Every football season consists of two quests. The first involves finding and maintaining a team’s peak performance level. The second involves seeking out other peak performers to see whether your best is actually the best. History is littered with teams who reach and maintain their peak performance for long stretches only to run into an opponent that makes them look decidedly unworthy. There are also numerous examples of teams who are unable to maintain their performance level, usually due to key injuries. Seattle is still consumed with the first quest. Not only have they yet to find their peak performance level, but they have not even maintained their high water mark for a full game, let alone multiple weeks. Dallas will take the field today as the Seahawks opponent, but the real competition will be whether Seattle can maintain their level of play from last week and raise it.
Room to grow
The most typical way that a team finds a new level of performance is by introducing new talent into the mix. This often happens when a player returns from injury. Seattle has seen this in past years when members of the offensive line came back late to form a more cohesive whole. New England has demonstrated that as well when Rob Gronkowski returns or last year when Brandon Browner came off of suspension.
Seattle has less potential for that storyline this year as Paul Richardson and Jeremy Lane are the only two reinforcements scheduled to rejoin the squad. Instead, Seattle’s growth story will have to come from development and integration of new parts added during the offseason.
This is far and away the worst part of the team through seven games. It may be so bad that improvement elsewhere will not matter unless this area takes a large step forward. Seattle has given up fewer sacks the last three games (4.3/gm), compared to the first four (4.5/gm), but that is deceiving as the team has thrown the ball less. The percentage of times Russell Wilson has been sacked has actually gone up from 12.4% to 16.9% during that time. The bulk of this is on the young offensive line, but there is a sizable chunk that rests on the shoulders of Wilson. He can help by doing better on pre-snap reads to make necessary protection changes and to identify hot reads that will allow him to get rid of the ball quickly should pressure come. He also help by getting more comfortable with throwing the ball away instead of taking negative plays.
Darrell Bevell and Tom Cable can also help by designing new plays and protections that are less predictable. The touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett last week was a perfect example of that. It was the same play, protection-wise, as the touchdown to Ricardo Lockette the week prior. They need more plays like that to give the line and Wilson confidence to look downfield.
This is not about getting Graham more targets. It is about finding those go-to plays both Graham and Wilson have high confidence in. These two are operating at what feels like 30-50% of their combined potential. I could list Red Zone as a major area for improvement, but it is really a symptom of both the pass protection issue and this lack of chemistry with Graham. Should they make strides in both those areas, the red zone number is almost certain to rise dramatically. It is hard to remember Graham making catches on the same play so far this year. Every catch feels like a new endeavor. The team has always liked using the bootleg to get the ball to the tight end, but opponents are taking that away this season. This offense will feel very different once the Seahawks figure out reliable ways to challenge the defense with Graham.
Trust in Tyler Lockett
Lockett has been getting behind the defense all season. Wilson finally threw a catchable ball and the team got a big play out of it. Lockett is good enough that he can be part of the equation for unlocking Graham. Safeties should have to worry about him more than they do right now. He does not need high volume targets, but the team should be throwing it deep to him at least once each game.
Lockett launched himself on the NFL scene with both a punt and a kickoff return for touchdown in the first three weeks of the season. He has not done much since. The blocking has left a lot to be desired. This should be a bigger factor than it has been the past few weeks. Seattle special teams can go a long way toward propping up an offense that is still finding itself.
There was a stretch of 14 games toward the back half of the 2013 season, through the playoffs, and into the 2014 season where Wagner had at least 9 tackles in every game. He finished last season with 9+ tackles in seven of their final eight games, including the playoffs. He has just one game this season where he has reached 9 tackles or more. He was an All-Pro last season, and deservedly so. He has not even been a Pro Bowl-level player thus far in this season. He suffered an injury against the Bengals, and deserves the benefit of the doubt because he may be playing through something, but this defense needs him to find his form and start making impact plays.
