Saturday, October 22, 2011

Analysis on SEA @ CLE - Watershed for Seahawks Defense?

I actually did some detailed research on this game, and while I don't think any of us are expecting a shellacking from the Browns, I'm actually a little - what is this feeling? I'm not used to it - excited.

Ten thoughts on Seattle visiting Cleveland as they exit the bye week:

1. Use the word "unproven" on most QB's, and most people will dismiss him. Use it on Charlie Whitehurst, and it means that he might be good. I don't get it.

Anyway, Whitehurst finally gets his long-expected 2011 debut this week against the Browns. It's time that he starts flashing some real promise, for he's been here too long to be a complete unknown. He's seen action in six regular-season games for Seattle, and the fact that he's only started two of them is less relevant than it's being made out to be. Lack of first-string practice snaps doesn't excuse poor fundamentals like staring down receivers and overthrowing them by twenty feet. He's created a visible profile now, and needs to hone it.

What I'm looking for is simple: accuracy and modest depth in the passing game, at the same time. I don't think that's too much to ask from a possible stopgap. Against the Rams, Whitehurst showed decent poise and accuracy in a training-wheels checkdown playbook that gave him a YPA average of 5.3. This got ignored because it a) was a win and b) happened to be, through no accomplishment of Whitehurst's, the game that got the Seahawks into the playoffs. But a checkdown offense isn't going to cut it in the NFL. Neither are the stop-and-start big plays that Whitehurst scattered between bad passes against the Giants.

Is Whitehurst awful? I still don't know. I'm just clearly stating the status quo. I thought his performance against the Giants, spotty as it may have been, was impressive for a backup. I wouldn't say that the Carroll/Bevell Scrap Heap Quarterback Development Program has been entirely wasted on Whitehurst.

Unfortunately, since it's Cleveland, this game probably won't offer any kind of statement on the former San Diego backup either way. If Whitehurst fails, it'll be too easily (though not incorrectly) blamed on his injury-depleted surrounding talent. If he succeeds, it's the Browns. That's how things go - hot debates rarely ever meet any kind of closure. There's always room to wonder what-if.

2. On the other side is Colt McCoy, who is said to have started 2011 hot but declined recently, as if wins against Indy and Miami were that impressive to begin with. Other than a strong game against Tennessee, McCoy's passing totals have hovered right around 210 YPS and his completion % is pulling a Jekyll-and-Hyde between 47% and the mid-60's. He has a weak arm, which invites pressure along the offensive line, and reverts to really bad habits under pressure. He's really being regarded in a similar light as Seattle's quarterbacks - a "wait and see" evaluation, right along with that old familiar chestnut, "it's all the O-line's fault".

3. Truly, though, Cleveland's offensive line seems to be struggling and has failed to ignite the run game, further compounding McCoy's problems. They've lost some strength at guard because of injury, setting into motion a decline for Peyton Hillis. There's plenty of the "young team" hallmarks on this offense - breakdowns in rhythm, execution, and communication. Seattle's #1-rated run defense will probably only motivate Hillis to get out of town faster.

4. McCoy's done a decent job spreading the ball around instead of favoring one guy, but there are few arrows in his sling and Josh Cribbs has been quiet so far. Between this and McCoy's questionable arm strength, Seattle can afford to stack against the run and blitz a little more freely to hassle McCoy, something other teams have found success doing. Their O-line seems especially prone to corner and safety blitzes - a specialty of Gus Bradley. With run defense and pressure-by-blitz being the hallmarks of Seattle's defensive philosophy, this game seems to play right into our strengths. McCoy could be in for a long day.

5. Brandon Browner will have a nice respite from the receivers gauntlet he faced to open the season - Mike Wallace, Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones, and Hakeem Nicks - and Walter Thurmond will enjoy a friendlier development setting as he finally assumes his starting position. This game is yet another chance for the league to have their attention (and a few floating McCoy passes) grabbed by our burgeoning ballhawk safety tandem, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.

6. Cleveland's run defense is underrated, their high allowed YPG a product of opponents with high carry totals. DT Phil Taylor and DE Jabaal Sheard are rising stars on their D-line and will match up against the still-developing group of James Carpenter, John Moffitt, and backup center Lemuel Jeanpierre. Advantage Cleveland. Marshawn Lynch has had a bit of success running outside this year, so that's a (mildly) hot hand Darell Bevell could go with. Look for him to try to exploit Cleveland's weak OLB corps and relieve some pressure on Whitehurst by calling outside runs, screens, and a number of targets to Anthony McCoy.

7. For those worried that this game is both a 10am East Coast road game and a post-bye game, the Seahawks have already faced such a situation under Pete Carroll. They beat Chicago 23-20 in Week 6 last year.

8. It won't help Whitehurst that TE Zach Miller is out. In six weeks, Seattle has dwindled from a glut of tight ends to only one (McCoy).  It seems a foregone conclusion that Cameron Morrah will be called upon.

9. Doug Baldwin is being accused by a few national pundits of freelancing on his routes. I won't question their expertise, but Baldwin has defended himself by saying that he's still on course for a specific spot when he runs a route; he's just been given freedom by the coaching staff on how to get there. All well and good, but if Charlie Whitehurst is a more structured QB who relies on receivers being where they should be, Baldwin had better be unerring. Else I see some "Where the heck was he throwing to?" type interceptions happening on Sunday.

10. All things considered, this is a game between two bad teams, so I wouldn't flatter it by predicting any scores with a multiple of 7. Backup center to backup QB screams bumbled exchanges, as does the whole Browns offense. It'll be an ugly game like Arizona in Week 3, coming down to who commits fewer penalties and turnovers.

Seattle 22, Cleveland 19.

What's your prediction?