Monday, September 30, 2013

When 476 Yards Is a Great Performance On Defense

Everybody knows the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. They are widely considered to be one of the best defenses in the history of football. They were so good, Trent Dilfer could play quarterback and they could win a Super Bowl. The Seahawks defense has started to be discussed as one of the great units in the NFL, and potentially even historic. The immediate reaction to seeing they surrendered 20 first half points and 476 yards of offense to the Texans is that they are not as good as advertised. There is a case to be made that their performance should raise expectations, not lower them.

Even that Ravens defense had days like what the Seahawks saw on Sunday. The second game of the 2000 season saw the Mark Brunell-led Jacksonville Jaguars pile up 421 yards and a 17-0 lead. The final game of that season had Vinny Testeverde throw for 481 yards while his team piled up 524 yard total and take a 14-0 lead. The Ravens won both of those games. A defense that allowed just over 10 ppg, gave up 20 or more three times that year. Baltimore won all three.

The Seahawks defense had moments of trial just a year ago. Five times, the team had a slim fourth quarter lead on the road. Four times, they could not pass the test. A team that prides itself on finishing was not living the words. The point could not have been driven home any more painfully than seeing their season end in such a manner.

Twice so far in 2013, the Seahawks have needed to hold their opponent down at the end to win the game. Twice they have succeeded. Sundays win over Houston could not have been a more emphatic statement that this defense is no longer a late-game liability. They went beyond proving that point and notched their first true defensive win.

Of course there are three parts of each team, but their contribution to victory varies from week-to-week. Take a look at what Seattle's defense did against the Texans:


  • Red zone interception (3-7 points)
  • Forced fumble and recovery deep in Texans territory (3 points)
  • Interception return for touchdown to tie game (7 points)
  • Held Texans to 53 yards on 16 carries for a 3.3 YPC in the second half and OT
  • Held Texans to 99 yards passing, including all four of their sacks for -30 yards in the second half and OT
  • Held Texans to 152 total yards for a 3.6 yards per play average in the second half and OT
  • Kept Houston from scoring on eight straight possessions after halftime
  • Got the crowd to boo their own team while they were still ahead
Pete Carroll loves to talk about how important the finish is, and to put less emphasis on the start. Never has a better case been made to illustrate his point. The 324 yards in the first half and the ugly 476 yards of total offense said so much less about this defense than what they did after the half. If getting torched by an opponent on the road results in 20 points, Seahawks fans should rejoice. Only seven teams allowed an average of less than 20 ppg in 2012. 

Seattle may need to win with their defense again. The offense is pock-marked with injuries, and has yet to find a stride. The offense, though, has proved that it will come back if given the opportunity. It was the defense that needed to prove their mettle. Not prove it to fans or pundits. Not even prove it to coaches or their teammates on offense. They needed to prove it to themselves. The difference between confidence and hope is proof. Seahawks defenders no longer need to hope they can hold down a good offense in the clutch. They have done it. 

It was also a good reminder for defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. 'Tis better to lose with a sword in your hand than a shield. He traded zone coverage and four-man pressure in the first half for man coverage and more blitzes in the second. He has hunters now. They are only useful when set upon their prey. 

This week may well see the first time that Bruce Irvin, Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, and Michael Bennett are all able to take the field. Jordan Hill should be back soon and provide some rotational value. Clinton McDonald is a man possessed. The best defense in the NFL is getting closer to full strength, and now they know how to close out a game in hostile environments. You can take your 476 yards of offense and 20 first-half points. We will take the best defense in football.

The Morning After: Seattle's Historic Win Over Houston 23-20

Logo by Kevin Gamache, Hammerhead 

Players play the game. Coaches coach it. Owners own the team. Games like the one we witnessed against the Houston Texans on Sunday belong to the fans. Down 20-3, against a quality opponent playing inspired football in front of their home crowd, with barely a handful of positive plays to cling to, the Seahawks started their long climb back. By the time Steven Hauschka's 45-yard kick finished the trek, strangers and best friends, family and feuders, old and young were brought together under the Seahawks flag that now flew higher than it ever has so early in a season. New fans celebrated the excitement and the fun. Old fans savored it like the perfect bite of steak. Dedicating yourself for 10, 20, 30 years to a franchise deemed largely irrelevant can feel like being a resident in Pleasantville. A game like this one explosively adds color to an almost completely grey world. People become fans for life because of games like this. People become friends because of games like this. In a country where so much divides us, Seahawks fans from every race, creed, age and political affiliation can come together in one common belief: that was fucking awesome.

It certainly did not start that way. After some encouraging moments early on that resulted in a 3-0 lead, happiness left the building for a few hours. Seattle could not stop the Texans on defense and looked incapable of forward movement on offense. It was not until the Texans first possession of the second half that the comeback began. The Seahawks had gone three plays for -2 yards to open the second half, and Owen Daniels had made yet another play behind our linebackers and in front of our safeties for 21-yards. Arian Foster found daylight on a 3rd and 1 run with only Earl Thomas to beat in the open field. Thomas, who ProFootballFocus.com had heavily criticized for missed tackles last year, brought down Foster for a 10-yard gain instead of what might have become a touchdown. Tony McDaniel registered his first sack as a Seahawk on the next play. Then Clinton McDonald beasted through the Texans line to bring down Foster for a three-yard loss on the play after that. Houston would have to punt for the first time in four possessions.

Malcolm Smith knocked the ball free on the next Texans possession, leading to a Seahawks field goal on a drive that totaled zero yards. Now, though, it was the offenses turn to push the agenda in the most unlikely of situations. A team that basically gave J.J. Watt and Co squatters rights in their back-field all day was about to go 98 yards for a touchdown. Fittingly, it started with Golden Tate fielding a punt at the 3-yard line, running out of bounds, and Kellen Davis getting flagged for holding. Make that a 98.5 yard drive.

Russell Wilson then fumbled the snap. Super. Derrick Coleman collected a short pass for four yards to setup a pivotal third down with seven yards to go. Seattle had been 1-7 on 3rd downs up to that point. Seattle had yielded more sacks and tackles for loss than third down conversions, and it wasn't close. NFL history books will tell you the Seahawks had no business getting a first down in that situation. Wilson and Doug Baldwin rewrote the book. On a day when the Texans had arranged multiple group meetings on Wilson's chest, he displayed the poise that defines him while lofting a terrific pass that was only eclipsed by the catch made by Baldwin. Ballerinas are lining up in Renton right now to get lessons in footwork from Baldwin. He is your Blue Swan.

Understand how much mental discipline it takes to go hours without a chance to make a play, and then make a play like that on your first real opportunity. Wilson-to-Baldwin is becoming must-see football. It is about time that Darrell Bevell finds out what the offense looks like with Baldwin featured instead of forgotten. He has earned that.

