The Morning After: Seahawks Strong-Arm Powerful Vikings, Win 20-13
Pregame expectations serve two major purposes for me. First, they feed me obsession with analysis by allowing me to borrow a bit from the scientific method and assert a hypothesis before the game occurs. Contrasting that with the actual events of the game helps me learn where my assessments of players, coaches, and team are on target and where they are not. Second, I use expectations to regulate my (often unbounded) pregame emotions. Expecting very little helps avoid major disappointment. There was reason to set expectations low heading into this game against the Vikings, both for scientific and emotional reasons. That defense is one of the best in the NFL, and the starting Seahawks offense was responsible for just three of the team’s 48 points last Sunday. The gap between what I expected to see from Seattle and what they were able to accomplish was big enough that I left the game with increased confidence in what they can accomplish this season despite the loss of starting left tackle George Fant.
Kasen claims a spot
The sparkling four catch performance against the Chargers was a fabulous opening act for receiver Kasen Williams, but it would not have been enough to earn a roster spot. He needed to prove he could do it again, against better competition, and demonstrate that he can make an impact on special teams. The former Husky did all that and more. His leaping one-handed grab of a Wilson throw on the opening drive is one of the best catches I have ever witnessed, and he did it against Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
The play came on a 3rd and 4, keying what would become a rare Seahawks opening drive score. A frustrating first attempt at a fade route to Jermaine Kearse from the 1-yard line fell predictably incomplete, but served as the perfect juxtaposition when the team ran the exact same play for Williams on the next snap, again on a 3rd down, which he caught for a touchdown. Williams followed it up with a terrific tackle on the next kickoff before ironically dropping possibly his easiest opportunity later in the half for what would have been another touchdown.
Williams has taken over the fifth receiver spot on this roster, behind only Doug Baldwin Jr, Tyler Lockett, Paul Richardson, and Jermaine Kearse. The battle for the sixth receiver spot is ferocious. Amara Darboh, a third round pick, played in his first game and left injured after getting hit hard on the first pass thrown his way. Tanner McEvoy had a nice catch, and is a proven special teams contributor. J.D. McKissic hurt his chances with a fumbled punt and has yet to get many targets as a receiver, but C.J. Prosise sitting out with injury strengthens the case for keeping a guy like McKissic around who can mimic some of what Prosise does in the backfield.
Williams has literally leapt above the others, and now must only stay healthy to break camp with the team for the first time in his career.
Wilson is locked in
The knock on Russell Wilson has often been his propensity to make plays off-script is hard to build a reliable offense around. His performance against this elite Vikings defense on Friday night was convincing evidence those doubters could soon be eating their words. Just about everything Wilson did was well-considered, crisp, and repeatable. Even the throw to Williams was a solid risk versus reward decision and throw. How Williams made that catch may not be repeatable, but him making a catch in that situation has been almost as reliable as a swing pass to a tailback.
Wilson finished 13/18 for 206 yards, an average of 11.4 yards per attempt, and 2 touchdowns without any interceptions. That works out to a passer rating of 147.0 (158.3 is perfect). He was finding his favorite target, Baldwin, in a myriad of ways. He hit Kearse for 20 yards, Nick Vannett for 32, and Mike Davis for a 22-yard touchdown. He cleverly and wisely dumped the ball to Chris Carson instead of running himself, and Carson rewarded him with 17 yards. In all, he had 7 explosive passes of 16+ yards in one half. In one half! The Seahawks high for explosive passes in a full game last year was 8 (three different times). It gets better.
Seattle has struggled to be a consistent third down team. Wilson’s passer rating in those situations has generally been below the elite players at the position, and his performance on other downs. The one exception was in 2015 when he had that torrid stretch over the season’s second half. On Friday, he threw the ball six times on third down. He completed five of those passes for 73 yards and 2 touchdowns. That works out to a 156.9 passer rating. Not bad, right?
Back to pregame expectations, I was braced for a lot of ugly with the Seahawks offensive line facing this Vikings front seven. They allowed just one sack while Wilson was in there, and were in scoring position on each of their four first half drives. All this happened without Lockett, Jimmy Graham, Paul Richardson, Thomas Rawls, and C.J. Prosise. If that is not encouraging, I’m not sure what is.
Offensive line steps forward, even as one falls
The loss of George Fant is a serious blow to the team. He was going to be the starting left tackle. His ascension was going to allow Luke Joeckel to play inside where the team feels more confident in his abilities. Moving forward without him will not be simple. I also think some are sending up the white flag prematurely. For all the positive talk surrounding Fant’s improvement, he was still far from a dominant factor on the Seahawks line. The hope was that he could be a passable left tackle this year and maybe grow into something more in time. It is not like the team lost Walter Jones, or even Russell Okung.
They lost a promising young lineman who still had some clear flaws in his game. Their options now are to move Joeckel outside to left tackle, a position he was drafted to play and has experience playing in the NFL, elevate Rees Odhiambo, who also played left tackle in college, or consider giving Ethan Pocic a shot. Any of those moves would be more promising than what the team faced in 2013 when Paul McQuistan played left tackle for 10 games.
