Sunday, October 9, 2011

Seahawks blessed with shocking victory after sufficiently pleasing the injury gods

The Seahawks lost last weekend, but in defeat they made a statement:  Tarvaris Jackson might just "get it," and with a functioning quarterback, the Seahawks have a formidable and efficient offense.

I said last week that I felt guilty about rooting for a loss.  I decided before the Giants game today that I was done with that mentality, and wanted nothing more than a Seahawks win.  The only reason I wanted the Seahawks to lose in the first place was to help secure a franchise quarterback.  Yet, with steady improvement by Jackson and a pair of solid/good backups, its beginning to appear that Seattle's quarterback situation is not quite as dire as I originally thought it was.  Which I think says more about our coaching staff than our actual quarterbacks.  More on that in a bit, but first, the game.  What a game.

I picked a horrible time to stop taking game notes, as so many things happened that I'm sure I'll forget most of it.  But to me, the storyline of this game was how beautiful it was while also being so ugly.  There was a mountain of penalties, particularly of the procedural variety.  Several Giants players were injured, and at least 6 Seahawks left the game with injury, and all of them were important starters.  Baldwin and Moffitt would later return, and it didn't look like any of the other injuries would be season ending (except for Jackson in a worst case scenario).  But still, that's a ton of notable injuries.  I know this is cliche, so I hate saying it, but the saying "when it rains it pours" feels like one of the most convincing truisms I've heard.  Going back to my younger days working in restaurants and retail, it seemed like people always wanted to swing by all at once or not at all, and sometimes events occur in bunches as well.

Every so often, a game like this happens.  I vividly remember the Vikings game in 2006 when the Seahawks had a few injuries, including the very first major injury to Matt Hasselbeck.  I remember the brutal season opener at Buffalo in 2008 when the Seahawks had a ton of injuries, including Rob Sims and Nate Burleson being put on the IR, which is something you never want to see in the first game of a season.  Then there was the Cowboys game later that same year, when among a long list of injury casualties that day was Walter Jones, who would never play another NFL game.  Then last year, there was the Raiders game, in which I swear there must have been at least 6-7 injured Seahawks, including Red Bryant who was lost for the season.   You know what else those games had in common?  The Seahawks were blown out in every single one of them.  The final combined scores of those 4 games was 132 to 35.  The smallest margin of defeat was by 18 points.

The Seahawks hadn't beaten an NFC East team on the road since Philly in 2007.  They were 1-11 in their previous 12 Eastern Time Zone games.  They came into this game 1-3 with a -39 scoring ratio.  They hadn't won at the Meadowlands specifically in almost 3 decades, and the last team that did it was pretty good (1983).  (Hell, even the name "Meadowlands" sounds like a far distant Nordic place where warriors go to fight and die).

And it wasn't just Seattle's road futility working against them.  The Giants had won 3 straight and Eli Manning was off to a career year start.  The Seahawks had faced the Giants two of the previous three seasons, and were crushed in those games 44-6 and 41-7 respectively.  In more ways than one, this wasn't a game you'd expect Seattle to win.

So to recap, the Seahawks suffered a ton of injuries, which is a recipe for a blowout, and were playing an opponent who had blown them out in the previous two meetings, at a place Seattle hadn't won in 28 years.  But they didn't collapse like every previous injury riddled Seahawks team would have, instead brandishing a stubborn "tis just a fleshwound!" attitude of resilience.  And they won.  They won!  It was an outcome every bit as improbable as the Brandon Browner pick six that sealed it.  The game itself was adrenaline pumping, and watching the 4th quarter I had this song stuck in my head.  It was so closely contested throughout that I almost couldn't fit a picture into my win probability chart.  This wasn't like Seattle's week three win against the Cardinals.  That game felt like a 4-12 team holding on against a 3-13 team playing at home.  Today felt like a 9-7 team upsetting a heavily favored 10-6 team on the road. 

