Monday, December 23, 2013

The Morning After: Seahawks Coaches, Offense Beaten Badly By Cardinals, 17-10


Logo by Kevin Gamache, Hammerhead 

Somebody asked me last night on Twitter if I thought the Jets would take Russell Wilson in a trade for Geno Smith. It was that kind of game. Seahawks coaches came out with an offensive game plan that bordered on arrogant, stubbornly stuck with it, and mismanaged a game-changing situation before half. Seahawks offensive players collectively put together their worst home performance since 2010. A defense that heroically held the Cardinals time and again throughout the game, once again cracked with the game on the line. Even the flawless special teams refused to be left out of the error extravaganza with a fumble, a missed field goal, and very nearly a missed extra point. This was a complete team loss to an inferior team at home. A team that appears to need adversity and disrespect to fuel them will have no shortage of either this week.

Seattle entered this game with a clear plan to spread out the Cardinals defense and attack them down-field. With four minutes to go in the first quarter, the Seahawks had not completed a pass. The plan had the Seahawks offense off schedule all game. Out of the 13 drives for the Seahawks on the day, only four started with a gain of greater than three yards. The second half became laughably predictable with a deep pass on first down that was not completed, followed by an obligatory run that the Cardinals knew was coming on second down, and then a 3rd and long. How this became the plan after gaining 51 yards on the ground in the first quarter is befuddling.

Seahawks receivers had their worst game of the season at first glance. It is always difficult to judge where exactly pass plays are breaking down in real-time. It can be protection, poor reads or throws by the quarterback, or lack of separation and catching by the receivers. There have been plenty of games where the Seahawks receivers have been incorrectly blamed for passing problems. Not in this game. Arizona's secondary, even missing two key players, made the receivers look like the liability the national pundits believe they are. Golden Tate did not see a pass until the second half, and had a nearly disastrous fumble when he did finally catch one. Doug Baldwin had only one catch in six targets. Jermaine Kearse matched his couple of nice plays with at least a couple of poor ones, including inexcusably not running full speed on a go route early.

They had plenty of company. Russell Wilson had his worst game of the season. He was not under constant pressure, but repeatedly bailed out and created pressure situations. Some of that was because his first read was not there, but he was feeling pressure that was not there most of the day. When he did throw, he was inaccurate. That makes three weeks in a row that his accuracy has been well below his standards. There is justifiable focus on the running game woes, but Wilson's recent struggles making throws he has made his whole career is equally problematic. His decision making was not much better. He was fortunate to get away with a couple desperation throws into a crowd that could have easily been intercepted. Wilson has built his reputation on accurate throws, heady play, and poise. He needs to rediscover those traits this week.

The offensive line started off wonderfully. Michael Bowie was doing a nice job in his first start at right guard. The run blocking was decent and the pass blocking was above average. Most of the Cardinals sacks came late in the game. The line mostly withstood the pressure packages the Cardinals sent. The passing game simply could not take advantage of it. Things started breaking down later. Calais Campbell dominated late in the game. James Carpenter and Paul McQuistan are not cutting it at left guard. The change won't happen this year, but there is a very real chance that next year's starting guards will be Bowie and Alvin Bailey, depending on what the team decides to do with Breno Giacomini at right tackle. My eyes tell me the team would be better for that change right now, but making that kind of switch this late in the season seems highly unlikely.

That there is a discussion to be had about the offensive line after fifteen games of the season speaks volumes. This was a group that missed a combined one start last season. Every starter outside of Paul McQuistan has missed at least one start this season. It is the single-biggest risk to the team's Super Bowl aspirations. The bye week that had been a foregone conclusion, could be the last, best, hope for Tom Cable to get his guys back on track. Seattle won 12 games with a line playing well below expectations. They can win more, but the probabilities increase a lot if this group can come together for the playoffs.

