Monday, December 31, 2012

Final 2012 Seahawks Progress Report

Breaking the season up into quarters has proved to be a useful measure of progress. I started this last season, and have referenced it over and over again for my own use. You can find the final 2011 Season Progress Report by clicking here. The report can show trends as the season wears on. You can find the 2012 quarter-point progress report here, mid-season progress report here, and the three-quarter report here.

Summary Stats +/- 2012 (NFL Rank)


Not a lot to criticize in these numbers. It is telling that the improvement is across the board. There have been stretches when the offense has stepped forward and the defense has stepped back, and vice versa. This four game stretch saw all units move ahead. The NFL rankings are of particular interest. Seattle is in the Top 10 for most rankings across offense and defense. They are Top 5 in eight categories, four each in defense and offense. It is hard to find fault in a team that is improving in key areas like third-down conversions, red zone scoring, passer rating, scoring, giveaways, takeaways, opponent third-down conversions, opponent red zone scoring, opponent passer rating and opponent scoring. 

If you want to pick nits, the opponent yards per carry has not improved and the sacks are down. You will see later why the rushing defense is actually among the most improved aspects of the team. The pass pressure is a concern, but how can you argue with the results?

Explosive Plays

Explosive plays are going to be a key area to watch for this team, both on offense and defense. Explosive plays are defined here as 20+ yards. Usually, 10+ yards counts as an explosive run, but the NFL does not publish that stat.




I have these numbers broken out into quarters of the season, but sometimes it is most useful to just see the bigger picture. This offense is essentially twice as explosive in the last eight games as it was in the first eight while the defense has remained relatively steady. The Seahawks are more likely to have an explosive play in any given game than their opponent. That is possibly the biggest change since the season opened. 

Breaking It Down 

Seattle went 2-2 in the first four games, 2-2 in their next four, and then finally broke the pattern with a 3-1 record in the third quarter of the season. They finished with a 4-0 stretch. The way they did it looks very different than the way this team won early in the year. The charts below will illustrate how different this team has been the last 4-8 games, for better or for worse.


Um...wow.  We all lived through it, but this visual explains the Seahawks evolution better than words ever could. I continue to hear people talk about this offense being good, but holding back from comparing it to the Patriots, Packers and alike. This is not a one, two, or even four game trend.



The Seahawks averaged 34 ppg in the second half of this season. That is elite production no matter how you cut it. Did the defense score a couple times? Yep, but they do for the Patriots, Packers and others as well. This offense has been lethal, and the defense has benefited. 





Getting takeaways is something that can be influenced, but not often controlled. Protecting the ball is far more something that a team can have a direct effect on. Seattle has made huge strides here, largely due to their quarterback finding his footing and getting back to his college habits of ball control. Teams will have trouble beating the Seahawks if this trend continues.




I admit this one is too much in one chart, but it saved me 10 minutes that I can spend on other things, so use your brain power and follow along please. Take the top two lines. You can see the steady growth in the offensive yardage totals and the steady decrease in the opponents yardage totals. There appears to be an almost linear correlation. One could argue there is a finite amount of yardage to be gained in any game. There is, after all, a time limit. Seattle is increasingly getting the lion's share of that yardage. The bottom two lines (light blue and orange), tell a big part of that story. The Seahawks rushing totals have gone through the roof. They are now gaining more yardage on the ground than through the air, at least in the last four games. Equally as important is the downward trend in opponent rushing yards. Some of that is due to Seattle getting out to early leads, but you will see in the yards per carry later that the team is recovering there as well.




Things had gotten out of control in the opponent rushing game. Giving up nearly six yards per carry was atrocious. The team showed they were getting a handle on it these last four games, and that included an outing where C.J. Spiller and Buffalo were over five yards per carry. They shut down one of the top rushing attacks in football in San Francisco, and bottled up Steven Jackson again. The yards per attempt is wacky good. The total yards per play for opponents has returned to the 4.8 it was at the first four games when they were being talked about as elite. 




The team that led the NFL in yards per attempt finished at 7.7. Seattle is making that look foolish the last half of the season, and now they are blowing out the yards per carry number as well. This offense is a handful.


Final Notes

I have been a fan of the Seahawks for 30+ years, and have never witnessed a team demonstrate this kind of growth in a single season. These are the kinds of statistics you draw up if you are charting your Madden franchise. Teams do not double their scoring output from one half of the season to the other. They do not average almost a first down every pass attempt for a quarter of a season. They do not combine the offensive fireworks with a defense that is pouring cold water on opponent's matches. This is the best team in football. That does not mean they will win even a single playoff game. Teams lose to lesser opponents all the time, especially on the road. Should that happen to Seattle, do not make mistake of thinking any of this was a mirage. Seattle put this season together against one of the toughest schedules in the NFL, and will absolutely enter next season as one of the top contenders for the Super Bowl no matter what happens in these playoffs.

That said, this team has already shown their disdain for the typical growth chart. Why put off for tomorrow what you can do today? What a fantastic season this has been. We cheer each week for the opportunity to see this team play one more game.

The Morning After: Seahawks Close Out Season, Beat Rams 20-13

There are games to remember, games to forget, and games like this one against the Rams. Ask a Seahawks fan in a few years to rattle off the eleven team victories, and this could very well be the last on the list. It was ugly and frustrating, but it may have been the perfect playoff sendoff. Jeff Fisher did the Seahawks a favor by putting together a playoff-caliber game plan that attacked Seattle weaknesses, and forced the team to raise its level of play. The beauty was in how the coaching staff and the players adjusted and overcame. Playoff football is not about things going right. It is about having the ability to absorb punches, and having the arsenal and leadership to counter-punch effectively. The Rams were the ideal sparring partner. Seattle begins its quest for the title next week knowing they can still take a punch after a month of first quarter knock-outs.

Fisher gets my vote for best coach in the division this year. I did not see the Rams/Cardinals games, but I saw the 49ers games and both Seahawks matches. Fisher was the best coach in each case. Some will point to the fake field goal in the first game as "great coaching." It was clever, but I was more impressed with the decisions to take multiple field goals over 58 yards, and his defensive game plans that took away what San Francisco and Seattle wanted to do. Fisher maximizes his talent. They are not yet talented enough to win consistently, but they will be a handful for years to come. It is a good thing the Redskins have made those first-round draft picks a little later by making the playoffs this year.

The Rams were able to pressure Seattle, particularly up the middle. They have the personnel to do it. Seahawks fans may not want to hear it, but this was the third-ranked sack team in the NFL coming in, in large part due to an active and powerful defensive line. I saw tweets and texts throughout the game bemoaning J.R. Sweezy struggling in pass protection. He is a lighter guard that is susceptible to bull rushes and is still learning the intricacies of handling stunts and twists. He is also a plus run blocker that effectively cut All-World linebacker Patrick Willis multiple times five yards down-field in last week's game. John Moffitt is a great guy, but he was getting beat in pass situations and brings a lot less than Sweezy in running situations. The coaching staff clearly is choosing a player who is a plus in one area in the hopes they can coach him up in the other. I'm buying low on Sweezy. I expect he will eventually be a Pro Bowl-caliber guard. Seventh-round defensive tackles do not often start at offensive guard for any teams, let alone playoff teams. His learning curve is incredibly steep, and his trajectory has been pretty darn good. He is smaller than most guards, and will get pushed back this year. I don't know if there is anything that can really be done about that. He needs a few seasons to bulk up. The team misses James Carpenter, but are lucky to have a player like Sweezy that brings a ton of positives to the running game. Teams with explosive defensive tackles will present problems for Seattle in the playoffs. The coaches know it, and will adjust as best they can. The good news is I'm not sure there are any outside of San Francisco.

St. Louis also has better cornerbacks than almost any other team Seattle will face in the post-season. They wiped Sidney Rice off the map and were in tight coverage on each of Golden Tate's catches, and Doug Baldwin's penalty-reversed grab. It gets more physical and the referees call less in the playoffs. This receiving corps has no playoff experience outside of Rice's one year with Favre. They have faced the Bears, 49ers (twice), Rams (twice), Cardinals (twice), Packers and Cowboys. All of those teams bring physical secondary play, so these guys should be as prepared as possible without experiencing it themselves.

