Good teams judge their seasons by only one metric, wins. Great teams judge their seasons by one game, the Super Bowl. The 2011 Seahawks are neither good nor great, so their season must be judged differently. Four games into this season, the team is 1-3, but there are reasons to be very excited as a Seahawks fan. Players and position groups crucial to the team’s future success are heading in the right direction, some at startlingly fast rates.
Opp Scoring – 24.2 (T18th)
Opp Rushing Yd/Game – 105.0 (14th)
Opp Yards Per Carry – 3.2 (3rd)
Opp Passing Yd/Game – 236.5 (16th)
Opp Yards Per Attempt – 7.4 (T15th)
Sacks – 5 (T29th)
Opp QB Rating – 91.7 (22nd)
Turnovers Forced – 2 (2 INT)
No group faced longer odds, perhaps in the entire NFL, of having a productive season than this one. They started off the season pretty much as advertised. The run blocking was bad. The pass protection was atrocious. It was so bad that the coaches devised a game plan for week two that kept at least two extra blockers in on pass protection on every snap, and still had Tarvaris Jackson getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible. Even with that, they still gave up five sacks. Hugh Millen famously accused the team of playing four guards and a center because the tackles were not being asked to block defensive ends. Most people that have watched NFL football for a while will tell you that offensive lines usually take 2-3 years to develop the chemistry and experience necessary to be effective. This line will likely need that time as well, but they demonstrated measurable progress in the past two weeks. The key indicators to watch with this group are yards-per-carry in the running game, sacks allowed, Zach Miller targets (i.e., how often is Miller being thrown the ball?), and yards-per-attempt. The Miller stat is one simple way to get a view of how often he is being asked to stay in and block versus go out in pass patterns. The better way to measure progress on that front would be counting each snap a tight end stays in to block, but let’s leave that to someone else. Yards per attempt are in there because it is an indicator of bigger plays in the passing game that take longer to develop, and therefore require better protection.
The Seahawks offensive line is showing signs of life
A 4.2 YPC team average would put a team in the top half of the NFL this season. The Seahawks stand at 3.4 after four games. They obviously have taken a step forward the last two weeks, even with a first half against Atlanta that saw them only gain five yards on the ground. Arizona and Atlanta are both Top 15 in opponent’s YPC, so this isn’t a case of feasting on poor competition. The hope was that the young lineman like John Moffitt and James Carpenter would be stronger in run blocking right out of the gates, but that has not proven to be the case. The running game is still a liability, but is trending in a direction where it could still develop into a strength of the offense as the year wears on. The next three stats tell an interesting combined story. Not only did the line pitch a shutout on sacks last week, they did so in a game where Jackson made more throws (38) than any other this season, and for basically double his average YPA. Miller also had his season-high in targets. Having watched the Pittsburgh and Arizona games multiple times, it was clear that Jame Carpenter was needing less and less help in pass protection and that the tight ends and backs were getting more involved in pass patterns. Given where this unit started the season, this is absolutely stunning progress in a short amount of time. That’s not to say they are even to the point where they are an average NFL line. They are not. It’s not even to say they won’t have more terrible games ahead. They will. The point is that the training wheels are coming off, and the coaches aren’t needing to put them back on. That is worth celebrating, and is a good sign that this line can be great in a few years. A special shout-out to Carpenter, and his coaches, who has gone from hopeless to hopeful in no time flat.
National experts, many fans, and some local media all roasted the front office for not bringing in more help at the cornerback position this off-season. How on Earth–the thinking went–could a CFL reject, a 5th round draft choice and injured 2010 draft pick hope to play opposite Marcus Trufant? Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond have done an excellent job thus far, especially considering the total lack of pass rush. Browner got beat often in the Pittsburgh game, but has been one of the better players on the defense these last two weeks. He is great in run support, a sure-tackler, and physical with receivers. His ball skills have not been great, and his aggressive style can lead to penalties, but he is making his opponent work for everything they get. Thurmond has been a ghost in the slot, which is a good thing. He’s rarely being thrown at, which as at least some indication his coverage has been good.
