Saturday, September 29, 2012

TUNE IN: Hawk Blogger TV During The Rams/Seahawks Game

Someone thinks it would be fun to listen to me call a Seahawks game. It is true. I received an email yesterday from the CEO, Ryan Granner, of asking if I'd be interested in trying their new service to broadcast Seahawks games.

I don't plan on listening to Mike Martz much anyway, so let's give this a try. If everyone (anyone?) enjoys it, I may do it for some other road games as well. Over 300 people listened to me break down the 4th pre-season game, so I know there are some crazies out there.

WHERE: Go HERE and click the button next to the Seahawks vs. Rams game

TIME: 9:55 AM

WHY? Do you really want to listen to more nonsensical and obnoxious national commentary? Get an informed opinion about what you are seeing, and a chance to interact with the broadcaster.

HOW: My voice will be broadcast through your internet-connected device. You should expect some delay in my call relative to the game since it has to travel all over the place, and even TV feeds are not timed exactly in every location. There are markers that let you pause your TV, and sync up with my broadcast. For example, I will mark "Kickoff." You can pause your TV at the kickoff, and then click PLAY when my broadcast catches up. It should be no more than 20-30 seconds.

Be aware, I will absolutely be swearing if I feel like it.

You can use this Twitter hashtag to talk to get my attention during the broadcast:  #HBTV

Let me know what you think!

The Overlooked Chris Clemons

Jacob Green was drafted with the 10th overall pick of the 1980 draft. The NFL did not start tracking sacks as an official statistic until his third season, when he recorded 3.0 of what would eventually be a Seahawks record 97.5 over a sterling 13-year career. His number is retired in the Seahawks Ring of Honor, although his son-in-law, Red Bryant, has permission to wear it. Green had double-digit sacks in five of his thirteen seasons, with a high of 16.0 in 1983. Only eleven players in the history of the Seahawks franchise have had even a single season with 10+ sacks. Only four have accomplished the feat twice. Only two have done it more than twice. Chris Clemons recorded 11.0 sacks in each of his first two seasons with the Seahawks, and is sitting on 5.0 after just three games this year. Yet, somehow, people are more likely to talk about almost every other player on the defense. It is time for that to end.

Clemons came to the Seahawks in what has become one of the most lopsided trades in franchise history. Darryl Tapp. The coverage of the move, and the compensation package, implied Tapp was the centerpiece of the deal. Clemons has recorded more sacks in his 2+ seasons with Seattle (27.0) than Tapp has in his entire seven-year career. He had a total of 20.0 sacks in the five seasons before coming to Seattle.

The book on Clemons before his arrival in Seattle was that he could be an effective situational pass rusher, but could not hold up as an every down player. Not only has Clemons proved he can be durable, having played every game in Seattle, but he has shown up as one of the better run defenders in short yardage and goal-line situations.

One of the first things that stood out when listening to Clemons get interviewed his first year in Seattle was just how smart he was. This was a player that studied his opponents, identified weaknesses, and exploited them. He talked about setting up lineman, hand placement, and points of leverage. These same tactics have helped him to anticipate how best he can make an impact on run defense. He uses his hands as effectively as any lineman on the team to create space and get off blocks.

He pairs those smarts with a junkyard dog attitude that helps keep his motor revving. Unlike many Seahawks sack artists, Clemons does not need the 12th Man screaming behind him to get his sacks. Nine of his eleven sacks last year came on the road. He also had more sacks in the last eight games (6.0) than he did in the first eight (5.0). His sacks were evenly distributed in 2010 as well. There were logical questions raised about how getting older--he turns 31 next month--and getting sizable contract extension would effect his production. He has answered those questions through three games by being the only consistent pass rusher. He tortured the Cardinals tackles in Arizona, would have had at least another sack against Dallas if not for Tony Romo's ballerina spins, before tying Derrick Thomas' record for sacks in one half (Clemons got them all in one quarter).

This week Clemons will face a back-up left tackle in Wayne Hunter that was jettisoned from his the NY Jets because he was such a disaster. Oh, and Hunter is also questionable with an ankle injury. The presence of Clemons will force the Rams to give Hunter help in the form of a running back or a tight end. That will give Sam Bradford one less option of where to throw the ball. It will also give rookie Bruce Irvin more one-on-one opportunities on the other side of the line. Rock, meet hard place.

The Seahawks record for sacks in a season in 16.5, held by Michael Sinclair during the 1998 season. Clemons is on pace for 26 sacks this year. Breaking the single-season NFL sack record may be asking too much, but setting a new Seahawks mark is in play.

On a team with bright young stars on defense like Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Red Bryant, and Irvin, it is easy to forget just how fortunate Seahawks fans are to have a player like Clemons on the roster. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Seahawks Defense Goal Sunday = Shutout

Sam Bradford and the Rams are not a team to underestimate. I have been warning anyone that would listen about their upside since Jeff Fisher came to town. Steven Jackson is a beast. Danny Amendola has as many receptions this season (25) as all the Seahawks wide receivers combined. They could very easily be 2-1 if things had fallen just slightly differently in the opener against the Lions. Here's the thing, though. They should not score a point against Seattle. Not a point. 

Bradford and the offense is built around a short passing game and a strong running game. Their wide receivers, Brandon Gibson and Steve Smith, are weak. Amendola mans the slot and is Bradford's favorite target. A stunning 70 of Bradford's 95 pass attempts in 2012 have been less than 10 yards down-field. Only 10 throws have traveled more than 20 yards, three of which have been completed. Seattle fans wring their hands about Russell Wilson's lack of attempts down-field, but he has the same number as Bradford (10) in 20 less total throws (75), and Wilson has completed one more than his Rams counterpart. The Seahawks secondary is built to destroy these passing games. 

Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner have faced the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, and James Jones over the first three weeks and made them all look silly. Gibson and Smith will need to find a medium who can channel the spirit of Jerry Rice into them to have any hope of being productive. Bradford was a combined 32-69 (46%) against the Seahawks last year. He had some success his rookie year in the first game, but Seattle was ready for him in the last game of the year to earn a trip to the playoffs. The key was the role Earl Thomas played. Gus Bradley rolled Thomas up into the slot to cover Amendola in the second game. The Rams slot receiver went from 5 catches for 46 yards in the first match-up to 2 catches for 9 yards in the second. Bradley may choose to try Marcus Trufant there on Sunday, but Thomas is available since his talent patrolling the deep middle of the field is largely wasted against a team that never throws it that far. Playing Thomas on Amendola allows the Seahawks to play base defense even when there are three receivers on the field for St. Louis.

Base defense means three linebackers are out there being able to stuff the run instead of pulling one off to put a smaller player like Trufant in the game. The Rams running game has been strong this year, putting up the 10th best yards per carry (4.1) in the NFL. Jackson is nursing a groin injury, and will be a game-time decision. He is always a game-time decision versus Seattle, and it generally has not mattered either way. Seattle's run defense has not met a running game it cannot stop. Without the threat of a deeper passing attack, Kam Chancellor can spend all day as a fourth linebacker if need be. 

