Monday, September 23, 2013

The Morning After: Seahawks Handle Jags 45-17

Logo by Kevin Gamache, Hammerhead 

Three games into this 2013 season, the Seattle Seahawks continue their search for an opponent that demands peak performance to win. This is a Ferrari stuck in third gear that is still buzzing by cars left and right. Seattle can be a significantly better team than they have shown thus far, but still have an NFL-best +59 point differential. Little can be taken from a pre-season result, and this game against the Jaguars was as close to a pre-season affair as one will find. It was a decisive victory, nonetheless, that allowed Seattle to take a step forward on offense.

FACT: The last two teams to start the season with a +59 point differential or greater after three games were the 2009 Saints and 2007 Patriots. New Orleans won the Super Bowl. New England went 16-0.

Glorious Run Defense 

Jacksonville finished with 51 yards on 24 carries for an average of 2.1 yards per rush. That makes back-to-back dominant performances against the run for this Seattle defense that struggled to stop it the last half of 2012 and into the first game against Carolina this year. This was an aggressive and attacking front seven that effectively posted a "No Trespassing" sign at the line of scrimmage. Only two games in Seahawks history have seen an opponent rush the ball at least 24 times and average fewer yards per rush, and both those games were in losses where the opponent was running out the clock. A credible case could be made that this was the most dominant run defense performance in Seahawks history. 

Among the heroes were Clint McDonald and Tony McDaniel, who tormented the Jaguars interior line. McDonald has been at his best since returning to the team last week. He was always a capable run defender, but he pressured Colin Kaepernick twice in his first game and finished with 1.5 sacks yesterday. He had never had a sack in his career before then. That kind of production would make him an incredibly valuable asset if he can sustain it. 

As good as McDonald and McDaniel were, it was Brandon Mebane who jumped out most against the run. It was easily his best game of the season, and the first time in a long time that he looked like the Pro Bowl nose tackle he should be. 

Great run defense is a collective effort. Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Red Bryant and Michael Bennett all contributed. 

A Word On Michael Bennett

Some things bear repeating. This was my school girl twitter reaction after finding out the Seahawks signed Bennett back in March.

Tell me you all don't feel that way now after watching him through three games. After Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman, there may not be a more valuable player on the Seahawks defense. Finding an interior rusher like Bennett is so tough. Edge rushers like Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, Bruce Irvin, Benson Mayowa and O'Brien Schofield are far more common. Finding a player that can rush inside like Bennett and play a great defensive end as well narrows the population down to a very select few. He continues to get almost all of the early down reps at LEO. He is a terror defending the run on the edge, and may just make Clemons a nickel player because of it.

General managers across the league should be ashamed that Bennett was signed to a one year deal for $5M. It is not just his talent, but his motor. This game was over early, and plenty of back-ups were playing late. Bennett was out there busting his tail from kickoff to final whistle. They don't make many like Michael Bennett, and we are lucky to have him.

What We Learned On Defensive Rotations

Clemons was back. Avril played. As did Schofield. It was only the first game back for Clemons, but he looked nothing like the gimpy Robert Griffin III. He blasted off the corner like a rocket and came very close to making a couple of plays. The general expectation was that Clemons would assume his previous role when he returned to full health. That is possible, but I am not convinced the team is best served by that arrangement. Bennett is the best combination of rusher and run defender at the LEO spot. The guess here is that when Seattle faces heavy rushing teams like the 49ers and Texans, Bennett will get the early down reps at LEO. When there is a pass-oriented team like the Saints or Giants, Clemons probably gets those reps. 

When the team went to nickel on Sunday, Bennett slid inside to tackle, and Clemons and Avril manned the edges. Schofield was what some refer to as a "spinner" who lined up all over the place in nickel situations. That will be Irvin in two weeks. 

Dan Quinn is going to unleash the hounds of hell when that happens, and no quarterback will be safe.

