Monday, May 28, 2012

Being Chris Clemons

Imagine what the morning of March 15th, 2012 must have been like for Chris Clemons. He was probably eating his breakfast with ESPN on in the background when it got announced that Mario Williams signed a $100M free agent contract with guarantees totaling $50M. Clemons probably spit out his coffee.

He has collected 37.0 sacks in the last five seasons without missing any games, even while getting only partial playing time in places like Philadelphia. Williams has piled up 48.5 in the same time period while missing 14 games. Clemons has out-sacked Williams 22.0-13.5 in the past two seasons, and yet will have made $12.6M when this current contract ends after this season. Williams will make that about 1.5 seasons into his new deal.

Age matters in the NFL, and Williams being 27 to Clemons 30 has amajor impact on their valuations. A guy like Robert Mathis, 31, is a better comparable for Clemons to watch, and he was likely thrilled to see the 4 year, $36M deal Mathis signed a couple weeks before Williams. Mathis has 20.5 sacks the last two seasons, and plays a similar pass-rush focused role as Clemons.

Daydreaming about $36M probably gets interrupted by the realization that John Schneider will never spend that kind of money on a 31-year-old free agent defensive end. That means Clemons will enter the final year of his deal playing for a team that will not pay him his next contract. Another productive sack year will lead to a sizable free agent deal somewhere else, but any fall-off or injury could cost him tens of millions of dollars. Every snap, every walkthrough, could have massive repercussions. Fans will be quick to point out the millions of dollars he is getting paid to play this season, but how many people would be able to ignore the surrounding circumstances? Not many.

Now Bruce Irvin gets drafted in the first round. Pete Carroll is glowing like a rescue flare as he talks about how he has waited his whole career to get a LEO like Irvin. Clemons plays LEO, and has done a damn good job of it, thank you very much. It becomes just another sign that things are winding down in Seattle.

Seattle doesn't stop there. They add Greg Scruggs in the 7th, a guy who projects as a LEO as well. Dexter Davis is coming off an injury, and will be getting snaps as a situational pass rusher. The battle is not to replace Clemons. Irvin was clearly drafted for that. The battle will be to see if someone can take the spot Irvin will play this year and Raheem Brock filled the last two. Brock played for roughly $1M each season. That's the level Schneider is willing to pay for a defensive end in his early 30s.

Four of the top 20 sack artists in the NFL last season were 31 years or older. Clemons will have to have another productive season, stay healthy, and find a system that suits his talents. After all, he played for two other teams and never had more than 8.0 sacks. Posting another double-digit sack season will get him money from someone, just not Seattle.

Clemons has silently been a force against the run as well. He's made terrific goal-line and 4th down tackles. He is an emotional leader on the team, and has been able to get his sacks away from the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field. Replacing him will require more than finding 11.0 sacks.

The 2012 season will be a delicate dance for the front office and Clemons. Both are well aware of the situation. Seattle is hoping to turn a corner this season and become a Top 5 NFL defense. Doing that with a distracted or dejected Clemons will be far more challenging. The hope would be that the promise of a big free agent payday and would keep him bringing maximum effort. Carroll also counts on natural competitive spirit to kick in. Nobody likes getting their ass handed to them on the field.

A first salvo was fired when Clemons did not show up for any of the voluntary OTAs thus far. He is the only player who has not attended without a publicized reason (e.g., attending a funeral). It is a plot line worth monitoring. It is easy to forget that the game we love is played by people, with predictable human emotions. How Clemons handles his will play a major role in how this season unfolds for the Seahawks.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Top 5 Fun To Watch Seahawks Defenses

John Elway tried calling out the signals. He really did. The Kingdome crowd was doing its best to play defense through endless waves of sound, and it often worked. Rufus Porter stood along the edge in an upright sprinting stance. Elway was going to unwittingly fire the starting gun of a race where the finish line was his face. Somewhere in the din, the Broncos quarterback yelled, "Hike!" and the race was on. Porter has taken two steps before the lineman moves to block him. It's too late. Porter is running the perfect parabola around the blocker and is closing quickly on his target. Boom.

The late 80's, early 90s Seahawks defenses that featured players like Porter, Jacob Green, Jeff Bryant, Eugene Robinson, Joe Nash was fun to watch. They were more effort than flash, but Porter provided his fair share of excitement with arguably the best speed rush in franchise history. Green was still posting big sack seasons (12.5 in 1990) in his early 30s, but was more likely to beat a lineman with his hands or a move than run right around him. Porter became one of my favorite Seahawks of all-time. His presence was a big part of why that era of Seahawks defense makes my Top 5. Here they are in descending order:

Note: I became a Seahawks fan in the mid-80s, so I never saw arguably the best defense in franchise history in 1984.