And yet, I wasn't completely shocked by it.  I felt an unusual cockiness coming into this game, and from reading a certain message board, I know I wasn't the only one. The Seahawks offense really did appear to awaken in the 2nd half of the Falcons game, and the great thing about having a good offense is that its such an equalizer.  A great offense can dictate the pace of the game, erase late leads, and at least keep a team hanging around at the end of games almost every week.  Its no surprise then that offense is the better indicator for regular season success, or at least that's what football outsiders told me.  If Seattle's offense is as legit as it looked in the Falcons game, then I believe they will hang with every single opponent the rest of the season.  They might still win only 6 or 7 games, but you'll have a lot of losses like the Falcons game and very few losses like the Steelers game.

I'll cover the offense more in the bullet points section, but I think its time we talked about Tarvaris Jackson.  Every single week, Tarvaris Jackson has shown a slow but steady increase in his comfort level.  In particular, his pocket presence and elusiveness has gone from abysmal to just about average since the start of the preseason.  This is a really huge factor as the Seahawks do not have a good pass blocking line to say the least, and with options like Sidney Rice, Ben Obomanu, and Mike Williams, you want a quarterback who will have the time necessary to get good looks downfield.  Jackson has also improved with his decision making about when to run and when not to.  His accuracy has always been above average.  Tarvaris Jackson followed up his 96.3 passer rating (8.4 YPA) against Atlanta with a solid 86.6 rating (7.5 YPA) today.  I don't think its any coincidence either that the Seahawks running game has opened up quite a bit while this has been going on either.  Sometimes the best rushing offense is a great passing offense.

And yet, as pleased as I am with Tarvaris Jackson right now, I can't help but wonder how much better the Seahawks could be doing with another quarterback.  Jackson doesn't have a weak arm, but for some reason he'll have games where his passes have no zip at all.  Jackson should have been intercepted 3 or 4 times today, and in each case, the main culprit was a ball that arrived too slowly.  Deon Grant's near interception to a pass intended for Doug Baldwin highlighted this problem.  If that pass arrives with zip, its a completion, maybe a long completion.  Jackson has other issues too.  His footwork is below average, and even with his improvements, his mobility and pocket presence still need to be better.  Watching Jackson, even on his good days, I'm surprised he was once a 2nd round pick. 

And yet for all those problems, Jackson still led his offense for 20 points in less than a full game, despite three turnovers in Giants territory.  To me it speaks less to Tarvaris Jackson than it does for the brilliant system he's been placed in.

Against the Cowboys in 2002, Hasselbeck entered the game following a Dilfer injury and the rest is history.  He later said, just like Brett Favre once did before him, that "the lightbulb came on" at that moment in his career.  I've always wondered exactly what he meant when he said that, and watching Tarvaris Jackson play point guard quarterback recently has helped me understand the meaning of those words all these years later.  The bad Matt Hasselbeck was just being a quarterback, trying to make plays and do everything he could to win.  The good Matt Hasselbeck realized that he didn't have to try too hard, because he was playing in a fine tuned system built to set up easy, high percentage completions.  He adjusted his aim a little lower, and suddenly everything just clicked playing in an offense that stressed sure things over big plays.  Once he mastered the small plays, opportunities for the big plays opened up too.

With Jackson, I see a very flawed quarterback who's squeezing out impressive production thanks a coach that is trying to make the quarterback's job as easy as possible.  Jackson is making a living targeting tight ends, running backs, and slot receivers.  That in turn opens up bigger plays for guys like Sidney Rice.  And that in turn drops the safeties back which then helps the tight ends and slot receivers even more.  By forcing a defense to defend the whole field, it helps open the running game as well.  All Jackson has to do is buy a little time with his legs, look to see if anyone is wide open, and if not, run for it.  This method is heavy on improvisation and light on structure.  Structure is fantastic if you are a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees.  However, acquiring those kind of quarterbacks is really hard to do.  It would be incorrect to accuse Pete Carroll of "dumbing down" his offense, but I think its safe to say that a good point guard quarterback is more of an instinctive player than a skilled one. The fact that the team went full no huddle today and scored 27 points on offense is proof of that.

In summary, I think Jackson has played well the last two weeks, and I think he has a real shot at being a quality bridge quarterback for the next several years.  I think its quite remarkable how in just 2 weeks, we've gone from Charlie chants to fans being legitimately concerned with how soon Jackson can recover from his pectoral injury.  He doesn't turn 30 until the week of the 2013 draft. However, I salivate thinking about what a more talented point guard quarterback could do in this same offense, because Jackson isn't a very talented quarterback overall, and he wasn't even a natural point guard quarterback when he came here either.  Its slowly being coached into him, and he's slowly becoming a real asset to the Seahawks offense.  His injury was diagnosed (pre-MRI) as a pectoral injury.  That could be nothing or it could be season ending (as it was for Rob Sims in 2008).  He has an extra week to heal.  Hopefully that's enough.