The Rams are playing without their starting left tackle and starting center. Their backup left tackle, Wayne Hunter, is also injured, but will need to play. Seattle's defensive line should have it's way on first and second downs, leaving St. Louis in a number of 3rd and long situations where Bradley can blitz the beejezus out of them. There was a hint of truth in Fisher's voice when he said he considered playing Kellen Clemens at quarterback after studying the game tape from the Seahawks Monday night win.

The controversy from the game against the Packers greatly reduces the risk of a letdown for the Seahawks, especially on defense. This was a unit that had a virtuoso performance which went largely ignored. They will be itching to smack people around on Sunday. A Seahawks win over the Packers without the controversy probably leads to a week of feature stories on this emerging dominant unit, setting them up for a fall. Consider it another reason to be thankful for that baloney all week.

Offenses that face a defensive challenge like this tend to look for ways to surprise. For the Rams, that would mean deep passes, or large numbers of quick passes in early downs. Perhaps, even some no huddle. The problem is the Rams simply don't have the personnel to pull it off in any sort of sustained way against Seattle. More likely, they find themselves out of their element, under pressure, unable to run, and all-of-a-sudden the ball is on the ground or in the hands of a Seahawks defender. Holding the Cowboys to seven points and the Packers to twelve means the Rams should not sniff the end zone. As much respect as people should have for the Rams and Bradford, the Seahawks defense presents a unique set of skills that leave St. Louis with little hope of being productive.

Can Russell Wilson Win 13-15 Games in 2012?

Seattle very nearly lost a game this past week even though their defense played a historically brilliant game against one the NFL's best offenses. Some would argue the team's lone loss in the first week of the season came as a result of inept offense. The Seahawks are dead last in the NFL in passing yards, pass attempts, and yards per attempt. Yet, the team is 2-1 with wins over two powerful teams. Pete Carroll insists the team can continue to win with a formula of great defense, special teams, and low turnovers, even if the passing game production does not improve. It is a difficult proposition to believe. Green Bay only scored twelve points, and the offense had trouble eclipsing that number. In times of doubt, looking for historical comparisons can be illuminating.

Ben Roethlisberger started 14 games as a rookie in 2004, and his team went 15-1. The Steelers ranked 28th in passing yards that season. The San Francisco 49ers went 13-3 last season with an offense that ranked 29th in passing yards. Mark Sanchez started 15 games as a rookie in 2009 and his team went 9-7 while being ranked 31st in passing yards. Each of these teams reached the conference championship in their respective seasons. Each team lost. These were three of the fifteen teams that have thrown for under 3000 yards in a season since 2004 and managed to make the playoffs. Russell Wilson is on pace to throw for just over 2300 yards this season. Only seven teams in the history of football have made the playoffs while throwing for under 2500 yards in a year. Sanchez's Jets and Tim Tebow's Broncos were two recent examples.

These are only Wilson's first three games, though, so it is reasonable to expect he will get better as he gets more experience. Smith and Roethlisberger are two case studies worth digging in deeper on because they led wildly successful teams. Tebow's Broncos were 8-8, and the Jets were only 9-7 with Sanchez. Why aspire to mediocrity? Let's see what kind of quarterback play was required to win 13+ games.

Take a look at some passing totals for Wilson, Roethlisberger, and Smith through the first three games they played:

Wilson is right there with the other fellas in terms of total passing yards. The 70 yards he trails them works out to around 23 yards per game. That is not a massive difference. Where he really shines is the TD/INT ratio. Smith had only thrown two touchdowns by this point last season. Wilson has double that number. Both Roethlisberger and Smith threw for 17 touchdowns in their seasons. Wilson is on pace to throw for 21 touchdowns. Only six quarterbacks in history, and three since 1960, have thrown for 21 or more touchdowns in their rookie season. Those players were Peyton Manning, Cam Newton and Jim Kelly. Wilson is on pace to throw only five interceptions. None of those three quarterbacks threw fewer than 17 interceptions as rookies. Smith managed to throw just five last year, and Roethlisberger threw 11. 

Wilson's yards per attempt is concerning. That's Blaine Gabbert 2011 and Jimmy Clausen territory. There is not a good way to search for how many teams have made the playoffs with a YPA that low, but a brief perusal of a list of QBs that have posted numbers in that range makes it clear very few make the playoffs. Smith was middle-of-the-pack last year, and Roethlisberger was near the top of the league. Those two led successful teams with low yardage, and even touchdown passes, but they made their attempts count. Wilson must improve dramatically here.

The trends over the course of a season can be useful to review as well. Here is how each player did through three games:

This perspective helps illustrate how much Wilson's first game has impacted his efficiency numbers. His yards per attempt have been closer to acceptable the last two games, although the Packers game was no great stakes, especially if the final 24-yard pass was removed. His passer rating, however, was stronger than the other players in the second game, and nearly equal to Roethlisberger in the third game. His yardage is dropping. The other two guys were more productive, with Smith making clear steps forward each week.

Let's see how things progressed for the rest of the season:

Smith had 11 games when his passer rating was over 85.0, while Roethlisberger had 8 in two fewer starts. Interestingly, all 8 of those games for Roethlisberger were fantastic games with a rating over 100.0. Smith only had four such games. Smith only had three games when he passed for over 250 yards, and just seven when he hit 200 yards or more. Roethlisberger only eclipsed 250 yards once, and only went over 200 yards four times. Again, Wilson will need to step in the yards per attempt department to keep up. Smith went over 7.0 YPA nine times, and Roethlisberger did it in an astonishing 12 of his 14 starts.

The other things these two teams had were great defenses and great running games. The Steelers finished 1st in yards allowed, 1st in points allowed, and were 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards. The 49ers were 4th in yards allowed, 2nd in points allowed, and 8th in rushing yards. The Seahawks are currently 4th in yards allowed, 1st in points allowed, and 6th in rushing yards.

Carroll has reason to believe the way his team has played the first three games can result in huge win totals even without a major improvement to the passing game. Where he might have some challenges are finding examples of teams matching this pattern making or winning the Super Bowl. Only the 1990 NY Giants, 2000 Baltimore Ravens and 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers have passed for less than 3000 yards and made a Super Bowl in the last 23 years. The plus side is each of those teams walked away with the Lombardi Trophy. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Forget Height, Wilson Needs Patience

Before the controversial final play of the game against the Packers, Russell Wilson was 9-20 for 106 yards with 1 touchdown and 0 interceptions for a passer rating of 78.3. A passer rating of around 80.0 represents a mediocre game. ESPN has invented their QBR rating that takes into account many more factors, including things like when the throws were completed, and the defense the quarterback was facing. Wilson finished with a 28.5 QBR, which means a quarterback who plays a game like that should win roughly 28.5% of the games he plays. I have not had the chance to watch the replay of the game yet, but there were two plays that stood out from the stands which illustrated a key area Wilson needs to improve on to take his next developmental step.

3rd down & 7 @ SEA 23-yard line 13:17 1st QTR - Pass incomplete to Ben Obomanu
Seattle's first possession started a couple of runs to get to a 3rd and 2 situation. A false start on Russell Okung left the Seahawks with 3rd and 7. Wilson takes the snap and appears uncomfortable from the start. Golden Tate is open almost immediately directly in front of Wilson.

