Sunday, September 1, 2013

Hawk Blogger 2013 Season Preview Part IV: Breaking Down The Offense

HAWK BLOGGER 2013 SEASON PREVIEW PART IV: Breaking Down The Offense

Pete Carroll is a renaissance man. His football philosophy was developed under the likes of Bill Walsh and Bud Grant during the 80s and 90s. Walsh was known for explosive offenses and famous quarterbacks, but the heart of what Carroll learned from Walsh was the need to make the game easier for the quarterback.  Control the ball with reliable passes, establish an effective running attack, and build a defense that will create turnovers and short fields for the offense to score. It was an effective formula back then. Nine of the ten Super Bowl winners during the 90s had a rushing rank among the top 10 in the NFL. Green Bay was the lone holdout in 1996, and their rushing offense was ranked #11. Things changed, though, at the turn of the millennium. Only 5 of the last 13 Super Bowl winners, dating back to the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, have featured a Top 10 rushing offense. Six of those thirteen teams had rushing ranks in the bottom half of the league. The NY Giants won in 2011 with the worst rushing offense in the entire NFL. 

Carroll and the Seahawks may be leading a charge back to smash mouth. Less than half the teams that finished in the Top 10 in rushing from 2009-2011 made the playoffs. On the flip side, 7 of the Top 10 passing offenses made the playoffs in 2011. Not last year. Six of the Top 10 rushing offenses made the playoffs--including Seattle--and only five of the Top 10 passing offenses made it. One year does not make a trend, but teams like Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington are not changing their approach any time soon. 

Nobody will ever accuse Carroll of being a lemming. He believes in the approach, and has finally started to have a stable of players and coaches that can help him bring it to life. NFL historians may very well look back at this as the start of a new era of football, a return to football fundamentals. Carroll is in position to pass the torch onto a new generation of coaches, but first he must win, and win big.

Offense – Starters

Russell Wilson+ – QB
Marshawn Lynch++ – RB
Derrick Coleman*  – FB
Golden Tate – WR
Sidney Rice – WR
Doug Baldwin  WR
Zach Miller  TE
Luke Willson*  TE
Breno Giacomini – RT
J.R. Sweezy – RG
Max Unger++ – C
Paul McQuistan – LG
Russell Okung+ – LT
* New Starter or New Position
+ Pro Bowl
++ All-Pro


Offense – Running Game

Russell Wilson deserves all the attention he gets. Many do not understand how instrumental Tom Cable and the running game are to Wilson's success. Seattle finished third in the NFL in rushing last season. They averaged an astounding 190.5 yards per game on the ground in the second half of the season. Wilson was a big part of that, both as a runner and as an effective play-action passer. Opponents struggle to anticipate pass or run from Seattle. They better be ready for the run because Cable, Lynch and crew are coming. They are always coming. Seattle will undoubtedly face more eight man fronts this season, and they faced a fair share last year. Results in the run game will have a greater correlation to success in the win column than the passing game. Running effectively means an offense has all options open to it. It means that the Seahawks defense is resting on the sideline. It means the opposing defense is being forced to submit. Much rides on how the Seahawks come out of the gate on the ground.


Offense – Passing Game

Darrell Bevell became a head coaching candidate this past year, so clearly something went right in 2012. As the play-caller and passing coordinator (Cable owns the run game and handles much of the game plan), Bevell had his finest season. He weathered a challenging first half of the year with a young quarterback, and helped his offense ascend to the best in football by the end of the year. The team found a rhythm in the passing game that had been missing for years. Bevell tailored the calls to Wilson's strengths, and Wilson's strengths happened to fit perfectly into the offensive philosophy of the team. Seattle will continue to feature a lot of play-action passing, sprint outs, and deep throws. The passing game is the roundhouse after a series of jabs and body blows. 

Offense – Quarterback

Remember when Charlie Whitehurst reported to the team as the presumptive starter, and had a quarterback competition with Tarvaris Jackson to determine the starter? Or how about when fans were chanting for "Char-lie! Char-lie!" to come in and play instead of Matt Hasselbeck? The quarterback position has come a long way in a short time. Carroll and Schneider had built a Tesla Roadster, capable of unearthly acceleration and top-end speed, but they needed a driver. Wilson climbed in and it was if the system was built only for him. It was Flight of the Navigator, only thirty years later and on a football field. Wilson excels at play-action passing, deep throws, throwing on the move, and limiting turnovers. Carroll could not have built a better player for his system if he had access to genetic coding. Wilson had such a marvelous statistical rookie year that it will be tough to match it from a pure efficiency standpoint. Getting to a 100.0 passer rating is something many great quarterbacks never do, and those that do, may not do it very often. Peyton Manning has only done it four times in his fourteen seasons. Matt Ryan has never done it. Brett Favre did it once. So forgive Wilson if he falls a bit short of that mark this year, but do not be surprised if he accelerates and challenges Aaron Rodgers for passer efficiency supremacy. The certain thing is he will be a nightmare for opponents.

