Monday, September 1, 2014

Hawk Blogger Season Preview Part VI: Division Foes & Predictions


Scouting the NFC West


San Francisco 49ers

No team has had more players arrested or made more conference championships the past three years than the San Francisco 49ers. An immensely talented roster with some seriously questionable character, the 49ers inability to win it all may trace back to leadership. Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke reportedly bicker about a number of things, but both agreed to play Aldon Smith just days after he was found passed out in a wrecked car having driving drunk. Their public comments were to the effect of, "That's not for us to police. The NFL will take care of it." In essence, the two leaders of the organization were stating that they were okay with Smith playing as long as the NFL was. Harbaugh enters the final year of his contract as the perfect poster boy for the state of this team. Their on-field standards are high, but have yet to be high enough. Their off-field behavior is often reprehensible. With so many quality players either in the final years of their contracts (Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati), near the end of their careers (Justin Smith, Anquan Boldin) or both (Frank Gore), this has the feel of the last year of this particular championship window. They will not fade away as some younger talent like Eric Reid, Tank Carradine, Carlos Hyde and Quinton Dial step forward, but one does not just replace a player like Smith.

HAWK BLOGGER 2014 SEASON PREVIEW PART V: Breaking Down The Defense & Special Teams

Photo by Jeff Marsh & the Seattle Seahawks

Defense – Starters

Michael Bennett – 5-Technique DE (over TE)
Brandon Mebane – 1-Technique DT
Tony McDaniel – 3-Technique DT
Cliff Avril – LEO
Bruce Irvin/Mike Morgan* – SAM (Strongside Linebacker)
Bobby Wagner – MIKE (Middle Linebacker)
K.J. Wright – WILL (Weakside Linebacker)
Byron Maxwell* – RCB
Kam Chancellor* – SS
Earl Thomas++ – FS
Richard Sherman++ – LCB
Jeremy Lane* - Nickel CB

* New starter or new position
+ Pro Bowl
++ All-Pro

Defense – Running Game

Everyone knows the Legion of Boom by now, and the impact the Seahawks secondary has had on the league. What many not know is that run defense was a far more critical barometer of how the team played in 2013. When the Seahawks kept opponents from running wild, they dominated. Teams that were able to pile up yards on the ground made Seattle sweat.

RecordAvg Pts ScoredAvg Pts Allowed
Opponent rushes for 130+ yds5-220.516.6
Opponent rushes for less than 130 yds8-130.312.8

Seattle might have been 5-2 in games they allowed 130+ rushing yards, but those wins included a 14-9 near-disaster in St. Louis, falling behind 21-0 to the Bucs at home, a miracle comeback against Houston and 12-7 opener in Carolina. The two losses were @SF and at home to Arizona. The secondary deserves the praise it receives, but the way the front seven plays against the run has a lot more to do with the outcome of a Seahawks game. Seattle brought in help at defensive tackle in Kevin Williams, but teams will test the new starting defensive ends early and often to see if they can hold up as well as Chris Clemons and Red Bryant did. Results were mixed in the preseason.

Defense – Passing Game

Seattle went from 36 sacks in 2012, good for a rank of 18th in the NFL, to 44 sacks in 2013, and a rank of 8th. This is a different defense when they combine their talented secondary with an effective pass rush. Opponent passer ratings dipped from 71.2 in 2012 to a ridiculous 63.4 in 2013. How bad is a 63.4 rating? Case Keenum finished with a rating of 78.2 last season for the lowly Texans, and was just released. This was a historic pass defense last year, as Peyton Manning found out in February.

They will need to reestablish their dominance with new personnel this season. Their top four in the secondary remain intact from where they ended last year, but everything changes after that. Their pass rush has many of the same parts, but each is playing new or expanded roles. The preseason was mostly encouraging, but was inconsistent enough to raise some concern.

Defensive Line

Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril were twin wrecking balls for the Seahawks last season. They brought intensity, turnovers and outstanding production. Neither was a starter. That speaks to the difference in line depth this year and Avril steps in for Clemons and Bennett for Bryant. One perspective would be that this should be a step forward for the players and the defense. Bennett is known for his pass rush ability, which is about 10x what Bryant could bring in that department, but is a terrific run defender as well. Avril was a far superior pass rusher to Clemons last year, and will get more snaps that should lead to more production this season. No player has looked more primed for a monster year during training camp and preseason than Avril. The question for him will be how well he can hold up in run defense, where he will be tested regularly.

The other guy who looks ready to have a terrific season is O'Brien Schofield. A strongside linebacker most of last year, Schofield re-signed with the Seahawks exclusively as a rush defensive end. He has wreaked havoc and has to have the coaches feeling confident they have a strong nickel edge pass rush package with Schofield and Avril coming from either side. Bruce Irvin will join that fray soon as well. Bennett will slide inside on nickel situations, and be joined by Williams, Jordan Hill or Cassius Marsh. Williams is the only one of those three who could hold up reliably against the run, should an offense try to take advantage of Seattle's nickel personnel.