First down. New life. Bad news for Houston. Wilson remembered his feet on the next play and scrambled for 25 yards. Marshawn Lynch, who played a fantastic game despite a fumble, went for 21 more yards on the next two carries. But it was still not going to be easy. A gorgeous throw to Jermaine Kearse for a touchdown was nullified for offensive pass interference. Move back ten yards. Try the same play to Tate. No flag was thrown despite a blatant hold by the Texans cornerback. Wilson literally runs in circles on the next play before scrambling for 13 yards. Back to Baldwin for another 3rd and 7 conversion. A false start and sack moved the team back 14 yards. It was as if the Seahawks were wrestling with their franchise history, "You will succumb to mediocrity!"

Wilson and the Seahawks ignored the obstacles. He ran for another 11 yards, and then hit Tate for 10, before miraculously scrambling for a first down on fourth down and three. By the time Lynch waltzed into the end zone, the Seahawks had gone 122 yards for a touchdown. Make that 122.5 yards. If 15 yards in penalties, a nine yard sack, a full football field and the league's second-best defense is not enough to stop this team, what is? There may be no answer to that question, Seahawks fans.

Even when Wilson was intercepted on the next drive with only 5:13 to go in the game, and still down by a touchdown, it felt like victory was in the air. Houston fans were already starting to boo their team. Their quarterback and kicker were having their own contest to see who could look less confident in their ability to win a game. They were ahead by a touchdown, and even they knew the stench of humiliation was clinging to them. Their coach was not immune to it.

Foster was ready to shoulder the burden on what should have been the Texans final drive. He had 16 yards on his first three carries. Then, after being stopped for only a yard gain on the next carry, Gary Kubiak chose to pass. Oh Gary. Not wise. Fast forward a couple of years, and we might be able to point to that play call as the reason Kubiak is no longer the head coach in Houston. Their quarterback may never recover from what happened next.

Richard Sherman happened next. There may never have been a better embodiment of manifest destiny than Richard Sherman. He believes the land he sees is his, and that the ball is meant for him. Owen Daniels learned that while the turf had a Texans logo painted on it, the space he occupied belonged to a Seahawk. Sherman looked like a New Yorker boarding the subway as he bodied his way past Daniels and ripped the ball from his hands. His sprint to the end zone was one of those 10-second moments that will last a lifetime. Elation. Muscles were pulled celebrating in the HawkBlogger household. White men who can't jump, sprang from their recliners and found previously undiscovered heights. Spouses, who suffer through the affects of painful losses, rejoiced at knowing their household would be happy for a few days. Fans in San Francisco went back to the realities of their own flawed team after desperately hoping Seattle was not as good as they seemed. This was a truly defining moment for a franchise on the rise.

The message was clear. You can have your best practices of the year. You can come in with a great game plan. You can strut, and pose and celebrate. This Seahawks team will come for you. They will find you. They will bloody your proudest warrior. And they will rip the game from your hands. Your field is theirs now. Your best is not good enough. Their worst is better than your best. And their best is still yet to come.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Unexpected Reasons For Optimism In Houston

Seattle will probably lose in Houston. That is what I thought before the season. That is what I thought after seeing the increasing pile of injuries on the Seahawks offensive line. The Texans have a strong running game and a dominating defensive line. Their strengths seemed to line up too well with the Seahawks weaknesses to expect a victory away from Seattle. Or, so I thought before watching every snap Houston has played so far this season. Every play made it more difficult to be intimidated by what the Texans do. Their strengths were not quite as strong as I thought, and their weaknesses are more pronounced. Seattle can win this game tomorrow. Seattle should win this game tomorrow.

Texans Offense Is Predictable And Tame

A balanced offense is an under-appreciated formula for scoring points in the NFL. Seattle and San Francisco have been credited with bringing back the beauty of a run-first style, but Houston deserves at least as much credit. They come with a lethal running back pairing of Arian Foster and Ben Tate, and a well-coached offensive line. Matt Schaub is happy to work off the run with play-action passes and methodically work down the field. The problem for Houston is they are facing a defense that is uniquely suited to spoil their approach.

The Seahawks are almost certainly going to sit Kam Chancellor down in the box to discourage the run, and dare Schaub to go over them. Schaub has not shown a propensity for doing that so far. He is second-to-last in the NFL in percentage of pass attempts that travel more than 20 yards in the air (6.3%), according to ProFootballFocus.com. Russell Wilson, by comparison throws over 20 yards 13.7% of the time, more than double. One of the things you need to throw over the top is time. The Texans line has been struggling terribly to provide that time, and looks like it will be without Duane Brown at left tackle. Seattle brings arguably the best pass rush Houston has faced.

Chancellor stepping up to limit the run, combined with corners equipped to disrupt timing, and a defensive line that can bring pressure with four players leaves Houston with very little to fall back on. 

Andre Johnson has not looked like himself so far this year. The only game where he averaged over 10 yards per catch was against San Diego in the opener. DeAndre Hopkins already looks like a better receiver. He has made some special catches against tight coverage. Look for Earl Thomas to help Brandon Browner over the top with Hopkins and let Richard Sherman handle Johnson on his own. Do that, and Houston would have to find a big play from a player that has not produced one this year. As good as Owen Daniels is, he is not a threat to stretch the field.

Seattle does not need to have a great game on defense. Their typical performance should be enough to wreak havoc with Houston. An above-average effort could leave the Texans offense struggling to score than the Seahawks defense.

Texans Secondary Not Great

Daniel Manning is the only player in the Texans secondary that ProFootballFocus.com has given a positive ranking in pass coverage to so far. It shows. That is how a defense that is top five in opponent rushing yards per attempt and second in opponent passing yards per game is yielding an opponent passer rating of 94.2. The quality front seven is masking a problem in the secondary. Houston has allowed six passing touchdowns against only one interception, and that one interception came from Brian Cushing, not from the secondary. 

If Tennessee had not shot themselves in the foot with numerous untimely penalties, Jake Locker might have thrown for 270+ yards. None of the quarterbacks Houston has faced has been as elusive as Wilson. If he eludes defenders in his typical fashion, there could be some very big plays available to him. 

The biggest advantage on the field for Seattle might be Doug Baldwin. Eddie Royal is the best slot receiver the Texans have faced so far, and he had two touchdowns in the opening game. Houston has had trouble covering crossing and drag routes. Baldwin should have room to run away from some defenders.

Seattle Running Game Poses Challenges

It is reasonable to wonder why a part of the offense that depends so heavily on the offensive line would be an advantage in a game where Seattle is missing three of their five starters and are going against one of the best run defenses in football. This one is just a hunch. But it is an educated hunch. 

The Texans have not faced a team that runs any read option since playing Cam Newton in 2011. They are well coached on defense, but playing the zone read game takes repetition, and the Texans could well be rusty. Seattle has run very few snaps of that offense so far in 2013, so Houston has even less reason to be focused on stopping it. It also is an offense that reduces the pressure on tackles to seal the edge. Michael Bowie and Paul McQuistan can focus on crashing inside and leaving J.J. Watt or whoever is coming on the other side unblocked. The end decides whether to go after the quarterback or running back, but nobody has to block them. 

