Logo by Kevin Gamache, Hammerhead
Seventeen games into this 2013 Seahawks season, and there is a lot we still do not know about this team. The offense can operate with deadly efficiency, or teeth-grating ineptitude. The running game can be inspiring or maddening. The passing game can produce 320 yards versus a fantastic Panthers defense or complete two passes in a half against New Orleans. Even starting roles are not set. The #1 seed in the NFC and odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl is still searching for the championship combination on offense. This defense, though...there is little mystery there. One of the most potent quarterback-coach combinations in the National Football League was once again stifled by a defense that is forcing comparisons to the all-time greats. The final totals for the Saints do not begin to tell the story of what the Seahawks defense accomplished.
Eight times, Drew Brees and the Saints offense took the ball through three quarters, and eight times they came away with no points. Twice they were stopped on fourth down. It was considered silly to think the Seahawks could hold Brees to record lows again, the offense to 188 yards, and Jimmy Graham to under 50 yards receiving. Yet, each item on that list was on track to happen halfway through the game. That is what this Seahawks defense does; they make the absurd the expected.
Jimmy Graham was held to 8 yards receiving, his 3rd-worst total in 52 career starts
Sean Payton is brilliant at what he does. The Saints feature a multitude of weapons that fit together like a Swiss Army Knife. They can attack deep, wide, and middle. They can scamper and they can pound. The offensive line is darn good, and Brees is one of the best to ever play the game. If you told Payton he would get over 100 yards rushing, over 4.0 yards per carry, over 300 yards passing and no interceptions, he would feel pretty darn good about his chances. All that, and it was the 3rd-fewest points they scored all season and just one point more than the lowest total in a playoff game since Payton and Brees were brought together.
Weather conditions hampered both offenses. Only people at the stadium could truly appreciate how much the wind played a role in the outcome. Throwing into the wind was foolhardy, but Brees even struggled throwing with the wind in the first half. Balls sailed on him, leaving them 10-15 yards from their target.
Seahawks fans angry about the offensive performance will not want to hear it, but Seattle handled the elements admirably in the first half. The team scored on each of its first three possessions and four of their first five. They did not have a single three-and-out series, and Marshawn Lynch had eclipsed his rushing total from the first game against the Saints early on in the half. There is plenty of negative to be aware of, and honest about, but a balanced view of this game has to acknowledge that the offense had 162 yards in the first half and turned that Saints fumble into a touchdown.
Four of the past five defenses the Seahawks offense has faced were among the top ten in the NFL, and the fifth was a Rams defense that was top fifteen and playing like top five when they arrived. Every yard has been earned, but they are not earning enough to make anyone feel comfortable about the outcome next week against either potential opponent.
The passing game was amateurish Saturday. Give New Orleans credit for a terrific game plan and execution of it. They played a physical football game that directly altered the outcome. Many have talked about the appearance of targeting Percy Harvin. It looked like a defense that came to make a point, and Harvin happened to pay the price. If you think opposing defense do not want to hit Seahawk players really hard every week, you would be mistaken. Even with that, where was the tight end in the game plan?
Zach Miller had one target and one juggling catch for 11 yards after netting 5 receptions 86 yards and a touchdown in the first game between these teams. Russell Wilson has yet to regain his rhythm and confidence. An early inaccurate throw to Golden Tate on 3rd down was especially unlike him, but after writing that a lot lately, it is harder to defend it as an aberration. That was an easy throw to an open receiver in an important situation. Tate did not have his best game either. An early hit may have left him woozy, but he was unable to make a couple tough catches on slants. That is a route he needs to continue to develop, as a number of his drops have come on those plays, and they are generally on pivotal third down moments.
No team passed the ball that well in the games yesterday. Andrew Luck threw four interceptions. Tom Brady was without a touchdown pass. Wilson's best number on the day was his zero turnovers. No small feat in weather like that.
Just as the emphasis was on getting the running game on track the last five or six weeks, now the passing game must evolve. The best news for the Seahawks is the running game has returned. Putting up 174 yards on the ground and averaging 5.0 yards per carry against that defense is superb. Only one team did more on the ground versus the Saints this year. It would be easy to toss out the whole offensive performance as terrible, but that would be an emotional reaction.
Not only did the offensive line clear the way for the running game, but they held up well in pass protection. Wilson was sacked three times, but lost 0 yards as they were all at the line of scrimmage, with Wilson running out of bounds or sliding on two of them. Zero turnovers and seven explosive plays were key. Seattle only had four games this year with more 12+ yard runs than they tallied in this game (4). The seven explosive plays overall were the most for the offense in a month.
They need to do better. Running the ball well gives legitimate reason to believe they can. Just because the defense is playing like the 2002 Bucs or 2000 Ravens does not mean the offense needs to play like what those teams featured.
An overlooked part of the victory was the Seahawks relative discipline. Their 52 penalty yards were the fewest they have had in a game since Week 3 vs Jacksonville. This was just the third game all year that they had fewer penalties than their opponent. Give some credit to Michael Bowie who did not have a holding call or false start in his first game a left guard. James Carpenter has had more than his fair share through the year.
Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas were superb. They combined for 25 tackles, both setting career playoff highs. Chancellor's 14 tackles were a personal best in any game. Doing that in the playoffs says a lot about who he is. Both safeties left game-clinching interceptions on the field, however, and have to know those kinds of missed opportunities will not work the rest of the way.
The best player on the field Saturday for either team was Michael Bennett. He also set a career high for tackles in a game (6), registered half-a-sack, forced two fumbles (although only credited with one), recovered a fumble, and had a tackle for loss. This was his first playoff game, and he dominated.
Doug Baldwin got few chances during the game, but once again made a catch to remember. It was arguably the most clutch reception in Seahawks playoff history. He fought off tight coverage and made a difficult catch in bad conditions. This team is better when he is involved. He is rarely the first read. That should change.
Harvin was a factor, even in another short stint. The personal foul he drew on the first drive led to three points. The clutch third down catch he had led to another field goal, and his fly sweep helped setup Lynch's first touchdown. Whether he will be available for any other games this year is anyone's guess.
Fans endured terrible weather, a frustrating offensive performance, and an opponent that does register very high on the hatred scale. They were loud and standing for much of the game. They also were not close to their best. This team needs the best this town has to offer. Anyone that attended the last NFC Championship game in Seattle knows what that sounds like. The noise never dies down, even between plays on defense. You cannot hear your own voice when screaming, let alone the person standing next to you. Your ears ring for days after, and leave you wondering if you have sustained permanent damage. I have been to every Seahawks game since 1997. I know we can do better, and I'd hate to leave the field next Sunday feeling the same way.
Prepare yourself. Every analyst is going to pick San Francisco to come into Seattle and win next week. Yes, I fully expect it to be the 49ers even thought that game has not yet kicked off. They will disparage this offense. They will gush over the opponent. In just one week, we will all come together: fans, coaches, and players to try and take this franchise to a place it has been only once before. We will be armed with the best defense in the last decade, the best fans in the league, and an offense that features the toughest player in football and has a higher ceiling than we have seen the past month. Brees and Payton managed 15 points against this defense. Neither quarterback or offense that could come here is as potent as they are. San Francisco scored 19 points in their home stadium and just 16 combined in their last two trips here. The Panthers scored 7 at home versus the Seahawks and have combined for 19 points in two home games the past two years. Let them doubt us. Let me come. Championship football is upon us.