The Morning After: Saints Beat Seahawks, 34-19

Mike Holmgren was nearly fired the last time the Seahawks offense played this well. The Seahawks stood at 3-7  after 11 weeks into the 2002 season. Holmgren had been GM and Head Coach since 1999, and patience was running thin around Seattle that he could turn around this moribund franchise. A 31-9 home loss to the hated Denver Broncos where the Seahawks offense could only muster 204 total yards was a low point in a season where Matt Hasselbeck and Trent Dilfer both spent time as the team’s starting QB. The team was not showing signs of becoming the offensive machine Holmgren was famous for building, and local writers were openly calling for a change at the top. Then, almost out of thin air, the offense put together back-to-back games of over 500 yards, that included 354 yards passing in the first and 427 in the second. The Seahawks ended up winning four of their final six games to finish 7-9. That was enough to save Holmgren the coach, but not enough to save Holmgren the GM, which eventually led us to our current benevolent ruler, Pete Carroll. It has been almost eight years to the day since that passing explosion in 2002. The 781 yards combined passing yards in those two weeks was the only time in team history the team has eclipsed the two-week total we have witnessed the last two games where the Seahawks have rolled up 746 passing yards. The Seahawks have lost by 15 points on the road many times before. They have given up nearly 500 yards of offense before. Only once before have they ever passed for this many yards in back-to-back games. That is worth being excited about.

Hasselbeck should remember that six-game span in 2002, because it cemented his status as the team’s starting quarterback after a multi-year battle with the likes of Brock Huard and Dilfer. Koren Robinson’s fluctuating performance, and a variety of other factors including a great running game, made that stretch and aberration in Hasselbeck’s career. Sure, he become a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl QB, but he never passed for more yardage in a six-week stretch than he did in those six games. History may be repeating itself in what would be a shocking development for a 35-year-old QB with a broken wrist in a new offense that has struggled to break 200 yards passing for much of the season, let alone double that. Let me offer some advice. Sign him to an extension now Carroll and Schneider. Have you ever bought a stock a week, a day, an hour too late? Hasselbeck’s stock is rising fast, and even if he does not match this kind of output down the stretch, we have seen more than enough to know that the team is better off with him next year than without him. None of that changes the need to draft a franchise QB of the future in April, but now we have a legitimate bridge to that future. Don’t fumble it away.

Speaking of fumbles, Marshawn Lynch has a choice to make. He can continue the downward slide we have witnessed for the past few weeks and possibly lose the bulk of snaps to Justin Forsett and Leon Washington, or he can run angry and ignite the running attack the way Mike Williams and Hasselbeck have ignited the passing attack. It is hard to watch Forsett the last two weeks and not cringe a little every time you see Lynch in the game. The numbers from the Saints game tell a different story. Lynch surprisingly averaged over 5 yards per carry compared to only 1.3 for Forsett. Perception does not always match reality, but Lynch looks to be running East/West a lot more than in his first two games with the team. The line should theoretically improve in the running game if it can stay healthy. The threat of a running game was the only difference between the Seahawks offense yesterday and a Super Bowl champion’s offense on the same field. Drew Brees was quoted after the game saying it was the best they have played all year, and possibly ever. Few would have picked Seattle to be within 30 points of Saints team that played a game like that.

Only 70 yards separated the two teams, and the Saints rushed for 54 more yards than the Hawks to make up most of that difference. The other obvious difference was red zone offense. Often the last thing to snap into place for a new offense with new players is scoring in the red zone. Precision, anticipation and trust are at a premium in the tight space inside the 20. Running is also critical. Improvement in this area over the next six games is not a given, but is a reasonable goal.