All of these factors make it likely the Seahawks will at least test the Texans with read option runs, and possibly feature it more than they normally would.

Even if Seattle just goes with their normal running attack, the Texans have not faced a back remotely like Marshawn Lynch so far this year. Ryan Mathews, Chris Johnson and Bernard Pierce have done little to prepare Houston for Lynch. 


Houston Must Raise Their Game To Win, Not Seattle

The Texans have not played well enough to beat Seattle yet. Their pass protection needs to improve. Their play-calling must be less predictable, and their defense has to go from good to dominant. If Watt and the front seven are running free all game, and can hold the Seahawks offense to around 200 yards, then of course Seattle will have trouble winning. Anything less than a dominant defensive performance for the Texans probably ends in a Seahawk victory. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

PODCAST: Talking Seahawks and Texans With Softy

Our weekly conversation with Softy is ready for an afternoon listen. We talked about the injury situation on the offensive line, the outlook for Michael Bowie and Lemuel Juanpierre, and the things we are most confident about heading into this tough match-up with the Texans.

***DOWNLOAD THE PODCAST***

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

An Early Look At The Odds Of A Seahawks Victory vs. Texans

This one is going to be tough, folks. You may have heard that Matt Schaub is overrated, and has thrown almost as many touchdowns to opponents (2) in his last two games than to his teammates (3). It would be easy to see the 30-9 stomping the Texans took in Baltimore as evidence of their weakness on defense. While it is true that Houston has not played their best football so far, underestimating this team would foolish. The shape of a Seahawks victory is a visible, but it will take Seattle's best game of the season to come away with it.

Houston can make a legitimate case for having three players--Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, J.J. Watt--that are the best, or second-best, at their position in the NFL. They are well coached, and rival Seattle for the most balanced offense in football. Even with the blowout loss last week, they are 2-1, with a more-impressive-by-the-week road win in San Diego. Yet, they are not favored to win this game at home. If you click here for NFL lines, you will see the odds favor Seattle by three points. Home teams typically get three points, so this works out to Vegas seeing the Seahawks as six points better than Houston on a neutral field. If I was setting the odds, Houston would be even or slightly favored.

The Texans pose two major challenges for the Seahawks. First, they are fifth in the NFL at 4.9 yards per carry. As good as the Seahawks defense has been this year, they are 17th in opponent yards per carry at 4.1. The Texans are 15-5 when averaging over 4.5 yards per carry and rushing for more than 110 yards since 2010, but just 4-13 when falling short of both marks. Five opponents reached those levels against the Seahawks defense last season, including Atlanta in the playoffs. Carolina did it in the season opener this year. Five of those six games were on the road. The good news for Seattle is their run defense has been markedly improved the last two weeks, and Schaub is not a threat to run, which gives Dan Quinn more weapons to dedicate to helping. The return of Clinton McDonald and the addition of Tony McDaniel have been major stories in the run defense, and that needs to continue.

FACT: Take away the rush totals of Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton, and Seattle has allowed 153 yards on 53 carries to running backs, for an average of 2.9 YPC.
The second major challenge is Watt. Football is the ultimate team sport, but he could single-handedly win this game for the Texans. There may not be an NFL lineman that can block him effectively, and Seattle rolls into Texas without their best tackle. Even when Watt is blocked occasionally, his 6'5" frame makes him the ultimate test of Russell Wilson's height. Quarterbacks of all sizes get their passes batted down by Watt, but he presents a unique challenge for Wilson. Houston throws in more height across the line as everyone is at least 6'3". Throw in 6'4" Brooks Reed at linebacker, and throwing lanes will be tight. There is a reason Houston is second in the NFL in opponent passing yards at 157.7 per game behind the 146.7 Seattle surrenders. The Seahawks are 28th in the NFL in sack percentage, meaning Wilson gets sacked at a very high rate as a percentage of times he attempts a pass. The odds of winning this game drop precipitously for Seattle if they need to rely on the pass. A repeat of Carolina, where Wilson overcame a nonexistent running game, is highly unlikely.

Seattle's rushing efficiency has improved each week, going from 2.7 YPC to 3.7 to 4.3 last week. Houston is fifth in the NFL in holding teams to 3.3 YPC. Seattle is 19-7 since 2010 when reaching 120 yards rushing, but just 9-16 when failing to get there. It is worth noting that seven of those nine losses when rushing over 120 yards came on the road. A good rushing game does not guarantee victory this week, but a poor one very likely equals a loss.

All the talk about Houston being underwhelming thus far is overblown, but there are a few key areas where they have really struggled. The two more important ones are turnovers and defensive performance in the red zone. This talented Texans defense has forced only one turnover in three games, compared to nine for Seattle. That ranks 31st in the NFL. Seattle is 11th in the NFL in limiting giveaways, with only four through three games. That is actually a higher rate than they registered in 2012, so there is reason to expect Seattle to protect the ball even better going forward. What is interesting is that takeaways seem to be a far better indicator of winning for Seattle than giveaways. The Seahawks are 2-13 since 2010 when forcing one turnover or less, but 7-3 when getting two or more. They are 2-3 when they have protected the ball to the point of zero giveaways in that same time. Houston is tied with Seattle, having turned the ball over four times thus far.

The Texans have dominated most of the field on defense, but have been a disaster in the red zone, allowing an NFL-worst 87.5% of opponent red zone possession to result in a touchdown. Seattle's defense, by comparison, checks in at 7th with a 37.5% rate. More to the point, the Seattle offense has improved from 0-3 in week one to 3-6 in week two to 4-5 in week three in their red zone chances. They shined in this area at the end of last season, and need to come away with touchdowns, not field goals, when opportunity knocks.

Two other areas that bode well for the Seahawks are the Texans slow starts on offense, and the Seahawks stingy first half defense. Houston is 25th in the NFL in first half scoring at only 7.7 points per first half. Seattle's defense has yet to allow any points in the first quarter, and is giving up just 2.3 points per first half. The Seahawks had been 1-12 in the Carroll era when trailing at half on the road, before winning the season opener. Getting out to a lead will be especially important against a team that relies so heavily on the run to setup their pass attack.

Schaub continues to be a polarizing figure in Houston, and he is under pressure on the field, as much as off. He has been pressured on 43.7% of his dropbacks this year, according to ProFootballFocus.com. That is up from 29.5% last year. Their left tackle, Duane Brown missed a game last week, and is a question mark for Sunday. The Seahawks have nearly all of their pass rushers back on the field, and have been terrorizing quarterbacks the last two weeks.