#5 - 2005 Seahawks 
To understand the appeal of the 2005 Seahawks defense, one first needs to appreciate the frustration of the 2004 squad. While Shaun Alexander was running for 1,700 yards and 16 TDs, partnering with Matt Hasselbeck to lead a potent Seahawks offense to lofty offensive rankings, the Seahawks defense was starting players like Chike Okeafor, Isaiah Kacyvenski, Rashad Moore and Cedric Woodard. They finished 22nd in the NFL in scoring defense and 26th in the NFL in yards allowed. Then came Lofa Tatupu, Leroy Hill, D.D. Lewis, Chuck Darby, Andre Dyson, and even Marquand Manuel. Seattle's 2005 squad was disciplined and sure-handed. It felt like no tackle was ever missed. Tatupu famously was seen re-arranging the defensive lineman pre-snap to put them in the best position to succeed. For the first time, Seattle's defense seemed smart and a step ahead. It helped to have the franchise's best offense possessing the ball and scoring the 2nd most points in the NFL, but the defense was vastly improved. Marcus Tubbs was the Red Bryant of that squad. A major difference maker who had only one great season before succumbing to injury. The overall rankings showed 7th in points against and 16th in yards allowed, but it was the Red Zone defense that was memorable. Few teams exited with touchdowns.

#4 - 1996 Seahawks
This team won't show up on many lists outside of this one. They finished last in the AFC West, and did not enjoy many top rankings. What they lacked in overall effectiveness, they made up for in pass rush. No Seahawks defensive line has ever been this dominant. Michael Sinclair put up 13.0 sacks, Michael McCrary put up 13.5, Cortez Kennedy had 8.0, and a young Sam Adams had 5.5. Those four players accounted for 40 of the team's 48 sacks. They spent so much effort getting off the ball to chase the quarterback, that they were one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. Still, a ton of fun to watch whenever the opposing quarterback dropped back to pass.

#3 - 2011 Seahawks
Nothing is more emasculating as a football fan than when opponents can run at will. It is a hopeless feeling. The 2011 Seahawks started by stopping the run. Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Alan Branch and Chris Clemons made up one of the best run-stopping lines in franchise history. They were supported by thumpers like Kam Chancellor, Hill, David Hawthorne and K.J. Wright. Earl Thomas darted in and around the opposing line to pull down backs before they got started. Opponents who tried to pass were faced with the most physical secondary in the NFL with Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. Tackling was superb, and the youth made it feel like every new game was going to be better than the last. The only thing holding this defense back from being the most fun to watch was an inconsistent pass rush and an offense that failed to possess the ball for the first eight games. The linebackers were largely ordinary as well. If only they could add a speed rusher, an interior rusher, and some quicker players at the linebacker position...

#2 - 1992 Seahawks
Only a historically terrible Seahawks offense could obscure what very well could have been the franchise's best defense. Kennedy was the most dominant player Seattle had seen on that side of the ball. Jacob Green and Kenny Easley were fantastic, but their positions made it impossible to control a game the way Kennedy did from the middle of the line. He was a wrecking ball slamming into opposing lines snap after snap, and the lineman looked like bowling pins getting knocked every which way as they bounced off of him. Nobody blocked Kennedy that year. Nobody. He registered 14.0 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and an astounding 92 tackles from the DT position. Kennedy wrecked the interior while Porter crashed the edge for 9.5 sacks. Robinson took advantage to the tune of 7 interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks rarely had a chance. Seattle was ranked 4th in passing yards allowed and 1st in passing TDs allowed. Their lower ranks in rush defense were a direct result of opposing offenses being on the field for nearly the entire game due to the inept Seahawks offense. The fact that this crew ended the season ranked 10th in the NFL in total yards allowed was miraculous. Even a league-average offense would have made this defense best in the NFL.

#1 - 1998 Seahawks
Surprise! Most Seahawks fans remember the 1998 season for the Vinny Testeverde "helmet-gate" play where Seattle was denied a playoff spot when Testeverde's helmet was mistaken for the football and declared a touchdown. What people forget is Jim Johnson bringing the most entertaining brand of defense seen around these parts. Blitzes came from everywhere and everyone. Turnovers popped out of opponents hands and found their way back to their endzone at a dizzying pace. There were eight, EIGHT, defensive touchdowns that season. Darrin Smith and Shawn Springs had two apiece. Willie Williams, Anthony Simmons and Adams each had one. Chad Brown was a revelation at linebacker, putting up 7.5 sacks and making plays literally all over the field. Watching Brown make open-field tackles was like watching Picasso paint the Mona Lisa. He never missed a tackle, no matter how much green field was around him. No other defender has matched his skill on the outside in that way. Springs picked off seven of the teams 24 interceptions, and did it with flare. Sinclair added 16.5 sacks and Phillip Daniels chipped in 6.5. Heck, even Matt LaBounty had 6.0. It was honestly disappointing when the Seahawks offense would come out on the field because the defense was so much fun to watch. Johnson was the mastermind, and letting him go became one of Mike Holmgren's worst decisions. Eagles fans got to watch his defenses punish opposing quarterbacks for a decade after he left.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

2012 Seahawks Poised To Have Special Turnover Season

Two takeaways through four games. That was how the 2011 Seahawks started the season. Three of their first four games resulted in a goose egg in the takeaway column. Their turnover differential through those four games was a dismal -4. My handy dandy calculator tells me that would have ended up at -16 if the trend had continued through the last three-quarters of the season. Instead, the Seahawks finished 2011 with a +8 differential, good for 5th in the NFL, the third-highest ranking in that category in the history of the franchise. There is reason to expect an even better performance this year.

