Someone asked me on Twitter the other day why I was noticeably more optimistic about this Seahawks season than I have been the past couple of years. The answer is both complex and simple: this team is better. Simple on the surface, but the reasons why they are better are far more complex.
Part of it relates to the talent on the squad. Fresh faces like Shaquill Griffin, Bradley McDougald, Sheldon Richardson, Eddie Lacy, Chris Carson, and even long snapper Tyler Ott, are significant upgrades from who the Seahawks had in those spots before. Part of it relates to the state of the best players on the team. Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas, Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, and K.J. Wright appear ready to have their best years in a Seahawks uniform. Wilson and Thomas, in particular, look like rockets ready to lift off and tear through the sky, leaving most NFL players looking up at them helplessly. Another part if it comes from a mindset that feels healthier, and more authentic, than at any time since the team won the Super Bowl.
Many people point to the fallout of the Super Bowl loss as a moment when the team chemistry soured. There were undoubtedly significant repercussions from that game, but the mindset of this team changed after they won their first ring. Most forget, but Thomas talked about it being harder to find that edge after just the second game of that 2014 season when the Seahawks lost to the Chargers. It is easy to blame the distractions of newfound celebrity status for why things changed, but that misses the more fundamental shift. This was a group of players who carried a collective chip on their shoulders about being the underdog and being disrespected.
It was their touchstone. Whenever they needed a source of inspiration to take one extra rep, watch one extra minute of film, or even quash an issue with a teammate or coach, that shared goal of proving the world wrong was there to supply it. Many of these players have been underestimated their whole lives. Winning the Super Bowl was like getting to the top of Mount Everest and realizing they could go no higher.
Pete Carroll would say this is exactly why he preaches the notion that every week is a championship opportunity. His goal is to create a consistent approach to each and every game so that the team does not break stride when a championship occurs. It is a psychological trick that is easier said than done. Carroll believes he found this formula at USC when he won multiple national titles, but there is the potential for some false positives there given that kids graduate and move on. The core of the team that won the Super Bowl was sticking around. Convincing the same guys to climb Everest again with the same mindset is far harder than convincing new folks who have never done it to take those steps.
It feels like it has taken three years, and numerous experiences, to recapture a shared mindset. The veteran core appears genuinely happy to be at work. This is not to say the group was a bunch of malcontents before. There is a lightness and joy to their attitudes this preseason that was absent in years prior. None of it feels forced. There is this combination of confidence, and talent, and camaraderie that feels like a potent concoction for opponents to handle.
I felt this way about the 2012 squad that was coming off a 7-9 season. That feeling only grew stronger heading into the 2013 season. What is different for me now is I know what it takes to win a Super Bowl. So does the team. There is no posing or guessing. Plenty can change over the course of a season, but I have very little doubt this Seahawks team taking the field in Green Bay is a capable of winning the whole thing.
What to make of this game
The first game of the regular season is one of the most difficult. It is also one of the hardest to assess. Both teams have tendencies from years past and some carryover players, but there are new wrinkles and new faces. The Packers have never faced C.J. Prosise. If he has a monster game, does that mean he is the key to beating Green Bay or simply an advantage Seattle had that would fade the next time they played? Griffin could get picked on mercilessly by Rodgers. Does that mean he’s a bust, or just that he is a rookie playing in his very first NFL game against a Hall of Famer?
New faces make it hard for teams to prepare. First games make it hard to find a rhythm. Doing it all on the road raises the degree of difficulty even higher. That is part of why this game is really all upside for Seattle. If they lose, it won’t mean much about who they are as a team. But if they win…you just started your season with a victory in one of the toughest situations against one of the toughest teams. All gain, little pain.
Germain Ifedi has unappreciated upside
There was not a lot of joy in the Hawk Blogger household when the commissioner announced Germain Ifedi as the Seahawks first round pick last year. He looked inconsistent in pass protection, and felt like another offensive line reach. I became impressed with his potential as a run blocker during training camp and the preseason last year when he was playing guard. He is a mountain of a man who moves people. Most of that goodwill melted away once the regular season snaps started and he was making mental and physical mistakes with far too much regularity.
His adventures in pass protection while playing guard made me skeptical that any good could come out of moving him to right tackle. As I expected, he was a disaster in pass protection early in camp and in his first game of the preseason. Just when I was about to close the book on him, something changed.
He played better in the second game, and flashed some of that special ability as a run blocker by sealing the end for some nice gains around the right side. Then he played an even better game in the third content, again making some key blocks in the run game. I’m guessing most people still have Ifedi in the bust category, but I’d suggest withholding judgment until at least halfway through this season.
This is a second year player with unique physical gifts. His size and strength combination is rare. He may never be an above average pass blocker, but he could become an elite run blocker. Sunday would be a great time to give a demonstration. Take a look at how opposing teams did when running at the Packers last year:
Opponents had their best success running at Green Bay outside of right tackle. The Seahawks fell behind so quickly last year that they did not get many chances to run, but look at what they did in those few chances:
Interesting to see that the Seahawks had better than average success in all directions running the ball except over left guard. If Ifedi has shown the ability to anything well so far, it is to seal the edge to allow run to the outside. The Packers have lost one of their best run defenders from last season in Letroy Guion, and also Julius Peppers. This will make for an interesting subplot in the game, and hopefully a chance for Ifedi to start earning his stripes.
Running teams spell trouble for the Packers
Aaron Nagler was on our show earlier this week and when asked what he thought the Seahawks needed to do in order to win this Sunday, he pointed to establishing a strong running game. That always sounds good, but there is some evidence to indicate the Packers struggle against good running teams.
The chart above shows the Packers opponents from last season, and their respective ranking for run efficiency on the year. Red teams are the tough run offenses. Green teams are the weak run offenses. I put a red line through roughly the midpoint. Look at the Packers results against all the opponents below that line. Not good. In fact, they were 1-5 during the regular season against those teams. That six-game win streak to end the year? It all came against teams who were in the bottom half, and mostly bottom third, of the league in rushing efficiency. Aaron might be right on the nose about how to beat this Packers squad.
Packers secondary weakness is not Wilson’s strength
Saying Green Bay struggled to defend the pass last year is an understatement. They were one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL. They struggled, in particular, in defending passes to the right side.
They gave up crazy numbers when passing deep right. They were much better along the left side. Wilson had trouble with throws in that particular part of the field last season.
There were a number of extenuating circumstances last season for Wilson, so it is hard to say this is a true weakness in his game. It is also worth pointing out deep middle was his best zone and that was the Packers second-worst area to defend. Perhaps the changing of the guard at receiver will help change some of these numbers for Wilson along the right side. This secondary is certainly the right group to test.