Seahawks Identity Crisis Part V: Prognosis & Tactics
Something did not feel quite right about the Seahawks last season. It was more than their inept line play, or the injuries to Russell Wilson and Earl Thomas. The team felt different. I could not quite put my finger on it, but this series has helped me recognize that the philosophical foundations this team was built on had eroded across the board. Pete Carroll preaches turnovers being the top priority, but they were forcing few and giving away more than anytime in the past six seasons. He specializes in secondary play, but opponent passer rating was at it’s highest point and interceptions were at their lowest, despite a healthy pass rush. He emphasizes a balanced offense and physical running game, but abandoned the run early in games early in the year. When I set out to do a check-up of the Seahawks vital signs, I was not sure what I would find. The results were clear; this team lost touch with their championship formula, and now faces a crossroads.
The run game
Option 1: Embrace the change
The New England Patriots went through a similar metamorphosis after Brady got his first big contract and won his first MVP. People forget the early Brady years were just as much about the defense and running game as they were about quarterback play. All three of the Super Bowl wins for New England in the early 2000s came during seasons when the Patriots ran the ball at least 47% of the time. The one year they did not win (2002) came when they put too much burden on Brady before he was ready, with the team only running the ball 40% of the time.
In the past few years, the Patriots have thrown the ball roughly 60% of the time. Brady is a complete master of his art, and can handle all the responsibilities. The offense has formed around him all the way down to the types of receivers they bring in. He wants precise route runners who are exactly where they are supposed to be at exactly the right time. The defense now relies on Brady and the offense to control the ball for long stretches to reduce opponent chances to score.
His command of the short passing game allows New England to move the ball reliably with a tiny turnover rate. The defense lacks the Hall of Fame talent it flashed in Brady’s early days, but is well coached and gritty. They excel in situational football, ranking in the top ten in red zone and 3rd down defense.
It has been a superb formula that the team has sustained for more than a decade, resulting in four Super Bowl appearances and two additional rings.
The Seahawks could go this direction. They have the franchise quarterback who is emerging from his tween NFL years. They have a defense with top-shelf talent, but that is aging and expensive. They have already moved on from the ground-shaking franchise running back. If you wanted to follow this route, you would prioritize acquiring receiving talent and gradually increase the amount of passes thrown, while reducing the reliance on the run game. You would install more a short, rhythm passing game to keep turnovers low. All this would be predicated on a highly efficient offense on 3rd down and in the red zone.
When you observe the trends in play-calling and player acquisition (see Jimmy Graham) for the Seahawks over the past three years, it very much appeared this was the direction the team was heading.
There was an eight-game stretch in the back half of the 2015 season where Wilson was the best quarterback in the NFL. His execution in situational football jumped to an elite level. He finished the year with a career-best 117.3 passer rating on 3rd down, and registered his second-best red zone rating (98.3). All but the most cynical people who watched that stretch had to think he crossed a threshold into a new phase of his career. It was truly MVP-level football.
That all happened behind a very troubled offensive line. Wilson, like Brady, was looking more like a guy who could control a game from the pocket with quick passes and hyper efficient situational play. It is easy to understand why the team began the 2016 season with more emphasis on the passing game. Wilson hobbled through the early part of last season. Theoretically, his newfound skills in the rhythm passing game should have endured. It did not.
Even when he regained more mobility later in the year, his efficiency dropped across the board. He threw more interceptions per attempt, fewer touchdowns per attempt, and saw his 3rd down and red zone passer ratings drop to some of the lowest levels of his career.
The team could decide that was all about injury and bad line play, and press on. That would be doubling down on a philosophy that runs counter to what Carroll has espoused at USC and in Seattle. He has said he wants to avoid building an offense around one specific player because if that player is hurt, the whole team suffers. He also values balance on offense because it allows the team to attack opponent weaknesses instead of being predictable.
Wilson may be ready to take on that sort of responsibility. That 2015 season was not a mirage. He has that sort of ceiling. It feels, though, like an unnecessary gambit. There is a more pragmatic approach.
Option 2: Return to form
This appears to be the direction the front office and coaching staff are taking. The evidence starts with the decision to audition several veteran running backs. It would have been easy to rely on the continued development of Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise, Alex Collins, and their new rookie additions. Instead, they were linked to every major name in the running back free agent market. They signed Eddie Lacy, who was among the youngest, further indicating they were looking for a guy who could be their backfield leader, not just a veteran presence like Fred Jackson. Lacy is also one of the closest approximations in the NFL to Marshawn Lynch’s physical style of running. He looks for contact.
The team wants him to play in the 240 pound range, unlike Green Bay, who wanted him in the 230s. Carroll wants Lacy to punish defenders. The risk is that Lacy has been injured and struggled to control his weight. By teaming him with a stable of other talented backs whose talents demand snaps, the burden on Lacy’s shoulders will be lessened. He shared carries with James Starks in Green Bay, but may see his workload lighten further here. Rawls should benefit from fewer carries as well. Anytime he has gone over 20 carries in a game, the team has needed to shut him down in practice the following week.