Pete Carroll stresses both protecting the ball and taking it from opponents. Seattle did a reasonable job of protecting the ball in the first quarter of last season. They had one or fewer turnovers in two of those four games. The bigger issue was forcing turnovers. That changed in the Giants game, where the team forced five turnovers, and began a streak 10 games with at least one takeaway. No team in the NFL was forcing more turnovers than the Seahawks defense in weeks 10-15. There were a couple of factors that clearly contributed to this uprising.

Seattle was not generating any sort of pass rush early on. Their eventual rank of 19th in the NFL in sacks would seem to indicate they never really did. The truth is that the defense saw an almost linear increase in sacks as the season wore on. They were averaging 1.25 sacks in the first four games, 2.0 in the next four, 2.25 in the third quarter of the season, and ended by averaging 2.75 over the last four. The Eagles and Vikings led the NFL in sacks with an average of 3.1 sacks per game. Seattle's average of 2.75 over the last four games would have ranked 7th in the NFL if they had kept up that pace over a whole season. The correlation between Seahawks sacks and opponent turnovers was quite high (.47). In other words, the more the Seahawks sack the opposing quarterback, the more opponents turn the ball over.

Sacks don't happen in isolation. Richard Sherman joined the pass defense in that fifth game against the Giants. He was a starter two games later. Opposing quarterbacks struggled mightily after that point, helping the Seahawks finish fifth in the NFL in opponent passer rating (74.8) after being 22nd (91.7) through the first four games. Fans can decide which was the chicken and which was the egg in this scenario, but it is no mystery that good coverage leads to more sacks and more pass pressure leads to better coverage due to less time for quarterbacks to find a receiver. The combination of the two led directly to more takeaways.

The 2011 Seahawks finished 5th in the NFL in turnover differential, 3rd-highest ranking in team history.
Various studies have proven there is a strong correlation between turnover differential and winning. Last season was no different. Seven of the top ten teams in turnover differential made the playoffs, with the top three being the winningest teams in the NFL last year. Of course, a good differential is about protecting the ball, not just taking it away. Seattle has one turnover or less in seven of their final eight games.

Seahawks fans should all remember what happened over those final eight games. The team started running effectively. Interestingly, the strongest correlation to reduced turnovers was not rushing yards (-0.06) or even rush attempts (-.23). Note, that negative correlations mean the more of one thing (e.g., rushing yards or rush attempts), the less of something else (e.g., turnovers). The strongest correlation was to pass attempts (.56). The more Seattle put the ball in the air, the more they turned it over. That is going to be somewhat true across football, but a correlation that high indicates some real weakness in the passing game. Fans can decide how much of that was the quarterback versus offensive line protection versus receivers.

John Schneider and Carroll has spent a lot of effort this off-season improving areas that should lead directly to fewer giveaways and more takeaways. Seattle's first round pick, Bruce Irvin, and free agent Jason Jones should do nothing but improve the pass rush. Improved quarterback competition with Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson can only help the passing game. Robert Turbin and an improved offensive line should keep the running game strong. The vaunted Seattle secondary should only get stronger, both with more experience and with what should be an improved pass rush.

Fewer giveaways and more takeaways points to a spike in wins. Yet another reason to be bullish about 2012 for Seattle fans.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Seahawks Arsenal Best In NFC West

Kellen Winslow Jr. joined the Seahawks via trade last night. Seattle reportedly surrendered a 7th round draft choice that can turn into a 6th if certain performance measures are met. General Manager John Schneider continues his pattern of limited downside, significant upside moves with the former Pro Bowl tight end whose worst full season output would represent a 20% improvement over John Carlson's best season, and comes far cheaper (Carlson signed a 5 year, $25M deal with the Vikings). Adding Winslow gives the Seahawks two Pro Bowl tight ends, a Pro Bowl running back, and a receiver who made the Pro Bowl in his last full season. The team has quietly assembled the best offensive arsenal in the NFC West, and one that stacks up favorably with some of the best in the NFC.

Arizona Cardinals fans will quickly point out they have the best offensive weapon in the division in Larry Fitzgerald, and running back Beanie Wells, who nearly matched Marshawn Lynch's output last season. Early Doucet is a nice complementary receiver, and rookie Michael Floyd is a wild card. Most rookie receivers fail to make much of an impact. Todd Heap is a nice tight end, but is 32 years-old.

Much hinges on Rice's health. He was on pace for a 1,000+ yard season last year despite terrible early offensive line play and mediocre quarterback play. Rice outplayed Fitzgerald in their one match-up last season, for what that's worth.

