My Seahawks fandom doesn't require me to blindly predict wins. If any fan chooses to be realistic and call the game as he sees it, then that's his right, and nobody else has anything to say about it.
So I'm going to step out and say that the Seahawks face an uphill battle on Monday when the Packers swing by for their round in the Clink. There is, in fact, potential for a Green Bay blowout. That would be far more heartbreaking than a close loss, an implication that we've overestimated the defense's growth so far and provided a get-well game for Green Bay's aerial attack.
Then again, what point is there in being a fan if there's not at least a mustard seed of optimism in his heart? Some folks seem to enjoy going against the grain, worshiping "rationality" almost to the point that others are justified in wondering if they have a pulse. Appearances aside, I'm not one of those guys. Is not hope a component of fandom? And so it is that I can say the Seahawks are better-equipped and closer to the ability to stop a truly elite quarterback than they ever have before.
Tony Romo was not quite an elite quarterback. In terms of patience, consistency, and mastery of the art of pocket quarterbacking, he falls short of the neighborhood of Aaron Rodgers. He is, however, still very good in his gutsy, improvisational way, and has come a long way from his 2006 "choker" days. Seattle's containment of him remains a compliment to them, especially since Dallas did not abandon the run immediately and leave Romo on an island. It was a significant step forward in the coming together of their individual talent.
But the fact remains that the Seahawks have faced few elite quarterbacks under Pete Carroll, and have not fared well when they have (or even against many sub-elite guys). They failed utterly - twice - to stop Drew Brees by any measure. Their triumphant playoff victory had nothing to do with a defense that allowed 36 points, and everything to do with a monster swan song by Matt Hasselbeck and a groundshaking run by the Beast.
The following September, Ben Roethlisberger skewered Seattle repeatedly with a speedy receiver or two, and Matt Ryan followed soon thereafter. Eli Manning, again, was defeated more by a rare hot day for Seattle's offense than anything else.
Seattle's secondary has remained on an upward trajectory since then (in particular Brandon Browner). Their objective: overcome the Jekyll-and-Hyde-ish nature that defined that infuriating pretender, the Ruskell defense, that looked elite against terrible quarterbacks and then turned around and bit its fans in the ass by deflating against any quarterback who was worth a damn. It was a lesson in the impact of strength-of-opponent and a disheartening illusion that's given me post-traumatic stress when it comes to Seattle's defense. I'm still shaking off the habit of guessing wins or losses purely by the strength of the opposing QB.
In their first two games of 2012, the Seahawks defense allowed several long, grinding, third-down-after-third-down possessions but were able to make just enough drive-killing plays to keep the score close. This "attrition" style of defense, while seemingly a nail-biting high-wire act, is still a valid strategy in the NFL and also goes by the name of "bend but don't break". It forces the opposing quarterback to make more plays and thus increases the probability of a turnover.
Seattle's backfield has the physicality and talent to play the man coverage that will pressure Rodgers (Bradley's precious zone coverage will be a death wish for Seattle). Last week, they handled some solid but inconsistent receivers. The presence of the speedy Greg Jennings is what could turn this into last year's Pittsburgh game, in which Mike Wallace repeatedly left Brandon Browner in the dust with his speed. Expect Rodgers to pick on Browner with Jennings (if he plays). One double-move bite by Browner, one bad angle by Kam Chancellor, and Rodgers will have his six. (Newly-signed CB Danny Gorrer could be Pete Carroll's attempt to answer Jennings in the slot).
Rodgers is not invincible. His deep production has dropped over his last few games, and it turns out that he didn't face a lot of sincere defenses in 2011. He needs Greg Jennings; most of his other weapons are known for spells of inconsistency. All three of the NFL's precious premiere passing juggernauts have gotten off to a terrible start this year, partially because of all the defenses stacking against the pass with creatively disguised coverages. Pete Carroll has helped spearhead this movement with his "amoeba" and "Bandit" looks, and has only enhanced their talent this offseason. It's an encouraging trend that could help restore offensive balance to the league.