Beyond Browner, the headline story for the secondary has been the development of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Thomas has not made the leap to being the reliable impact player he has the potential to be, but he has unveiled a new dimension to his game in stopping the run. He has four tackles for loss on the season which is three more than he had all of last year. The coaches are letting him play closer to the line and freelance a little more. He was everywhere in the San Francisco game, and showed it was not a fluke in the second half against Atlanta. He’s on pace for 108 tackles and 16 tackles for loss. He had 76 tackles during his rookie year. He needs to start having a bigger impact in causing turnovers, preferably via interceptions. He can still be much better than what we have seen. His battery mate, Chancellor, has arguably been the best player on the defense. His strength and hitting ability have been huge against the run, but it has been his ability to defend the pass that has been the biggest surprise. He has done well against Todd Heap, Vernon Davis and Heath Miller. His interception against Arizona sealed the victory. Thomas and Chancellor have done nothing to diminish the notion they could be an elite starting safety tandem for a decade.
A healthy Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch have formed a formidable run defense that is challenging the notion that the first six games of last season (when Bryant was healthy) was a mirage.
In the 10 full games Bryant has played at the defensive end position, the team is consistently holding teams to near 3 yards-per-carry, and a low 3rd down conversion percentage of around 35%. Even Chris Clemons, the runt of the line litter at the LEO position, has been a giant against the run all year. The Seahawks are 14th in rushing yards allowed per game (105.0), but 3rd in opponent’s YPC (3.2). The run defense is near elite.
The pass rush has been nonexistent. The Seahawks are second-worst in the NFL in sacks, and are not getting many QB hits either. This defensive line needs to start finding a way to get pressure with four players. The defensive philosophy of stacking the line to defend the run is being challenged by this lack of pass rush. There is a reason 3-4 defenses use their linebackers to rush the passer.
David Hawthorne and Leroy Hill have played well, but need to be forcing turnovers. Aaron Curry lost his starting job to K.J.Wright, but may be earning it back by outplaying Wright. Atlanta ran in Wright’s direction with a lot of success early, before Curry replaced him and stemmed the tide a bit. Wright excels in pass protection, so there may be a rotation that happens there.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Sidney Rice has proven to be the difference-maker fans hoped for when he signed. The offense had one explosive play (20+ yards) before he played, and has had 10 since, including four by Rice alone. Doug Baldwin is leading the team in receptions and yards. He looks like a player that will contribute for years to come. Mike Williams is not getting many chances, and has only eight receptions. Ben Obomanu is outpacing Williams with 11 receptions. Golden Tate has largely faded to the background, but has made the most of the chances he has had. There have been some tough catches he has pulled down. Zach Miller, as noted above, has been blocking more than receiving. He has only eight catches. Anthony McCoy has four catches, and has played well as a blocker and a receiver. The overall group is hard to judge given the challenges with the line, the lack of running attack, and the absence of Rice for two games.
Marshawn Lynch has been uninspiring. Leon Washington is barely getting any snaps, and neither is Justin Forsett. The Seahawks are dead last in the NFL in rushing attempts with 80. That obviously limits the chances to mix and match the backs. This group needs to do more, much more. None of these players are the future of the franchise at this position, so tracking there progress is not all that interesting.
Jackson has been a lightning rod, as expected. He has been the player most people expected him to be. He showed some growth in the last game, but is also not the long-term answer, so evaluating him is a waste of time.
It would not be hard to argue that every single position group is measurably better after game four than they were in game one. Seeing critical groups like the offensive line, secondary and defensive line perform well is a great sign. There needs to be continued growth in pass protection, rushing, and pass rush. Turnovers are also something that needs to come, but that is often tied closely to pass rush. Three of the next four games are @NYG, @CLE, @DAL with a home game against CIN mixed in. Any improvement in these areas with that many road games will be tough.