Baldwin continues to emerge as a late-season addition to the attack. The guy is more than a slot receiver. Wes Welker and Danny Amendola don't make plays 40 yards down-field. They don't out-jump corners. It is great to see Russell Wilson starting to recognize the talent there, and to see Baldwin look healthy for the first time all season.

Tate had been quiet of late, so it was terrific to see him get his first 100-yard game in typical Tate fashion. The rarely open receiver has earned the trust of his quarterback by regularly winning 50/50 passes, and then getting maximum yards after the catch. The guy runs with passion approaching Marshawn Lynch after he catches a pass. It is great to watch.

Lynch again did his thing with limited mileage. He was under 20 carries for the fifth time in the last six games, and went over 100 yards for the fourth straight game. The last post-season he played in resulted in seismic activity. His encore may be even better.

Wilson is such a unique player. He was struggling in the first half. His throws were often late, and he was again unwilling to use his check-downs. His desire to push the down-field is commendable, but he has to avoid negative plays. Yet, even with those struggles, he was never under a 100 passer rating. All he did was lead his fourth game-winning drive of his sparkling rookie season. Another 90 yards, another Lynch fumble recovered, another win.

It would have been great to see Wilson get the rookie touchdown record, but seeing him make the winning decision instead of the selfish one so perfectly defines who he his, and who he will be. There will be many records in his future, but hopefully more championships.

The defense once again did their job despite almost the complete absence of a pass rush. I may be the guy who complains about the team's lack of pass rush all the way through a Super Bowl victory. It defies logic, but the results are inarguable. The Rams were 2-11 on 3rd downs, scored just 13 points, and averaged a mere 5.4 yards per play. There were some terrible drops by Rams receivers, but there was also one of the luckiest touchdown catches you will ever see. In the end, there was Richard Sherman collecting his eighth interception to seal the victory. Sherman's signature play is becoming the baited pick. He intentionally allows the quarterback to see an open receiver, hoping the throw will come, knowing he has the time to close and steal the ball. He has a robber's guile, and the cocky courage of a fighter pilot. He may be the perfect post-season player.

The linebackers may be playing their best football of the season. K.J. Wright is back to making plays. Bobby Wagner has been steady, and Malcolm Smith is clearly an upgrade. His pass breakup 30 yards down-field exemplified a play that Leroy Hill is simply no longer capable of making. Hill will likely be game-by-game decision based on opponent. The 49ers are among the few teams Hill's toughness could be needed for.

Marcus Trufant was back, and was abused. He had a great break-up in the endzone, but was many steps behind receivers all day. The coaching staff needs to think long and hard about whether they are better off with the certainty of Trufant getting beaten or the uncertainty of Jeremy Lane or Byron Maxwell in the slot with Brandon Browner coming back. Trufant will always make the decisions he is supposed to within the defensive scheme, but is physically incapable of winning most match-ups. Lane and Maxwell would likely get exposed for mental mistakes more than physical, but they may also make some positive plays Trufant would not. This coaching staff tends to bet on upside. Do not be surprised if Trufant rotates with the young fellas.

The regular season comes to a close now. This group of Seahawks has made more strides than a marathon runner. They have been tested by opponents, by coaches, by their own limitations and insecurities. The next step is testing their mettle in the playoffs. They will attempt to do what no Seahawks team has done since 1983, and win a road playoff game. It is a fitting challenge for a team defined by decisions that have defied convention. This is the team that found a home for a 6'3" 230 lb safety, the two tallest cornerbacks in NFL history, the short quarterback that nobody wanted, the beast that needed a home. History is made by this team, not restricted by it. We are all witnesses.


Final 2012 Hawk Blogger Power Rankings

PRIMER (NEW)
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 was simple, I measured 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" was 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, but I am always looking for ways to improve it. I read a great article on ColdHardFootballFacts.com. There was one gem in there about predicting championship teams. The article mentioned passer rating differential as the "mother of all stats." A full 69 of 72 champions have ranked in the Top 10 in this statistic. It is a stat after my own heart, as I believe offensive and defensive efficiency is the key measurable outside of point differential. Turnovers would factor in there as well, but I am not convinced a team has as much control over that. My power rankings use YPA and YPC differentials. I went ahead and replaced the YPA with offensive and defensive passer rating, to give me this:

(YPC (offense) + Passer Rating (offense) + Avg Pts/Game Scored) - (OPP YPC (defense) + OPP Passer Rating (defense)+ OPP Avg Pts/Game)

I love the results, and hope you do as well.

THIS WEEK
For the first time in the six-year history of this blog, the Seattle Seahawks finish the season ranked #1 in the NFL. They will have no cake walk in the first round, facing the #7 team on the road. It is worth noting that the Bears, whom the Seahawks beat on the road, finished the year as the #8 team.



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.

Seattle is now the elite.



Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Look Back At Season Predictions

Scott Enyeart, Davis Hsu, Jacson Bevens and I did some pre-season predictions. Here are the closet to the pin winners thus far.

Seahawks vs. Rams: A Few Numbers To Monitor

Well, folks, here we are. The final regular season game. It has been a 16-course meal worth savoring. The Seahawks head into this last game with a few notable accomplishments within reach. These are a few I will be watching:

- The Seahawks need 32 yards rushing to become the most prolific rushing team in franchise history

- Bobby Wagner needs 7 tackles to set the franchise mark for rookies

- Russell Wilson needs one passing touchdown to tie, and two to beat, Peyton Manning's rookie record for touchdown passes

- Wilson can tie Matt Hasselbeck for 2nd-highest passing touchdown total in franchise history
(28) by throwing three

- Wilson needs 132 yards to reach 3,000 for the season

- Wilson need to raise his passer rating by 0.3 to set the franchise mark for passer rating in a season

- Seattle needs to score 27 points to become the 2nd-highest scoring offense in franchise history. They would need 61 points to beat the total of the 2005 team.

- If Seattle holds the Rams to fewer than 29 points, they will set the franchise record for fewest points allowed

- A victory by more than 21 points would give this team the largest point differential in franchise history

- The Seahawks have won more than 10 games only twice in franchise history. Both times, 1984 and 2005, the team advanced to at least the conference championship game

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Seahawks Fans Have A Choice

He was not even a Seahawks fan. The poor fellow sitting next to me in Toronto was not wearing the team colors of any NFL team, but he had decided to speak up when some Bills fans a few rows back started swearing. Their team was getting blown out, they had traveled some distance, and they had had one too many Molsons. This guy was their new entertainment, "What'd you say faggot?" The guy turned around and tried to reason with them, "There are kids around. Why don't you try to keep it down a little?" Reason went out the door after about the fourth Seahawks touchdown, if it ever was there to begin with, "The faggot wants us to keep it down. The pussy with the glasses wants us to keep it down." This lasted for the better part of thirty minutes. Security was summoned three times, but did nothing. There was a real feeling that this guy was going to get jumped when he left the game. Thankfully, the Seahawks so thoroughly destroyed the Bills that these guys decided to hit the road with a some time left in the fourth quarter. It was a terrible display. It is also increasingly something we are hearing about at Seahawks games in CenturyLink Field. Tomorrow is Fan Appreciation Day for the best fan base in the NFL, and it is as good a time as any to reflect on what kind of fans we want to be during what may be a historic stretch of Seahawks football.

I will say at the jump that I am not standing on any soapbox as I write this. As horrible as it may sound, I am a little conflicted about parts of this topic. I hate seeing opposing fans at the CLink. It is infuriating to see some of those fans come into our stadium and talk smack, cheer in Seahawks fans faces, and be intentionally provocative. I have been the guy that snickers when other Seahawks fans throw peanuts or popcorn kernels at opposing fans, especially the ones that are being obnoxious. I rag on opposing teams, if not the fans themselves. I would never try to intimidate anyone, but I can't say I want them to feel totally comfortable buying tickets for my team's home games.

Reading the article in today's Seattle Times about the group of mixed 49ers and Seahawks fans that were harassed at last week's game got me thinking again about this topic that has been bouncing around my head all season. Seahawks football is about to get extremely popular. A whole new generation of fans are going to be born in the coming years. We are already known for our noise. What else will we be known for? How will we handle prosperity?