Wilson turns his head, and looks to scramble almost immediately after the snap. Tate is sitting down wide open against the Packers zone. Wilson never sees him, and it was certainly not a height thing based on the sight lanes he had to look through.

This is the same play from another angle. This shows how clean Wilson's pocket was to throw from, and again, how open Tate was. Obomanu is the receiver in the top of the screen that is blanketed. Wilson scrambles to his right and has to throw the ball out of bounds. Fourth down.

1st & 10 @ GB 25-yard line 6:10 4th QTR - Pass complete to Zach Miller for 8 yards

This was the penultimate drive for Seattle. Wilson takes the snap and makes a very rapid decision to throw to his tight end for a safe gain. It is not a terrible play, by any stretch. It also was not a winning play. If Wilson had taken just one more breath before making his throw, he would have seen Sidney Rice running into open space on a blown coverage.

Wilson is already winding up at this point, locked in on Miller. Rice has his hand raised, with nothing but end zone in front of him.

This the same play from another angle. Rice does not appear in this view, but notice the pocket Wilson has to throw from. He did not make this throw to avoid getting sacked. There is a nice pocket, and great throwing lanes. There was six minutes left on the clock, so this was not a hurry-up situation. This was a chance to win the game cleanly.

Wilson deserves credit for manning the ship while this team beat two powerhouses in the NFL. He deserves credit for not throwing any interceptions the last two games. He makes nice plays with his legs to extend drives, and has thrown a touchdown in each of his first three games. His patience in the pocket needs to improve. It is unclear if the pounding he took in the first game against the Cardinals caused him to lose some confidence in his line, or he is just showing some rookie jitters. Either would be understandable. He needs to figure out what is necessary to trust his line, and go through his progressions. There are those that will tell you the passing game is struggling because of receiver play. Jackson was more productive passing to these receivers than Wilson has been. They did not all get considerably worse after the off-season. In fact, Tate and Braylon Edwards represent improvement over who was running those patterns last year. The good new is Wilson can make these throws. He is smart enough to make better choices. We often talk about giving him time to develop. In this case, he must give himself time to find the right receiver, and make the indisputable winning play.

Podcast with Softy: I'm a little angry...

I lost it. Enough. I cannot handle anymore of this one-sided drivel from around the nation. I unloaded on poor Softy today. Take a listen.

***Download the podcast***

The Forty-Seven Percenters

Mitt Romney made headlines recently by saying he believes 47% of the country does not believe in personal responsibility. The aftermath of the Seahawks win over the Packers is revealing the percentage may be higher among those choosing to boil over three hours of football down to one man's decision. There are those that would even have trouble reading that last sentence because it describes the game as a Seahawks win. Everyone who has played and watched sports growing up has seen and experienced countless bad calls, some that have drastically altered the outcome of the game. The lesson we have all been taught, and pass down to our children, is that you cannot control the referees, but you can control how you play on the field. That lesson has somehow been completely absent from the national conversation about this game. The predominant story line has been that the NFL gave the Seahawks a win, or that the Seahawks stole a win. Absurd. Weak. Unsportsmanlike. Packer fans have every right to be furious about a call they did not agree with. NFL fans have every right to be furious that our teams are playing games with unqualified officials. None of that changes the fact that the Seahawks won the game, and the Packers lost it over the course 119 plays, not one.

Green Bay started their first possession at their own 35-yard line. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers scrambled for 16 yards on the first play, moving the ball to the Seattle 49-yard line. The Packers next play was a run for no gain. Then, another run for no gain. Rodgers dropped back to pass on 3rd down and the Bruce Irvin sacked him. Seattle wins. 

Seattle's second possession ended with a punt that they downed at the Green Bay 1-yard line. The Packers ran 8 plays and gained 25 yards while being sacked two more times. Seattle wins. 

The second quarter began, and the Seahawks offense had managed only one first down on their own. Green Bay, owners of the most powerful offense in football, began their third possession at their own 37-yard line, with the scored still tied 0-0. They gained eight yards on first down to reach the 45-yard line. They managed another yard on second down to make it 3rd and 1. Rodgers was sacked. Seattle wins.

Seattle did nothing with their next possession, but Jon Ryan kicked another beauty 65 yards down field, and the coverage unit held the dangerous Randall Cobb to a 6-yard return. The Packers started at their own 11-yard line. Cobb made a nice run for 20 yards on first down to get out to the 31. Cedric Benson ran for four yards next. An incomplete pass left a 3rd and 6 at the Green Bay 48-yard line. Rodgers was sacked, and there was a holding call against their line. Seattle wins.

Tim Masthay did not pin the Seahawks inside their 20. He kicked it to the 21-yard line, and Leon Washington returned it out to the 27. A holding call on first down moved the Seahawks back to their 17. A defensive offsides and two running plays later, it was 3rd and 4 on the Seattle 33-yard line. Russell Wilson scrambled for 7 yards and first down to the Seattle 40. Marshawn Lynch ran for four yards on the next play, and Packers linebacker D.J. Smith got caught slapping the face of Seahawks lineman Paul McQuistan after the play for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct, moving the ball to the Packers 41-yard line. Wilson threw a deep touchdown on the next play when Golden Tate badly beat Tramon Williams. Seattle wins. 

The Packers got their next possession at roughly the same spot, the 24, where Seattle had started theirs (the 27). Rodgers converted a third down pass to James Jones for 14 yards, moving them to Green Bay 42. Brandon Mebane sacked Rodgers on first down for a loss, but was flagged 15 yards for a face mask. That moved the Packers into Seahawks territory, down to the 47. Unlike Seattle, the Packers could not capitalize  Jeff Saturday held on the next play to move them back 10 yards. Chris Clemons sacked Rodgers on the next play to move them back seven more yards. Clemons sacked Rodgers again on the next play. The Packers faced a 3rd and 28, and decided to dump the ball off to their fullback for a short gain before punting. Seattle wins.

Green Bay came out after halftime and moved the ball expertly down the field. The drive benefited from a roughing the passer penalty on Bobby Wagner that looked strikingly similar to the roughing call made against the Packers later in the game. It occurred at the 11:22 mark in the 3rd quarter, for those that want to go back and watch it. That call moved the ball from the Seattle 43 to the Seattle 28. Two plays later, the Packers faced 3rd and 2 when the Seahawks were flagged for twelve men on the field to give Green Bay a first down. The Packers lost a yard on 1 and 10 at the Seahawks 15 to bring up 2nd and 11. Rodgers completed a pass for 6 yards to make it 3rd and 5 from the Seahawks 10-yard line. The third down pass fell incomplete, and the Packers had to settle for a field goal. Those four points missed become crucial. Seattle wins.