Starting pitchers in baseball tend to increase velocity and effectiveness when converting to relievers due to knowing they will have to throw fewer pitches. The concept here is similar. Rawls and Lacy can both go full tilt, and either one can be the starter if necessary. C.J. Prosise is the wildcard.
Prosise has clearly put on muscle mass this offseason. Most of it looked to be in his chest and shoulders. He will be a special weapon on offense if he can just stay on the field. He will likely be the third down and hurry up back. It is possible he will earn an even larger role.
There may not be a more talented collection of runners anywhere in the NFL.
Additional evidence that the team wants to rejuvenate the run game has been Carroll openly talking about wanting to get back to the run game and more balance on offense, as well as drafting receivers like Amara Darboh, who excel in run blocking. Many fans would be surprised at how crucial receiver blocking is to the Seahawks run game.
Other things that may help re-establish the run are swapping out the finesse of Garry Gilliam for the power of Germain Ifedi at right tackle, the increased weight, strength, and experience of George Fant, the addition of more experience at left guard with Luke Joeckel, and the health of blocking tight end Nick Vannett. I am also intrigued by the competition at fullback, where a number of young players will be competing for snaps.
More important than any of this? A healthy Wilson. He is the key to this Seahawks running game. If he is in great shape, there is a very good chance this team could snap right back to being a top-shelf rushing offense.
PROGNOSIS: Good. Expect a physical Seahawks rushing attack.
METRIC THAT MATTERS: Rush percentage (percent of plays called that are runs)
TARGET: 51% rush percentage (was 38% in 2016)
Turnovers and the secondary
This one is tough, folks. All evidence points to teams changing the way they attack this defense. Many turnovers were coming on deep passes, and specifically ones that were going in Richard Sherman’s direction. They are throwing far fewer deep passes, and targeting Sherman less. Some have suggested the Seahawks could get more turnovers by just recovering more of the fumbles they force, which is true. That is hardly a strategy any team can bank on. Fumble recoveries are mostly random, and the reality is the Seahawks have been forcing fewer fumbles as a percent of snaps over the past few years.
One thing they can do is improve the personnel in the secondary. DeShawn Shead is a fine starter, but he does not create turnovers. Jeremy Lane was not a great, or even good, nickel corner last season. When the Seahawks secondary was at their peak, Sherman was teamed with Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond III, with Lane as the fourth corner. Browner was a flawed player, but he caused lots of turnovers. Thurmond was as sticky of a nickel corner as there was in the NFL.
All this talk of Lane taking Shead’s spot while he recovers does not excite me. If he wins that role, I have a hard time believing the secondary play will improve or turnovers will increase. Seeing a fresh face like Deandre Elliot or Shaquill Griffin win that role would be a far better sign. Both of those players have unknown ceilings. Elliot is a darkhorse, but one I am expecting to push for snaps in camp. Griffin has an athletic profile no Seahawks corner has had since Thurmond. His pick in the third round is the earliest John Schneider has drafted a corner in Seattle.
Better safety depth
Bradley McDougald is a front office favorite already. The team may use him in big nickel situations, where three safeties would be on the field and he would help cover tight ends. Jeron Johnson was a role playing safety who had a knack for creating turnovers or recovering them. McDougald is a starting caliber safety, who will have the chance to roam and surprise offenses. He could wind up being an impact addition to this defense.
This one is pure theory on my part. One of the reasons quick passing is all the rage is it both reduces the chances for turnovers and makes it difficult for a pass rush to get to the quarterback. One way to counter this sort of attack is to give defensive linemen a different goal. Instead of trying to get to the passer, they can attempt to clog passing lanes by getting some push and then raising their arms to obstruct the quarterback’s vision and ideally knock down or tip passes. The Seahawks drafted 6’6″ Malik McDowell to play both on the end in base defense and at 3-technique defensive tackle in passing situations. They also drafted 6’5″ Nazair Jones to play defensive tackle in run situations. Dion Jordan is a longshot to make the team, but he is also a 6’6″ defensive end.
My thought is the team may be trying to impact opponents short passing game with more height on their line. A quarterback’s eyes must be lower to throw those shorter passes. If the line can disrupt his passing lanes, it will break the timing of the play and allow the secondary to get in better position or even pick off more tipped passes.
Overwhelming pass rush
The other option is that the defense takes their pass rush to a whole new level. They were very productive last year with two players recording double-digit sacks. Michael Bennett was not one of those two players. He is back to full health, Frank Clark should be even better, and now the team adds McDowell to the mix. If McDowell has an instant impact on the interior, teamed with Bennet, Clark and Cliff Avril, this pass rush has the potential to be the best in football and better than the 2013 squad. Nothing messes with a pass game like quick interior pressure. Bennett and McDowell have a chance to create that kind of mayhem.
