The more I think about Sunday's win against the Giants, the more it feels like an illustration of how defense and QB play fit together in this league. The Seahawks' defense didn't win the game for them. The game-sealing interception was a lucky bounce that lies more on Eli Manning's shoulders than any Seattle DB's, another of several bad decisions by a QB that couldn't push his luck forever.
No, in this instance, the Seahawks won because their QB play was able to keep pace with New York's. Shocker this, but the combination of Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst exceeded 300 yards and won the turnover battle. This left the Seahawks hanging around in the fourth quarter, well in position to capitalize on a lucky bounce.
Does this mean the Giants gave the game away? Yes and no. Manning had a horribly inconsistent day, but how many Seahawks teams of late have been able to run away with lucky breaks? Very few. Now we're seeing one. It says a lot about the spirit and tenacity of this team that they were still around mentally and physically when Eli Manning threw that fateful pass too wide of Victor Cruz. The Seahawks were playing sixty minutes of football, making plays when it counted. And they forced a few of their own.
Some consider the Tarvaris Jackson debate blown wide open again. I was under no impression that he was capable of playing franchise QB in the NFL, but Pete Carroll's system seems set up to maximize Jackson's abilities. Jackson led sustained drives against the Giants defense, rather than just a couple good ones. His newfound point-guarding is opening up the offense and affording them more red-zone opportunities. He's surprised me.
It certainly helps to have the weapons he does. Good QB's elevate bad WR's much more than the other way around, but there is an effect both ways, and the latter effect is near full strength right now. Doug Baldwin is out there doing his thing. He's fluid, instinctive, aware, and has experience with a similar system from Stanford from what I hear. It gives him an "it" factor that Golden Tate just plain lacks. Ben Obomanu and Marshawn Lynch acquitted themselves well in the short passing game, and Lynch showed good things Sunday pounding the rock. It was steady production, not just one long run. It wouldn't surprise me if they're all benefiting from Sidney Rice drawing a bit of coverage downfield.
Charlie Whitehurst made some eyebrow-raising deep throws to keep Seattle in the game late. He also had some bad throws and continues to obsess over his first read. He's not as much of an improv QB as Jackson is, which is both good and bad. If a solid month of starting could do Jackson some good, it might help Whitehurst as well, but it might not. Depends on Carroll's system.
Speaking of which, kudos to Darell Bevell for the gutsy decision to switch to an up-tempo offense. It keeps the defense off-balance and seemed to favor both Jackson and Whitehurst. It has downside, in particular an increased turnover risk and the opposite of a grinding offense (i.e. leaving the other offense with more time instead of less). But it's funny how an offensive coordinators' play-calling looks so much better when the offense is in sync, whereas from behind the plays tend to look dumber.
Also credit the offensive line, particularly the rapidly improving James Carpenter, and the fearlessness of Seattle's sack-laden QB's as well. Jackson did a great job not getting rattled, as did Whitehurst in relief (without a lot of first-team practice).
The Seattle defense has all the signs of a collection of playmakers being exposed too often by a lack of consistent interior pass rush. The defensive ends are notching pressures and hits, the corners are getting some good jams and defenses, the safeties are flying around, and yet good QB's are still racking up yards, yards, yards with or without much help from the run game. At first glance, this is a paradox, with most people's first instinct to look to the secondary for someone to blame.
Kip pointed out a number of contributing factors to Manning's success on Sunday. Seattle's good offensive play and tenacity, their reliance on an up-tempo offense, and the lack of a run game were all relevant. They forced Manning to keep up the pace and inflated his stats to some degree, as did Leon Washington's kickoff returns against Philip Rivers last year. Manning's own bumbles are also on that list. He was lucky to be in the game as long as he was, with Seattle defenders getting their hands on several footballs. It was a poorly placed throw to Cruz that did him in, although I'm not sure whether he or Cruz is more responsible there.
Another factor is revealed by Victor Cruz' "magical" 68-yard touchdown completion. I've seen a number of attempts to affix blame for this catch-and-run to a Seahawk defensive back, but I don't buy it. Kam Chancellor shouldn't get blamed for merely tipping the ball instead of intercepting it, while Richard Sherman didn't have the reaction time to close. It looks like hard luck on them. But I can think of someone who could have stopped the pass - the defensive line, at the source. Eli Manning had four seconds to literally dance around in the pocket before he released that pass. The more time the QB has in the pocket, the more lucky things he's going to make happen.