After Seattle went backwards 16 yards on their next possession, Ryan punted it 66 yards and the special teams held Cobb to a 4-yard return. The Packers drive down to the Seahawks 34-yard line for a 3rd and 5 play. Seattle stops Benson short of the first down, but a dubious illegal hands to the face call against Brandon Browner on the opposite side of the field give the Packers a first down. Benson goes up the middle for seven yards on first down to get to the 22-yard line. Green Bay had the ball 2nd and 3 at the Seattle 22, and proceeded to throw two incomplete passes. The Packers go 55 yards on their first possession and 69 yards on their second, scoring on both, but still trailing 7-6. Seattle wins.

The Packers stuff the Seahawks on the next series, and Green Bay gets the ball back at their own 19 early in the 4th quarter. They move to the Seattle 47-yard line on 3rd and 2. There is an incomplete pass, but a questionable pass interference penalty grants the Packers new life. They get all the way to the Seahawks 2-yard line when Rodgers attempts to scramble for the first down and is ruled short of the line to gain. A replay review leads the official to declare a first down without the benefit of a measurement. The Packers score a touchdown, and decide to go for a two-point conversion. Browner breaks up the play. Those two points end up being the margin of defeat. Seattle wins.

Seattle starts at their own 20, and benefits from two questionable calls on roughing the passers and defensive pass interference. They reach the Packers 7-yard line, but do not score. The calls were certainly dubious, but no points were scored as a result. The Packers get the ball at their own 2, and fumble on first down, gain no yards on second down, and get two yards on 3rd down. A first down there would have ended the game. They had run effectively much of the half, but did not convert with the game on the line. Seattle wins.

The Seahawks start their final possession at the Green Bay 46 with 0:46 left to play. Wilson throws incomplete down-field to Evan Moore. It appeared to be pass interference, but there was no call. Seattle completes the next pass 22 yards to Sidney Rice. The team is in position to win the game on a questionable call, and that is what happens. 

Revisionist history will remember this game as one the Seahawks stole, or the NFL gave to the Seattle. Some Packer fans will choose to believe they were robbed of a victory. Even some Seattle fans will be convinced this was a shameful outcome. There were 119 plays in that game. The Seahawks made winning plays far more often than the Packers over the course of the evening. There were questionable calls on both sides that led to points being scored for both teams that maybe should not have been. Referees, replacement or not, make bad calls in almost every game in every sport. It is part of competition. A real official apologized to the Seahawks for mistakes he made in a Super Bowl. Even so, the Seahawks lost that game because Jerramy Stevens dropped passes and a practice squad safety was forced into action because of injury, not because of officials. They were responsible for the outcome of the game, the same way the Packers are responsible for the outcome on Monday. Seahawks players and coaches deserve credit for a stunning performance. They won the game. Hats off.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Hawk Blogger 2012 Power Rankings - Week 3

Power rankings are always debatable. I don't buy into the gut feel methods most places use to determine their rankings, so I developed a formula a few years back that attempts to take at least some of the subjectivity out of the discussion. My approach is simple, I measure offensive and defensive efficiency based on the Yards Per Carry (YPC) and Yards Per Attempt (YPA), as well as points scored and points allowed. The formula to calculate "Team Strength" is as follows:

(YPC (offense) + YPA (offense) + Avg Pts/Game Scored) - (YPC (defense) + YPA (defense)+ Avg Pts/Game Allowed)

The formula has proven to be a pretty accurate predictor of success. Even in the first week of the 2008 season, 5 of the top 10 ranked teams were playoff bound. As with any statistic, it becomes more meaningful as the sample size grows. Only 3 of the top 10 teams from week one of 2010 made the playoffs, and a team as low as #27 (Atlanta) was a league power. Usually, these become most meaningful after week 3. In 2007, 9 of the top 10 ranked teams were playoff teams, with the lowest ranked playoff team coming in at #15. In 2008, 8 the top 10 were playoff teams, with Arizona being the lowest ranked playoff team at #19. In 2010 8 of top 10 teams from week 3 made the playoffs.

If you'd like to see final rankings from 2011, you can read more here.

This power rankings formula typically starts being an accurate predictor of playoff teams by week three. Seven of the Top 10 teams from week three of last year's rankings made the playoffs. Seattle holds steady at #7. The NFC West has three of the Top 11 teams. Not sure that has ever happened since I started this blog.

Scatter chart of the rankings. This view helps to give you a view of how teams are grouped together. You will generally see tiers of strength develop as the season wears on.

The Morning After: Seahawks Earn 14-12 Win Over Packers

A titan was in town. The Seahawks were unproven, disrespected, and given little chance to beat an offensive powerhouse like this. The home town boys entered the fourth quarter with little hope, trailing 23-10. The game was clearly over when Matt Hasselbeck could not complete a 4th and 1 pass to Darrell Jackson with just 4 minutes to go, and the Rams taking over possession in Seahawks territory still leading 23-17. Seahawks Stadium, as it was known back then, was rarely full even though sellouts were announced. Half the stadium was empty at this point, and I wanted to get to the bus before a major line formed. As I made my way down the staircase, something unexpected happened. Something that just didn't happen for the Seahawks. Anthony Simmons intercepted a pass intended for Dane Looker. Seattle had three minutes, and needed to go 66 yards for a touchdown. I pressed up against the railing to watch the final drive. The first pass went for 32 yards to Koren Robinson, and moved the Seahawks into Rams territory. The Seahawks converted two third downs to get to Rams 3-yard-line with 1 minute to go. Robinson ran a slant and gathered in a touchdown pass from Hasselbeck to win the game. I raised my hands in the air and thought to myself, "This is going to be the win that rekindles Seattle's love for the Seahawks." Sure enough, Seattle went on to win 10 games that year (2003), which was the first time since they had done that since 1996. Famously, Hasselbeck told a certain Green Bay Packers team in the playoffs that year, "We'll take the ball, and we're gonna score." The win over the Rams happened in the third game of the season, and marked the beginning of a truly memorable run of Seahawks football where they won five straight division titles and made their first Super Bowl appearance. Monday night felt a lot like that. Improbable outcomes, questionable calls, funny bounces, and crooked statistics happen during special years. It may have sounded foolish after the Cardinals game, but this team is on the verge of great things.

Consider, for a moment, some statistical marvels:

- The Packers have scored 12 points or less two times when Aaron Rodgers plays the whole game at quarterback. Seattle becomes the third team to hold a Rodgers-led offense to 12 points or less, and first since 2010.

- Rodgers has had 10 games (out of 71 starts) where his passer rating was 81.5 or less since he became the starter in 2008. This was the 11th. Five of those ten games came during his first year as starter.

- This was Rodgers the fourth-worst yards per attempt (5.7) since he took over as starter.

- The Packers have been held to zero points in the first half three times in Aaron Rodgers career as a starter. This became the fourth. 

- Jordy Nelson had two catches for 19 yards. He had not been held to a yardage total that low since Week 15 of 2010.

- Only 28 players in NFL history have had 2.5 sacks or more after their first three games as a rookie. Bruce Irvin becomes the 29th, and the first Seahawk.

- Two rookie quarterbacks since the AFL/NFL merger have had an 86.2 passer rating or better after three games: Mark Sanchez and Jim Kelly. Robert Griffin III (103.5) and Russell Wilson (86.2) become the 3rd and 4th.