PROGNOSIS: Not great. Lots of ‘ifs’ in order to change the downward trends.
METRIC THAT MATTERS: Interceptions per opponent dropback
TARGET: 3% (was 2% in 2016, 2.6% in 2015 and 2014, and 5.3% in 2013)
The problem here has been on offense and defense. The team is creating fewer explosive plays on offense, and surrendering more explosive plays on defense. Given the issues and potential remedies for the defensive issues mimic what was covered above for the secondary, let’s focus this section on the offense.
Improved running game
Much of this is repeat info from the first section, but it bears repeating that the downturn in the rush offense took its toll on the explosive nature this group demonstrated in prior years. Most people think passing when they think big plays, but it was primarily a dropoff in explosive rushing plays that impacted the Seahawks. Wilson was always good for 10-15 explosive rushes per season, and had as many as 27 back in 2014, but recorded just 5 last season. Rawls and Procise both can be explosive runners when healthy.
A healthy Tyler Lockett
His injuries last year were an underrated aspect of the team’s struggles. He is a tremendous playmaker. If back to full health, he can turbo boost the big play passing game.
An emerging jump ball threat
Golden Tate has rare chemistry with Wilson on deep passes. Wilson trusted Tate to win 50/50 balls and therefore gave him opportunities even when he was covered. Jermaine Kearse has been far less effective in these moments and has less trust as a result. Darboh, Tanner McEvoy, and Kasen Williams are three guys who have the potential to give Wilson the leaping target he needs. Paul Richardson has some potential here as well, but he is slighter of build and less able to battle for position.
PROGNOSIS: Decent. The running game should improve and they have the weapons to pass, but a lot is riding on the offensive line.
METRIC THAT MATTERS: Explosive play differential (Seahawks explosive plays – Opponent explosive plays)
TARGET: +2.8 per game (was 1.4 in 2016, 2.3 in 2015, 3.6 in 2014, 2.8 in 2013)
Putting the special teams section last in a 3,000 word article is a test of your football voracity. The truth is, this could have a huge impact on the season. The kicking game is a bigger question than at any time since Carroll started here. The punter and punt coverage has been far less effective than they once were.
There is really one significant key to improvement here and that is more talented athletes on coverage teams. Adding guys like Michael Wilhoite, Delano Hill, Tedric Thompson, Elliott, Algernon Brown (if he wins the fullback spot), and possibly even Griffin to quality players like Neiko Thorpe and Dewey McDonald has the potential to rejuvenate what was a mostly mediocre group the past two years.
A full offseason hopefully helped Nolan Frese become a better and more consistent snapper, or we can hope the team upgrades that role. We largely have to cross our fingers on Blair Walsh having the mental fortitude to recover from his past failures. Few athletes recover from that sort of mistake.
PROGNOSIS: Not great. The coverage teams may be much-improved, but the kicking game is highly questionable.
METRIC THAT MATTERS: Special Teams DVOA Rank
TARGET: Top 5 (was 13 in 2016, 3 in 2015, 19 in 2014, 5 in 2013)
Looking in the mirror
Four of the most fundamental elements of Seahawks football have been trending in the wrong direction. This season represents a chance to recapture the dominant style of play fans have come to expect from these players. This was the only team to beat Tom Brady last year, and they did it in New England. They were the only team to beat both Super Bowl participants. They were also the team that got slaughtered in Green Bay and were overwhelmed in the divisional playoff game for the second straight season.
Some will tell you the team has been doing just fine. They won a division title last year and won a playoff game. That bar is far too low. This is a rare collection of talent. Anything less than two rings for this core group would be an underachievement. Truthfully, three rings should be the goal, knowing one was already frittered away. It is okay to expect big things. Nobody ever stumbles into massive achievements. One first has to set a big goal and then work tirelessly toward it.
Wilson will keep this team in contention for another ten years. Guys like Thomas, Chancellor, and Sherman may not be around in a few seasons. There is urgency and significant improvement needed to be the best team in football. It starts with the coaching staff doing their best work to find new ways to accomplish old goals. The league has adjusted, the personnel has changed, and the same messages have less effect on veterans who have heard it all before.
Kris Richard must be better than he was last season. Darrell Bevell must be better than he was last season. Brian Schneider must be better than he was last season. Rookies need to be ready to contribute right away. Second year players must be noticeably improved. Veterans need to play smarter, not harder, to stay productive and healthy.
The one thing that could make the biggest impact to this team’s fortunes was if Wilson began to realize his MVP potential. That would mean the offense was thriving, which would reduce the load on the defense, likely making them even more dangerous. It looked like Wilson was on the cusp of that in 2015. This team can win a championship without Wilson taking that next step, but the odds jump if he does.
Recapturing the magic of the 2013 season is not possible. Those were different players, a different mindset, and a league that had not yet caught onto the Seahawks scheme and prowess. This team must be different while adhering to the same foundational principles they did back then. It all starts in six days.