The recipe for a Seahawks victory likely includes an effective pass rush that leads to a couple of takeaways, and a rush defense that holds the Texans under 120 yards on the ground. Seattle's offense needs to get off to a faster start, and has to establish a running game. All of this is possible, but far from certain.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Value Of Adversity

Seattle and San Francisco have had divergent experiences through the first three weeks of the season. The Seahawks are 3-0, and are generally considered one of the top two teams in the NFL, while the 49ers have fallen to 1-2 on the field while facing an array of issues off it. There is little question that San Francisco has the talent to right their ship, but this turnaround will require more than physical skill. Seattle forged their success through arduous incremental steps over three years. San Francisco tasted success immediately when Jim Harbaugh came aboard two years ago. What comes next will be a lesson in the invisible elements fused into the foundation of great teams.

Pete Carroll inherited one of the worst rosters and worst teams in the NFL when he arrived in Seattle in 2010. The franchise had just invested the #4 overall pick in Aaron Curry, and the quarterback was close to the end of his career. Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Max Unger are the only position players on the current Seahawks roster that were in Seattle before Carroll arrived. The team lost more than it won for two years. Injuries were rampant.

Carroll's first year saw the team lose most of the defensive line and large chunks of the offensive line. Seattle was 24th in the NFL in adjusted games lost due to injury. They were a joke across the country, igniting calls to change to the playoff seeding and qualification rules. The team faced that disrespect, and beat the defending Super Bowl champs. Talent gaps can be overcome. National perspective does not decide games. Lessons learned.

Next season was not much easier. Seattle had even more significant injury issues, as they dropped to 27th in games lost due to injury. They bid adieu to the face of the franchise in Matt Hasselbeck, and replaced him with a player most did not believe was an NFL starter in Tarvaris Jackson. The offensive line featured two rookies and Robert Gallery in his final season. Jackson was hit repeatedly and relentlessly. He persevered. So did the team. They surprised the eventual Super Bowl champs by beating them in New York with Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback for a significant portion of the game. They beat Ray Lewis and the Ravens in character-testing physical battle. Jackson played most of the year with a torn pectoral muscle and never uttered a bad word about his offensive line or showed frustration on the field. Seattle could beat great teams at less than full strength. The arrows always point out of the tent, never inward. Lessons learned.

It was the 2012 season when Seattle found their stride, but not right away. They were a 4-4 team through eight games, and 6-5 through eleven. The players and coaches knew they were talented enough to contend for a championship, but the results were not reflecting that. Their new quarterback, Russell Wilson, rose like a phoenix from the flames. His play lifted the team's fortunes. The roster saw the quality of his character, his resolve, and his unending efforts to improve. He was the last piece of the puzzle. This team was ready to be the best in football. They had everything they needed, and proved it in a comeback win on the road in the playoffs, and a nearly historic comeback win in Atlanta the next week. Lessons learned.

Seattle has faced doubts and doubters. Nothing has been given to them. Players have been suspended. Injuries to key players have been commonplace. Still, they come. San Francisco have been front-running for two years. They enjoyed otherworldly health, ranking 1st and 8th in fewest games lost to injury the last two seasons. They had a better two-year turnover margin than any team could hope for, even with a terrific defense. National pundits cheered them. Their franchise drips with past Super Bowl glory. Two years, two division titles, two trips to the NFC Championship, and one trip to the Super Bowl. So much success, such little adversity.

They now face what Seattle faced early on. Key players are lost due to injury or suspension. Doubters are emerging from every corner. They are losing more than winning. These are the moments when an empty draft class (see 2012) can silently hollow out an organization. These are the times when a coach known for being abrasive to everyone outside the locker room can chafe against his players inside it. Will Harbaugh build his players up to come out of this funk, or tear them down to shift fault away from himself? We do not know the answer. And that is the point.

Seattle has faced demons and come out stronger for it. San Francisco faces them now. Seattle is not on easy street. They are 3-0 with a long list of key players missing, or just coming back. The foundation of the organization, however, has been reinforced year after year against challenges like this. The 49ers have been convinced nobody has it better than them. They may have been right, but no longer are. What now? There are lessons to be learned.

Hawk Blogger 2013 Power Rankings: Week 3

PRIMER
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)

THIS WEEK
It generally takes 3-4 weeks for these rankings to settle in. Well, it is week three, and the Seahawks are on top. Denver was hurt by a strong outing by the Raiders passing offense and the impact on opponent passer rating for the Broncos. Detroit at number five is one to watch. They are quietly building a very impressive passer rating differential, as is Miami.

The rankings would indicate Houston may not be the powerhouse we believe them to be to this point. Are we back to the NFC Worst in the West? San Francisco, St. Louis and Arizona all rank 26th or lower.

Note: If you are having problems viewing the rankings below, try this link.



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.



The Royal BALTYs Win!


It finally happened. Our community Crown Royal Fantasy Football team won a game. Props to Neil Mintz for being the first winning GM of the year! Neil made some gutsy moves by working around a Reggie Bush injury and at least getting a few points from Christine Michael. He added Charles Clay, and wisely played Golden Tate over Chris Givens.

I will pick this week's GM today, so keep an eye on your email if you have already contacted me and expressed interest. 

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.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

PODCAST: Talking 49ers and Jags with Softy


Softy and I spent a few minutes catching up on the beat down of the 49ers, and looked forward to the Jags match-up and beyond. Enjoy!

***DOWNLOAD THE PODCAST***

Rest Up, Russell

Rumor has it that John Schneider and Pete Carroll love Russell Wilson so much, they decided to double up on Russells and Wilsons on offense. They are down to just one Russell after their Pro Bowl left tackle was placed on IR yesterday. It is a story not unfamiliar to fans, coaches or teammates. Okung has missed 11 games in his first three seasons due to injury after never missing a game in college. An injury to a left tackle is usually cause for panic, but recent history and new talent gives reason for confidence.

History and Tom Cable

Things were much worse in 2011 when Okung missed the final four games of the season after a cheap shot from Trent Cole of Philadelphia. The line was also missing two other starters as John Moffitt and James Carpenter were injured. Paul McQuistan moved over to left tackle, Breno Giacomini stepped in at right tackle and Lemuel Juanpierre played at right guard. Robert Gallery played, but was on the doorstep of retirement. The team had righted itself after a dismal start, and had won three of four when Okung went out.

They went on to win the next two games, including a road game in Chicago, and then dropped a 19-17 contest to division champion San Francisco. The 49ers were playing their best defense that year, but it was in that game, without Okung and the rest, that they gave up their first 100 yard rusher and first rushing touchdown of the year. San Francisco was a handful in the pass rush last week with nearly everyone healthy on the line. Try to imagine facing that defense with Gallery and Juanpierre at guard and McQuistan at left tackle. The Seattle offense did better in that rematch than they had done in the first game that year. In fact, the offense did just fine without Okung that year.