- Only three players in Seahawks history have had 5.0 sacks or more after three games. Chris Clemons becomes the fourth.

- Seattle had 11 games in franchise history (a total of 566 games) where they registered 8 sacks or more. They had that at halftime on Monday.

The Packers had Greg Jennings tonight. They had Jermichael Finley. They had Donald Driver, and Randall Cobb, and Cedric Benson, and James Jones, and Nelson. They had their starting offensive line. Ask 100 NFL experts which team has the best offense in the NFL heading into this game, and at least 80 would tell you Green Bay. This is the same team that scored 35.0 points per game last season, and went 15-1. Seattle is only the third team to hold that offense scoreless at halftime with Rodgers at the helm. If anyone had any doubts about whether this was a championship defense, those should be gone. Holding the Cowboys to 7 points and the Packers to 12 should help to explain why allowing 20 to the Cardinals was so unacceptable.

Irvin and Clemons fulfilled the most optimistic pass rush fantasies of any Seahawks fan. This was what everyone had in mind when talking about an improved pass rush. Some will say the pass rush was gone in the second half. Watch again. Seattle ended with 12 quarterback hits and countless hurries. Seattle has now faced two of the top four rated passers from 2011 and rendered them largely inert.

Teams are officially just ignoring Richard Sherman's half of the field. There is not a better cornerback in the NFL right now. Kam Chancellor and K.J. Wright may be two of the best open-field tacklers in the game. Bobby Wagner recorded 8 tackles. No Seahawks rookie has ever had as many tackles as Wagner through three games.

The offense was another story. Wilson did not turn the ball over, and threw a gorgeous touchdown to Golden Tate in the first half. He rallied the team for 73-yard and 46-yard drives with his team trailing and the game on the line. There is no way to prove that Tarvaris Jackson would never have made that final play happen, but don't you just know it to be true? Wilson is the winner everyone says he is. He also is a serious liability so far. Many will point to his 99.3 rating and game-winning moxie as proof that he is playing good enough. He was at the helm, after all, when this team beat two quality opponents. You should all be able to see how good this team can be this year. Wilson will be the reason the team falls short of its potential if he does not make significant strides. He missed open receivers. He broke from the pocket prematurely. He held onto the ball for too long. These are all things he can, and will, overcome. Until he does, he is as much a threat to team success as he is an asset.

Keep in mind the Packers entered the game leading the NFL in sacks. They finished the game with one sack and three quarterback hits. Tom Cable and the line performed admirably.

This defense deserves every bit of attention they won't get this week. Do not let anyone tell you 1 out of the 119 plays in this game rendered the others moot. None of the defensive achievements enumerated above come with any asterisk. It would be easy to say the pass interference call that gave Green Bay a first down, or the replay that gave Rodgers a first down, were bad calls that allowed the Packers to score a touchdown. It would be easy to point out that a third field goal by the Packers would have allowed the Seahawks to win without a final Hail Mary throw. But all that debate just takes away from what we all know. This Seahawks team is a force to be reckoned with, no matter who officiates the game.

Extra Points

- Wilson gets his first game-winning drive. Dave Krieg holds the franchise record with 26, while Matt Hasselbeck had 22.

- Seattle held the Packers to 35 return yards. Total. They averaged 8.75 yards per return on one kickoff and three punt returns.

- Remember Clay Mathews?

- The Seahawks now rank #1 in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 13.0 points per game, despite facing the Cowboys and Packers.

- Video of the reaction in the stadium after the replay official confirmed the touchdown:


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Monday, September 24, 2012

A Little Help...Best Sports Blog

Hey everyone,

A reader convinced me to sign-up for the King 5 "Best Sports Blog" contest. I am about a month late, but I'd love to finish higher than last place. Please take a second and cast a vote here.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Things I Think Heading Into MNF

This game is so unpredictable that I find myself debating whether it really is unpredictable. There is an outstanding offense facing an outstanding defense. There is a great running game facing a weak run defense, but also an great pass rush facing a rookie quarterback and unproven line. Ball control, meet fast break. A historic franchise meets one still trying to make history. Look left, and you will find Yin. Look right, you will see Yang. Acid, meet Base. The Sunday before a memorable Monday, there are a few things rattling around in my head that approach hunches. This match-up is too complex to confidently predict much of anything.

Beware The Bandit

The Seahawks feature a defensive package they refer to as "Bandit." This group is comprised of three safeties, one linebacker, three lineman, and four cornerbacks. The mix of corners and linebackers can change depending on the coverage talent of the linebackers. It can be a coverage-heavy defense with seven defensive backs on the field, but is really meant to create pressure from every angle. Corners and safeties blitz from all over. Winston Guy is a key addition to this scheme, as he can approximate a linebacker, has skill as a blitzer and has coverage ability. Do not be surprised to see this more on Monday than we have so far this season. It will dare the Packers to run, and maximize what looks Gus Bradley can give Aaron Rodgers. Guy was robbed of a forced fumble in his first game against Arizona when the replacement official blew the whistle far too early. Look for him to make his presence felt on Monday, one way or another.

Losing The Slots

Doug Baldwin led the Seahawks in receptions a year ago, and was the first undrafted player to accomplish that feat since the NFL/AFL merger. He has three receptions for 13 yards through two games. He nearly made a heroic touchdown reception in Arizona, but has generally be an after-thought so far. He is questionable on Monday with a shoulder injury after suffering through a hamstring injury in camp. It is just a hunch at this point, but one has to wonder if the combination of a short slot receiver and a short quarterback will not work. Golden Tate is the same height as Baldwin, but plays on the edge of the field. Baldwin makes his money in the middle. Logically, that should be the most difficult place for Wilson to see a receiver, especially a shorter one. Charly Martin, who is 6'1", could push Baldwin if this truly is an issue. There is no doubt about Baldwin's talent, but the combination with Wilson has not clicked so far. Nobody will work harder than those two at figuring it out. In the meantime, that is a huge hole that must be filled.

A Win Means More Than A Loss

Nobody doubts the Packers are Super Bowl contenders. Everybody doubts the Seahawks are. Wilson is starting just his third game. Truthfully, the Seahawks should not be ready to win a game against a team this talented offensively. The most likely script is that the Packers show the Seahawks what they need to be ready for down the line. The national press and some local fans will jump off the Seahawks bandwagon. The team would be 1-2 in that scenario with plenty of tough games coming up. Seattle is going to improve significantly on offense as the year moves on. This team will be a force to reckon with in the last half of the season regardless of Monday's outcome. If, however, they beat the Packers tomorrow...all bets are off. It would be a significant over-achievement that would signal their arrival far earlier than scheduled. Games against the Patriots, Lions, and 49ers start looking far different.

St. Louis More Important Than Green Bay

Seattle already choked away a division game in the season opener. They cannot afford to lose another. The Rams are no joke, and will give every team they face everything they can handle. A 10AM game on a short week against a confident division foe is nothing to scoff at. No matter the outcome against the Packers, it will test the Seahawks mental resolve to get equally up for the game against the Rams. Division records can very well decide whether a team makes the playoffs. Let's not start 0-2.

