a team six times in a row, but give up the go-ahead touchdown. Great defenses will take a team that managed 212 yards in the first half and hold them to 35 yards and zero points in the second half until only 36 seconds remain in the game. Only the best offenses in the NFL should challenge this defense, and even those should have to bring their best. Kam Chancellor and K.J. Wright needed to play like Pro Bowlers. Watching some Cowboys games last year, and again in their opener, it became clear they love the slant play and the hole shot on the sideline between the corner and safety. Defensive game plans in football are like 1-on-1 defense in basketball. Identify your opponents most comfortable moves and spots, and force them to beat you any way but those. Seattle did the football equivalent of forcing a right-handed player to his left by sitting hard on the inside with their corners to take away those easy slants. I do not recall a single completed slant pass in the game for Dallas. Their zone coverage was clearly aware of those hole shot spaces along the sidelines. This meant the Cowboys would need to attack up the seam and the middle of the field. It may have been maddening to see Jason Witten running free in the middle of the field, but the Seahawks were willing to rely on Chancellor and Wright to win that match-up over the course of the day. They did that, in part, thanks to Witten's drops. Some of Witten's drops may have been the result of the Seahawks play. Chancellor finished the day with 9 tackles (7 solo), and a number of punishing hits. Wright managed 5 tackles, 1 for loss, and 2 passes defensed, including one that was 50+ yards down-field. Linebackers are not supposed to be able to cover players 50 yards down-field. Wright's other pass defensed should have been a pick-6 that would have been the perfect exclamation mark on a great afternoon.

Seattle fans circled games against the Packers, the Patriots, the Lions, and even the Panthers when the schedule came out. These were top NFL quarterbacks that would test this defense. Tony Romo belongs in that list. He was the most impressive quarterback the Seahawks played last season, was fantastic in New York a week ago, and was far better yesterday than the stats or score indicate. Seattle finished the game with only one sack, but it would have been 3-5 with almost any other quarterback. Romo made some dazzling plays. His receivers did not help him, hopefully showing Seahawks fans what real drops look like. Romo is one of the highest rated passers in the history of the NFL. He left Seattle with a 74.5 rating. That's one elite quarterback down, and a handful to go.

The Seahawks defense is now 3rd in the NFL in points against, 2nd in the NFL in run defense, and 7th in opponent passer rating. The Cowboys managed just 8 yards of rushing in the second half. 

A developing story line in this nascent Seahawks season is the play of the special teams. There was reason to believe this might happen. This was the only unit that was worthy of a playoff berth in 2010, and saw a drastic decline last season. The front office made some moves toward the end of last season (e.g., Chris Maragos, Heath Farwell) as well as during the draft to get faster and more athletic. It is paying off. Seattle's special teams was flawless in Arizona with flashy returns, and terrific coverage of the Cardinals return game. They spotted the offense 10 points on Sunday with an early turnover and blocked punt. There has been plenty of talk about a potential Top 5 defense. This may be a Top 5 special teams unit. That matters. How much? Ask the 7-9 team that made the playoffs with a bottom third offense and defense.

Speaking of offense...this was a fascinating game for the Seahawks on that side of the ball. The coaching staff clearly came out with a massively conservative game plan. They were without Russell Okung, had seen their line get battered the week before, and knew Russell Wilson was not as sharp to open the year as they would have liked. That led to a steady dose of rushing attack and short play-action passes. The results were not good for the first 35 minutes. Seattle had 111 yards of offense with around 10 minutes to go in the third quarter. That was 111 yards over six possessions, for an average of 18.5 yards per possession, and only six (offensive) points despite a special teams fumble recovery and defensive interception return. Something changed on that seventh possession. Seattle started back at their own 10-yard line, and that rushing attack that had been held to under 30 yards in the first half sprung to life. By the time the drive was finished, the Seahawks were over well over 100 yards rushing with 20 minutes left in the game. Seattle's last possession was every bit as meaningful as their two touchdown drives that preceded it. Pete Carroll saw his team take over with 6:28 to play, and very nearly run down the clock to end the game. The final flourish meant the Seahawks offense piled up 214 yards on their final three possessions, good for a 71.3 yards/possession average. They controlled the ball for 19 of the final 24 minutes of the game. Dominant.