Seattle scored more without Okung in those four games, passed at the same rate and rushed for significantly more yards. Tom Cable has shown he can game plan for injuries on the line better than most. Okung missed one game last season against the Cowboys, forcing Frank Omiyale into the lineup against DeMarcus Ware. One of the best pass rushers of this generation was held without a sack and just one quarterback hit. The team rushed for over 180 yards and helped Russell Wilson to his first game with a passer rating over 100.0.

An injury to Okung tends to lead the coaching staff down the path of an even heavier emphasis on the run game, and extra protection on throws. They become a little more deliberate, and a little less ambitious. This line is also better than the ones Cable has had to make do with in the past.

The Young Guns

Omiyale and McQuistan were the only two backups for Okung last season. Had this injury happened last year, the overall ceiling for the season would have been lowered. Schneider and Cable worked some magic this off-season, though, and added two promising young tackles in Alvin Bailey and Michael Bowie.

The public sentiments from Cable and Carroll have been more glowing on Bowie, but he did not take a snap at left tackle during camp or during pre-season that I saw. Bailey unseated Mike Person as the backup left tackle and was almost flawless in pass protection. I watched a lot of Bailey during camp, and he earned my Best Rookie On Offense award. Nobody beat this guy in pass protection. Not in team drills. Not in 1v1 pass rush drills. Not in 2v2 pass rush drills. Nobody. He was so good that he clouded my ability to judge Benson Mayowa because Bailey so consistently stoned him. 

His performance in pre-season games was no less encouraging. Take a look at #78 in his first live game action against the Chargers. 

Yes that was against second and third string players, but he did well in subsequent games as well against better competition. To this point, I have only seen him beat once in pass protection. He was a guard in college, so is a natural run blocker. The question mark for Bailey is one his quarterback can appreciate. At 6'3", Bailey is exceedingly short for a tackle, let alone a left tackle. Judging by the results I saw, it may not matter

Bowie looks much more like a classic right tackle. He is thick and tall. His feet were not as impressive in pass protection, and his results were far less consistent than Bailey's in that regard. When Cable calls you out as impressive, though, everyone should take notice.

Neither young player will start out of the gate. McQuistan will take the starting snaps, and it is possible he will keep them for the duration of Okung's injury. More likely, we see Bailey and Bowie get rotated into the game more and more and one of them may take over the starting role in 2-4 weeks depending on how they play. I expect great things from both, but am especially eager to see how Bailey performs. This team is better equipped to handle the absence of Okung than at any time in Carroll's tenure in Seattle, and arguably better than at any time in the last 20 years of Seahawks football. The team is certainly better off with his immense talent in the lineup, but nobody needs to brace for a massive drop-off without him.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Seahawks Defense Improves On Third Down & Fourth Quarter

Seahawks fans are spoiled. Their defense led the league in scoring defense in 2012, but ask most die-hard fans, and they will tell you about trouble on 3rd down and in the fourth quarter. Seattle is only two games into the 2013 season, but the early returns indicate fans may need to find a new nit to pick.


Third Down

Seattle's struggles last year in situational defense were not an illusion. No stat better demonstrates the oddity of the Seahawks 2012 defense than their problems defending 3rd and long situations. We will define "long" as eight yards or longer. A league average defense in 2012 allowed 25.5% of those situations to convert to a first down. Quarterbacks were held to a passer rating of 76.0. Seattle was not league average. They allowed 36.4% of those plays to convert, and quarterbacks had a fist-pounding 105.2 passer rating in what should have been a disastrous situation against a top-tier defense.

That is more like it. Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com
It is easy to forget this defense is just now inexperienced this defense has been. Last season was just the second year of starting for Brandon Browner, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, and K.J. Wright. It was Bobby Wagner's first, and Earl Thomas' third. It takes time to trust each other and anticipate both what your teammate is going to do and what the opponent is going to attempt. The immense talent of the youth on Seattle's defense makes up for a lot. The last piece of the puzzle is execution in key moments. Third and long should be a money moment. Blood is in the water. That is when sharks feed. Seattle was toothless in those situation last year, but looks like Jaws so far in 2013. The team did not have a single interception in 68 pass attempts last year on 3rd and long. They already have one in just 5 pass attempts this season. The improvement has not been reserved to 3rd and long.


The Seahawks defense has feasted on third down overall. Opponents are converting at a 35% rate, which would have been good for 5th in the NFL last year. Seattle was ranked 17th in this category last year. More impressive is the opponent passer rating, and the uptick in sack and interception rate.


Fourth Quarter

As frustrating as the third down situations were in 2012, the failures in the fourth quarter were far more heart-breaking. Seattle is showing signs of improvement there as well.


Seattle has not allowed a point in the fourth quarter through two games. More encouraging is the tightening of the pass defense. The opponent passer rating is is roughly equal to last season for the first three quarters of the game, but things diverge in the fourth quarter. Quarterbacks had more success against the Seahawks in the fourth quarter last season. Not so this year. It is the best quarter for the Seahawks pass defense thus far, holding Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton to a combined 18.2 passer rating. That is good stuff.

Save Your Small Sample Size

Of course it is ridiculous to make any conclusions after just two games. It is considerably more encouraging to see the exact improvements we had hoped for in the defense than to see signs of continuing down the same path. The road games in Houston and Indianapolis will be great tests to see if a new leaf has been turned. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hawk Blogger 2013 Power Rankings: Week 2

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
It generally takes 3-4 weeks before these rankings become prophetic. Still, eight of the teams that finished in the top 10 from week two last year did end up making the playoffs. Take that for what it is worth.

Seattle climbs seven spots to settle in behind the Broncos at #2 overall. There are some surprising names like Kansas City, Miami, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Buffalo in the top ten. Objective rankings are blind to our bias. I guarantee you will not see all those names in any ESPN power poll top ten. I trust the numbers, as I have seen this occur in prior years. Green Bay makes the biggest improvement, and how about the Redskins as the worst team in football so far?

Note: If you are having problems viewing the rankings below, try this link.



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.



The Royal BALTYs Go Down Again


Another week, another loss for the BALTYs. I am not sure if this league is intended to drive the team owner to drink, but at least I have some good options. The tagline is Reign On, but the poor BALTYs are just trying to Reign Once at this point.

On the plus side, reader Zak Switzer pulled off a fantastic trade of Vernon Davis for Larry Fitzgerald!! No more 49ers on this team. That was job number one. Neil Mintz is on tap this week, and will try to be the first BALTY GM to win a game.