Game management also becomes a bigger factor in the playoffs and close games. Pete Carroll has made highly questionable clock management decisions in both division-title-clinching games. Seattle had the ball at the three-yard line with two timeouts before halftime. They ran once. Timeout. They ran a second time. Timeout. Calling that last timeout telegraphed the 3rd down play call to the Cardinals. Seattle could have conceivably run the ball and then hustled their field goal team out there in time, but the chances were far less that they would risk that, and the Cardinals knew it. Had Carroll had his team ready with a 3rd down play call after they called the first timeout, the Cardinals would not have had time to make substitutions or adjust their defense and would have had a true 50/50 chance of run or pass to defend, knowing Seattle could have just called a timeout if they didn't make it. This is not debatable. It was flat wrong. Carroll is such a progressive coach, who is open to all methods to make his team better, it is time he invests in a quality control coach that specializes in data analysis for what the right and wrong times are to use timeouts at the end of halves. There is a formula to be found, similar to the one that coaches use to determine when to go for two points, that will at least point out the black and white situations. This is a problem that can be almost completely corrected. On this Tell The Truth Monday, Carroll needs to start with himself.

The defense. So tough to point a finger in the direction of the one group on the team that showed up with an edge and that kept this game from being a Cardinals laugher. They turned the Cardinals back time and again. They overcame an impotent offense. They tried to prop that offense up with four turnovers that resulted in a pitiful three points. They took points off the board with interceptions in the end zone. Richard Sherman had two more interceptions, and needs just two more to tie Everson Walls for most interceptions in the first three years of a players career since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970. Michael Bennett, god love him, was dancing and growling at the Cardinals offense when many defenders would begrudge the fact that they were back on the field after three uninspiring offensive plays. They were collectively in position to be feted for one of the all-time great defensive performances in Seahawks history. That was, until the final drive.

There were a few ways I could imagine the Cardinals beating the Seahawks prior to the game. None of them involved Carson Palmer scrambling for his life on a 3rd down and making a heady throw on the run just before he hit the sideline. He might as well have said, "The separation is in the preparation," in his post-game presser to complete the mimicry. Another crucial 3rd down conversion came on a very late holding flag against Malcolm Smith. And a last dagger 3rd down conversion came on a deep ball that Byron Maxwell could not make a play on despite having better position than the receiver. Before that possession, the Cardinals had been 3-16 on 3rd downs.

Referees do not decide football games, but these refs had a clear impact on the outcome. Six of the Cardinals 16 first downs came from penalties. With penalty-gifted first downs taken out of the mix, the Cardinals advantage there would have shrunk to 10-9 over Seattle. The two late replays went the wrong way. There were replays earlier that were only necessary because the officials blatantly missed plays that were not difficult to see from my seat in the stands. The pass interference on Sherman late in the game came on the 17-yard line near the hash breaking inward when the ball landed in the endzone heading for the corner. As great as Larry Fitzgerald is, that ball is not catchable. No excuses here. Just an observation that the refs had a very poor game.

Someone needs to find out what is keeping Christine Michael off the field. He is a player that could be impacting the game if he had been worked into the offense earlier in the season. Everything that Cardinals running back Andre Ellington brings to the game are things Michael could bring to the Seahawks. Carroll has made a career of putting players in position to succeed by playing to their strengths. Even if Michael is a liability in pass protection, he provides things that nobody else on this team does. This coaching staff should have found a way to use him by now, and I remain convinced a valuable offensive weapon is sitting on the shelf while the offense struggles.

And so we enter the final week of the 2013 season with a lot to play for. For the first time in three weeks, Seattle will play a game with their backs against the wall. One could arguably go back even farther. The first two opportunities the Seahawks had to clinch the division and home-field came in games when the opponent had more to play for than Seattle. That will not be the case this week. All the talent and power that made Seattle the best team in football for most of the season is still there, waiting to resurface. It will be no easy task against a Rams defense that held the Seahawks down even more than this Cardinals defense did yesterday. Seattle abhors easy. The playoffs begin a week early. 

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