Doug Baldwin and Doucet have to be considered equals until one of them separates from the other. Fitzgerald is better than Rice, but not by leaps and bounds when Rice is healthy. Lynch and Wells are roughly equivalent in terms of production, but Lynch is more durable and deserves the nod for more consistent output. Zach Miller is 26 years-old and has proven that he is a threat receiving. Last year was an aberration due to the line and quarterback. Healthy players don't have their production cut in half because they all-of-sudden stop being talented. He was a Pro Bowl player the year before Seattle acquired him, and undoubtedly is the superior player when compared to Heap. Winslow Jr. versus Jeff King? Add Leon Washington, Robert Turbin (it is far easier to project immediate contributions from rookie running backs than rookie receivers), and whoever emerges from the scrum of Ricardo Lockette, Mike Williams, Kris Durham, and Golden Tate. It is hard to argue the Cardinals have any advantage up and down the depth chart outside of Fitzgerald.

San Francisco has the best tight end pair in the NFC with Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. But, wait, do they? It was surprising to see that Winslow Jr. has dramatically outproduced Davis in some key areas.

Kellen Winslow Jr. has produced better per-season averages than Vernon Davis in key stats
Take out Winslow Jr.'s rookie season when he only played two games due a major off-field injury, and his per-season averages for receptions and yards far outpaces Davis. Davis is considered one of the best tight ends in all of football. Seattle just acquired a player that outproduces him for a 7th round draft pick. Miller has made a Pro Bowl, and is among the best blockers at the tight end position in the NFL. Perhaps, we should not be so quick to hand the best tight end pair crown in the division to the 49ers.

San Francisco added Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and rookie AJ Jenkins to Michael Crabtree. The group is a mix of unpredictability and talent. Nobody should be surprised if Moss has another big year, but what happens next year? Crabtree put up some decent numbers, but has never approached a player defenses need to game plan for. He could easily see his production drop precipitously with the other players thrown into the mix. Manningham is just a guy. He benefited from playing with a decent quarterback in a pass-heavy offense. Baldwin is a better player than either Crabtree or Manningham. Rice and Moss cancel each other out due to their high upside and unpredictability. The upside of a player like Lockette is more appealing than many of the receivers on the 49ers roster, but he has two career receptions.

Frank Gore has been a great back, but is 29. Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James are great young players behind him. The overall collection of Lynch, Turbin and Washington wins largely on Lynch being even with Gore on talent/production, but being years younger. Hunter does not look like an every down back, and James is questionable in that role. Gore's time is winding down, and someone needs to step into that position.

The difference between the 49ers and Seahawks offensive weapons is not quite what I expected. Arguments could be made on either side, but Seattle's weapons are young enough to grow with the team. San Francisco has some players aging out of value, and others that are short-term band-aids. They may be more effective in 2012, but beyond that favors Seattle.

With all due respect to Stephen Jackson, the Rams just aren't worth evaluating on offensive weapons yet.

Consider what the Seahawks ran out there before Carroll and Schneider joined. Julius Jones at running back, with Justin Forsett and Edgerrin James behind him. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch, Nate Burleson and Deon Butler at receiver, and Carlson and Josh Owens at tight end. Burleson was a great receiver (still is), but the rest of that is cringe-worthy. Schneider has completely made over the offense in three off-seasons. Now, it's up to Matt Wilson Jackson to get them the damn ball and score some points.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Night Hawk Blogger Q & A

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Imagining Russell Wilson As A Starter Week One

Much has been made of Pete Carroll's pronouncement this weekend that Russell Wilson will vie for the starting job. Logic dictates that if there is already a two-man competition for the starting role, Wilson would need to join that competition if the team hopes he could even become the back-up. It would not make much sense to have Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn battle for #1, and then just hand the #2 role to a guy that was not even in the mix. That said, this could be more than a veiled tactic to move Wilson into the back-up role. Wilson has the talent, make-up and backing of the front office to find his way all the way at the top of the heap. That scenario has some pros and cons.

Wilson winning the job would obviously mean Flynn was the back-up, a role he is certainly familiar with, but not what he envisioned after reaching free agency. It is one thing to say all the right things about knowing this was an open competition, and quite another to actually accept losing. Flynn does not seem to be the malcontent type. This scenario would certainly test that. Most importantly, fans would not get a chance to see Flynn in action during a regular season game. The impact on Wilson's career development could be significant.

Drew Brees, who Wilson is often compared, played only one game in his rookie season and then sported a pedestrian 76.9 rating in his first full season as starter for the Chargers. He dropped to 67.5 in his second starting season. Peyton Manning has a 71.2 rating his rookie year, starting out of the gate. Matt Hasselbeck went for 70.9 during his first season in Seattle. Jackson was 79.2 last year behind a shoddy line and with a torn pectoral muscle. What happens to Wilson if he gets mediocre-to-poor results out of the gate?

Here you have Flynn, who was signed to a lot of fan fare, and has thrown for 20,000 yards and 45 touchdowns in his two NFL starts, sitting on the sideline making $6M. It is hard to see how Wilson would be setup to succeed in that situation. Andy Dalton made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year with an 80.4 passer rating. That included games of 40.8 and 64.4 in the first few weeks of the season. Seattle plays the Cowboys, Packers, Patriots, 49ers, and Lions in the first half of the season. It is reasonable to expect a rookie, even a good rookie, to put up some stinkers in that stretch.