If you want to add your name to the list of future GM candidates, shoot me an email. Participants have a chance to win Crown Royal swag and other prizes.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Morning After: Seahawks Soul Stomp 49ers, 29-3

Logo by Kevin Gamache, Hammerhead 

Apparently lightning does strike the same place twice. San Francisco fans and players may have preferred to be struck down than to endure a second straight humiliating loss to a team some consider a bitter rival. Seattle dominated the 49ers so thoroughly that it is fair to question just how much of a rival they really are. This was the worst statistical home game of Russell Wilson's career, many key players were injured, and the Seahawks still won by twenty-six points. Rivals are competitive. San Francisco is left hoping they can rival the Seahawks some time in the future. That will be difficult, given that the Seahawks stand to improve considerably with names like Harvin, Irvin, and Clemons returning to action. If you walk away with one thing from this game, it should be that there is only one true rival to the Seahawks, and it is the team staring back at them in the mirror. The ceiling is so much higher than what they showed last night. It is up to them to see just how good they can be.

Turn up the volume to 12

The team may not have delivered the the most impressive performance of the night. Having attended every Seahawks home game for the past 16 years, I can say the only other time that compared to the atmosphere last night was the NFC Championship game in 2005. Not Beast Quake. Not the Giants false startapalooza. Fans brought a level of mayhem to that game I did not think possible in a regular season contest. This was not just about pure record-breaking decibel level. The noise started during the 49ers huddle, and often before. It was as loud in the 4th quarter as it was in the first. Some other stadium may reset the noise record, but none will sustain like Seattle did on Sunday. Bravo, folks. 

Pass rush turns up

There will be plenty of talk about the Seahawks secondary, and rightfully so, but the most encouraging aspect of the defensive performance had to be the pass pressure applied by the Seahawks defensive line. Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, O'Brien Schofield and a cast of others all took turns collapsing the pocket and making Colin Kaepernick look like a system quarterback. The cooperation of coverage and pass rush made this one of the most complete efforts by a Seattle defense in recent memory. Chris Clemons should be back in the next week or two, and Bruce Irvin returns for week five. It is now safe to believe this pass rush could be special when fully equipped. Couple even a top ten pass rush with this secondary, and most teams will struggle to reach double digits against this defense. 

FACT: Seattle finished with five QB hits from four different players

Congrats to Cliff Avril for getting some well-deserved revenge against d-bag extraordinaire Anthony Davis. He appeared to be part of the nickel pass rush package, as opposed to the base LEO, which is what I observed during camp, and he looked lethal doing it. It would not surprise me to see him end the year with 12+ sacks.   

Secondary to none

So. Damn. Good. If Cam Newton and Kaepernick are two of the best future quarterbacks in the NFL, Seattle's secondary appears future proof. 

FACT: Seahawks defense held Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick to a combined 52.1 passer rating
Richard Sherman is making his early push for defensive player of the year with another stellar outing. His partners in the defensive backfield were right there with him. Earl Thomas had a crucial impact play for the second straight week. Kam Chancellor collected his first interception since a 2011 game against Philadelphia. But perhaps the strongest statement came from Walter Thurmond, who continues to show why he will be one of the most coveted free agent cornerbacks on the market this off-season. Enjoy him while he is here, because there is no way this team will be able to afford him if he continues to put together games like he has the first two weeks of this season. The play he made on the goal line after the blocked punt was all instinct and speed. He came off his coverage to disrupt the pass and cause a turnover that turned the game around. More than one Seahawk receiver has described 

FACT: Anquan Boldin has 3 catches for 29 yards in his last two games against Seattle 
Thurmond as the best pure cover corner on the team, and we are seeing what this secondary looks like with two elite cover corners in the lineup. Browner may be my favorite defender on the roster, but he is not a cover corner in the sense that Sherman and Thurmond are. There has only been one game when all three players suited up, and that was in Chicago last year. Things are bound to get even more entertaining when everyone is healthy. San Francisco fans will want to believe that getting Michael Crabtree back will change the equation. Take a look at what he has done in his career against this secondary. None of the 49ers major receiving options qualify as a threat to Seattle. Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have their work cut out for them.

Run defense sparkles

Never has a 5.0 yards per carry night for an opponent looked so dominating. San Francisco running backs managed 13 yards on 11 carries for an average of 1.2 yards per carry. Kaepernick accounted for 87 yards on his own. Good for him. It had nothing to do with the run defense. I don't have access to splits that show his success on designed runs, but it was not pretty. Nearly all of his yardage came on scrambles. I was not sure this front seven was capable of this type of showing against the best offensive line in football. Suddenly, that match-up in Houston in a couple of weeks is looking a little different. Just imagine what it would have looked like if Anthony Dixon hadn't been putting those extra weights on the racks all week. 

Run defense and pass rush were the two biggest question marks headed into the year for the defense. Both aspects were fantastic Sunday night. Seattle has held their two opponents to a combined total of 10 points, or 5 ppg. Scoring tends to be difficult when an offense cannot run or pass. 

Offense uneven

Start with the great. Piling up 172 yards rushing on the 49ers defense is fantastic. The yards were hard-earned, and the running game looked so much more like the aggressive North-South style we saw last year. To do it without Russell Okung for much of the game made it that much more impressive. Justin Smith was back and knocking people silly, but that did not stop the Seahawks from winning the battle with the best defensive line in football. Seattle should be aiming to average 175 yards rushing per game. They exceeded that average in the last half of 2012. 

Running will continue to be key as the passing game is out of sorts. Pass protection was again not good enough, and Wilson looked uncomfortable all night. He does not look like he has found his rhythm yet at all. We very well may be witnessing a plateau period as teams have adjusted to his tendencies. He will need to make his own adjustments to rediscover that zone he was in late last year. Darrell Bevell looks to be struggling with play-calling a bit as well. There have been few easy wins for Wilson two weeks into the season. The tight ends have been under-utilized, possibly due to pass protection problems requiring their attention elsewhere. 

This offense can be the best in the NFL. They have some work to do to reach that potential. Jacksonville gives them a good chance to find their footing.

Stage is set

Seattle exits this game with their destiny firmly in grasp. There are already commentators out there dismissing this victory as "doing what they were supposed to do at home." That is a tone deaf interpretation of the events that transpired last night. Seattle has dominated the defending NFC Champions in back-to-back games. Winning by a few points would be what the home team was supposed to do. Check the Vegas line for proof of that. This win puts Seattle clearly in the position of top dog until San Francisco can find a way to beat them by a similar margin. Squeaking out a 13-6 win in Candlestick like last year won't cut it, and it also won't happen. The 49ers now know that cannot physically beat the Seahawks. They cannot schematically beat the Seahawks. They walk away knowing they have to find some new way to play against this team. The things that work against every other team, do not work against this one. That is a hollow and anxious feeling to carry around for the next few months. Seattle no longer has to measure itself against any other team. They begin their trek up the mountain top with only the peak in mind, and the path ahead looks all clear.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Final Pre-Game Thoughts: Seahawks vs. 49ers

Here we are. The hype cycle has run its course to the point where The Seattle Times was running anti-hype stories today about why this is not necessarily as unique of a regular season home game as many have made it out to be. Hogwash. There has never been a regular season home game in Seahawks history where the two teams most consider the best in football, who are division rivals, who hate each other from the front office to the janitor's office, have faced off on national television. I am not sure there has ever been a time in Seahawks history where they were considered the best or second best team in football (there were plenty of national doubters in 2005 due to the weakness of the NFC West), let alone played the team competing with them for that title. This game will set the course for the 2013 season of both these teams.