But Rodgers will score. The defense will try to contain him, and will probably sack him thanks to home-field advantage and Rodgers' habit of holding the ball an extra tick. But he's been getting sacked for years and still keeps coming right back with a big play. He can also burn our front seven with his legs if they overpursue. Rodgers will score, and when he does, Seattle's offense will have to answer.
I'm not the first to notice that Seattle is a "second-half" offense so far this year. In other words, they're slow to start. The Carroll Seahawks overall are 2-16 against teams that score at least 21 points. This statistic is easy to dismiss as a lack of competent quarterbacking, but that caveat is still in effect on this team.
Russell Wilson is a rookie. Other teams' sportswriters and fans seem to take it for granted that pressuring a rookie QB will destroy him. Wilson needs to prove otherwise.
Last week, Dallas surrendered three turnovers and ten points in the first nine minutes, without any appreciable contribution at all from Seattle's offense. This largely turned out to be irrelevant, as Seattle was unable to muster a commanding lead upon those turnovers and the game still came down to execution in the second half. But it bought Seattle's rushing attack some time to get in rhythm.
Seattle won't often enjoy that many turnovers in a game, much less in the first quarter. Tonight, they face the quarterback with the lowest interception rate in NFL history.
In many ways, Monday's contest is a collision of two teams built (at least partially) to play with the lead. Therefore, it's also a test of philosophies. Green Bay's defense is designed to rush the passer as he scrambles to keep up with Aaron Rodgers. Pete Carroll has built an offense predicated on the running game. This isn't the same as "a team built to play with the lead", and I doubt that's Pete's intention. But until Russell Wilson develops further, that's all that Pete has. The running game generally has no impact if the team is trailing. For the moment, Seattle needs leads or level scores to play within its identity.
The Packers' defense can be run upon, but unless the defense is able to shut down Aaron Rodgers early, Russell Wilson will face pressure from the scoreboard. That will require him to pass more, putting him right in the crosshairs of Clay Matthews (6 sacks in two games). The league has seen what Wilson looks like when pressured from the inside (jittery and uncertain), and what he looks like when only occasionally blitzed (much better). The Packers will blitz Wilson until he punishes them for it. Jump balls aren't the solution this time, as the Packers have corners who can win jump-ball competitions with Sidney Rice and Braylon Edwards.
Still, this isn't a perfect matchup for Green Bay. The Packers' back seven were designed to stop strong-armed, prolific, risky passers like Jay Cutler and Eli Manning, a profile Wilson has generally avoided with conservative decisions. He and his offense are showing signs of growing into their own, finding their strengths, chemistry, and hot hands. Darell Bevell has already noticed the resources that defenses are committing to Seattle's play-action; a couple of Wilson's big plays last week were not out of play-action. The Seahawks' eyes are definitely open offensively.
There is hope going into this contest, no doubt about it. There is a sense that Green Bay will be earning its win, rather than exposing a pretender defense. But this remains one of the toughest passing attacks in the league, with the ability to sidestep Seattle's physicality, and reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated when they're made after two games. Seattle's offense, on the other hand, is young (its third game) and needs to overcome its first-half sputtering.
If the Packers do prevail, it won't be a judgment on the team; it'll be a reminder of its youth and its need for more time. A few people are biting their nails because they believed the Seahawks could contend this year and that Matt Flynn was the best option for that goal, but growth is badly needed throughout this offense, not just at quarterback. Carroll's choice to develop the quarterback along with his weapons is the agreeable choice to me.
The Packers game is a must-win if Seattle is in the playoff hunt, but I'm not hanging disproportionately big hopes on this hat rack. Like many games this year, this is a gauge for Seattle's growth. It's not a completely laid-back, hey-we-just-started affair like 2010's San Diego contest. There is some urgency, some expectation from two years of development. But still, I contest this contest as more of a gauge for the team's growth than a stepping stone to a year of destiny. That's okay.
Prediction (0-2 so far):