Monday, December 30, 2013

The Morning After: Seahawks Control Super Bowl Path, Beat Rams, 27-9


Logo by Kevin Gamache, Hammerhead 

Sockeye salmon are all driven by the same goal when returning to spawn. They come en masse with a singular focus. Not all can make it. The obstacles in their path are varied and unrelenting. A Scooby-Doo trap is less convoluted than the path a salmon must follow. The journey changes them. Going from salt water to fresh water causes physical transformations. You would not recognize a sockeye that entered the mouth of the river when he reaches the spawning ground. Only the most cunning, determined, strong, and lucky reach their goal. Some will get their scars from propellers or seals. Others will have hooks and fishing line adorning them. The pain, the adversity, the cumulative experience of their lives do not occupy their mind. Only the goal. Seattle is not the team it was when it started the year. Injuries, experience, wins, and losses, have changed the names on some of the jerseys, and the players inside of them. They have traveled a great distance, bested nearly every obstacle, and seen their peers lessen in number. The challenges that lay in front of them are different than the ones behind them, but the journey has prepared them to finish what they started. Your Seattle Seahawks are NFC West Champions and #1 in the NFC, but their gaze remains fixed on the goal in front of them.

It seems a lifetime ago when Seattle was fighting the heat in Carolina, and fans were sweating out a game they expected to be easier. There was Stephen Williams barely missing a diving catch, D'Anthony Smith playing on the defensive line, and Mike Person playing the third tight end. There was also Doug Baldwin making a miraculous sideline catch, Jermaine Kearse hauling in a gorgeous deep pass, and Earl Thomas chasing down DeAngelo Williams for a game-saving forced fumble. Some things changed. Some endured.

The Seahawks exited the game against the Rams with lingering questions about the offense, but the defense has left little doubt the past few weeks about who is the best in the NFL. They end the season best in a variety of measures, ranging from fewest points allowed (14.4 ppg) to fewest yards allowed (273.6) to most takeaways (39). There was a time when Seattle allowed 405 yards rushing in back-to-back weeks and the talking heads latched onto the idea that they were vulnerable to the run. In the seven games since, Seattle has allowed 82.8 yards rushing per game, good for third-best in the NFL over that span. That includes a spectacular game against a Rams team that had entered Sunday as the second-best rushing team in football the last eight games.

The 13 rushing yards allowed tied a Seahawks record, and the 0.7 YPC set one

Over that seven game span where they had the third-best rush defense in the NFL, they were allowing opposing quarterbacks a microscopic 54.9 passer rating, leading the NFL in takeaways with 18, and allowing just 11.7 points per game. Mind you, this was all happening while the rest of the NFL was setting scoring records every weekend.

Some of the challenges on offense have stolen attention from a defense that was taking the step from great to elite. The post-season could cement them as a historic unit, something I will dig into more later in the week.

Bobby Wagner stands out as a player who has stepped up his game significantly over that time. He had 9+ tackles only once in his first six games. He finished with at least 9 tackles in each of his last eight games. This was the player I saw in training camp that I thought could be an All-Pro this season. His battery mate, Malcolm Smith has sparkled in relief of injured starter K.J. Wright. Smith had a tackle for loss and pick-six on the first series versus the Rams. He has at least one tackle for loss in each of the last four games, and has an interception in his last two. I've seen some suggest he should take the starting role from Bruce Irvin when/if Wright returns this year. Smith is a great weakside linebacker. That is his natural spot. If there was going to be a battle at Irvin's strongside position, it would be between Wright and Irvin. It is possible Smith could force that conversation, but Irvin is playing very good football, even if his numbers do not jump off the page.

The defensive line has been masterful. So much talk focuses on edge lineman and the LEO position, but it has been the interior lineman that have stood out. Michael Bennett finishes as the team leader in sacks with 8.5. Clinton McDonald had zero sacks in his first 37 career games, and 5.5 in his last 15. Tony McDaniel is probably the least recognized aspect of what has become a dynamic defensive tackle rotation. He was completely unblockable at the start of Sunday's game. Not only did he stuff multiple runs, but he was the pressure in Kellen Clemons face that led to the Smith interception return. Brandon Mebane has played his most complete season. He has worn down in prior years, but seems more fresh at this late date than I ever remember. Red Bryant is an end, but belongs in the conversation based on his responsibilities, and he played one his best games of the season against the Rams while nursing a sore knee.

And we haven't even talked about the secondary yet. Legion, indeed. Byron Maxwell has four interceptions in five starts, good for 11th in the NFL.

Richard Sherman finishes the year with two more interceptions than any other player despite being thrown at 3rd-fewest in the NFL
Earl Thomas set his career-high for tackles in a season, tied his career high for interceptions and was nearly perfect from the jump. Kam Chancellor had more legal body denting hits versus the Rams than any player in recent memory. Oh, and they are all 25 or younger and under contract for next season.

This was a scintillating performance by a defense that has enjoyed a season of them. Their next proving ground is the harsh light of post-season football. They may be good enough to carry even a troubled offense all the way to New York.

Russell Wilson and that offense took a small step forward against the Rams. The 111 yards rushing for the Seahawks may seem paltry, but the Rams have been the best rushing defense in the NFL over the last seven weeks. Only one other team has topped 100 yards on the ground against them since week nine. Seattle earned those yards with some great blocking by their line, but what stood out was the re-emergence of fullback Michael Robinson. His work with Marshawn Lynch was some of the best on the day. When snap counts are released, expect Robinson's numbers to have jumped back up to 30%+ of the offensive snaps. That number could grow even greater with the injury to Luke Willson, which will reduce the use of two-tight end formations.

Darrell Bevell also recommitted himself to getting the ball in Golden Tate's hands. It worked. Short passes led to longer gains, and the connection between Wilson and Tate was rediscovered. Sometimes the pump has to be primed. Kudos to Bevell for force-feeding this without taking unnecessary risks.

Wilson played a better game, but was under more real (as opposed to self-inflicted) pressure versus the Rams. He rarely got a chance to set his feet at the top of his drop, and took some big hits. Russell Okung looked like his toe was giving him fits. That will be something to watch over the next two weeks. The team can only hope that rest will do him good. Alvin Bailey subbed for him late and did his normal good work.

Doug Baldwin was a forgotten man with only one target that was thrown well over his head on the first series. Take it as an aberration. Jermaine Kearse watched as Bryan Walters took his snaps, and Ricardo Lockette had what is becoming his customary one catch. Lockette deserves credit for embracing a special teams role. Rumor was that the last time he was in Seattle, he showed little interest in special teams. A trip on the edge of the NFL seems to have helped him see that helping the team in any way is better than helping it no way.

The Seahawks now enjoy a two-week break from the pounding of a game. Players can always use the rest for their bodies, and coaches like Pete Carroll and Tom Cable can use the time to self-scout and examine opponent tendencies. Football is a game of moves and counter-moves. Opponents made changes to how they were playing the Seahawks in recent weeks, and Seattle found some success with their counter-moves this week. There is plenty more to come. The Seahawks have faced four of the NFL's best defenses in the last five weeks. Those challenges have armored them for the challenges in front of them. The best defense, though, resides in the Great Northwest. While Seattle remains focused on the goal ahead, the rest of the NFC must swim through our neck of the woods. Danger lurks around every bend. The odds do not favor their survival. 

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