The rest of the team is setup to be elite in 2012. The defense should be in the top five. The special teams could be top five. The running game could be top ten, at least. Games could be lost by inexperienced quarterback play. That's quite a load to put on young shoulders, even for a guy as mature as Wilson.

It is hard to imagine a scenario where the pressure to play Flynn would not reach a point where Wilson took a seat. One could argue that would be a learning experience, and help his development down the road. It could also make coaches less comfortable turning back to him. That may sound silly, but try to remember just how bad Hasselbeck was in his first season in Seattle. He was awful. Very few coaches would have ever given him another shot. Trent Dilfer's injury in 2002 opened the door. Think about how much Seattle would have missed if Hasselbeck has never gotten a chance to fulfill his potential.

Not all rookie quarterbacks struggle. Ben Roethlisberger managed a 98.1 rating behind a team with a similar defense/running game style of play. Mark Sanchez had a horrible 63.0 rating, but played well in the playoffs for the Jets. Cam Newton blew up last season, but his style of play is so unique that it is hard to really compare him to anyone else. Matt Ryan went for an 87.7 rating in his rookie campaign. More often, quarterbacks appear to develop a higher ceiling when they sit for at least one season. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Brees, are just a few examples of players who benefited from some time observing.

All this applies to Flynn as well. He has sat, but it will be hard for him to hold the starting job if Wilson impresses during the pre-season and Flynn struggles during the season. Whoever wins the starting spot deserves a full season to grow into the position. That is the best way to set the team and the player up for success.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Seahawks Players On The Hot Seat

Pete Carroll and John Schneider have made a habit of parting ways with players every year that played large roles for the team the previous season. It started with names like T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Deion Branch, and continued with Matt Hasselbeck and Lofa Tatupu. Who will be out of job this season? Here are some names to keep an eye on:

Tarvaris Jackson
Breaking news, I know. This has everything to do with how Russell Wilson performs, and far less to do with how Jackson does. Much has been made about Wilson vying for the starting job, but take a step back and consider the logic. Jackson is already competing for the starting job. How could Wilson compete for the back-up job with Jackson without competing for the starting job? There is an argument to be made that Wilson is better off with Flynn winning the starting role out of the gates since almost every rookie quarterback struggles, even Drew Brees. Fans will be much more patient if they have already seen what Flynn is capable of.

Leon Washington
Washington is a fantastic person and an electrifying player. The new kickoff rules have diminished his value some. He is 29, and was having trouble getting snaps at running back with Justin Forsett on the roster. Robert Turbin is faster than Washington and bigger. Undrafted rookie Phil Bates could be an electric return man. Golden Tate, Turbin, Doug Baldwin and others could take over return duties. The Seahawks brass may prefer to hold onto a young player like Vai Taua (a sleeper pick). They also signed Kregg Lumpkin, who is a great receiver and third-down pass protector.

Mike Williams
Williams started last season, but was a non-factor. He had a significant injury late in the season that he has not recovered from yet. He faces competition from a host of receivers. Making the roster will require getting healthy, getting in top shape, and outplaying guys like Ricardo Lockette, Kris Durham and even Baldwin.

Clinton McDonald
McDonald came over in the Kelly Jennings trade last season, and made some nice contributions against the run. He is a high motor guy that gives everything he has on every snap. The question is whether he makes a unique enough impact to hold off players with higher upside. Guys like Pep Levingston, Jaye Howard, Jason Jones could all steal snaps depending on how Gus Bradley wants to run the rotation. McDonald does not have as much pass rush potential as the others, but is better against the run.

Marcus Trufant
Trufant's name was nearly on the list of former Seahawks last season before he accepted a restructured contract. He came back with the expectation of fighting for the slot corner position. His shoulder and back problems theoretically should be less of a problem in that spot as there will be less run support required. The bigger issue is the glut of talent piling up to compete for that slot job. There are at least four other guys, including Jeremy Lane, Roy Lewis, Byron Maxwell, and rookie camp standout Donny Lisowski. That's not even including Walter Thurmond III, who could come off the PUP list mid-season. Healthy, age, competition, and a new position make this a tough road for Tru.

Barrett Ruud
Ruud is the Tarvaris Jackson of linebackers on this roster. Coaches know what they can expect from him, but they'd prefer to see someone else win the starting role. There are a ton of young, fast, linebackers for roster spots that Ruud needs to beat out. Most assume he will be on the roster since he just signed a free agent deal. Carroll and Schneider can afford to pay Ruud not to play for them if it means a guy like Mike Morgan, Korey Toomer, Bobby Wagner, or Allen Bradford step up and earn playing time. Matt McCoy represents veteran insurance at middle linebacker, and the team would opt to keep a young outside linebacker with potential over more veteran insurance in the middle.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Expect Drastic Special Teams Improvement

Everyone knows there are three units on a football team: offense, defense, and special teams. Offense and defense receive nearly all of the attention, and the true impact of special teams is usually lost. Seahawks fans have a long history of appreciating great special teams play, all the way back to Rusty Tillman. That unit played a major role in team fortunes as recently as 2010. That year, Pete Carroll and John Schneider's first, one could argue that special teams was the only part of that squad that was above average. It was unlikely for a 7-9 team to make the playoffs that season, but it would have been impossible without the play of special teams. While most of us are focusing on how the offense or defense will perform in 2012, no unit may improve more than the special teams.