Offense – Offensive Line

One of the less celebrated personnel moves of the Schneider era was his prescient signing of Max Unger to an extension last Summer before he became a first-team All-Pro. Unger now anchors and leads one of the better lines in the NFL. The continuity is there, with the same five players starting this year as started game one last year. The difference will come largely at the guard spots where J.R. Sweezy has had a full year to grow into his position and James Carpenter is waiting in the wings as a possible replacement for Paul McQuistan. The other difference is the quality of depth. Rookies Michael Bowie and Alvin Bailey have starting potential, and Mike Person will see a fair amount of time at tight end for blocking. Pass blocking is an area to watch, as Sweezy and McQuistan struggle there at times and will face two talented defensive lines right out of the gate this year. Still, the Seahawks were in the top half of the league (12th) in sacks allowed, in part, due to the magical escape artist that is Russell Wilson.


Offense – Backfield

Gone are the days when Tim Ruskell forced fans to accept expensive free agent signings of Julius Jones and TJ Duckett. The only running back Ruskell drafted was Justin Forsett in the seventh round. Shake yourself from that bad dream and feast your eyes on the likes of Marshawn Lynch, Christine Michael, Robert Turbin, Spencer Ware and Derrick Coleman. Young, aggressive, and multi-faceted, this group is arguably the most talented the Seahawks have ever broken camp with. Lynch is generally regarded as the second-best back in the NFL behind MVP Adrian Peterson, and Michael may develop into a more productive player one day. Michael gives the team a home-run hitter they have not had since Ahman Green was prematurely jettisoned to Green Bay (says the guy who owns an Ahman Green Seahawks jersey). He will have trouble finding the active roster, however, until he establishes himself on special teams and learns to pass block better. Turbin is solid player, and perfect back-up. He is a willing blocker in the passing game, will take the yards given in the running game and is a plus receiver out of the back-field. Coleman replaces the popular Michael Robinson at fullback. The fullback will play a far less central role in the offense this year. Robinson was on the field for 32% of the snaps in 2012. Look for Coleman to see less than 25% of the snaps this year, and possibly closer to the high teens.


Offense – Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Ben Obomanu, Charly Martin and Braylon Edwards made the roster in 2012. None of those players merited a training camp invite this season from Seattle. Such is the state of the Seahawks receiving corps. Sidney Rice did not practice or play during camp, but looks healthy. The few snaps I did see from him have me bullish on what is to come. He looks stronger, and is running without any sign of injury or pain. This may have been a case where the Seahawks are prepping Rice for four games to be played in the post-season instead of the four he could have played in the pre-season. This figures to be a long year for the Seahawks. Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate look primed for terrific seasons. Both have been on their games and are playing with a supreme confidence that generally translates to exceptional results. The silver lining of the Percy Harvin injury could be the chance for Wilson and Baldwin to develop a rapport. Utilizing a player like Baldwin that is always in the right place at the right time is a good barometer for growth in Wilson's game. Every play cannot be improvised, especially in the playoffs. Tate should lead the team in touchdown receptions, and will continue to be Wilson's safety valve when a play breaks down. Stephen Williams could take this offense by storm as the lone newcomer to the group. He can do things no other receiver on this team is capable of, and Carroll knows how to use unique weapons. The best story of the group has to be Jermaine Kearse. A local kid that was a long shot to make the team last year, stuck around on the practice squad, and came back a different player this season. He can play all the receiver positions, and looks ready to contribute right away. Kearse is the rare player to exceed his college game tape in the NFL. He is already a better NFL player than most thought his top-end potential would be coming out of school. Watching what comes next will be captivating.

The front office shockingly only kept two tight ends. Reasonable expectations would have them adding another in the next day or two, but the possibility remains that they will make due with Mike Person as a blocking tight end and stash Cooper Helfet on the practice squad for emergency purposes. Zach Miller and Luke Willson combine to make up the best tight end duo the team has ever had. Both can block or catch. Expect a heavy use of two tight ends and a single back maximize the run/pass potential on any given play. Willson could be a break-out player as the guy opposing defenses simply cannot account for after Lynch, Rice, Tate, Baldwin, Miller and a scrambling Wilson are all prioritized higher. We saw Anthony McCoy rumble for a number of big plays last year in a similar situation, and Willson is a far more explosive receiver than McCoy will ever be.


Offense – Overall 2013 Outlook

Improving on 42.5 points per game is tough to do. That is where this offense ended the last quarter of 2012. The defense, which will be covered in the next segment of the Hawk Blogger Season Preview, gets a lot of deserved discussion as potentially the best in the NFL. Be careful about underestimating this offense. Nobody is predicting that this team will lead the league in scoring, but they very well could. There is no team with a more versatile attack than what the Seahawks will roll out. That does not even include the possibility of Harvin returning late in the year. This can be the best offense in all of football. They have already achieved that bar for a long stretch of last season. In a year when Tom Brady's Patriots may not be able to match their past pass-oriented prowess, look to the West to see the rise of football's new juggernaut.

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