Williams, Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel are the bellwether's for this group, and possibly for this defense overall. They need to be outstanding against the run up the middle. When Seattle has struggled in recent years, it was because opponents were able to gash them for yards up the gut. McDaniel was great last year, but will he be as motivated after signing his free agent deal? Mebane was amazing, but is getting older. Williams is older, but will play fewer snaps than at any point in his career. These three guys could give Seattle its best interior line play in ages, or it could break down and leave the team scrambling for solutions. Greg Scruggs is a fine young player, but he is not ready to step in for any of these guys.

Marsh is a wildcard who will not be relied on, but has flashed upside to where he could be a valuable part of this line rotation by year's end.

Linebackers

Young and hungry, this group may help make up for losses elsewhere by elevating their level of play. K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith both are playing on the last year of their contracts. Irvin is trying to prove he can be a star instead of just an above average player. Bobby Wagner has mixed All-Pro play with mediocre in his first two years. It is time for him to put together a complete season. Those four players are all capable of significant growth in 2014 after largely being ignored last year with the famous Seattle secondary and pass rush earning most of the spotlight.

I am still puzzled as to why it appears the Seahawks will start the season with Mike Morgan playing SAM in place of the recovering Irvin instead of sliding Wright over and letting Smith play WILL. Morgan is not the player Smith or Wright are. It appears as though the team has decided Smith has a specific nickel role, and that is all. Wright was just an okay WILL last year after being a plus SAM before. Smith was a far bigger playmaker. It is past time for Wright to make the impact his talent suggests he should.

Brock Coyle is a promising middle linebacker who could easily be part of this team for years to come. He could step in and immediately be effective against the run. His pass coverage would be the question mark.

Kevin Pierre-Louis is more of a developmental prospect at this point. He has not shown that he is ready to get off of blocks and would be a liability against the run. This group lost a promising player in Korey Toomer to make room for the likes of KPL and Morgan. The hope is that they make that tradeoff worthwhile.


Secondary

As well as Byron Maxwell played at the end of last season, it will be a little sad to not see 6'4" Brandon Browner abusing receivers this season. We will miss his suplexes and crushing plays in run support. We will not miss his suspensions and trouble defending shifty receivers. Maxwell proved to be a playmaker in his first extended time as a starter. He was one of the best corners in football during that span. He will be tested throughout this season as teams largely avoid Richard Sherman. That means he will either look bad, or could have some monster passes defensed and interception numbers.

The nickel corner is where there is more intrigue. Jeremy Lane steps in to start, but he is not the player Walter Thurmond is. Lane had some promising moments when Thurmond was suspended last year, but enough questions remain that John Schneider traded a 6th-round pick to add another nickel corner to the roster in Marcus Burley.

Another option should Lane struggle is to move Maxwell inside during nickel situations and let Tharold Simon play outside. Simon is still raw, but would not be a disaster if pressed into action.

Safety play is still the straw that stirs this secondary. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor must continue to grow and assert their authority. Something they are more than capable of doing.


Special Teams – Coverage & Kicking

Lane and Ricardo Lockette were fantastic gunners on punt coverage last year. That group nearly set an NFL record for fewest punt return yards allowed. They may not get many chances this season with the way that offense should play, but it is definitely worth watching every Seattle punt.

Steven Hauschka was steady and spectacular all year. Anything close to that rate of reliability would be fantastic for this year.

The big news for this group will be to see how kick and punt returns perform. Harvin is the best in the business and Thomas is listed as the returner for punts. Golden Tate was a great catcher of the football and built for a little abuse. Thomas is not nearly as natural of a catcher, but has more breakaway potential. 


Defense – Overall 2014 Outlook

This group will be hard-pressed to reach the level that the 2013 defense did. That was one of the best defenses in the history of the league. The good news is that they do not need to be as good as last year's crew. The offense should make life easier on them. When the offense is effective, it means fewer chances for the opposing offense and fewer plays to defend. That leads to fresher defenders and often, better results. It is a virtuous cycle that the Seahawks would love to see.

It was hard to separate some of the disappointing play from depth players during the preseason and what the starters are capable of. This did not feel like the same lean-forward defense we have watched the last two years, but many of the guys who will step on the field when the season opens were not on the field. Health is always important, but it feels more so this time around. There are not good options to step in at corner or defensive tackle. Seattle has had an embarrassment of riches for years, and now must prove their stars can will the team to dominant play no matter who surrounds them. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed did this for Baltimore. Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton did it for Pittsburgh.

The talent is there to be the best defense in the NFL again. Williams stands out as a crucial player who could make a huge difference against the run and the pass if he plays to his standards. The linebackers could very well earn their own nickname this season as their results match their potential. And there is room for more than one new name to join the legion. No defense in the NFL has 11 better starters than what the Seahawks will put on the field. Time to prove it once again.
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Saturday, August 30, 2014

HAWK BLOGGER 2014 SEASON PREVIEW PART IV: Breaking Down The Offense

Photo by Jeff Marsh & the Seattle Seahawks

Scoring 43 points in a Super Bowl usually shines a light on a team's offense.  Having stars like Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson and Percy Harvin grants most teams the spotlight and respect. Somehow, despite their pedigree, the Seahawks offense remains one of the league's best kept secrets. Many laud the defense, but see the offense as along for the ride. This was a team that was scoring 28+ points per game and had a quarterback with a rating near 110.0 before a late-season slump. Even then, they finished 8th in the NFL in scoring, tied with the almighty Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy and the Green Bay Packers, and more than Drew Brees and the Saints. People know the Lions to be an explosive offense, but they scored less than Seattle and had a lower percentage of explosive pass plays (12.4% vs 9.7%). People look at the Seahawks defense and see Kate Upton, but when they look at the offense, it's as if they have the Shallow Hal syndrome. The league will soon be forced to recognize what could be the most efficient offense in the league.