Schneider turned over the roster at breakneck speed in 2010, and brought in a lot of great special teams fodder in the process. There were rookies with terrific talent like Kam Chancellor, and talented veterans like Leon Washington, Michael Robinson, and Roy Lewis. The squad clicked, and became the 3rd ranked special teams unit in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders DVOA rankings. They made their impact on kickoff returns (ranked 2nd), kickoff coverage (6th), and punt returns (9th).

That roster turnover largely halted last season, and where there was change on the roster, it was adding players that did not impact the special teams. Free agent signings like Sidney Rice and Zach Miller were not going to play on the special teams. The draft had some great special teams prospects like Byron Maxwell, Malcolm Smith, and Richard Sherman, but none ended up playing that much either due to injury or being asked to step into starting roles on the defense.

The result was a precipitous drop to #17 on the Football Outsiders rankings. Kickoff coverage fell from 6th to 24th. Kick returns fell from 2nd to 12th. Punt returns fell from 9th to 16th. Overall, the unit was essentially neutral in terms of impacting the outcome of a game.

The 2012 season promises the kind of depth, athleticism and competition that can breed great special teams play. Jaye Howard, Korey Toomer and Jeremy Lane would not be on the team without the trades in the first and second rounds. All of them could play major roles on special teams. Winston Guy would appear to be a perfect special teams fit with his blend of speed and power. Bobby Wagner made three special teams tackles in the Senior Bowl, and could get some run depending on his responsibilities with the defense. Byron Maxwell  and Malcolm Smith have had a year to get healthy and stronger and should be core parts of the team. Even Bruce Irvin could get some reps, and would be a beast out there. That's without mentioning guys that already were playing well like Heath Farwell, Chris Maragos, and Allen Bradford.

Carroll wanted to add speed, and they did that. Speed does not always translate to great players on offense or defense, but often translates into great special teams players. Run fast, and tackle the guy. Great athletes tend to be able to do that. Leon Washington may also get pushed on returns by Golden Tate, or an undrafted guy like Phil Bates.

Special Teams coordinator Brian Schneider is a rising young star. Carroll has commented more than once that film study has led directly to kick or punt blocks. He was playing without a full compliment of weapons last season, but should be flush in 2012. Seahawks fans should enjoy a physical, powerful and blindingly fast unit that will be the difference in a few games. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Great Offense Is Not Enough

Having a top five defense in the NFL last year gave you roughly an 80% chance of making the playoffs. A bunch of us on Twitter continued the debate last night about whether a great defense was enough to make the Seahawks a playoff team, regardless of the offensive question marks at quarterback, offensive line and wide receiver. Softy made the assertion that the NFL is an offensively driven league, and a passing one at that. Most people would agree. I even agree that a team's chances of winning a Super Bowl without a good quarterback are minimal. That said, it is worth flipping the debate last night and seeing if a great offense gets teams any farther than a great defense. In other words, if you could only have a great offense or a great defense, which would be the more likely predictor of making the playoffs?

We start by looking at the inverse of the stats from last night. These rankings, collectively, should provide a solid view of the NFL's top offenses last season. Don't expect to see Seattle anywhere in these.

1. GNB 35.0*
2. NO 34.2*
3. NWE 32.1*
4. DET 29.6*
5. CAR 25.4

1. NO 6.7*
2. GNB 6.6*
3. NWE 6.3*
T4. CAR 6.2
T4. PHI 6.2

1. GNB 122.6*
2. NO 110.5*
3. NWE 105.7*
4. DAL 100.1
5. DET 97.2*

1. CAR 5.4
2. MIN 5.2
3. PHI 5.1
T4. BUF 4.9
T4. NO 4.9*

1. SFO 0.7*
2. GNB 1.1*
T3. CLE 1.2
T3. NWE 1.2
T3. ATL 1.2*

*Made playoffs

A good offense is a strong predictor of playoff potential, as expected. It does not, however, correlate as well as a good defense did last season. Four out of the top five teams in scoring defense, opponent yards/play, and opponent passer rating made the playoffs. Five of the top five teams in takeaways made the playoffs. Flipping that over to offense, four out of the top five teams scoring and passer rating made the playoffs, but only three out of five in yards/play and giveaways did. Interestingly, having a good run defense or a good run offense was the least predictive, but even there, run defense was more important than run offense.