FACT: Seattle leads the NFL in opponent passer rating at 49.2

Offense Good, Not Yet Great

Seattle scored 45 points. They had 275 yards and 24 points at halftime. They did it all without their starting left tackle. I want, and expect, more. The hallmark of this offense is efficiency. There were two wonderfully efficient drives against Jacksonville. Seattle marched 71 yards in seven plays in a little over three minutes to get their first score on the gorgeous play-action pass to Zach Miller. They went 79 yards in 34 seconds for their final score of the first half. Those two drives beautifully illustrated what this offense can be. The plays that got the team down the field were repeatable. Big running lanes defined the first, and chunk passing plays defined the second. Equally important to the distance of the gains through the air on that half-ending drive was the timing. Russell Wilson was throwing on time and in rhythm. He is at his best when he plays with a sense of urgency. It would be wise for him to embrace that aspect of his game and reduce the moments where he holds onto the ball looking for an open player. 

The two turnovers he gave up were a direct result of the stubborn side of Wilson. His intense desire to win on every play helps create some of his improvisational magic, but it also leads him to force things at times when the right play is a throw to the water boy on the sideline or his outlet receiver in the flat. The interception on Sunday did not lose the game, but it very well could have against a better opponent. Wilson leaves the game with a dazzling four touchdowns and a 117.5 passer rating, but he has the talent to be so much better.  

Red Zone Rounding Into Shape

The Seahawks began the season 0-3 in the red zone against the Panthers, improved to 3-6 against the 49ers, and finished 4-5 against the Jaguars. The one time they did not score a touchdown was when Marshawn Lynch was thrown for a loss on 3rd and goal from the one-foot line. No area of the offense is more impacted by penalties than red zone play, and the offense benefited greatly from the reduction to four flags on the day. 

Defensive Coordinators Will Struggle To Plan Coverage

Stop Golden Tate. No, stop Doug Baldwin. Wait, no, stop Sidney Rice. The offense continues to register more weapons than Ted Nugent. Zach Miller and Luke Willson added their names to the list Sunday. Those plays to Willson will be there all year long. Defensive will continue to focus on Lynch and the run game first, and then the starting receivers. There is no way to properly game plan for Willson and Kearse as well. Stephen Williams has not even gotten into the act yet. Kellen Davis even showed up with two catches. 

The Seahawks finished with 29 pass attempts versus 36 rushes. There will rarely be many passes to go around, but the diversity of options, and the willingness to utilize them makes the passing game so much harder to defend. 

Seeing Rice get a chance to step forward was big. Knowing the ball is going to be thrown his way makes a difference. He had been targeted only eight times in two games before seeing seven passes against the Jaguars. Seattle has still never seen what Rice is capable of. Some of that is on him, but a lot of it is on how he is used, or not used. That first touchdown catch was a perfect example of the kind of dynamic playmaker he can be. 

Tate also was the clear focal point of the passing game for the first time. He did his thing on the way to 88 yards in the air and 29 yards on the ground. It really could have been a 100 yard receiving day if Wilson's swing pass early had been forward instead of backward. 

And then there was Baldwin making the most of every opportunity he is given. That was a clear message to all those that think he is exclusively a slot receiver. Richard Sherman once told me he thought Baldwin could be like Steve Smith if used on the edge. That opportunity has never emerged for Baldwin in Seattle, but that route and that catch should open up a few eyes.

Rookies Have Their Day

Nobody will remember the performances of Michael Bowie, Alvin Bailey, Christine Michael and John Lotulelei turned in during their debuts. They were mostly nondescript, but each was encouraging in their own right. Bowie got a lot of time at right tackle, and then one series at left tackle. Bailey came in at right tackle before moving to the left side for the rest of the game. Both appeared to do well on first glance. Lotulelei had three tackles, and was not exposed in his short stint. Michael showed a few glimpses of what he can add to this offense if the team can find a way to work him in. Add in Willson's big day, and it was a promising day for the 2013 rookie class.

Taking The Show On The Road

Seattle now faces three teams that currently stand at 2-1. The game against the Texans is arguably the toughest on their schedule given the make-up of that team (strong rushing attack, strong pass rush) and the absence of Russell Okung. Win that game in Texas, and things really start to get interesting. Either the 49ers or the Rams will be 1-3 after Thursday. This season will continue to be about how well the Seahawks play, and less about their opponents. This next week will require the Seahawks best performance of the year. Steel sharpens steel. Sparks should fly in this game, and Seattle will come out the better for it.

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