Monday, December 17, 2012

The Morning After: Seahawks take next step, blowout Bills on road 50-17

The Seahawks did their best Road Runner impression on Sunday. They sped all over the Rogers Centre field in Toronto, and all around the Buffalo Bills, without any fear of traps, or trap games. Local Seattle media had latched onto the idea that this was a trap game for Seattle, nestled between a historic blowout at home and steel cage match next week versus the 49ers. It was a reasonable angle to take given this Seahawks team had shown they had a propensity for playing down to their opponents on the road. As rousing as the Seahawks win over the Bears was two weeks ago, it was still just one game, and one in which Seattle had only 10 points with 25 seconds to go. This game against the Bills was not about whether Seattle was the better team. Everyone knew that was the case. This game was about whether the Seahawks could take their next developmental step and play to their standard, regardless of opponent or location. A 24-14 victory would have proven that. A 50-17 victory indicates the precocious Seahawks are well beyond incremental development. The Seahawks Super Bowl window is officially open.

It feels like eons ago when I predicted a "special season" for the Seahawks. Even after the disappointing road opener in Arizona, my confidence was not shaken. I knew this team could be this good. The road loss to St. Louis was a gut punch. The way the team lost in Detroit was agonizing. The dagger was the abomination in Miami. There was little objective reason to expect this team to finish with a flourish. I tend to be a step ahead in a lot of things, which isn't as positive as you might think. It felt like I was a year early in predicting great things from this group. Great teams lose games they should not. It happens. Seattle lost four, and arguably five such games. Very few, if any, teams can withstand that and have a successful season. The Seahawks are blazing that trail. They are doing it partially due to the same youth that caused them to under-perform early on. 

Russell Wilson has gone from a player who played a major role in the teams's losses in Arizona and St. Louis to someone who should get some votes for league MVP. He has been that instrumental and impressive the last nine games, especially the last three. His full talent was on display in Toronto. The opening drive was a thing of beauty. He was sacked on the first play, and faced an early 3rd and long that he converted with a gorgeous throw to Sidney Rice. He quickly had another 3rd down, and this time found Zach Miller for the first down. After an exquisite sideline grab by Doug Baldwin, Wilson ran in the first of his three rushing touchdowns. He led the Seahawks to touchdowns on four of the first five Seattle possessions, and five of the first seven. The Seahawks did not punt until there was less than a minute left in the first half. 

I once said points follow Wilson around like groupies, begging to be scored. It bears repeating after these past two weeks. There is so much statistical porn happening in Seattle right now, wives may be surprised to find their husbands spending late-night alone time gazing at box scores on their laptops. I will dedicate a whole post to the numeric majesty of the past few weeks. The truth is the stats just emphasize what dedicated Seahawks fans already know--this team is peaking at the perfect time.

One number that cannot wait is 554. As in the Seahawks have 554 yards rushing in the last two games. Forrest Gump never ran that far. Marshawn Lynch had another stellar game, needing only 10 carries to get over 100 yards. Last week, he blew by the century mark with just 11 carries. The offensive line really stepped forward in Chicago, clearing holes and pushing the Bears back. They are on a role right now in run blocking, and it could not come at a better time. Losing James Carpenter was a blow, but I am convinced the team is working in J.R. Sweezy in anticipation of the 49ers game where John Moffitt will have a very tough time against the physical San Francisco line. One of the interesting aspects of the rushing explosion is the number of yards Lynch is getting off tackle versus between the tackles. It used to be that any rush to the edge was a poor call given that Lynch is much better running North-South. He has been finding the corner lately, and for big chunks of yards. We all marvel at his tough running style, but his vision is under-rated. He is finding holes laterally, and cutting back more than we have seen. 

Seattle nearly had two straight weeks of dual 100-yard rushers after Wilson finished with 92. He once again ran smart and safe. There is little reason to think this is unsustainable. Many yards are coming on the read option, but many are not. This is not just a wildcat formation, waiting for NFL defensive coordinators to solve it. Wilson can run or throw on any play. He will not give defenses free shots on him, or make panic throws. He is built to last, and torment defenses. And he's all ours.

Don't look now, but this offense is now among the top two or three in the NFL. There are statistics to back it up, but we can cover that later. Bring it back to Seattle. Consider that the best offense in Seahawks history averaged 28.3 ppg. This Seahawks unit is now averaging 25 ppg, but a whopping 35 ppg in their last six. They were averaging 17.5 all the way through the first half of the year. This group was always capable of being productive, but the throttle was the quarterback. The receivers can make plays. The tight ends are solid. The line is better than people give it credit for, and the running backs are great. Wilson was keeping the offense at an idle while he found his sea legs early on, but now has not only helped the team reach their cruising speed, he has found a gear nobody knew they had.

The offense has been so good, that the defense has become overlooked. Expectations are evil little things. Seattle is one point away from being #1 in points allowed in the NFL. They are third in the NFL in yards per game. The area we all hassle them about, pass rush, deserves a second look as well. They are 13th in the NFL in sacks per game, but 10th in sacks as a percentage of opponent pass attempts. Takeaways had been the other bugaboo--and had me chirping again at halftime Sunday when they had zero--but the team now ranks 8th in the NFL in takeaways, and has gone from 1.4 in their first eight games to 2.8 in their last six. They have allowed zero points in three of their last four halves. They even have finally found the end zone themselves, twice in two weeks, after avoiding it all year. If Bruce Irvin could have stayed on his feet, the defense would have outscored the last two offenses they faced, combined.

It is time to set aside whatever impossible expectations we had for this defense, and recognize them for what they are--a top three NFL defense and one of the best in the history of this franchise. If they hold their remaining two opponents under 42 total points, this group will set the Seahawks record for fewest points allowed in a season. Respect. Give it to them, folks. They have more than earned it.

It was another complete win for a team built to compete at every position and every down. They did not get the result they wanted in the 49ers game versus the Patriots, but that only changes the seeding implications of next week's match-up. It has no bearing on how significant the game is for the team. The 49ers are the only team in the NFL that has proven time and again that they are better than the Seahawks. They are the big brother. Seattle has grown since the last time the teams met, and will enjoy playing at home. There may be no better test of the Seahawks ceiling than the team they will face next. They enter the game playing their best football of the year. Seattle's star has shone so bright the past two Sundays that all other days look gray in comparison. What a fantastic finish to a season that very well may still fulfill special expectations.

Player Notes
Kudos to Chris Clemons for showing leadership in the second half by getting things started with a great sack, and finishing with 2.5 sacks in the half. He becomes just the third Seahawks player to have three straight double-digit sack seasons, and set his career high with 11.5. 

The secondary was tested without Brandon Browner or Walter Thurmond. Both Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane played reasonably well. It was not as great as last week, but it was serviceable. The Bills quickly figured out the Seahawks did not have a nickel corner to cover the slot well, and isolated Stevie Johnson on Lane multiple times. Thurmond's health will be paramount moving forward. He allows Lane and Maxwell to stay outside, where they are better suited and have more help from safeties. 

It was great to see Earl Thomas step up and make a few big plays. He had a tackle for loss and a miraculous interception return for touchdown. He may have ran two football fields to get the endzone and he crossed the full width of the field twice. He nearly had another earlier. Thomas is so crucial to this team as a playmaker. It would be a major boost if he could warm up.

K.J. Wright had his best game in weeks, maybe months. His interception was a turning point, and he made plays in the back-field.

Lane showed great technique on the Bills first deep pass, and terrific discipline on the edge of running plays. he turned C.J. Spiller inside multiple times.

Brandon Mebane was back to his disruptive self, after a few weeks of less than his best play.


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