Reduce assignment errors in pass coverage
This could easily be renamed “Reduce Cary Williams assignment errors in pass coverage,” as it appears nearly all of them have been connected to the new corner. Getting accustomed to a new defense can take time for anyone. It makes sense that he may take some time to acclimate and reach the point where he can react more and think less. Still, he is not a rookie. It is time for him to play assignment-correct football. Getting beat physically by a bigger, stronger, faster player is part of the game. Giving teams free plays due to lack of discipline and preparation is unacceptable.
Wilson taking the next step
The team is asking more of Wilson this year, and he has shown some signs of growth. He is getting rid of the ball on time more often. His pre-snap responsibilities have increased and his recognition has improved. He is still, though, regularly missing open primary receivers and hesitating to the point of taking unnecessary sacks. Watch a full game of Tom Brady and count how many times he makes a questionable decision or looks surprised to see a free blitzer running at him. Brady may be the best quarterback of all-time, so it is a tough comparison, but the gulf between a player like him and Wilson is still massive. Brady dictates to the defense, and is the master of judo quarterbacking—he takes the defensive plan and uses it against them. There is no shame in a swing pass to a running back that nets four yards, especially when the alternative is a sack. Wilson is being asked to grow as a passer this year. Nothing can improve the team’s outlook more than his maturation.
Keep it up
It is easy to see the negative and miss the positive when a team is 3-4 and performing short of expectations. There are, however, some clear bright spots that Seattle will need to stay strong while their developing areas mature.
The Seahawks have had a terrific pass rush all year. They have not always had sacks to show for it, but they are creating consistent pressure with four lineman. Take the Green Bay game. Aaron Rodgers was only sacked twice, but he was forced to move off his spot on nearly every dropback. Detroit and Chicago employed an incredibly conservative game plan that involved micro throws that netted almost no yardage, but kept their quarterbacks upright. That is like a punter kicking the ball out of bounds out of respect for the punt returner. Seattle has started to reap more rewards for their rush the past three weeks (4.3 sacks/gm) compared to their first four (1.5 sacks/gm). Their sack percentage is nearly double what it was. The potential still remains that this could get even better if Frank Clark and Cassius Marsh grow into their roles more.
Seattle has rushed for 163.7 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry the past three weeks. They led the league last season at 169 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry. Marshawn Lynch looked like himself for the first time last week. Thomas Rawls has been a fantastic counterpunch. The offensive line has made terrific strides in this part of their game. This is the core of the team, even more than lockdown defense. Seattle needs to have a reliable running game, even against teams loading up to stop it, if they want to win consistently. Wilson may eventually change that equation and show that he can hurt teams with equal efficiency through the air, but we have not reached that point to this point.
No team has consistently run on the Seahawks this season. The Panthers had the most impressive performance, but that was more about the way they finished runs than about poor run defense by Seattle. Jonathan Stewart ran as hard as any running back ever has in that game. Even with that, they only averaged 4.1 yards per carry. This will be tested against a Dallas team that absolutely needs to run the ball and has the offensive line to do it. Seattle needs this strength to remain a strength, especially with guys like Chris Johnson, Le’veon Bell, and Adrian Peterson coming up.
Nothing is promised
There has been a lot of talk—too much talk—about the Seahawks 3-3 start last season. The implication is that it is just a matter of time before this team finds it stride the way that team did. That’s a hopeful narrative. This team is certainly capable of finding their peak performance level, and there is reason to believe that few teams will be able to compete with them if they do. This season will have to be more like 2012, though, than 2014 for that to happen.
Last season was more about recapturing a killer mentality that had been diminished by the bright lights of their first ring. There will not be a magic team meeting that makes this offensive line better at pass blocking or Cary Williams better at his job. Wilson’s rookie year, in 2012, was about player development unlocking their finishing flourish. It may take another leveling up of his play for this team to meet their goals this year.
The primary measure of today’s game will not be the final score, but how close Seattle comes to their standard of play.