Don't Over-think The Offense

The passing game has looked remedial for Seattle so far. Many are openly asking whether the Seahawks will "open it up" against the Packers on Monday. The logic is that the Packers will put up points no matter what, and the Seahawks could surprise them by coming out throwing after running so much the past few weeks. Avoid the temptation to be cute. The Packers run defense is not good. Their pass defense is damn good, and is where nearly all of their turnovers come from. Clay Mathews cannot sack a running back lowering a shoulder into his gut. Charles Woodson cannot intercept a handoff. Aaron Rodger cannot throw a touchdown without the ball. The Seahawks passing game will have it's day to shine. This is not a great opponent to try it against.

Beating The Blitz

Most are following the logic that Arizona beat the Seahawks because they blitzed and the Cowboys lost because they did not blitz enough. The truth is that the Seahawks offensive line was in disarray the first week. Tom Cable made changes heading into the Cowboys game, and they were far more effective. Still, defenses will continue to blitz the Seahawks until Seattle proves that is a bad idea. Hitting a big play or two against the blitz would put things on tape that future defensive coordinators will have to think about.

Earl Owes Rodgers

Earl Thomas played his first professional snap against the Packers and Rodgers. That very first play saw Greg Jennings go deep down-field off of play-action, and Rodgers hurl the ball 50-60 yards to his diving hands. Welcome to the NFL, Mr. Thomas. You could see the shock on Thomas's face. Nobody beats Thomas over the top. It was the perfect learning experience, and it was possibly the last time Seahawks fans have seen a team challenge Thomas deep. Symmetry demands revenge tomorrow. Bring one home, Earl.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Great Defense Unfamiliar To Green Bay Offense

The research for this article started with the premise that the Green Bay Packers offense is irrepressible. Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback, and possibly best player, in the NFL. The wide receiver corps is stacked from top-to-bottom. Jermichael Finley is a tight end with rare talent. Anyone that has seen Rodgers operate knows he specializes in back-shoulder throws that appear almost impossible to defend. He also can defeat good coverage by running the ball himself. The running game has been modest, but it is hard to be critical when there is touchdown potential in every single throw. There is plenty of evidence to support just how dominant this offense is, but how does it perform against top-flight defenses? It was surprising to see how few great defenses have lined up to try and stop the Packer attack. The few times it has happened have resulted in less-than-explosive results.

Green Bay scored over 30 points eleven times in 2011 and over 40 points six times. They averaged 35.0 points per game. Insane. Were the results the same when facing a Top 10 defense? They did not face one. They did not go up against any of the Top 10 teams in opponent scoring. They did not face a Top 10 team in opponent yards per game. They did not face a Top 10 team in yards per play. The best two defenses they faces were the Chicago Bears and Kansas City Chiefs.

The Bears ranked 14th in yards per play, 14th in points against, 17th in yards against. The Chiefs ranked 11th in yards against, 12th in points against, and 15th in yards per play. One important place where the Chiefs and Bears did rank in the Top 10 was opponent passer rating, where the Bears ranked 8th and the Chiefs were 7th.

Green Bay and Chicago played twice last season, and once already this season. The Packers won all three games by an average of 12 points, or slightly less than their seasonal average of thirteen. The Packers scored an average of 28 points in those games.

The Chiefs were the one team to beat the Packers in the regular season. Kansas City was one of only two teams to hold the Packers under 250 yards passing in 2011. The other, San Diego, lost by one touchdown in a game when they lost the turnover battle 3-0.

Moving into this season, the Packers faced their first true Top 10 defense in the 49ers. San Francisco's 2011 defense was 6th in yards per play, 2nd in points against, 4th in yards against, and 5th in passer rating against. The Packers lost. It should be noted that the 49ers and Chiefs were the only two teams in the last twenty-six Packer games, dating back to 2010, to go without a turnover. Good defense and low turnovers should sound familiar to Seahawks fans.

The Seahawks ended 2011 with a defense that was 7th in yards per play, 7th in points against, 9th in yards against, and 6th in opponent passer rating. It should be noted that the team's opponent passer rating number was even better after Richard Sherman entered the lineup.

Still, watching the Aaron Rodgers run that Packers offense makes stopping it seem impossible. Rodgers has started 71 games since 2008, including the post-season. His passer rating has been over 95.0 in all but 23 of those games. Only six quarterbacks in the NFL (Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Tony Romo, Mathew Stafford, Matt Schaub) had a passer rating over 95.0 last season. Two of those 23 sub-95.0 games for Rodgers came in the first two games of this season. The Packers have gone 9-14 in those 23 games.

Rodgers only had two such games in 2011. Guess who they were against? The Bears and the Chiefs. This year, they were against the Bears and the 49ers.

It is hard to imagine slowing down this Packers offense, but there are some signs this Seahawks defense may be well-equipped to take on the task.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Shape Of Victory Under Pete Carroll

Pete Carroll came to Seattle with a clarity of philosophy reserved only for the best leaders. There is no hesitation or doubt in how he enacts what he believes to be the best way to build a team and win a football game. His first year was hardly representative of the product he wanted to put on the field as the roster was not equipped to play his style. John Schneider and Carroll got much closer last season. Close enough that we can start to see patterns developing for what a game looks like when the plan works, and what it looks like when it does not.

Here is a sample box score:

                       SEATTLE            OPPONENT            
POINTS              28                              13
1ST DOWNS      19                             19
TOTAL YDS      326                           303
PASS YDS         192                           215
PASS ATT          28                             37
YPA                    6.8                            5.9
RUSH YDS        134                            88
RUSH ATT         35                              23
YPC                    3.8                            3.8
TURNOVERS      1                               3
SACKS                3                               3

That represents the averages in Seattle's wins dating back to the beginning of the 2011 season. The sample size is still small, but it is directionally interesting. When things go well for Carroll's Seahawks, they really go well, winning by an average of 15 points. A team built around running and defense logically would seem to be more accustomed to slug-it-out close games. One might expect lower scoring output as well, but the Seahawks are scoring an average of 28 points in their wins. How they score those points is worth teasing out as well.

Seattle is only averaging 326 yards in these games. Eighteen teams averaged more yards per game last season, so the offense is not exactly exploding in these wins. The Seahawks average 192 passing yards in these blowouts, which would have ranked 26th in the NFL in 2011. Clearly, the passing game is not the catalyst. Now, rushing for 134 yards would rank as 6th best in the 2011, but what really stands out are the rushing attempts. Thirty-five rush attempts would have ranked 1st in the NFL last year. The yards-per-carry shows that Carroll's Seahawks are less dependent on production than they are on pure commitment to the run. In other words, the total number of rush attempts matters more than the total yards gained. Looking at these offensive numbers should help explain why Carroll is in no rush to see Russell Wilson throw for 300 yards.

The defense also bears Carroll's fingerprints. Opponents almost gain as many yards as the Seahawks in these wins, but they get them very differently. They actually pass for more yards than Seattle, and put the ball in the air nearly 40 times per game. Some of that is from playing behind, but some of it is the passing philosophy that permeates most other modern offenses. They are not getting much in those attempts, with a paltry 5.9 yard average. The real standout is the opponent turnovers (3) and sacks the Seahawks defense registers (3). Remember those numbers, as we look at this next box score.