PODCAST: Guest appearance on Football Sickness

I joined Ryan Burns and his partner Sen on a 60 minutes podcast previewing the Seahawks season. We covered a lot of ground.

Check it out at Football Sickness or...

***DOWNLOAD THE PODCAST***
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Friday, August 29, 2014

Final Roster Projections

It's that time. Here are my final projections of who will makes the 53-man roster this year. There were a number of big surprises last year, including cutting Sean McGrath and going with just two tight ends. John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made a habit of looking for ways to improve their team down to the very last minute. Do not be surprised if we see trades for future picks or even straight player trades where the teams have a surplus at different positions and would rather swap than cut the guy outright. Defensive line is one are we might see that for Seattle, especially if they can find a guy who is stout against the run. A move like that could see Greg Scruggs or maybe Jordan Hill falling off the roster. That may seem crazy, but neither player has really grabbed hold of a roster spot, and defending the run could be a challenge for Seattle, especially if any starters at defensive tackle get injured.

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The Morning After: Seahawks Defense Disappoints In 41-31 loss to the Raiders


The last time the Seahawks lost a game by more than seven points, Marshawn Lynch had exactly one 100-yard rushing game in a Seattle uniform during the regular season. Russell Wilson was leading the Wisconsin Badgers to a Rose Bowl. Bobby Wagner was playing at Utah State. J.R. Sweezy was still a defensive lineman. Pete Carroll was still an NFL punch line. The Seahawks were still irrelevant. Fifty-six games. One-thousand and twenty-six days. It was a run of dominant play that saw the team go 44-12 over that span. The regular and postseason streak lives on, standing at 45 games, but this milestone still matters for a team that prides itself on blind consistency no matter the opponent or situation.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Hawk Blogger 2014 Season Preview Part III: Grading The Off-Season

Pete Carroll and his players owned the 2013 season, but it is always worth a bucket of popcorn to sit back and watch John Schneider attack each off-season. Nobody scours the landscape for ways to improve his team more than Schneider. The pressure only increases now as he becomes the victim of his own success and must sign some of his early additions to large deals. That leaves less margin for error when it comes to free agent spending and hitting on draft picks. Not everything fell exactly into place this past off-season, but some important new talent was added to the mix.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hawk Blogger 2014 Season Preview Part II: A Look Back At 2013

The better team does not always win each week. The best team in the league does not always win the Super Bowl. Seattle finished on top of the hardest division in football. They beat Drew Brees and the Saints, and then Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. They played the most prolific offense in the history of football and a player many would argue is the best quarterback in the history of football on the world's largest stage, and won by a Nintendo score. Your 2013 Seattle Seahawks were indisputably the best team in all the land. This part of the Hawk Blogger season preview will look back at just what made them so special, and jog our memories for clues that could be helpful as we look forward.

Hawk Blogger 2014 Season Preview Part I: The Franchise

HAWK BLOGGER 2014 SEASON PREVIEW PART I: The Franchise

Players are told to approach each game one play at a time and each season one game at a time. Coaches and general managers build up their rosters and teams one season at a time. Fans are different. Seahawks fans have been around long before any current coaches, players, general managers, or even owners, and will be here long after they are gone. Fans endure. Seahawks fans have endured playoff droughts that lasted more than 10 years. They have endured referees that feel so bad about the quality of their championship calls, that they feel compelled to come forward and apologize years later. And now, they have felt the pure elation of winning a Super Bowl for the first time. Being a fan allows for a big picture perspective that nobody else can afford.

Patterns from history often repeat. Even while some teams have broken from their franchise histories in recent years (e.g., Patriots become champions, 49ers become a joke for a decade), much can be learned by exploring the patterns across generations. Before diving into the detail of this 39th season of Seahawks football, take a moment to see where we are in franchise history.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Russell Wilson Targets Rare Achievement

Pete Carroll has been very public with one of his primary goals for his young quarterback. He wants Russell Wilson to complete 70% of his passes this season. That sounds like a nice round number, and a quarterback as efficient as Wilson would seem a perfect candidate to reach that mark. The task may be taller than you think. Only three players in NFL history have started at least 12 games in a season and completed at least 70% of their passes. Those three players combined to accomplish the feat only four times. The names are legends. Joe Montana, Steve Young and Drew Brees have done it, and only Brees has done it twice. But what Carroll has not said is that besides wanting a historic completion rate, he also wants an explosive passing attack. The combination of efficiency and explosion would make it one of the most notable seasons for a quarterback in league history.