Ask a Huskies fan what it is like to watch a game in Autzen stadium. I have been there. I have seen human urine thrown on people. I consider Ducks fans to among the worst example of sportsmanship in the world, and I'm an Oregonian. There are some similar parallels, though, to the Ducks football history and that of the Seahawks. Both were mired in mediocrity for decades. Both fan bases carry a major chip on their shoulders about lack of national respect. Oregon fans add a frustration about lack of regional respect with big brother Seattle getting whatever scant attention comes the way of the Northwest. Ducks fans took on a persona of "Fuck YOU!" It was their party, and they will pee if they want to. When U of O broke through and became an annual BCS power, there was an opportunity for Ducks fans to act like they had been there before. There was a chance to drop their baggage, and just revel in their new-found success. Instead, they have become the tacky nouveau riche. They are the guys buying lime green Ferraris that screech to a halt in front of the restaurant while someone with ten times the money strolls in unnoticed and knows the entire service staff. Class is something you know when you see it, and most certainly when you do not.

There have been multiple incidents at Seahawks games this year. Even law enforcement officials have been guilty of bad behavior. This Seahawks team may be on the edge of a historic run, one that should last for years beyond this season. It will be tempting to gloat and shove it in the faces of all the opposing fans and national media that belittled the team for so long. And frankly, a little chest pounding after 36 years is probably warranted.

Where I think I will try to do a better job of drawing the line is when there are kids around. I have made the conscious decision to leave my boys at home because I think NFL games are PG-13, at a minimum. That said, it made my stomach turn reading the accounts of those 14-year old 49er fans getting screamed at and intimidated both outside and inside CLink. I don't want anything to do with that. My team winning is where I find the joy. I'd be lying if I said I won't always enjoy seeing the Seahawks make an opposing fan shut their yapper with a big play. I'd also be lying if I said I am ever going to be happy to see an opponents jersey in our stadium. It is important to me, however, that Seattle Seahawks fans are known for noise and class. As the 12th Man is appreciated tomorrow, consider what you want that 12 flag to stand for in the coming years, and start making it happen.

Friday, December 28, 2012

WEEK 16 PODCAST: Hawk Blogger Hour on Softy's Show w

Softy decided to take our podcast to the people this week. You can listen to the whole hour of our on-air conversation this week. We discussed Richard Sherman's news, the preferable playoff match-ups and which unit you trust the most on this team right now.

***DOWNLOAD THE PODCAST***







Alternatively, here are instructions to subscribe manually in iTunes:

1. Copy this URL: http://feeds.feedburner.com/hawkblogger
2. Launch iTunes
3. Click Advanced, Subscribe to Podcast
4. Paste in the URL from step 1
5. Click OK
6. Click on your Podcasts item under your Library section (you should see Hawk Blogger)

If you'd like to copy it to your iPod/iPhone, you'll need to access the click on your device in iTunes once you connect it to the computer, and access the Podcasts tab. The rest should be pretty clear.

Rams Game May Be Closest In A Month

Nobody will fault Seahawks fans for looking past the St. Louis Rams. Their team has just eviscerated the mighty San Francisco 49ers. The Rams are much improved this season, but are certainly not the 49ers. Well, except for the fact that they beat the 49ers themselves, and should have done it twice. This is not an article that will attempt to convince anyone that the Rams will win on Sunday. Seattle is the better team, but there are some factors that could make this game less comfortable than the what Seahawks fans have witnessed the past few weeks.

The Rams managed to beat the Seahawks earlier in the year without the benefit of an offensive touchdown. Jeff Fisher thoroughly out-coached Pete Carroll and staff. A fake field goal worked for the Rams and an onsides kick was unsuccessful for the Seahawks and led directly to three points that figured significantly in the outcome. Seattle needed a late touchdown to win instead of simply needing a field goal to tie. Russell Wilson capped his worst game of the season with his third interception as he missed a wide open Doug Baldwin and threw to Anthony McCoy, who fell on the play. Some would call the first 49ers game Wilson's low point. That would be true based if it was only about passer rating, but his teammates did not help him much in San Francisco. The Rams game saw Wilson throw three picks, go 2-9 on 3rd downs and 1-3 in the red zone. This was the game when coaches and players really started to question whether there needed be a change at the quarterback position. Wilson made a big step forward on third downs in Carolina, and never looked back.

Seattle coaches under-utilized their running game in that first match-up. The Seahawks averaged 5.3 yards per carry, and Lynch easily went over 100 yards, but the coaches dialed up a number of passes in the second half when it was unnecessary. The Rams are best when defending the pass. Their secondary is in the top half the league in opponent passer rating, interceptions, and yards per attempt. Their defensive line is third in the NFL in sack percentage (the percentage of sacks per pass attempt). This is a group that has its eyes on leading the NFL in sacks.

It was this ability to pressure the passer that gave the 49ers fits in both games. The Rams combined for eight sacks and 15 quarterback hits in those two games. Perhaps even more impressive was their 12 combined tackles for loss. Seattle has not played the Rams with first-round pick Michael Brockers healthy. Brockers is having a fine rookie season with 4.0 sacks and 5 TFL from the defensive tackle position. It is not crazy to say this may be the best defensive line the Seahawks have faced since Miami. The 49ers were missing Justin Smith, and it is hard to say whether the Bills line was really motivated to play their best.

This Rams team has the chance to end the season with a winning record, including an undefeated run through the NFC West. They can feel the momentum they have gained this year, and the front office knows it has a boat load of draft choices coming their way the next few seasons. Just imagine what would be happening in St. Louis if they had traded Sam Bradford for fewer picks, and took Robert Griffin III.

Danny Amendola gave the Seahawks fits in the first game, and is the type of receiver that has punished Seattle in the slot. Walter Thurmond practiced yesterday, but it is not clear whether he will be ready for the game. His presence would greatly help in containing Amendola. Rookie receiver Chris Givens is another to watch for. He is a deep threat who beat Richard Sherman in the first match-up and is 10th in the NFL in yards per catch at 16.1.

Seattle needs to be able to run effectively early, and be efficient in the red zone. The Rams will come out with plenty of motivation, and Jeff Fisher will have a few tricks up his sleeves. Seattle is clearly the better team, and is playing at home. They are also coming off an emotional victory over their most hated rival, got big news about Sherman, and have been the toast of the town and NFL this week. The Rams had no players selected for the Pro Bowl, and have had nothing to think about but this game all week. Seattle needs to prove they have matured enough to focus on the task at hand, and take every opponent seriously. A close game in the fourth quarter means the Seahawks thought they could just show up and win. Here's to hoping the Seahawks locker room paid more attention to their Pro Bowl snubs and Wilson's unwavering focus on the game in front of him. A big win in this game would speak volumes about how much this team has grown up in 2012.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Tune In: Hawk Blogger on Sports Radio KJR

I will be going back on the Softy Mahler show tomorrow (Thursday) at 10AM. We are going to talk Richard Sherman, Rams, and playoffs. Softy and I don't see exactly eye-to-eye on the Sherman news, so it should be a good conversation.

TIME: 10AM, Thursday

RADIO: 950 AM or 102.9 FM

TV: channel 179 (Comcast Sportsnet) on Comcast

INTERNET: Listen Live

 

The Primary: Seahawks DBs Bring Hell-Fire To Post-Season

Defenses are built from front-to-back in the NFL. A defense is often defined by it's front seven. Dominant defensive tackles, ends and linebackers are so crucial to stopping opposing offenses that the defensive backfield, comprised of cornerbacks and safeties, is collectively referred to as the "secondary." The Seattle Seahawks head into the post-season fully armed with a group of defensive backs so good, they are second to nobody.

News broke this morning that Richard Sherman won his appeal, proving his drug test was faulty. Sherman has arguably been the best player on the NFL's best defense so far this season. He came into this season with a chip on his shoulder, and the recent events have surely turned that into a boulder. His presence makes a good group of corners the best. Teams like Atlanta and Green Bay that rely heavily on star receivers getting open just saw their Super Bowl hopes take a serious hit.

Sure, the Seahawks were set to get Brandon Browner back for the playoffs no matter what happened with Sherman, but the ripple effect of getting both starting corners back for the post-season is significant. A Seahawks lineup without Sherman would have had Browner on one side, flanked by Walter Thurmond or Jeremy Lane. Nickel situations would have resulted in Thurmond taking the slot, while Byron Maxwell or Marcus Trufant would be dime backs.