Math purists will argue about sample size and various other flaws in this reasoning. The simple truth is that a top five defense mattered more than a top five offense last season, and the Seahawks are right on the doorstep of a top five defense.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Great Defense Is Enough

I tuned into Softy's show today, and he was asking people how good they thought the team could be this year. The constant refrain from callers when something like this, "The defense is pretty good, but that offense...that offense really stinks." Instead of fighting the notion that offense stinks. Let's take a different tack here. Just how good is this defense, and what can we learn about the Seahawks prospects just by projecting the defense?

First, take a look at where the Seahawks stacked up in 2011. The sloppy thing to say is the Seahawks were a Top 10 defense, but they were better than that. Defenses are ranked in various ways, but no matter how you look at the 2011 Seahawks defense, it was damn good.

1. PIT 14.2*
2. SFO 14.3*
3. BAL 16.6*
4. HOU 17.4*
5. CLE 19.2
6. MIA 19.6
7. SEA 19.7

1. PIT 4.5*
2. BAL 4.6*
3. HOU 4.8*
T4. CIN 5.0*
T4. NYJ 5.0
T6. SFO 5.1*
T6 SEA 5.1
+ 2 others @ 5.1

1. BAL 68.8*
2. HOU 69.0*
3. NYJ 69.6
4. PIT 71.7*
5. SFO 73.6*
6. SEA 74.8

T1. BAL 3.5*
T1. SFO 3.5*
3. MIA 3.7
T4. JAX 3.8
T4. SEA 3.8

1. SFO 2.4*
2. GNB 2.3*
3. DET 2.1*
4. NWE 2.0*
T5. NYG 1.9*
T5. SEA 1.9
+ 3 others @ 1.9

*Made playoffs

The conservative ranking of Seattle's defense last year would be somewhere around 6-7. The final rankings support that, but miss how different this defense was in the second half of the season after inserting Richard Sherman. Check out The Sherman Effect:

You can see that the 65.9 rating would have ranked #1 in the NFL if that had been sustained for a season. Some will point out that the Seahawks faced better QB competition early, and that had more to do with the results than the defense or Sherman. That may be true, but it also sounds very much like what people said before last season about the run defense with/without Red Bryant. A full season of dominant run defense silenced those critics. Expect the same with a full season of this secondary in action.

Scoring defense flipped in the last eight games as well. The Seahawks held opponents to just 16.3 points per game, which would have ranked #3 in the NFL if that was sustained for a whole season.

Turnovers also saw a major change, as the team averaged 2.5 takeaways per game the final eight games after only averaging 1.4 in the first eight. San Francisco set a turnover record last year by averaging 2.4 per game, to give you some context for how productive the defense had become as turning over the opposing team.

Pass pressure increased from 1.6 sacks/game to 2.5 in the second half of the year. Even with that resurgence, the team only ranked 19th in the NFL in sacks.

Now, add in Bruce Irvin replacing Raheem Brock (3.0 sacks), Jason Jones, faster linebackers, and another year of seasoning for the secondary. There is little reason to project the defense being anything but better in 2012, but what does that mean for the Seahawks chances of improving their record?

Four of the top five teams in scoring defense made the playoffs last season. Four of the top five teams in opponent yards/play made the playoffs last season. Four of the top five teams in opponent passer rating made the playoffs last season. Only two of the top five teams in opponent yards/carry made the playoffs last season. Five of the top five teams in takeaways/game made the playoffs last season.

Predict what you'd like about the Seahawks offense, but this defense was damn near top five last season with an offense that did not exist for eight games. They have added more talent in the one area the defense had a vulnerability in terms of pass rush, and there is almost no reason to project the offense being worse in 2012 than it was in 2011. Lots can happen between now and the season starting, but it is safe to feel bullish on this upcoming year, even if you only feel confident in the defense.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Rare Seattle Pass Rusher

Bruce Irvin being selected as the 15th pick in the NFL draft has gotten plenty of coverage. Most national media has panned the pick because they see it as either much higher than Irvin needed to be drafted, or because Irvin does not appear to be an every down player. Lost in all that coverage is just how unique of a selection Irvin was for this Seattle franchise. Take a second and try to recall the last time the Seahawks drafted a defensive end who was known for his dominant pass-rushing ability. Not your late-round prayers like Dexter Davis or Nick Reed, or standard 2-3 down ends like Lawrence Jackson. When was the last time the Seahawks drafted a player that came into the league with expectations of 10+ sack seasons?

You could argue that it goes all the way back to 1980, when the team used the 10th overall pick on Jacob Green. Green was highly touted coming out of Texas A&M, and went on to become the Seahawks all-time leader in sacks with 97.5 over 12 seasons. Sure, there has been surprises like Michael McCrary, taken in the 7th round in 1993, who had a 13.5 sack season for the Seahawks before leaving for the Baltimore Ravens. Michael Sinclair was a 6th round pick in 1991 who went on to become the franchise's second-leading pass rusher with 73.5 career sacks. Guys like Cortez Kennedy, Jeff Bryant and Joe Nash (all in the franchise's Top 10 in sacks) were all defensive tackles. Rufus Porter was a terrific speed rusher who sits 7th on the franchise sack list, but Porter was an undrafted free agent.