And not even lucky things so much as perfectly placed throws. For two weeks now, we've had front-row seats as Seattle defensive backs (this week, Walter Thurmond; last week, Brandon Browner) played excellent coverage, only to get burned by the kind of beautifully placed pinpoint throw that one-on-one sideline coverage just can't really defend against. It's a matter of inches, and franchise QB's like Manning and Matt Ryan are defined partly by their ability to complete such passes on a regular basis. On Thurmond's play in particular, even the pass rush couldn't help. Manning was flushed out and still made the play, helped by the great hands of Cruz.
Our defense are still giving up some big plays, but they're also showing promise. I can't help but wonder if our secondary's life would be made easier by interior pressure on the QB himself. But even great pass rush can only limit a QB's opportunities. Aaron Rodgers went up against the NFL's very best defense in last year's Super Bowl, and still his accuracy and improvisation prevailed. Pittsburgh needed its offense to seal the deal, and Ben Roethlisberger's turnovers doomed the operation.
Which leads me back to my belief about the power structure of the NFL. Defense isn't enough on its own, and in the last two weeks we've been shown a clinic as to why. Kudos to Browner for keeping his head in the play, but his winning interception return was a crazy ricochet off an inaccurate throw from Manning and was thus a factor of offense, not defense. Ordinarily, Seattle's struggle to produce offensively would have put Seattle 3 touchdowns behind at the time of Browner's pick-six.
But as Kip eloquently put it, good offensive play is an equalizer. On Sunday, Seattle had it. The victory was due in no small part to Seattle's ability to score early. A similar effect is visible in our unlikely wins against San Diego and Chicago last year - the Seahawks put up points, exerting pressure on the opponent to score, and then kept the pressure in place with good field position (let no one ignore Leon Washington's contributions to the win). Usually when the Seahawks lose, it's to a runaway scoring pile-on in the first half. This Sunday, much like our 2005 team (dare I make even tangential comparisons to that?), early points equalized the game and gave our defense greater influence.
I always look at the quality of the defeated opponent to gauge the quality of a win. Are the Giants a bad football team, thus reducing the significance of Seattle's victory? I find that hard to swallow. On one hand, they opened the season by losing to the Redskins and scraping past the awful Cardinals, so that doesn't speak to their stature. Injuries have certainly backed the team up, and their offensive line was surprisingly soft. But this team carries a lot of talent, plays in a tough division, boasts a fearsome pass rush that got to our QB's multiple times, and knows how to win. Even at his worst, Eli Manning is a good quarterback and made a lot of great plays against Seattle in between his bad ones.
So it's tough to say.
What we do know, like we knew before, is that the Seahawks have a few tricks up their sleeve when it comes to keeping games in hand. Pete Carroll's obsession over turnovers is a big part of that, and who knows how much better our 2010 season could have looked without Matt Hasselbeck's multiple four-turnover fiascos? We've got Leon Washington, we've got a fierce pair of playmaker safeties who seem to come up big every time we succeed, and we've got a great receiver tandem. Should these elements create room for some balance, we have running and short-passing to add to the fire. We have passion and determination from the players that certainly wasn't around when Mora was coach. And, of course, there's the awesome equalizer of the 12th Man crowd at CenturyLink Field.
What does this say about the rest of our season? The rest of our schedule features QB's mostly of the "respectable but highly inconsistent" category, and the only intimidating defense I see on that schedule is Baltimore. The toughest stretch could well be behind us already.
This is wonderfully encouraging stuff. I can't say that I consider the QB situation resolved, but it's a complement to Carroll's coaching and offseason acquisitions that the Seahawks can keep games close enough to where a big play or two will swing fortune our way. That really does seem to be Carroll's mantra, his big answer to the big-time playground of elite quarterbacks and smashmouth defenses. I hope it becomes a pattern. Last year's 3-7 finish of blowout losses still stands as the mean of Seattle's quality in a vacuum, and it will take some consistent performance against good teams to change my mind about that.
But we're certainly on our way.