Seattle has managed to excel with Lane, Maxwell and Thurmond getting significant snaps while Browner has been out. Nobody will mistake Ryan Lindley, John Skelton, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Colin Kaepernick for Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan. Nor will they mistake their receiving corps for those of the Packers or Falcons. The real story may have less to do with opponents and more to do with another Seahawks corner who has been out.

Trufant has been injured since the Seahawks game versus the Bears, which also happened to be when the current Seattle win streak began. The Seahawks have been among the NFL's best at stopping opponents top two receivers, but have been the worst when it came to stopping the slot receiver. Trufant played nickel all year and the results had not been particularly encouraging. Thurmond stepped into that role for the Bears game and did not allow a completion. He followed that with a sterling performance against the Cardinals and Larry Fitzgerald. Thurmond was then injured in practice and missed the Bills and 49ers games.

The Bills did not feature a good slot receiver, but they learned quickly that they could target Lane in the slot with Stevie Johnson and get plenty of space. The 49ers do not employ three receivers all that often since they lean on tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. That led Seattle to give more snaps to safeties like Kam Chancellor and Jeron Johnson. Facing an opponent that employs four receiver sets could have exposed the Seahawks defense these past two weeks when they were under-manned. Instead, they held the last three opponents to a combined passer rating of 48.8. Now, come the reinforcements.

Trufant is practicing again, and Thurmond is rumored to be right behind him. Browner will be back for the first game of the playoffs. Sherman was potentially out until the Super Bowl, but is now free to continue playing. There has been only one game all season where Browner, Sherman and Thurmond were all available, and that was Chicago. It happened to be Browner's worst game of the season, as Brandon Marshall beat him much of the day.

The smart money is on Browner regaining his starting role, and Thurmond taking over nickel when he is healthy. It would not be a complete shock if Thurmond pushes Browner for that starting role and Browner comes on when Thurmond slides inside for the nickel. The only major question with Thurmond is his health. He is in Sherman's class when healthy, and you can ask the Cardinals how it feels to face those two as a starting pair.

Lane has also earned snaps. He appeared to be on the cusp of a breakout game against the 49ers, just missing two interceptions. Do not be surprised if he has that big game this week against the Rams before returning to his special teams role for the playoffs. Should Thurmond be unable to stay on the field, Lane would battle Trufant for the nickel spot. Lane excelled on the outside, but has not proven he is the better option in the slot. Either way, Seahawks coaches know they have a player ready to step up.

Behold the trail of receiving destruction Browner and Sherman have left in their wake this season:

Jordy Nelson 2 catches for 19 yards
Greg Jennings 6 catches for 35 yards
Dez Bryant 3 catches for 17 yards
Steve Smith 4 catches in 14 targets
Calvin Johnson to 3 catches for 46 yards
Percy Havin 2 catches for 10 yards

Grown men have resorted to crying to mama about these two players. Now, the Seahawks have allowed an average of 6.5 points/game without Browner the last three games. They may challenge the laws of math and the NFL when he returns and Thurmond gets healthy. Is it possible to hold a team to negative points?

This is a group of corners so talented, Seahawks fans should savor this season and 2013, because other teams will surely covet their services. For now, Seattle coaches can choose to mix-and-match their personnel to fit the opponent and situation.

Richard Sherman - Shutdown corner, playmaker, can guard any player at any time

Brandon Browner - Physical press corner that will intimidate anyone he faces, and is a fantastic run defender

Walter Thurmond - Future Pro Bowl talent that can play inside and out when healthy, better cover corner than Browner, but not as strong of a run defender

Jeremy Lane - May be the next Thurmond in terms of coverage ability, plays with a mean streak and unmatched speed. Special teams ace.

Marcus Trufant - Wise veteran who will be in the right place and recognize routes/plays

Byron Maxwell - Physically gifted corner that plays mostly outside. Special teams ace

And those are just the corners. Earl Thomas is considered the best safety in the NFL by some, and Kam Chancellor is busy forcing the NFL to rewriting rules to protect opponents from his fury. Both Thomas and Chancellor have been playing their best football in the last three weeks. Interceptions, big hits and forced fumbles are starting to happen more frequently. Tackles for short gains have become tackles for loss.

This group will collectively pose the biggest threat to the modern NFL belief that great quarterbacks and passing wins Super Bowls. It is a group that was custom-built to dismantle quarterbacks and receivers. They explode into the playoffs challenging the notion that they are secondary to front sevens or star quarterbacks. They are equipped to demand primary attention and dictate the outcomes of games in front of them. The best team in football just got better.

NFL Should Be Ashamed, Sherman Vindicated

It was a little more than a month ago when the NFL slandered Richard Sherman. A drug testing process that is required to be confidential, was made public. A player who was having a Pro Bowl, All-Pro, Defensive Player of the Year season became synonymous with PED. Sherman is a man who climbed out of Compton into Stanford so he could be a role model for other kids that would follow, a man who endured an abusive college coach and found a way around him to the NFL by switching to defense, a man who climbed the depth charts from a 5th-round pick to shutdown corner in less than a year, a man gives his time to fans and those less fortunate every chance he gets. As we learned today that Sherman was absolved of guilt, the reaction was largely celebration in Seattle, but it will soon be accompanied by anger. A good person has been wronged. A budding career has been tarnished. And someone is going to pay.

Sherman has played his best football in the weeks that followed the breach of confidentiality about his test results. It was only three weeks ago that he had two interceptions and a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals. It was a performance that was clearly deserving of NFC Defensive Player of the Week. Instead, the award went to Carolina's Luke Kuechly for making 16 tackles--none for loss--with no interceptions, forced fumbles or fumble recoveries. If you do not think the NFL PR department had a hand in eliminating Sherman from contention for that award, I have a bridge to sell you. The Pro Bowl rosters were announced yesterday and the best corner in all of football was nowhere to be seen. That has everything to do with Sherman's test results being leaked before his appeal was heard. Some will say awards do not matter. Tell that to Sherman who almost certainly gets incentives for achievements like that. He was a fifth-round draft pick that makes $465K. The money matters. What matters more is a player who has worked his tail off to launch a fantastic career will likely never be able to achieve without some segment of the population associating him with drugs and cheating. Shameful.

There will be those that say Sherman got off on a technicality. These are the same people that have told us for weeks that nobody gets off on appeal, that the deck is stacked so much against the player that there is no hope of winning. Well, he won. If someone winning a case in public court makes them innocent, a player winning an appeal deserves at least that, and possibly more. Sherman may have grounds to pursue a defamation suit in court for punitive damages. More likely, he will pursue his case on the field.

Opposing offenses have largely avoided Sherman's side of the field this season. There may be no place safe from Sherman after this outcome. A player who propels himself by gathering all the slights and oversights around him now has nuclear-grade ammunition to fuel his play. Optimus Prime is coming, and there is nowhere to hide from his wrath. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Seahawks Younger, Now Better, Than 49ers

It was exactly a year ago when the Seahawks were in the midst of a late-season run heading into a measuring stick game against the 49ers in CenturyLink Field. It was heresy, at the time, to point out that the Seahawks roster may be the better of the two over the next few seasons. The 49ers had more elite talent, but the Seahawks had more young talent across the board. Seattle would end up losing that game 19-17, but a signal was sent when a makeshift Seahawks offensive line worked in unison with Marshawn Lynch to become the first 100-yard rusher that year against the 49ers, and the first to score a rushing touchdown. This was not a Seattle team that was going to back down to San Francisco. The Seahawks were coming. Another San Francisco victory earlier this year allowed 49er faithful, players and coaches to cling to the belief that the two teams were of different classes, but that facade came crashing down this past Sunday night. They are now faced with the reality that the Seahawks may be the better team now, and for years to come.

A hidden story line in the Seahawks 42-13 thumping of San Francisco was not just how the teams played, but who the teams played. Seattle has a younger roster, younger starters, and plays far more young players overall. Consider the percentage of snaps for players age 26 or younger on Sunday.