Wow this got long.  Thank goodness I didn't take notes!  Who says laziness doesn't pay off later?

  • For the first time that I can remember this season, the Seahawks finally called a designed quarterback run play.  It was executed to perfection and picked up an easy 11 yards.  It also ended Tarvaris Jackson's day, and possibly his season.
  • The injury to Leroy Hill had a much bigger impact than I expected.  His spot was filled by Aaron Curry, who promptly gave up two long plays and had one of the more shocking displays of apathy I've ever seen.  On his big reception given up to a tight end on just the 2nd play, he appeared to be jogging in pursuit the whole play, and didn't even really make an effort on the tackle.  Its a really odd situation with Curry.  His play in the last few games, and especially today, just screams "trade me already!"  But if Leroy Hill is out for any decent amount of time at all, that makes moving Curry really difficult, even if he's quit on the team.  I've been a critic of Curry since before he was drafted, but I would have never expected him to look so uncaring on the field as he did today.  If nothing else, he always worked his ass off.  The Aaron Curry chapter in Seattle began with him taking a 12 year old cancer victim with him to the draft and shedding tears at the podium; and now its ending like this.  Its hard to watch.
  • Whatever happened to the Giants offensive line?  Alan Branch owned the right guard assigned on him for a insta-sack, and a few series later Hargrove did the same to the left guard for a rare rushing play safety snapped from the 5 yard line.  Chris Clemons and Raheem Brock pretty much had their way with the offensive tackles most of the day, and Red Bryant was his usual beastly self against the run.  I'd like to believe that the Seahawks defensive line had a breakout performance today, but that doesn't seem possible given how much better they looked today than in any game previously.
  • Maybe my favorite thing about Pete Carroll is how inventive he is at defense.  He loves to blitz, and he isn't afraid to blitz from anywhere.  His predecessor Jim Mora also loved to blitz, but blitzed too many players and too predictably.  Carroll generally sends 5 or 6 on his blitzes, and very frequently he'll send safeties and corners with impressive effectiveness.  The Eli Manning fumble in the first quarter was recovered by none other than Earl Thomas.  While no Seahawks DB officially registered a sack today, they forced several hurried passes, incompletions, and made quarterback hits.  The DB blitz is a disruptive force when its timed perfectly, and today it was clicking very well.
  • A couple of young players had notable mixed performances today.  The first was James Carpenter, who had a very impressive run block to spring Lynch for his long gain.  He would draw penalties later, and get schooled by both Jason Pierre Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka.  Despite having a tough day, I find myself upbeat about Carpenter.  Most rookie lineman struggle, and today was a good learning experience for him.  Particularly the sack he allowed to JPP on a simple inside move.
  • The other was Anthony McCoy.  McCoy is a good player who knows how to get open, but he will drop passes sometimes, and today was one of those days.  I didn't take notes, but I remember 3 negative plays for McCoy today against one very positive one, a 4th quarter reception for 20 yards.  McCoy was forced into action after Zach Miller left the game with an apparent head injury. 
  • Kam Chancellor hasn't gotten national attention yet, but he's one of the best young strong safeties in the business.  Especially today.  Every time I noticed #31, it was from a positive contribution.  Whether it was on a safety blitz, making great tackles, or playing good coverage.  He nearly had an interception on Cruz's insane 68 yard TD reception.  When he sealed the game by intercepting Eli Manning, it was the perfect ending to very impressive day.  Earl Thomas was great with a pick and a fumble recovery with quality plays in between.  I agree with former star NFL safety John Lynch.  The Seahawks might just have the best young safety duo in the NFL.
  • Walter Thurmond had a strong game overall.  He was forced into action thanks to Trufant's recurring back spasms.  Thurmond had a diving near interception and had several other great defensive plays that were so good they bordered on pass interference.  Given how well Thurmond, Browner, Thomas, and Chancellor played, and how well Seattle's pass rush was operating, it seems rather shocking that Eli Manning had a career high 420 yards today.  Without going back for a second look, I'm guessing that the reason for such a high total was the fast pace of the game, the fact that the running offense was going nowhere, and the game status of trailing for a majority of the game.