                       SEATTLE            OPPONENT            
POINTS              14                             24
1ST DOWNS      16                             20
TOTAL YDS      282                           344
PASS YDS         184                           225
PASS ATT          34                             33
YPA                    5.4                            6.9
RUSH YDS         98                            119
RUSH ATT         24                              32
YPC                    4.1                            3.7
TURNOVERS      2                               1
SACKS                1                               3

As you may have guessed, this is what the average Seahawks loss looks like in the same time period back to last season. Opponents pass for a full yard more per attempt (6.9 vs. 5.9), run for 30 more yards (118 vs. 88), and turn the ball over two less times (1 vs. 3). Seattle's passing game goes from conservative to pre-historic. The yardage output is not that different (184 vs. 192), but the yards-per-attempt drop almost 1.5 yards (5.4 vs. 6.8). These are games when Seattle has gotten away from it's running philosophy, seeing ten more passes (34) than runs (24). The running game is working fine, averaging a healthy 4.1 yards-per-carry, but the attempts drop significantly from 35 in wins to just 24 in losses. Again, some of that comes when a team is playing from behind. The giveaway number is not quite as big as it may seem. The true number is 1.3 giveaways in wins and 1.7 in losses. The box score represents numbers rounded to their nearest whole. Takeaways is that significant of a difference, and so are sacks. Seattle averages one sack and one turnover in losses and three of each in wins.

Carroll will continue to run into diametrically opposing philosophies. Fans and media will find themselves wondering if the Seahawks should open up their offense more when facing scoring juggernauts like the Packers, Patriots and Lions. Early evidence suggests the Seattle offense needs to continue focusing on efficiency. Yards per throw matters far more than total yards. Patient commitment to the run reduces the risk of giveaways and keeps the other offense off the field. Scoring points comes from favorable field position associated with takeaways and low giveaways. This team remains in its earliest stages, but Carroll should already be able to see his reflection in how they play.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Guest Appearance on Cheesehead Radio

I hopped on Cheesehead Radio this evening to talk Seahawks and Packers. Listen to their thoughts on Matt Flynn, the Seahawks and why the Packers offense has struggled.

***Download The Podcast***

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Weekly Seahawks Podcast With Softy

Softy and I had our weekly chat on the Seahawks. How good should we feel about that Cowboys win, and how realistic is a victory over the Packers on Monday?


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The "Other" Block: Turbin Blows Up Ware

Golden Tate's block was a thing of beauty, and deserves every second of attention it gets. There was a moment earlier in the game where another Cowboy got his bell rung by a Seahawk. Robert Turbin lined up DeMarcus Ware and leveled him to spring Sidney Rice on a crossing pattern. My favorite part is that Turbin gets up after the block and starts looking for another person to hit.

Fine him! Illegal! Cheap shot!!



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Early Look: Green Bay Packers

It has been a while since a Seattle Seahawks team could look forward to playing a team like the Green Bay Packers that went 15-1 last season. There has not been enough firepower on either side of the ball to realistically compete with championship level teams. Things are different this year, and it is not just in Seattle.

The Packers are an undeniable powerhouse, right? They have arguably the best player in the NFL on offense in Aaron Rodgers, and one of the best players in the NFL on defense in Clay Mathews. Their receiving corps is so deep that their bench players would start for many teams. Their secondary is full of play-makers like Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, and the middle of their defensive line is plugged up by Pro Bowler B.J. Raji. Somehow, though, this team is not playing like themselves. At least, not yet.

This vaunted Packers offense has scored exactly three touchdowns through two games. Their passing offense is a pedestrian 14th in the NFL in yards and 22nd in yards per attempt. Aaron Rodgers has been sacked eight times in two games. The Packers tend to give up more sacks than the average team because they pass more often, but they are giving up a sack every ~9 pass attempts this year, compared to one every ~14 last season. Watching both of the Packers games made it very clear this offensive line is struggling to protect the passer. The Bears and 49ers are very good at getting after the quarterback, but this is more than that.

Constructing a game plan to stop the Packers offense is a chore. They can win in the passing game on any kind of route, at any point on the field. Their individual talent is only matched by their collective execution. An  absolute key for them is their tight end play with Jermichael Finley. Having him slice the middle of the field keeps defenses from being able to just play Cover-2 with a safety over the top of each corner. Finley already has 11 receptions.

The weak spot is their running game. They are 26th in the NFL in rushing yards. In part, because they are 28th in the NFL in rushing attempts. The Packers run to setup the throw. They got absolutely nothing done versus the 49ers defense, where Rodgers was their leading rusher with 27 yards on five rushes. Seattle is holding opponents to 2.6 yards per rush. The Seahawks would be wise to hold that line, or better.

Their special teams has arguably been their best unit so far, scoring a touchdown in each game. Randall Cobb had a 75-yard punt return for touchdown in Week 1, and they executed a gorgeous fake field goal for a touchdown against the Bears. Seven of punter Tim Masthay's eleven punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line. This should make for a great match-up with a Seattle special teams that has been flawless so far.

No team in football has sacked the quarterback more than the Packers. Eleven sacks in two games is crazy, and it is led by Mathews with six. Mathews would rank 6th in the NFL in sacks if he were his own team. That's right. Only four teams (other than Green Bay) collectively have more sacks than Mathews does as an individual. That, and the secondary that already has four interceptions, has helped the Packers hold opposing quarterbacks to the 3rd-lowest passer rating so far. Their run defense is not anywhere near as impressive. The Packers are 26th in the NFL in opponent rushing yards and 30th in opponent yards per carry.

The two biggest mismatches in this game may be the Seahawks running game against the Packers run defense, and the Packers pass defense (pass rush + secondary) against the Seahawks pass offense.

This game represents a rite of passage for Seattle. Beating a quarterback like Rodgers, and an offense with this many weapons, would expand the win potential for the Seahawks dramatically. Seattle's offense, especially passing, remains in its infancy. Defense and running the football will be paramount. The Packers have yet to play up to their standards on offense, and their defense is more flashy than stout. It is a defense that was built to combat high-powered passing games that are the trend in the NFL. Seattle represents a challenge to their philosophy. 

Hawk Blogger 2012 Power Rankings - Week 2

Power rankings are always debatable. I don't buy into the gut feel methods most places use to determine their rankings, so I developed a formula a few years back that attempts to take at least some of the subjectivity out of the discussion. My approach is simple, I measure offensive and defensive efficiency based on the Yards Per Carry (YPC) and Yards Per Attempt (YPA), as well as points scored and points allowed. The formula to calculate "Team Strength" is as follows:

(YPC (offense) + YPA (offense) + Avg Pts/Game Scored) - (YPC (defense) + YPA (defense)+ Avg Pts/Game Allowed)

The formula has proven to be a pretty accurate predictor of success. Even in the first week of the 2008 season, 5 of the top 10 ranked teams were playoff bound. As with any statistic, it becomes more meaningful as the sample size grows. Only 3 of the top 10 teams from week one of 2010 made the playoffs, and a team as low as #27 (Atlanta) was a league power. Usually, these become most meaningful after week 3. In 2007, 9 of the top 10 ranked teams were playoff teams, with the lowest ranked playoff team coming in at #15. In 2008, 8 the top 10 were playoff teams, with Arizona being the lowest ranked playoff team at #19. In 2010 8 of top 10 teams from week 3 made the playoffs.