Only 31% of the snaps on defense came from players age 26 or younger for San Francisco, and that's with 24-year-old Ricky Jean-Francois subbing for 33-year-old Justin Smith. A full 77% of Seattle's defensive plays came from players no more than age 26. I chose that age because it generally means a player is no more than three years out of school, depending on whether they came out early, and still has significant upside potential. Patrick Willis is 27-years-old. That does not mean he is an old man, but it is harder to argue that he is going to get significantly better than he already is. NaVorro Bowman is 24-years-old, and just his second year as a starter. There is reason to believe he could get even better. A scary thought for Seahawks fans. Seattle starts Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and Richard Sherman as regulars under age 26, but players like Bruce Irvin, Malcolm Smith, Jeremy Lane, Greg Scruggs, Walter Thurmond, Clinton McDonald, Byron Maxwell, Chris Maragos, and Jeron Johnson also get significant snaps at a young age.

The offense is closer, as the 49ers offensive line is young. A major difference here is Marshawn Lynch versus Frank Gore, as Lynch is still just 26. Receivers also play a role as Doug Baldwin, Sidney Rice, and Golden Tate all check in under 26, along with Anthony McCoy. The 49ers lean on Randy Moss and Vernon Davis (28). Michael Crabtree is a nice young receiver, but it is hard to see how that unit is going to outperform Seattle's in the long run, as they are the lesser group already. The 49ers offensive line is mostly young and all talented. Only Joe Staley and Jonathan Goodwin are older than 26. The Seahawks have Paul McQuistan and Breno Giacomini over that age.

Just look at the total snap count for players drafted in 2012:
Seattle - 343
San Francisco - 25

Think about the effect that will have on these teams over the next few years. Seattle fans understand as they have seen major contributions from every draft class Pete Carroll and John Schneider have made so far. The 49ers had a nice draft in Jim Harbaugh's first year, getting Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter, and Bruce Miller, but they appear to have very little to hang their hat on this year. Gaps like that have an impact on a franchise. This year's Seahawks draft class appears to have allowed the Seahawks to leap-frog the 49ers in terms of talent.

The overall numbers tell a significant part of the story. If you add up all the offensive and defensive snaps and then total the number that were played by young players, Seattle appears to be far better situated for future growth. That, however, is just one game. Looking at the whole season would be a better barometer.



The numbers tighten, but the overarching narrative holds. Seattle is relying on a much younger set of defenders, and is playing younger players on offense as well. Some of the difference on offense changes if Colin Kaepernick were to play a full season instead of Alex Smith, but not enough to make massive difference. San Francisco fans have to be asking themselves if they cannot beat the Seahawks now, when will they?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Holiday Gift Worth Being Proud Of

This blog has been a passion project for five years. I would write it if nobody read it. Never did I consider it a vehicle to make money. That is, until this year. It occurred to me that all those emails I was ignoring from companies that wanted to post ads on my site could be used for something better. Even if I didn't want the money, someone else could benefit from it. That is why you can now buy tickets to events from my site, or Seahawks gear or even order Zeek's pizza, and all the proceeds I get are donated to Ben's Fund.

I am proud to say that I just made my first annual donation to Ben's Fund in the amount of $1,000. Thank you to all that have purchased goods or tickets or pizza from my site. It takes a lot of purchases to add up to any significant proceeds, so I chose to match what you all gave through your purchases. My hope is that this will begin an annual Hawk Blogger tradition of giving back to the community in some way that ties to our shared love of the Seahawks.

Happy Holidays to everyone, and thanks for reading!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Fun with numbers: Through Week 16


It is time for some stat porn, Seahawks style. Enjoy in the comfort of your own home. These may not be safe for work viewing.

I will be updating this as time allows...

RUSSELL WILSON
- The 49ers had not allowed 4 touchdown passes to an opponent since Drew Brees did in 2007.

- Russell Wilson is one touchdown shy of tying Peyton Manning's rookie touchdown record, but you knew that. Wilson has reached 25 touchdowns in over 200 fewer attempts. He is averaging a touchdown every 15 attempts. Manning threw a touchdown every 22 attempts.

- Wilson has thrown only 10 interceptions. Manning threw 28.

- Wilson is approaching another record. No rookie quarterback has ever had 15 more touchdowns than interceptions in a season. Dan Marino had 14 (20 TDs / 6 INT). Robert Griffin III and Wilson both are +15 with one game to go.

- There have been two other Seahawks quarterbacks that started more than 14 games as rookies, Jim Zorn and Rick Mirer. They threw for a combined 24 touchdowns and 44 interceptions.

- Wilson is 0.3 points shy of posting the highest passer rating in Seahawks franchise history. Matt Hasselbeck posted a 98.2 rating in 2005. Wilson stands at 98.0.

- Wilson is 0.2 points shy of beating Ben Roethlisberger's record for rookie passer rating of 98.1. Griffin is at 104.1, so he will likely end up above Wilson.

MARSHAWN LYNCH
- Marshawn Lynch becomes the 4th player in franchise history to rush for over 1,400 yards in a season. Shaun Alexander did it three times, Curt Warner did it twice, and Chris Warren did it once. No player has ever done it in fewer than Lynch's 279 attempts. 

- Lynch is averaging 5.02 yards per carry, which is within striking distance of Alexander's franchise record 5.08 YPC (min 250 attempts)

RICHARD SHERMAN
- Richard Sherman leads the NFL in passes defensed with 23, and is 2nd in the NFL with 7 interceptions

- Sherman has 7 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, 2 touchdown returns, and a sack. Only two other players in NFL history have accomplished that, Ed Reed and Charles Woodson.

BOBBY WAGNER
- Bobby Wagner has 130 tackles, 3 INT, and 2.0 sacks. Only Zack Thomas (1996) has matched, or bested, each of those numbers as a rookie

TEAM
- Seahawks rookies played a total of 336 snaps in the game against San Francisco. The 49ers rookies played a total of 25 snaps.

- The 176 yards rushing for the Seahawks Sunday were the most allowed by the 49ers since 2010, and only the 3rd time it has happened since Patrick Willis was drafted in 2007

- The Seahawks are 32 yards away from breaking the franchise record for rushing yards in a season, set by the 2005 squad.

- The Seahawks have won 10+ games for just the sixth time in franchise history. They have won 10 games four times, 12 games once, and 13 games once. They have never won 11 games in a season.

- The 2012 Seahawks are 27 points shy of being the second-highest scoring offense in team history behind the 2005 team.

- The Seahawks have scored touchdowns on 17 of their last 31 drives (excluding kneel downs), or 54.8%. Only 13 teams in the NFL have a better red zone touchdown percentage than that. This is possibly the most ridiculous stat of the bunch. Seattle is more likely to score a touchdown from a drive starting anywhere on the field the last 3+ weeks than most teams are when they have the ball inside their opponents 20-yard line.

- Seattle is allowing an averaged of 11.8 points per game in the last four games

- The Seahawks lead the NFL in points allowed in the second half of games. They allow an average of less than a touchdown per game in the second half (6.9)

- After allowing 162 yards rushing per game and a 5.9 YPC in games 8-12 of the season, the Seahawks defense has allowed an average of 81 yards rushing and 4.3 YPC in the last three games.

- Seattle has turned the ball over one or fewer times in six of their last seven games.

- The average opponent passer rating in the last three games is 48.8

- Seattle has had 8 games where they have rushed for 170 yards or more. The last time that was done in a season was the 2004 Atlanta Falcons. Only six teams have accomplished the feat since 1990. Of those six teams, one team won the Super Bowl, two lost in their conference championship, one lost in divisional round, and two lost in the wild card round.

- Seattle has six wins against teams with winning records. No other team has won more than four games against teams with winning records.

Hawk Blogger 2012 Power Rankings: Week 16

PRIMER (NEW)
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 was simple, I measured 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" was 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, but I am always looking for ways to improve it. I read a great article on ColdHardFootballFacts.com. There was one gem in there about predicting championship teams. The article mentioned passer rating differential as the "mother of all stats." A full 69 of 72 champions have ranked in the Top 10 in this statistic. It is a stat after my own heart, as I believe offensive and defensive efficiency is the key measurable outside of point differential. Turnovers would factor in there as well, but I am not convinced a team has as much control over that. My power rankings use YPA and YPC differentials. I went ahead and replaced the YPA with offensive and defensive passer rating, to give me this:

(YPC (offense) + Passer Rating (offense) + Avg Pts/Game Scored) - (OPP YPC (defense) + OPP Passer Rating (defense)+ OPP Avg Pts/Game)

I love the results, and hope you do as well.