I thought the line held up quite well, especially against the great competition in the first half. Germain Ifedi gave up a sack to Danielle Hunter, but Hunter may lead the league in sacks this season. He is that good. Nobody has been harder on Ifedi than I have, but I thought he was much improved last night. His pass protection was below average, but did not keep the offense from executing, and his run blocking was excellent. He owned Hunter on two straight plays, leading to nice gains around the end by Eddie Lacy and Carson. This is not to say anyone should get a spot ready in the ring of honor for the young right tackle. I am looking for growth and competence. He definitely showed the first, and is approaching the second.
Mark Glowinski had a nice game, and may have moved in front of Oday Aboushi for the right guard spot. Odhiambo did okay in his emergency stint at left tackle. He should improve with increased reps in practice and focus from the coaches. Pocic had his first bad showing. The rookie has been asked to play nearly every role on the line. This time, he was at right guard. He had a holding penalty and a false start, and was generally not as strong as he has been through camp and during the first game.
It is unreasonable to expect a rookie lineman to come in and make no mistakes, especially with all the position switching he has been asked to do. Still, it is notable that he had his first bump in the road. Now we see how he responds.
Run blocking was better, as evidenced by every running back averaging more yards per carry than a week earlier. Only Mike Davis was over four yard per carry versus San Diego. Only Eddie Lacy was below that number against Minnesota. Alex Collins led all rushers with 58 yards on 10 carries, but I don’t see any way for him to make this roster. Carson was very good again with 27 yards and 4.5 yards per carry. Mike Davis had a special 38-yard run in the shadow of the Seahawks goal line. He made a terrific cut and outraced most of the Vikings down the left sideline, while also catching the 22-yard touchdown earlier. Lacy ran well, despite the modest 3.3 yards per rush average. It all looked like progress toward a viable run game.
Defense quietly suffocates Vikings
This game was mostly about seeing how the Seahawks offense could execute against the Minnesota defense. The undercard was seeing if the Seahawks starters on defense could perform better than they did in the first game where they surrendered an opening drive touchdown and multiple third down conversions. They answered the bell. Sam Bradford had modest success with underneath patterns to guys like Stefon Diggs, but managed just one explosive play on what looked like a blown coverage. Even then, the defense bowed up and held the Vikings to three points.
Shaquill Griffin started again, even with Jeremy Lane available to play. Bradford picked on him with a number of comeback and short-breaking routes. He then tried to test Griffin deep, but the rookie did what I have witnessed him do every time a deep ball has been thrown his way during the preseason, he blanketed the receiver and raised his hands to knock down the pass. Teams are going to have a lot of trouble beating Griffin deep. He and Sherman may wind up being the toughest duo in the league to execute a fade or go route on.
He will have to adjust to the underneath routes. Minnesota badly beat him multiple times there. It was encouraging to see him make one adjustment and break quickly on a slant pattern to knock it down. Pete Carroll will certainly take a corner who gets beat short but never deep.
Tramaine Brock saw his first snaps and looked a bit rusty. He missed at least one tackle, and was not particularly close in coverage. Give him a few more days to get acclimated.
Deandre Elliott had a nice game, including some of the physical tackling he flashed last preseason. Delano Hill had a punishing hit in the middle of the field. Neiko Thorpe nearly had a pick, as did Richard Sherman.
David Bass, Nazair Jones, Marcus Smith stand out
The best news of the night on defense may have been the continued strong play of Nazair Jones and David Bass. Jones had his first sack, and another pressure. Bass had two QB hits, and a batted pass that was nearly picked off. ProFootballFocus has Bass as the highest rated defender on either team with a +4.2 rating and a +3.7 on pass rush. The Seahawks used him a lot more on the interior last night in nickel situations. At just 256 pounds, Bass is an odd choice to slide inside, but the team is clearly trying to see where he might fit.
Jones was already a lock to make this team, and Bass is getting close to joining him.
Marcus Smith played his first game, and validated what I had seen in practice. He is a plus pass rusher. PFF credited him with 3 hurries. Official stats had him with a tackle for loss and a QB hit. The play of these three players should have all Seahawks fans excited about the quality depth emerging along this defensive line.
Signs are positive
Losing any starter for the year is depressing and frustrating. Fant was an important piece to what the Seahawks were trying to do on their line. Still, the feeling I was left with after watching that game was that this team has that irrepressible vibe building. From 2012 through 2014, the question always seemed to be when the team would win, not if. The aspects that made it that way were things like Wilson’s confidence, a pounding running game, an elite defense, and a viciously efficient special teams. All of those things appear on track.
Wilson appears headed for his best season. His best weapons have not been on the field at the same time, yet each appear poised to have their best seasons as well. The additions of Lacy and Carson give the team physical runners who can carry the load if Thomas Rawls is unable to stay healthy. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor look like their best selves. Bradley McDougald and Delano Hill appear ready to provide terrific snaps behind them. The linebackers are the best they have been in years. The corners are deeper than they have been since 2013. Young pass rushers are developing behind Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, and Frank Clark. The special teams looks faster and more physical than we have seen in years.
Even the beleaguered Blair Walsh showed his fit with this team by nailing two 52-yard field goals against his former team and mean-mugging them to make sure they knew.
Seattle will surely face some adversity. Losing Fant will not be their last challenge. Great teams have a way of making obstacles seem inconsequential. This group is looking more and more like greatness is ahead.