If you'd like to see final rankings from 2011, you can read more here.

A huge jump for the Seahawks this week, from 18 to 7 on the strength of a game where they dominated every aspect. San Diego is the team nobody is talking about. Their defense is second in the NFL in points allowed (12) while averaging 30 on offense.

Scatter chart of the rankings. This view helps to give you a view of how teams are grouped together. You will generally see tiers of strength develop as the season wears on.

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 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. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Win Forever Needs Win Now

This team enters a crucial game against the Cowboys under the banner of "Win Forever," but to accomplish that lofty goal they must first win now. They should be 1-0, but a series of coaching and player mistakes saw them lose to an inferior opponent. I have a history of being early on prognostications. My first reaction to Sunday's game was, "maybe I am a year early again," on this team breaking out. I have no doubt they are going to be a force in this league, but the fair question is, "when?"

The 2012 Seahawks are built a little bit like the 2012 Seattle Mariners. They are strong defensively and developing on offense. Teams like that have the potential for dominant win streaks when the offense puts up even moderate numbers, while opponents struggle to score. They also have the potential to be maddening when the opponent puts up a few points, and the offense makes it feel like an insurmountable deficit. Russell Wilson is to the Seahawks what Dustin Ackley or Jesus Montero is to the Mariners. Wilson, perhaps unfairly, has been asked to skip the developmental growing pains and go immediately to producing. Sunday provides a terrific opportunity to re-ignite the fervor surrounding Wilson, and silence the critics. This is a good Cowboys defense, with a good secondary and clever defensive coordinator. Stand strong in the pocket. Make accurate passes. Play efficiently and intelligently. Forget the phrase "in position to win," and just win.

Seattle's pass rush is supposed to be much improved. They drafted Bruce Irvin. They added Jason Jones. Greg Scruggs is healthy for the first time. Winston Guy, Mike Morgan, K.J. Wright and others have shown blitz potential. They got after it for 25 minutes in the second half of the game last week, and it nearly won the game. It disappeared, however, when it mattered most. They allowed ten points in the first half and seven points in the last drive when the pass rush was largely absent. Getting pressure is not enough. Hit the bleeping quarterback. Hit him, and then hit him again. It should not take an educated football fan or coach to point out the pressure. Anyone should be able to turn on the television tomorrow and say, "Wow, that team in blue is kicking the crap out of that guy in white." Do not make us tease out quarterback hits and pressures. Get home. Get sacks. Produce. Now.

Tom Cable is a savant. He has done fabulous work with the offensive line. Last week was an abomination in pass protection. There is a ton of depth at guard with players like John Moffitt, J.R. Sweezy, Paul McQuistan, Lemuel Juanpierre and eventually James Carpenter. Russell Okung is a first-round pick with tons of potential and a great work ethic. Max Unger is a Pro Bowl-level center. Physical defeats may happen. DeMarcus Ware is a special talent. Fine. Eliminate the mental mistakes. Nobody gets to run free through the middle of the line to sack our quarterback. They certainly do not get to do it an entire game. The Cowboys nose tackle is out with injury. This line managed to put 170 yards rushing on the board against Dallas last year with Ratliff playing. Get Marshawn Lynch to the second level. Scratch. Claw. Protect. Win.

Golden Tate starts a year that will define his career. He will play in place of Braylon Edwards, who led the team in receiving last week. Tate has made a habit of showing up in practice, but disappearing in games. He is a play-maker. That is his label. Prove it. Get open. Catch the ball. Make plays. Sidney Rice can't stay healthy. Stay healthy, Sidney. Doug Baldwin was great with no expectations last season. Prove you be great with them. Zach Miller signed a massive contract. Earn it. Anthony McCoy made Kellen Winslow Jr. dispensable. Make us forget about him. Edwards sparked a debate about whether he dropped the big pass at the end of the game. Spark a conversation about a great catch this week.

Gus Bradley is a future head coach. Prove you can translate top young talent into a dominant defense. Sixteen points should be enough to win. Make it the exception to give up more than that. Darrell Bevell is supposed coordinate an offense. Maximize the talent you have. Put them in position to succeed.

Pete Carroll wants to Win Forever. He insists decisions about starting Wilson and releasing Winslow are about the present as much as the future. Stop explaining why things are in progress. Start winning. Now.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Comparing Seahawks to Giants

Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys impressively beat down the New York Giants last week. They outclassed the Giants in the passing game, the running game, in pass defense and run defense. Beating the Super Bowl champs in their own house to open the season is quite a feat. There is reason, however, to think beating the Seahawks in Seattle will be an even tougher job for the Cowboys.

History is written by victors. The Giants were the best team in the NFL last season. More accurately, they were the best team in the playoffs. A closer look at their 9-7 regular season reveals some significant flaws.

The Bad Giants

OPP Scoring - 25th (NFL Rank)
OPP Passer Rating - 20th
OPP 20+ Yard Passes - 28th
OPP Rushing Yards - 19th
OPP Rushing TDs -23rd

Rushing Yards - 32nd

The Good Giants

Sacks - 3rd 
Takeaways - 5th

Passing Yards - 5th
20+ Yard Passes - 5th
40+ Yard Passes - 1st

This was a team did two things really well, and many things poorly. No team embodied the new style of NFL success more than the 2011 Giants. They passes well and rushed the passer well, and that was enough to win a Super Bowl. They were the first champion in history to accomplish the feat while finishing dead last in rushing yards. Big names like Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Osi Umenyiora patrol the Giants defense, but the overall unit was not good. They allowed tons of points, great play from opposing quarterbacks, and oodles of rushing yards. Note, however, the impact a strong pass rush has on forced turnovers.

The opening game against Dallas looked like many of those flaws still remained, especially the poor running game and the terrible pass defense. None of the Giants starting secondary would even make the Seahawks team. New York managed to rush for 4.3 yards per carry against the Cowboys, but only 82 yards total because of their dedication to the pass. The Giants only attempted 19 runs in week one, despite the absence of the Cowboys strongest run defender, NT Jay Ratliff. The Seahawks averaged 33 over their last nine games of 2011, and attempted 33 in their first game of 2012.

Seattle does not have the passing game the Giants do. Consider, though, that Tarvaris Jackson threw three interceptions in Dallas last season, and the Seahawks were still were tied at halftime and down 13-6 after three quarters because they rushed for 162 yards.

It is easy to get caught up in simple logic when it comes to forecasting NFL games. If the Cowboys beat the Super Bowl champs on the road, what are they going to do to the Seahawks? The Giants and Seahawks are built very differently, and bring completely different strengths and weaknesses to the table. Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and DeMarcus Ware are great players, regardless of opponent. Seattle's defense, running game, and the 12th Man should make this a completely different challenge for the Cowboys.