THIS WEEK
Seattle stays steady at the #2 spot, only because Green Bay had an even more dominant victory. They are separated by the smallest of margins. There is one team in football that I am not convinced Seattle could beat with any consistency, and they are the only team above them in the rankings. Seattle is 5-1 against teams in the Top 15.

Other rankings will almost certainly have the Broncos at the top, but their performances and quality of victory do not compare to either Green Bay or Seattle.



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.

Seattle is now the elite.



The Morning After: Seahawks ascendancy continues, trounce 49ers 42-13

Mike Tyson rose to boxing fame in the 80s. He was such a vicious fighter that the most popular bet in Vegas was whether or not his opponent would last through the first round. Sixteen of his first twenty-six victories came by way of first round knockout. His most famous win may have come when he knocked out previously unbeaten Michael Spinks in 91 seconds. Nobody wanted to face Tyson in his prime. You were guaranteed a loss, humiliation, and a whole lot of pain. The Seahawks are the NFL's Mike Tyson right now, and anyone that steps on the field with them is Glass Joe. Pete Carroll preaches finishing strong, but this team is knocking out teams mere minutes into each game. Seattle got out to leads of 14-0 (SF), 14-0 (BUF), and 10-0 (ARZ) in the last three games and halftime scores of 28-6, 31-17, and 38-0. Those are haymakers thrown from the outset, wobbling knees, and sending stars spinning around opponent eyes. Ask Vernon Davis what it feels like. There is no hiding from this team. The offense will pin an opponent in a corner and deliver a flurry of blows, then tag out and let the special teams or defense resume the pummeling. Respect is earned, but the Seahawks have gone well beyond earning respect. They are feared.

The best team in football is the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks. Proclamations mean nothing. Accomplishments mean everything. No team in the NFL has the Seahawks resume. Not only are they 6-1 against teams with winning records, but no team has beaten them by more than seven points. They are now in the conversation for best team in franchise history, and they should get better, much better.

These games are so indulgent that it is becoming hard to appreciate the subtle performances that are woven together to create these astounding outcomes. Jeremy Lane blew me away last night. He looks like he creates his own weather system when he breaks on a ball. The Flash is calling, and wants his speed back. Lane missed a couple chances to intercept passes, but he is gaining confidence with every snap. His combination of athleticism, attitude and instincts make him the latest in a series of mind-blowing draft choices from John Schneider. Phillip Adams outplayed Lane early in training camp, and is now making some great plays for the Raiders. Lane is showing why the Seahawks invested in him.

Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are stepping forward and leading this defense. Both are making impact plays that were missing early in the year. Thomas is getting tackles for loss and intercepting passes. Chancellor forced a fumble and made sure nobody left the game thinking the 49ers are tougher than the Seahawks. The defense is designed to allow those guys to make plays, and the fact that they are doing it now is a big part of why the defense is accelerating into the post-season. They are now the #1 scoring defense in the NFL, by a sizable margin. Much was made of how the team would fall apart without their starting cornerbacks, but people fail to understand how safety-oriented this scheme is. Thomas can make things a lot easier for corners.

Richard Sherman is the best defensive player in the NFL right now. He is toying with opponents. Only two players in NFL history have had at least 7 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles and 2 touchdowns in a season. Those two players were Ed Reed (2004) and Charles Woodson (2009). Not bad company.

K.J. Wright turned in his second straight outstanding game. He had a couple tackles for loss and the only Seahawks sack of the night. He is combining with defensive rookie of the year, Bobby Wagner and speedy Malcolm Smith to create the most under-rated aspect of the NFL's best defense. Smith is the de facto starter at weakside linebacker now. Leroy Hill is in there for obvious short-yardage run situations, but Smith is demanding more snaps with his play. Teams had started to target Hill on passing plays as his speed has diminished, but they are unable to do that with Smith. These three young guns finished 1, 2, 3 in tackles against San Francisco. There is simply nowhere to go for opposing offenses.

The same Seahawks defense that was criticized for much of the last half of the season is on pace to shatter the Seahawks record for fewest points allowed in a season. They have allowed 232 points, 29 points shy of the 1991 squad that allowed 261. This is the best defense in football, and among the best in franchise history.  Just imagine what they would look like if they could manage some pass pressure.

It is fun to talk about this team averaging 50 points over the last three games, but this about more than three games. The team is averaging 34.5 points/game over their past eight games. That's half a season, for the math challenged. The defense is allowing just under 16 points/game during that same span. That is historically dominant stuff.

Russell Wilson has become a problem teams won't be able to solve in 2012. They may figure out a scheme in 2013, but good luck with that. He is making great decisions, and has the full compliment of options at his command. He will run on a pass play, run on a run play, hand it off to the best running back nobody really appreciates, behind the best offensive line nobody really appreciates, or throw to stable of receivers and tight ends that continue to make spectacular plays. There is nowhere for a defense to attack without leaving themselves vulnerable to a counter-punch.

Try and blitz this team. You could find Marshawn Lynch busting through the gap for 50 yards, or Wilson delivering a precision pass on time to a hot route, or Wilson scrambling around your pass rushers for a positive gain. Stack the box to stop the running game and make the Seahawks beat you with the pass. Uh...Wilson is the top-rated quarterback in the NFL for the past 2.5 months. He is one touchdown shy of tying Peyton Manning's rookie passer record. Try and take away the quick passes, and he will happily throw deep. Take away the deep throws, and he will happily take the underneath routes. He will beat you on third down, in the red zone, in the clutch. Just give up already.

He is going to lead the Seahawks to a decade of dominance. This team is going to become the New England Patriots of yesteryear. They are young at almost every position, and already the best team in football. They may not lose a regular season game next year. They may not lose another game this year. This team has now added belief to tremendous talent.

Seattle has nothing left to prove. They have won the regular season. They will beat the Rams next week, and then must take their game to the post-season. Everything they are doing now translates perfectly to the playoffs. No fan base is more deserving of what is about to happen. Legends are made in the playoffs, and the Seahawks have a roster full of players ready to etch their names on history's ledger.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Final Pre-Game Thoughts: 49ers @ Seahawks

It is game day, Seattle, and what a clash we have in front of us. The 49ers come to town as the consensus best team in football. The Seahawks enter this game as a team gaining respect, but few would consider them more than a troublesome playoff foe. Seattle has an opportunity to become more than a storyline Sunday night. They can become an unquestioned Super Bowl contender.

This San Francisco team has the respect of every player and every analyst in the nation. They embody the physical, iron man, style that every NFL fan wants in their team. Their defense features arguably the best players at their position at least three spots on the field. Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are All-Pro talents that destroy all comers. Aldon Smith is a second-year player challenging the NFL sack record. Their offensive line features more pachyderm than player. They could be used to clear forests when not clearing opposing defenses out of their running backs way. Their second-year quarterback runs like a deer and throws like trebuchet. Their two tight ends are faster than most receivers and block better than many lineman. Their coach, Jim Harbaugh, is auditioning for Cobra Kai Sensei. He will sweep the leg if given the chance. They are, without a doubt, the toughest and most intimidating team in all of football.

They also can be beaten. I know it. You know it. St. Louis surely knows it. The Seahawks have played six teams with winning records this season, and are 5-1 against those teams. Their lone loss, a 13-6 disappointment in San Francisco. The 49ers have played six teams with winning records as well, and are 4-2, losing to the Giants and Vikings.

The Seahawks bring their own array of fighters to the ring. Nobody has a better a combination of throwing arm, legs, preparation and work ethic than Russell Wilson. He has arguably been the best quarterback in football since the last time these two teams played. Seattle's offensive line is thriving in anonymity. They have cleared the way for an average of 243 yards rushing the past three games, and 200 yards/gm over the last six. That is badass blocking. Sidney Rice and Golden Tate have combined for 14 receiving touchdowns. Doug Baldwin is just now healthy, and can slice up defenses every bit as skillfully as Danny Amendola did to San Francisco. Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy are getting more opportunities and are taking full advantage of them. The defense has talent at every level, starting with arguably the best defensive player in the NFL this season, Richard Sherman. Seattle has flashed more depth at cornerback than the Grand Canyon. The linebackers are fast and tough, and have added more speed with Malcolm Smith getting snaps. Do not forget their ginger-locked punter, Jon Ryan, and the efficient special teams. Together, they make the only team in the NFL with a top six ranking in each phase of the game.