There are a few more things worth taking away from the offensive performance yesterday. Ben Obamanu (or Obamanabanmajoojoo if you are Thom Brenneman) has put a bear hug on the starting WR role opposite Mike Williams. He is 6’1″ and can go up and get the ball. He has more speed than Williams, runs decent routes and is only 27 years old. It will be interesting to see what this means to Golden Tate’s ascension. Tate has exclusively training behind Williams to avoid having to learn too many WR positions, but the expectation is that he’d challenge for the spot opposite Williams next year. Obamanu could make that less of a certainty. On the flip side, this passing game could experience even greater heights when a person of Tate’s abilities gets back on the field. File it away. He may yet have a major impact on this season. Brandon Stokley blends wonderfully into the WR corps with six catches in six targets, many critical plays. Teams will not be able to focus on taking away Williams on 3rd down with Stokley playing. Lastly, 10 of Matt’s 32 completions were to running backs. Utilizing the check-down receivers is something Matt has never been great at, and was often coached to avoid doing by Holmgren who wanted throws down the field. Look at the great passing offenses in the NFL like the Saints, the Colts, and the Patriots, and you will see lots of swing passes for 3-8 yards mixed in with the down field throws. Watching Matt rediscover that weapon bodes well for the stretch run.

Tough game for the defense. Gus Bradley clearly felt that blitzing Brees was not a good way to go. He mostly rushed four players early in the game. That is not what this defense is good at. They are best when they are gambling and pressuring the passer. Having said that, Bradley did eventually start blitzing and the Saints did a masterful job at picking up the extra rushers while Brees completed passes anyway. There was probably no game plan that would have slowed down the Saints yesterday, at least with Seattle’s personnel. Many great defenses have tried to stop that offense and failed, so it is hard to get too upset about it.

Fans and media alike were ripping the Seahawks for poor tackling. Give Chris Ivory credit. He ran extremely hard. Seattle has not been a bad tackling team all year, and while they were unsuccessful in many tackles today, many were still solid hits and wrap-ups. Ivory was running through everyone. No other running back we have seen has moved the pile that way. When Julius Jones stepped on the field, he was getting brought down easily by the exact same “bad” tackling. Sometimes, you just have to tip your cap to a great individual performance. Figuring out why Jones is ever in the game is a mystery when a guy like Ivory is available. Even with the “bad” tackling, New Orleans only managed 3.9 yards per carry.

Whenever there is a total lack of pass pressure and a running game that eclipses 100 yards, the defense is getting whipped. It happened, and it would happen again if they played next week. The goal against an offense playing like that is to try and hold them to field goals. That didn’t happen either. I have excused the passing yard surrendered by this defense much of the year. The opposing QB rating has been in the top half of the league, and the points against had been as well until the Raiders/Giants fiascoes. Enough is enough. The defense needs to rise up, especially the corner backs. Some passes need to be picked off by a DB other than Earl Thomas. Quarterbacks need to have some fear when they release the ball. It may be too much to ask at this point, but is a glaring weakness that must improve.

There is a reasonable chance the Seahawks could host the Saints in round one of the playoffs in Qwest field. Most would favor the Saints in a rematch. I would not. New Orleans played a nearly flawless offensive game. Having players like Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Jeremey Shockey back would not have made them all that much better. Ivory would have had less carries. Their back-up tight end had over 70 yards receiving. They scored touchdowns on four straight possessions. They would still be lethal on offense, but matching their 34 point output in Qwest field during a playoff game is far from certain. They might be able to count on the same number of favorable game-defining calls, given Seattle’s history with officiating. The Seahawks offense will be better by the playoffs if it can stay healthy. The defense can’t be worse. After a humiliating defeat to the Giants at home, everyone rightfully questioned whether Seattle could play with a contending team. A glance at the 34-19 score would lead one to believe the answer is still “no.” Anyone who watched that game knows different. It took Matt all the way until game number 11 to take command of a new offense and lead a dynamic passing game to new heights in 2002. He was two games earlier in 2010. The next six Sundays could be lots of fun, and hopefully, they save Matt’s job the way he saved Holmgren’s in 2002.