The offensive line deserves all the praise after receiving much of the criticism the previous week. They wore down the Cowboys defense. This is a good defense, and Seattle's line grew up on Sunday. It is a game that will serve them well down the road. Huge kudos to Frank Omiyale for his steady play in place of Okung. He certainly gave me more confidence in his abilities than I had prior to this game.

Wilson had a nice game. His performance was solid and efficient. His 75% completion percentage was a Seahawks rookie record (minimum 20 pass attempts), and his 112.4 passer rating was the 2nd-highest for a rookie in Seahawks history. Brock Huard bested it back on 2000 with a 126.4 rating. His accuracy was improved. I am still looking for more. This team will not be able to get away with 41 rushes and 20 passes all year. They will need Wilson to prove he can shoulder more of the load. Golden Tate appears ready to help. He had a terrific game, and not just because of his huge block. The most impressive play Tate had on the day was when Wilson escaped the pocket and rolled to his right. Last week, we saw receivers stop their routes when Wilson scrambled. Tate extended his route to run with Wilson and collect to a key 3rd down conversion. It was ironic that the only play Tate did not make on Sunday was a jump ball deep down field. He showed the ability to get open and make professional plays, plays that are repeatable. Jump balls down the sideline make the highlight films, but teams cannot build an offense around them. Tate made a number of winning plays on Sunday. Good for him, and very good for the Seahawks.

Anthony McCoy had a great game as well. He caught everything thrown to him, and is in the running for break-out Seahawks player of 2012. 

Seattle's offense is behind the defense and the special teams. It is going to take some time for it to reach steady footing. The other parts of the team must protect it until it is ready to stand on its own. Sunday was a perfect example of what that looks like. The team now looks ahead to a game against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football in Seattle. Losing to the Cardinals led to questions about whether the Seahawks would disappoint. The win over the Cowboys has restored confidence. A victory over the Packers would put this team ahead of schedule. Welcome to 2012.

A few extra points:

- Please stop the Brandon Browner nitpicking. I see the ProFootballFocus.com crowd that cites advanced stats about Browner's weakness in coverage outside of the red zone, or that he is susceptible to double-moves. There are snipes about his penalties. Folks, the man has 7 interceptions in 18 career starts. He made the Pro Bowl in his first season with the team, and led the NFL in passes defensed. Do you remember Kelly Jennings? Do you remember Kelly Herndon? The same folks that are criticizing Browner are the ones who moaned about trading away Josh Wilson because he scored well in the advanced stats. Call me old-fashioned, but I trust results. Whatever Browner lacks, he more than makes up for in run support, red zone defense and play-making. Stop trying to look smart, and start celebrating a unique player that opponents hate to face.

- The Cowboys had six first downs in the second half. Three came on the final three plays to end the game.

- The Cowboys have had 3 rookie QBs in 52 years (787 gms) throw for a passer rating of 112 or higher. Wilson becomes the 4th. Ben Roesthlisberger, Mark Rypien, and Scott Tinsley were the others.

- The Seahawks have had quarterbacks complete 75% of their passes in a game 19 times (min 20 attempts) in 565 games. Wilson turned in number 20 yesterday. Matt Hasselbeck leads the franchise by accomplishing the feat nine times.

- The Cowboys allowed 99 yds rushing/gm last year (7th in NFL). The Seahawks rushed for 82 yards in the 3rd quarter.

- The Seahawks rushed for 149 yards in the second half. Only 3 teams averaged more rushing yards per game in 2011.

- Remember Kevin Ogletree? One catch. 

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