Seattle is missing one ingredient. Call it belief, confidence, or faith. They have every part needed to win a championship except the certainty that they are the best team in football. Win today, beat the 49ers, and they will have that last sprinkle of pixie dust needed to propel them into a memorable post-season run. This is not a game they should win. It is a game they can win. The fact that there is real doubt is what makes the outcome so important. Pete Carroll will tell you that confidence is born of accomplishment. Do something once, twice, three times, and you become confident you will do it the fourth time as well. The Seahawks have built confidence in successive weeks, but they must take the first step of beating this 49ers team. Make no mistake about it, this should be the 49ers year.

They are at the right stage of development across their team. They are older than the Seahawks, and have more experience in the playoffs. Look in their eyes, listen to them talk, and you will find a team that already expects to win it all. The Seahawks have an opportunity to plant a seed of doubt tonight. San Francisco is an organization that has been plagued by underachieving the last decade or so. Their fans have become accustomed to waiting for the other shoe to drop, or in some cases, the other punt. Doubt is every bit as powerful as belief. This game is about finding out which team will exit with a winning mindset.

Losing does not end anyone's season, nor does winning guarantee a Super Bowl. It simply makes each more likely, depending on which way your team exits. There are longer term implications as well.

The Seahawks are the younger team, second-youngest in the NFL in terms of starters age, and have improved much more, and at a dizzying pace, compared to the 49ers. Seattle could lose this game, and have a modest playoff run, and still be incredibly bullish about the next decade of football. There is every reason to think the Seahawks will be measurably better next year with a full off-season of development for Russell Wilson, Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wager, to mention a few. That is without even accounting for another John Schneider draft and free agency period. The Seahawks have the look of a team whose arrival is imminent. They are in the process of finding out if they are arriving ahead of schedule.

San Francisco is built to win now. Sure, they have some critical young pieces that will make them competitive for a long time, but there are some pillars on the defensive line, offensive line, secondary and at running back that are due to decline soon. If they are not good enough to beat Seattle now, they may have a hard time doing it for the next five years.

That is why this game will be more than another game. That is why the 49ers will attempt to intimidate after the whistle is blown. That is why Seattle will be measured by their will as much as their talent. The Seahawks will eventually beat the 49ers, and when they do, listen carefully. That sound you hear will be the cracking of San Francisco confidence, followed soon after by the gushing of Seattle's.

At 5:20 PM Pacific time today, two gladiators will clash. Their thunderous collisions will be drown out only by the unrelenting cascade of screams coming from the stands. It will be epic. It will be memorable. It will be football, at its best.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Seahawks and 49ers vs. Shared Opponents

Seattle and San Francisco are inarguably similar teams. They prioritize defense, running, and winning the turnover battle at all costs. Their overall statistics are eerily similar, but it is always valuable to narrow the focus to performance against shared opponents. Eleven of the fourteen 49ers and Seahawks opponents were shared. Removing the game they played against one another, as well as the Saints and Giants (vs SF), Panthers and Cowboys (vs SEA), leaves games against:

New England
Chicago
Arizona
St. Louis
Detroit
New York Jets
Miami
Buffalo
Green Bay

The result is still a remarkably similar set of statistics, but there are a few areas that stand out. This table shows the average of each team, as well as a color-coded row that indicates which team did better for that given statistic. Blue means Seattle outperformed SF, and red means vice versa.

Note: You will need to scroll horizontally to see the full table



San Francisco has scored slightly more and allowed a bit less. The yardage on offense is essentially equal. Seattle has turned the ball over significantly more than the 49ers, who are remarkably adept at protecting the ball from opponents. Defensively, the Seahawks run defense is far less effective than the 49ers, both in terms of total yards and yards per carry. Seattle is better at forcing turnovers, and their advantage in that area makes the overall turnover margin even. The 49ers have allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked far more often.

Overall, these still look like very evenly matched teams in almost all phases. Learning how teams are playing recently versus over the course of the whole year can be instructive as well. Narrowing the numbers to the last six games against a common opponent yields a different picture.



Both teams played Arizona, Chicago and Miami in this stretch of games. Seattle played two of those teams on the road, while the 49ers played two of them at home. The other opponents were St. Louis (twice) and New England for San Francisco, and Minnesota, NYJ, and Buffalo for Seattle. Both teams played three of these six games on the road.

Seattle is the hotter team, across the board. The only areas where the 49ers are besting the Seahawks are rush defense and sacks. It may be surprising to some to see the Seahawks are holding opponents to far fewer points and yards than the 49ers during this stretch. The Seahawks rushing offense, at 199.2 yards per game, is hard to fathom. It is not often that a team can average nearly 160 yards rushing per game like San Francisco, and still be left in the dust.

The 49ers are the consensus best team in the NFL right now. Seattle has performed at nearly an identical level against a nearly identical schedule. The Seahawks come into Sunday's match-up with more momentum. The real answer of which team is the best in the NFL very well be decided tomorrow night at Century Link Field. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Podcast: On-air with Softy today talking Seahawks

Softy was scraping the bottom of the barrel today, and found me sitting there. I joined his radio show at noon, and talked Hawks for a full hour. The podcast is up there for your listening pleasure.

***Download the Podcast***







Alternatively, here are instructions to subscribe manually in iTunes:

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If you'd like to copy it to your iPod/iPhone, you'll need to access the click on your device in iTunes once you connect it to the computer, and access the Podcasts tab. The rest should be pretty clear.

Part II: Interview with Scott Preston (Bay Area Sports Guy)

It is big game time, and that means spending some time hearing about this match-up from all angles. Scott Preston writes for the site Bay Area Sports Guy, and agreed to do an interview exchange. Check out his answers to my first set of questions about the 49ers running game.

If the 49ers lose in the playoffs with Colin Kaepernick, will there be more or less second-guessing than if they lost with Smith?

If the 49ers fail to reach the Super Bowl, the 49ers’ season, as well as Harbaugh’s decision, will be considered an abject failure. There is a strong, vocal contingency of 49ers’ fans who believe that Kaepernick is more gimmick than quarterback and that Harbaugh has seriously injured the team’s Super Bowl hopes by starting him. Though they have been quieted by Kaepernick’s performance against the Patriots, they lie in wait for the next 49ers’ loss, no matter the circumstance.

Do 49ers fans realize the age of their defensive lineman outside of Aldon Smith? Is that the part of the team that will determine how long their championship window remains open?

If fans didn’t know, they figured it out after Justin Smith left last Sunday’s game with an elbow injury. With Justin out, the 49ers were able to generate little pressure--with the exception of Ray McDonald’s and Ricky Jean-Francois’ sacks--and subsequently allowed the Patriots to score four touchdowns in 15 minutes. But beyond the effect on the game, Justin Smith’s absence made one thing apparent: Without Justin, Aldon Smith is not very Aldon-like. A scary thought, to be sure. Without that dominant pass rush, Tom Brady and company showed how easily a secondary can be exploited. With Justin Smith, the 49ers are favorites to reach the Super Bowl. Without him, they don’t make it past the Divisional Round.

Are the Seahawks a team 49ers fans respect? Is there an aspect of playing the Seahawks that is tougher than other opponents for the 49ers?

49ers’ fans do respect to the Seahawks, to an extent. But I think that 49ers’ fans are more likely to fear the Seahawks, though perhaps not publicly. Marshawn Lynch was the only running back to rush for over 100 yards and a touchdown against the 49ers last season. And, Seattle defense has always been formidable. Still, fans could always take solace knowing that the Seahawks were going to be plagued by bad personnel decisions and even even worse quarterback play. But this season has proven the opposite. Though much maligned at the time, the drafting of Bruce Irvin proved insightful. And worse, Russell Wilson is the opposite of bad. Though he hasn’t filled the highlight reels per say, he also hasn’t filled the stat sheet with turnovers. So, yes, fans respect the Seahawks, but they also fear them… and, well, they hate them, too.