Over the last decade, it's been almost exclusively rent-a-sack, with names like DE Patrick Kerney, LB/DE Julian Peterson, and DT John Randle. The Seahawks have been so hard-pressed to find sack artists in the draft that a player could average 5.0 sacks for five years and become 10th on the franchise sack list. Peterson owns that spot right now after playing just three seasons in Seattle.

The need has been so great, Seattle has dumped millions on players like Grant Wistrom, and taken far-out risks on guys like Lamar King (1st round) and Anton Palepoi (2nd round).

Many of the biggest critics of Seattle's choice of Irvin acknowledge that he could average 10+ sacks per season in the NFL. Nobody seems to be denying that. Folks, that would be a revelation. Only six drafted players in the history of the franchise have recorded 10+ sacks in a single season. Those players are:

- Jacob Green
- Cortez Kennedy
- Jeff Bryant
- Michael Sinclair
- Michael McCrary
- Randy Edwards

Of those, only two (Green and Sinclair) have accomplished the feat more than once. Irvin would join a select club if he can reach the double-digit plateau once, and a secret society if he can do it twice. If he makes a habit of it, he very well may wind up among the five best pass rushers in team history in 4-6 years. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hawk Blogger Podcast: Special Guest Jerry Brewer

It was literally months in the making. Jerry Brewer, columnist for the Seattle Times, and I have been trading tweets for ages trying to get beers or lunch or something more personable than social media. We settled for a phone call, and recorded it for everyone to hear. I asked Jerry for some background on how he got in the sports journalism biz, how he is challenging himself as a writer, and what advice he could provide aspiring journalists. Then we spent a bunch of time talking about the results of the Seahawks draft, and whether Seattle's defense will be the best in the NFL.

If you haven't read Jerry's blog, be sure to check it out. It's nearly an hour of podcast goodness. Enjoy!

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Impromptu Post-Draft Seahawks Chat

Painted Into A Pete Carroll Corner?

Critics continue to pan the Seahawks draft choices as overdrafted. Supporters continue to argue that Pete Carroll and John Schneider have unique needs that cause them to value players differently than the rest of the NFL. It is possible that both sides are right. Carroll and Schneider have a great track record in turning their draft choices into starters and significant contributors. What happens, though, if Carroll moves on? The Seahawks may be stuck with a roster full of specialty players whose value diminishes greatly in another system.

Take a look at the presumed starters on both sides of the ball:

QB - Matt Flynn
RB - Marshawn Lynch
FB - Michael Robinson
WR - Sidney Rice
WR - Mike Williams/Kris Durham/Ricardo Lockette
WR - Doug Baldwin
TE - Zach Miller
RT - Breno Giacomini/James Carpenter
RG - John Moffit
C - Max Unger
LG - Duece Lutui/Paul McQuistan
LT - Russell Okung

5-Tech DE - Red Bryant
DT - Brandon Mebane
DT - Alan Branch
LEO DE - Chris Clemons
SAM - K.J. Wright
MIKE - Bobby Wagner
WILL - Leroy Hill
CB - Richard Sherman
CB - Brandon Browner
CB - Roy Lewis
SS - Kam Chancellor
FS - Earl Thomas

Players like Lynch, Rice, Baldwin, Okung are system-agnostic. In fact, the only players who would seem to be at risk of losing significant value under another system would be Paul McQuistan, James Carpenter, and John Moffitt. The offensive line is run differently, but that's more a Tom Cable dependency than tied to Carroll.

The defense is Carroll's baby, and not surprisingly, contains more risk. Bryant, Branch, Clemons, Sherman, Browner, and Chancellor all would be at risk of seeing their value diminish. We have already seen how Bryant's value was as a defensive tackle. Branch was a middling player in Arizona before arriving here. Browner was in the CFL. Even the great Chancellor is a rare breed. Most NFL defenses are using two smaller safeties. The days of big thumping safeties has largely come to an end. Sherman is a good enough athlete that he could possibly work in other defenses, but Browner is harder to picture succeeding elsewhere. That's not even bringing up newly drafted Bruce Irvin, who is slated to take over for Clemons as early as next season. Clemons was a role player on Oakland, a reserve in Philly, and a revelation in Carroll's LEO position. Irvin should have value as a pass rusher in any defense, but would play far fewer downs. That's why Irvin makes perfect sense to Seattle as the 15th pick, but may not have been picked in the first round by a number of other teams.

Carroll leaving may seem like a far-fetched idea given how much great progress the team has made thus far on the roster. Consider the possibility of the Vikings, or another team, moving to Los Angeles. Carroll's roots are in California, and the ownership group could pull out all the stops to entice him back down there. The upshot is that Gus Bradley runs that defense, and has head coaching potential. He could take over for Carroll without losing the defensive philosophy. That makes it imperative that the team keeps Bradley around, which will be harder and harder as the defense gets more recognition around the league. Carroll and Schneider have the team headed in the right direction. Their direction. That unique configuration of talent is a big part of what makes this team exciting. It also adds risk to the longevity to this upcoming run toward a championship.