Forget Every Week Is Equal

Pete Carroll is absolutely right to be espousing a philosophy of consistency across his team. That does not mean his message is factually accurate. This game is infinitely more important than next weeks game. There is a reason the NFL structured tie-breakers to value conference games more than non-conference, and division games more than conference games. They matter more. Beyond the facts, one team will exit this game with tailwinds and the other with headwinds. A win for Seattle writes the narrative that the Seahawks have won two in a row against the 49er juggernaut, and did so without many of their best players. It would force San Francisco to face the reality that the win last season for the Seahawks was not an aberration, and fertilize the seeds of doubt planted last year. A win for the 49ers lets them write off the loss last season, and confirm their belief that nobody has it better than them. It would leave Seattle already one game down at home, and needing to win in San Francisco to have their best shot at winning the division. 


Which Flaw Is Fatal?

Seahawks fans are familiar by now with the struggles they have had defending the run. Nine of their last twelve opponents have rushed for 4.2 yards per carry or greater, including Carolina last week. When this defense is playing elite football, they are holding opponents under 3.5 yards per carry. No team will challenge that more than the 49ers, who came away with only 82 yards rushing in the last match-up, but still averaged 4.3 YPC. In a closer game, that would have factored into the outcome far more. Seattle re-signed Clinton McDonald, who has a limited upside overall, but is among the most aggressive run defenders on the squad. It would not be a shock if he was active despite only being signed yesterday.

The story that nobody is telling is the overall collapse of the 49ers defense. Yes, you read right. San Francisco opponents have scored an average of 35 ppg in the last seven games (including the playoffs). That was explained away last season as a result of the Justin Smith injury. Everyone across the NFL was toasting the 49ers after a big win against the Packers last week, but they surrendered 28 points and 385 yards, and only managed to win by six against a team that turned the ball over twice while SF had zero giveaways. The easy explanation is that Rodgers is the best player in football and nobody can hold him down. The 12 points he scored in Seattle last year says otherwise. So do the 22 points and 324 yards SF held them to in Green Bay in last year's opener. 

The 49ers have a badass defense, plain and simple, but there is evidence of weakness most are unable or unwilling to see.


Ian Williams is a name to know

San Francisco has a new nose tackle. His name is Ian Williams, and he just might be the next dominant 49er lineman. He replaces Isaac Sopoaga, who left in free agency, and looks far more athletic and disruptive. His weakness, though, can be easily exploited. Williams only played ten snaps last week because he comes off the field when the 49ers go to nickel. Every time the Packers went to three or four wide, Williams sat down and a weaker secondary player came in. 

Seattle will have a conscious decision to make about how best to attack SF. They now have the personnel to go to four or five wide if they so choose, but their identity is not to spread teams out like that. More likely, they will go with a lot of two tight end and three receiver sets. That may still get Williams off the field, and create favorable run match-ups.

Luke Willson and Derrick Coleman will be tested

It is exciting to play for the first time in front of the 12th Man. Drawing blocking duty all day against the likes of Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald is not quite as thrilling. Willson showed some jitters last week with an illegal motion penalty, and was not targeted as a receiver. He could play a key role in this game both in blocking and as an outlet receiver SF knows little about. The same holds true for Coleman. There is no time for easing in for these youngsters. 

Stephen Williams has a serious advantage

Finding snaps for Williams will be tough, but Darrell Bevell needs to do it. Which aging 49er cornerback is going to keep up with him and out-jump him for a throw down-field? The answer: none. 

Oh my Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson is kinda good at Century Link. In eight career games at home, he was only failed to reach a 100.0 or better passer rating twice. Once, was a 99.3 versus Green Bay. The other was 88.0 versus the Cardinals during a 58-0 stomping. He was the best home quarterback in football last year, and has yet to lose at Century Link ever. Not in the pre-season. Not in the regular season. 

Special Teams will play a major role in outcome

We can debate until we pass out from exhaustion about which quarterback is better, which defense is better, and even which offense is better. The truth is, they are pretty darn even across the board. The area where either team has the biggest advantage is on special teams. Seattle is one of the best in the NFL. San Francisco is not. I have a hunch Steven Hauschka has a 55+ yard killer kick in him waiting to happen. The coverage teams are elite, and the return game could break one. A blocked field goal returned for a touchdown broke open the game last year. Watch for the big special teams moment tonight.

If only this game was played in the 80s

The weather looks dreary for this evening. Two teams with bad intentions and unmatched physical talent square off. But they can't hit each other. At least, not like teams used to. I'm not begrudging anyone for making the game safer, but I sure wish we could see these two teams play with the old rules. That would be something.

Kaepernick not yet proven on the road

Everyone remembers the glory of Colin Kaepernick last year. He was otherworldly at times. Many forget how uneven his play was on the road. He was over 100.0 passer rating in every home start except for his playoff start against Green Bay when he still was at 91.2. He was under 100.0 in three of his five road starts, including two games under 84.0. All three of his regular season interceptions came away from Candlestick. His completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown rate, interception rate and sack rate were all considerably worse on the road. 

Wilson had similar struggles early on, but his passer rating has been over 100 in five of his last seven away games, including the playoffs. His two low marks in that stretch were a 92.9 showing in Washington and a 96.8 outing in Detroit. Kaepernick had stellar performance in New England and at Atlanta in the playoffs. The rest have left a lot to be desired. That has led to a 2-2 regular season road record in his starts. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pick Your Soundtrack For Seahawks vs. 49ers

Every game has a personality. Every song evokes some sort of emotion. Find the song that matches the game, and you have your personal soundtrack. A few come to mind for this game. Here are a few of my favorites.

Bill Conti - Going The Distance from Rocky


NFL Films - Classic Battle


Europe - The Final Countdown


Predator Theme Song


Eminem - Lose Yourself


What about you? What is your soundtrack for this matchup?

The Battle Looms




Meant to be read with audio playing, and speakers on.

They come with the belief that nobody has it better than them. Seattle is ready to prove them wrong once again. There will be no surprises when these two titans collide Sunday evening. San Francisco will try to intimidate. They will celebrate every landed punch. Every failure will be someone else's fault.
"They're winning because they're cheating." - Jim Harbaugh

A team psyche built on a foundation of arrogance fractures when faced with their own mortality.  Apollo Creed knocks down Rocky early in the fight and assumes he has won. Rocky gets up. Creed begins to realize his confidence, his skill, the measure of just who he is will be tested. That was the story of the Seahawks and 49ers in 2012. Seattle bloodied the 49ers when San Francisco thought nobody could. They saw nobody as their equal. The division title belt was held up just a little lower as doubt began to creep in about just who was the best team in the NFC West. 