  • Russell Okung felt left out seeing so many other Seahawks going down with injuries, so he joined the parade late in the 4th quarter with yet another ankle sprain. It's already his 2nd this year and I think his 5th in less than a season and a half.  Players become more prone to ankle injuries after they have them, and Okung has injured both ankles.  I've gone from nervous about Okung becoming an "injury-bust" to resigned about it.  I commented on this just last week, when I noted that any game that Okung isn't injured is a small win.  I think that says it all about Okung, when you literally expect him to limp off the field injured every single game.  I don't know what Seattle should do, given that Okung is still a good player when healthy.  [Update:]  Apparently Okung did not injure his ankle and returned later in the 4th quarter.  It may have been a bad cramp instead.  Great news if this is the case.
  • The coaching staff finally adopted a running back by committee approach.  Lynch only had 12 carries, while Forsett had 4, Washington 3, and even Robinson was granted 3 carries (which he promptly rewarded with a red zone fumble).  The result was 145 net rushing yards, and a highly respectable net rushing yards per attempt of 5.0. 
  • Marshawn Lynch had a great game today.  He showed increased quickness and decisiveness.  I really liked some of the cuts he made at the first level in the initial drives of the game.  He finished with 98 yards on only 12 carries and 33 more yards on 4 receptions.  The Saints game will forever be Lynch's greatest game as a Seahawk because of The Run for which this blog is named, but start to finish, I'd actually say today was Lynch's best overall game yet as a Seahawk.
  • Perhaps a bigger reason for the Seahawks run offense efficiency today was due to the fact that Tarvaris Jackson was spreading the ball well once again.  A defense that has to anticipate receptions either quick or slow, either left or right, and either shallow or deep is not going to be in good position to stop the run.  Jackson was hitting all areas of the field, and when he left the game, the running offense ground to a halt immediately.  Charlie Whitehurst is not a point guard quarterback, and it impacted the running game accordingly.  A point guard quarterback is fluid, instinctive, is a threat to run, and uses the entire field.  Charlie Whitehurst is a threat to run, but doesn't use the entire field nearly as much, and is a highly structured quarterback, with most of his throws being quick hits pre-designed before the snap.  Whitehurst threw a lot of bubble screen passes which positioned the defense closer to the line of scrimmage and often put defenses in favorable positions to stop the run.
  • Doug Baldwin continues to impress.  I don't know what I can say that his line of 8 catches for 136 yards and a TD doesn't say already.  So instead I'll say this.  Doug Baldwin entered the regular season as Seattle's #6 wide receiver, and yet he's currently on pace for 1,056 yards on the season.  If he does so, he'll be the first Seahawks receiver to break 1000 yards since Bobby Engram did it in 2007.  How appropriate.
The Seahawks have a bye next week, then face the Bengals and Browns in the next two games.  Going 4-3 is looking like a distinct possibility, especially if Tarvaris Jackson is able to heal by then.  Its a shame that the 49ers are running away with the division.  I beginning to think this Seahawks team is better than last year's.

7 comments:

  1. I always thought that, talent wise, this year's team was better than last years (except at QB) However, experience wise, I figured we had a long way to go, especially with the lockout...Well, it looks as if we've COME a long way, and I don't see us as near our potential yet...

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  2. Love your stuff!!

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  3. Isn't it nice to review a Seahawks game without a pre-emptive head-in-hands moment? Also, seems odd how recently we seemed overstocked with TE riches and now are relying on the depth at WR. Still, at least Tarvaris seems to trust the WRs now!

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  4. Kip, love your stuff. Insightful without overreaching on conclusions. Keep it coming!

    I really like Tavaris as a person from what I've seen and I hate those situations in which everyone is the national media feels the need to pile on with mocking comments. So hopefully he really is developing if for nothing else to stick it to lazy groupthink pundits...

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  5. Hope this game ends for a time the tiresome "Suck for Luck" chatter.

    Thanks for the good article.

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  6. Pretty much sums up my thoughts as well.

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