Seahawks fans see an opponent who has beaten them three times in a row, but every game was tight in the fourth quarter. How do 49ers fans see those games?

Last season and earlier this season, most fans’ didn’t take the Seahawks seriously. While the Seahawks were a talented team, fans didn’t believe they weren’t a team as talented as the 49ers. Which is to say, fans didn’t believe the Seahawks were ever a serious threat to contend in those games. Rather, they believed the closeness of those games a byproduct of Seattle’s overachieving or luck or both. This game is different though. Some fans are quick to brush off Seattle’s most recent success because of the quality of their opponents. But most know any team that can score 131 points over a three-week period is a legitimate threat.

Frank Gore Wearing Down?

Frank Gore was a major part of the game one victory for the 49ers. His 131 yards was his season-high. Gore is an integral part of the 49ers offense, who gains tough yards up the middle, but has a history of wearing down or getting injured late in the year. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry in the first half of last season, but managed only 3.5 in the second half, and was especially ineffective in the playoffs. That trend may be happening again in 2012.

Take a look at Gore's YPC month-by-month the last two seasons:


Gore exited early in that first game against Seattle with an injury. He has not broke 100 yards since. One thought was that the emergence of Colin Kaepernick in the running game was stealing carries from Gore, but that is not the case.



The table above shows Gore is actually carrying the ball more in his last seven games, but is getting far less from those carries. The injury to Kendall Hunter could have teams focusing more on Gore, or he may be wearing down again late in the season.

Gore will bring his best to the game in Seattle, but the Seahawks defense will play him as physically as any defense he has faced all year. Every hit they get on him Sunday could reduce Gore's effectiveness in the playoffs. 

Upon Further Review: A look back at game one

The predominant narrative coming out of the Seahawks 13-6 loss to San Francisco in October was that the Seahawks offense could not catch the ball, their defense could not stop the run. It can be difficult to break down a game in real-time, and even shortly thereafter, when emotions are still interfering with objective analysis. I watched the game again this morning, and had a few takeaways to share.


> Field position was instrumental in the outcome
The Seahawks average starting point for their drives was the 15.4 yard line. Nine of their ten drives started at their own 20-yard line or worse. This forced the Seahawks coaches to be especially conservative with their play-calling when the team was in close to their own goal line. The 49ers average starting point was  their 34.3 yard line, more than twice where Seattle was starting. Only three of their ten drives started at, or inside, their own 20-yard line. 

> Seattle's running game was impressive
Much of the talk was about Frank Gore and his big game, but Marshawn Lynch went over 100 yards on only 19 carries, good for a 5.4 yard average. He was regularly getting 5-7 yards, and the offensive line was creating space for him. Robert Turbin has some nice runs as well, and averaged 4.3 YPC. 

> Frank Gore was getting yards all game
My memory was that Gore gashed the Seahawks in the second half. It is true that his biggest runs came later in the game, but he was getting 7-8 yards from the outset. 

> SF struggled mightily through the air
The 49ers appeared to shoot themselves in the foot on a few drives by going to the air when their ground game had been effective. Alex Smith was horribly inaccurate beyond 5-10 yards. This game will be much different.

> Seattle coaches were protecting Russell Wilson
It was Wilson's first game against the 49ers defense, it was on the road, and it was on a short week. All of these things added up to the coaching staff asking very little of Wilson. He did rather well with what he was given, but got very little help. It was obvious to see how much more he is allowed to do now, and how much better he executes in the passing game.

> Seahawks receivers, especially Golden Tate, had a rough game
Tate dropped a third down pass that was critical, but it was his inability to come up with a few deep passes that stuck out. There were a couple of down-field plays with 1-on-1 coverage where Tate failed to make the play. Those are situations he excels in. Sidney Rice got very few chances, and Ben Obomanu fell on a play that should have gone for 20+ yards more than it did. This group is better than it showed that night.

> The underneath passing game for SF was really just one drive
Everyone was talking about how the 49ers just ate the Seahawks up underneath. There really was just the first drive of the second half where San Francisco moved the ball with check-downs. It happened to be the key touchdown drive, but it was not the glaring issue people may remember it to be.

> K.J. Wright and Jason Jones had big games
Wright played one of his better games of the season. Jones was not getting sacks, but was wreaking havoc.


GIF: Kaepernick Punished

There has been plenty of talk about how things will be different in this rematch because Colin Kaepernick will play. Well, he played one snap in the first game, and decided to run the ball. Here is what happened:

FULL SPEED
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SLOW MO

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

PART I: Interview with Scott Preston (Bay Area Sports Guy)

It is big game time, and that means spending some time hearing about this match-up from all angles. Scott Preston writes for the site Bay Area Sports Guy, and agreed to do an interview exchange. He put up the first part of my answers to his questions today, focusing on the offense, and how Russell Wilson has grown as a player. 



Randy Moss still appears to be an afterthought in this offense. Is that because he is not the threat he once was, or is he being underutilized?

SP: I think Moss is still essentially the same threat that he was in previous seasons. The bigger issue is that he is somewhat miscast in Harbaugh’s offense. No matter the quarterback, Harbaugh’s scheme is predicated on running the ball. Even in the game against New England, which is seen as a “shoot out,” the 49ers ran the ball 40 times and threw only 25. This isn’t an anomaly. As a run-first offense, any and all non-running backs inevitably become afterthoughts. Michael Crabtree proves to be the exception because of the type of receiver he is. He runs mostly slants and hitches, two routes that are relatively low risk. And, if I know anything about Harbaugh it is that he prefers low-risk. As a whole, the team has attempted just 20 passes of 20 yards or more this season. In contrast, Randy Moss had 32 targets of 20 yards or more in 2009 as a member of the Patriots. So, yeah, Randy is afterthought, but he’s still making straight cash, Homie.

Vernon Davis is one of the most talented tight ends in the NFL. It looked like Kaepernick had rediscovered him against Chicago, only to see him go back into hiding. What's going on with Davis?

SP: Davis recently blamed his production woes on a lack of “chemistry” with Colin Kaepernick, something, he claims, that was had by him and Alex Smith. I think this is something of a red herring. A lack of chemistry didn’t prevent him from getting six receptions on eight targets against Chicago, nor from getting four receptions on five targets in Kaepernick’s first game against St. Louis. The bigger reason for Davis’ drop in production over recent weeks is that teams are deliberately taking him out of the game. When Alex Smith ran the offense, defenses schemed to take away his strength: Short, quick passes. And so, they stacked the box and tried to take away the shorter routes. In essence, defense dared Smith to throw downfield by leaving Davis in single coverage. To Smith’s credit, he often took advantage of those match ups. Since Kaepernick has taken over, defenses are taking away deep options, forcing Kaepernick to be more methodical, to be more Smith-like. Such scheming necessarily takes Davis--and Moss, to an extent--out of the picture.

Frank Gore is one of the most courageous runners in football, and sacrifices his body every season. He also tends to wear down late in the year. Are you seeing signs of that this year?

SP: I don’t believe we’ve seen signs of wear on Gore, yet. Against Miami’s strong run-defense, Gore had arguable on of his better performances of season. That said, I think the threat of Gore wearing down is very, very real. The 49ers saw as much last season when Gore averaged only 3.21 yards per carry and 1.8 yards per carry after contact (nearly one-full yard lower than his current average) over the final eight games of the season. Of course, the 49ers tried to mitigate this risk by having Gore share carries with Kendall Hunter, but plans have since changed.

Kendall Hunter was a great compliment to Gore, and could run, catch and block. How is LaMichel James in comparison to Hunter? How big of a loss was Hunter?
SP: The loss of Hunter is not easy to quantify. As a whole, the 49ers have seen a decrease in run productivity since losing Hunter. Prior to Hunter’s injury, the 49ers averaged a league-best 5.5 yards per carry. Since losing him, they’ve average 4.7. Though this isn’t a drastic change, it is telling of his effect in the run game.

James has certainly done well in Hunter’s absence. He’s proven to be more elusive than Hunter, according to Pro Football Focus’ Elusive Rating, anyway. With that said, James hasn’t produced on a consistent basis. I mean, he hasn’t even had the chance to. Hunter was a proven commodity. James is still something of an unknown, which is both exciting and terrifying.
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