We return now for the sequel. The champ will not underestimate his opponent this time. He is out to prove that the last match was a fluke born out of his own oversight. 

"We're going up there to prove that's not who we are," Colin Kaepernick, referring to the 42-13 loss
The challenger enters the ring not close to full strength. Key aspects of their attack and defense are absent, but nothing can diminish their will. Biceps can be kissed. Blows can be landed. Seattle will keep coming. The champ will soon face the reality that their title is at risk. It may be after Kam Chancellor knocks one of their players into the dark ages. It may come when Marshawn Lynch tramples their pride. Or when Doug Baldwin and Richard Sherman take turns tormenting their former college captor. It will come, and when the champ glances upward for salvation, all they will see is 67,000 tormentors who have arrived with the sole purpose of breaking them. There will be no rescue. There will be no backup. There will be no mercy.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

PODCAST: Previewing The 49ers Game With Softy

I jumped on the phone for my weekly conversation with Softy as we discussed what matters and what does not for this Sunday. It was a solid 20 minutes of Seahawks chatter. Hope you enjoy it.






Wednesday, September 11, 2013

San Francisco Yet To Solve Seahawks Defense

Colin Kaepernick threw for 412 yards, three touchdowns and led his team to 34 points in the 49ers season opener against a true championship caliber Green Bay Packer team. Anquan Boldin managed over 200 yards receiving, and Vernon Davis caught two touchdowns. Seahawks fans remember seeing Frank Gore tear through the heart of their defense in the first match-up last season on the way to over 130 yards rushing. Ask any honest Seattle fan how they feel about the game this week, and they will admit to being at least a little worried. This 49ers team is tough on both sides of the ball, and will almost certainly be the most challenging opponent on the Seahawks schedule. What folks in Seattle may fail to realize is just how tough the Seahawks are on the 49ers. Yes, Seattle thrashed San Francisco 42-13 in the second game last year. But what you might not know is the defense put forth a remarkably similar effort in game one.

San Francisco sported a different quarterback, played in a different venue, and experienced a far different final score in game two versus game one against the Seahawks in 2012, but their offense looked nearly identical. The 49ers scored the same amount of points (13), had almost the same amount of first downs, had the identical 3rd down conversion numbers, identical total yards, and only scored a single touchdown both times. The most significant difference was the distribution of yards was more heavily skewed toward passing (231-82), where the 49ers ran for 175 yards in the first game. The rushing totals are always important in this match-up, as San Francisco is 4-0 when Gore eclipses 100 yards against the Seahawks, and only 3-5 when he fails to get there.

Still, most Seattle fans memory of the first game last year was that San Francisco mashed the Seahawks, but the overall offensive picture does little to support that narrative. If I am a 49er fan, I am asking myself if Pete Carroll and the Seahawks defense have the 49ers figured out. The disparity between how the 49ers offense produced against the rest of the league when compared to Seattle is remarkable.


San Francisco averaged less than half their typical scoring output when facing the Seahawks. The passing game was less potent, and the running game was overall well below what the 49ers did to the rest of the league. This team averaged three touchdowns per game when playing a team not based in the Northwest, but only one against Seattle. These are significant differences, and the trend is not limited to just 2012.


The 33-17 season opening loss to the 49ers in 2011 is not a fond memory for Seahawks fans. Would you be surprised to hear the Seahawks out-gained the 49ers in that game 219 yards to 209? Jim Harbaugh's team had only 124 yards passing and 85 yards rushing. It took a 3-0 turnover differential and two Ted Ginn Jr. special teams touchdowns to come away with a victory.

There is little doubt that the 49ers will test the Seahawks defensive line, hoping to find that weakness they exploited at times in the first game last season. Brandon Mebane must be the difference-making nose tackle we know him to be. Tony McDaniel has to introduce his brand of badass to that talented 49er line. Red Bryant must realize the promise his pre-season put forth.

Vernon Davis will be a central part of the 49er game plan, but that is nothing new, and the results have been scary for San Francisco. Davis has averaged 2.5 catches for 32 yards and has not scored a touchdown against the Seahawks in the last two years. Boldin faced the Seahawks two years ago when he played the Ravens and was held to just two catches in nine targets. The one thing Boldin and Davis have in common is getting their soul bruised by Kam Chancellor in Century Link field.

Even Michael Crabtree, a guy everyone considers a key to the San Francisco attack, would seemingly offer little additional confidence if he was playing. His best game against the Seahawks last year was 4 catches for 65 yards. He did not have a touchdown. But that is nothing new. He has yet to score a touchdown against the Seahawks in his career.

Respect the 49ers. They are a fantastic team. Do not, though, be intimidated by them. They may be pit bulls, but the Seahawks defense appears to have them chained harmlessly to a tree. If the trend continues this Sunday, we may finally know who has it better than San Francisco.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Doug Baldwin Saves His Best For The 49ers

Doug Baldwin is coming off his most productive game since his rookie season. His seven receptions and 91 yards led the team versus Carolina. The performance by Baldwin was only possible because Russell Wilson showed an increased willingness to rely on his slot receiver, and the two demonstrated a chemistry that was missing for 2012. That improvement should get the attention of 49ers players, coaches, and fans, because history shows us Baldwin saves his best for games against his old college coach that passed on him in the 2011 draft.

Baldwin leads the Seahawks in receiving yards, receptions and receiving touchdowns in the four games against San Francisco since Baldwin entered the league two years ago.

It is not even close. Baldwin more than double his next closest teammate.  The down side to this picture is that nobody has been that productive through the air. Baldwin's 168 yards works out to an average of 42 yards/game. That is up only slightly from his average in all other games during that time of roughly 38 yards/game. The most any Seahawk quarterback has thrown for vs. SF in that time was Tarvaris Jackson gaining 197 yards through the air in the 33-17 loss in SF in 2011. Wilson had a great 115.3 rating in the 42-13 win last year, but only had 171 yards passing.



Not surprisingly, Baldwin also leads in receptions, and by a large margin. His average of 4 receptions per game is up 54% from his typical 2.6 receptions per game versus other opponents. There are not many receptions to go around against the 49ers, as Wilson has never completed more than 15 passes in one game when facing them.



Averaging a touchdown per game is outstanding production versus any opponent, but is even more impressive against a defense like the 49ers. It dwarfs Baldwin's average of 0.1 touchdowns/game in other games. A full four of Baldwin's seven career touchdowns have come against this one opponent. No receiver has caught more touchdowns against San Francisco over the last two years than Baldwin.

All that came before Baldwin found his rhythm with Wilson. It also came before San Francisco nickel back Chris Culliver was injured, and before Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson moved on to Tampa Bay. Baldwin was a standout throughout training camp and carried it over into the first game of 2013. The 49ers would be wise to brace for impact. Every team has a nemesis. San Francisco may be reintroduced to theirs come Sunday.