Monday, October 8, 2012

The Morning After: Seahawks Survive Suicide Attempt, Beat Panthers 16-12

Louis Murphy gathered in the pass from Cam Newton at the 6-yard line, and had open space in front of him. Marcus Trufant closed on Murphy and wrapped him up, holding on for dear life as the receiver spun toward the end zone for what was certain to become a touchdown. It was a perfect representation of what Seattle's defense has been for most of the last two decades, clinging to their opponents in the hope that they would fall short. Brandon Browner played the part of the new Seahawks defensive identity on the very same play. He charged in and compressed Murphy's spine about two inches while keeping him out of the end zone. Forget easy yards against this defense. There are no easy inches. Remarkably, it was not even Browner's best play on the day. That had come earlier when he single-handedly defended the reigning offensive rookie of the year and one of the best running backs in football, tackling the DeAngelo Williams for what would have been a loss, but instead become a turnover after Browner ripped the ball from Williams' hands. Exquisite.

The defense was nearly flawless on Sunday. They came into the game with one notable issue, which was allowing too many 3rd down conversions. The Panthers converted only two out of eleven 3rd down opportunities in this game, and scored their only offensive points after the Seahawks gifted them a first down on a roughing the passer penalty by Chris Clemons and Earl Thomas dropped a certain interception. This defense has not allowed a touchdown in 8 quarters, has only allowed one touchdown in the past three games, and only four all year. They are #1 in the NFL in yards allowed per game, #2 in points allowed, #5 in sacks, #6 in opponent passer rating, #3 in rushing, and #1 in opponent yards per play. They kinda rule.

It was fair to wonder if their 8 sack first-half performance against the Packers was a mirage. The Seahawks had not had more than two sacks in any other game until they managed four against Cam Newton. Two of the sacks showed why Pete Carroll was so intent on getting faster on defense this off-season. The first came when Bobby Wagner shed a block and chased down Newton from behind for his first career sack. The second came when fellow rookie Bruce Irvin chased down Newton and tripped him up deep in Panthers territory. There was not a player on the roster that could have made either of those plays last year. David Hawthorne was great at a lot of things, but sideline-to-sideline speed was not one of them. Wagner is quickly proving that the Seahawks now have two-thirds of a linebacking corps that could be around for a decade. Wagner is now an impact player on a defense already riddled with them. It is unfair, and I love it.

Irvin ended the game with a strip-sack, giving him 4.5 sacks through five games. Only 13 players in the history of the NFL have had 4.5 or more sacks in their first five games. Irvin becomes the 14th. Names on the list include Derrick Thomas, Hugh Douglas, Von Miller, Santana Dotson, and Simeon Rice. No Seahawks rookie has ever had more than 2.0 sacks in their first five games except for Rocky Bernard (4.0), and now, Irvin. The Seahawks rookie record for sacks is 7.5, held by Leroy Hill, and the NFL rookie record for sacks is 14.5, held by Jevon Kearse. Irvin is on pace for 14.4 sacks (math does not understand football rules). Remember all the players the Seahawks should have drafted ahead of Irvin? Quinton Coples, Chandler Jones, Melvin Ingram, and Courtney Upshaw have combined for 3.5 sacks. John Schneider should be sending every box score from all of these players to Mel Kiper Jr. every week.

Another young player on defense showed remarkable growth yesterday as well, but it will not show up in any box score, or probably be talked about on any show. Richard Sherman was baited time and again by Steve Smith yesterday with cheap shots and trash talk. The referees were letting Smith get away with it as well, making it all the harder for Sherman to keep his cool. Yet, keep his cool he did. Not only did he keep his cool, but he helped hold Smith to 4 receptions in 13 targets. Remember, Sherman was the player who was lashing out against his own teammates after an ill-advised personal foul in the end zone last year. He showed incredible maturity yesterday while playing Pro Bowl football.

The offense took a step forward. It was not a big step, but it was definitely a step. Russell Wilson was far more comfortable and decisive on 3rd down. He made quicker reads, and got rid of the ball on time. Every Seahawks fan should celebrate Wilson's improvement. He made some beautiful passes, demonstrated clear improvement in an area he was struggling with, and finally made that game-winning touchdown pass. Perspective requires an additional layer of evaluation. Wilson has now thrown five interceptions in two games. He was playing a terrible defense, that was missing two of its best players. He had fantastic protection from his line all day. Wilson ended the day with a 51 QBR rating from ESPN, which means he played at the level of an average NFL quarterback. Average quarterback play represents a massive leap from what we have witnessed up until this point. If Wilson can eliminate the turnovers, he will be playing good enough for this team to win plenty of games. He needs to improve, because he will not face another secondary as weak as he faced on Sunday.

Apologists will say the second interception was not his fault, that Marshawn Lynch bobbled the ball. Ball placement matters, and the ball was thrown behind Lynch. Should Lynch have caught the ball? Absolutely. Is he much more likely to catch the ball, and far less likely to bobble it if it is thrown better? Absolutely. Five interceptions is five interceptions. They cannot happen. Wilson played better on Sunday, but only good enough to win 16-12 against a vastly inferior opponent. It was a performance he can build on, and he must.

The play-calling deserves some credit today for going down-field more. The pass to Golden Tate that was called back was a nice example of taking a shot down-field. Wilson's best pass of the day may have been to Sidney Rice on a back-shoulder comeback on 3rd down. It was precise and well-timed. My favorite wrinkle was the first sign of read-option making its way into the Seahawks play book. Immediately after the holding call brought back the Tate catch, the Seahawks ran a read-option play with Wilson keeping the ball and rolling left before finding a wide open Doug Baldwin for a 19-yard gain. It is a play that fits Wilson well, and gives opposing defenses one more thing to prepare for.

Zach Miller flashed down the middle of the field multiple times, and ended up with the most receiving yards he has had as a Seahawk.

The road gets much, much tougher now. Seattle will face the Patriots at home, then go on the road against the 49ers on a short week, and then to Detroit. The next three games will determine the course of the 2012 season, one way or another.

Tidbits

- The Panthers had more drives end in negative yardage (3) than in points (1)

- 7 of the Panthers 11 drives were three plays or less

- Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin rank #6 and #12, respectively in sacks

- The Panthers had 70 yards rushing at halftime, but only 12 yards rushing in the 2nd half

- This was the first time in Cam Newton's career that his offense was held under 200 yards

- The Seahawks passing offense moved from #32 to #31 this week

- This was only the 2nd time in Newton's career that he was held without a touchdown, passing or rushing

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