|Michael Robinson denies the Rams an upbeat ending.|
I usually like to go against the grain, but today I'm just gonna go along with the general narrative. It's fully true - Seattle needed this game. They needed a "humility check", in Tim Ryan's words, before heading into the playoffs. Not because they were cocky or arrogant, exactly, but because there's nothing like experience to undergird a truth. Seattle isn't invincible and they're not going to be scoring 40-burgers all the time.
The Seahawks needed this style of game, a knock-down, drag-it-all-out brawl of a 20-13 victory over another physical team. The Rams are good. A few years of drafting has brought them back to respectability, and they have the head coach to make them a threat in any venue on any weekend. Kudos to Jeff Fisher and the Rams for a solid test for these Seahawks. Given the youth of these two teams, this, rather than the 49ers, is the rivalry that will probably last the longest in this era of the NFC West.
Let's be honest here - the Cardinals, Bills, and 49ers were not that challenging for Wilson. Losing Justin Smith doesn't entirely excuse the 49ers defense, but Wilson doesn't need that big of a crack. Give him anything and he'll break a game wide open with his mobility and cool head, and if that's not enough, try overcoming the additional momentum of Red Bryant blocking stuff. The blowouts were fun and got the Seahawks some much-appreciated national respect, but today, the Rams gave Wilson nothing. It was the most that any team has demanded of him this year. It was the toughest game of December for them, a grind and a scheme-tester.
And the Seahawks pulled it out. They hung in there. Despite a well-executed defensive setup from St. Louis, despite the offensive mistakes of youth coming back to haunt them, despite every effort from Jeff Triplett's referee crew to stifle both teams (apparently they wanted another tie), despite that horrible sinking feeling that the Miami game was repeating itself, Seattle pulled it out. They maintained focus, they never lost their heads, and they stayed in to live another set of downs. Eventually, the big plays finally started rolling in without yellow flags attached, and the offense trotted into the history books abreast of Peyton Manning (Wilson's 26 passing touchdowns for a rookie) and Adrian Peterson (Marshawn Lynch with ten 100-yard games in a season).
That's fodder for some serious pride, and it's a sign of maturity on this team. In my humble opinion, it says more about the Seahawks than any game since Chicago. Bring on the playoffs.
Since we're thinking about reality checks, this game highlighted some personnel issues than Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch have been covering up for weeks. Despite appearances that are understandably deceiving when your team is up by 20 points, Seattle's roster has some vulnerabilities heading into the postseason. If there is a playoff exit by this team, these seem like the likeliest avenues through which it will come.
It it comes. I give this team a legitimate chance to win it all.
Offense: Limited receiver separation
Give St. Louis their due for finally developing a strong plan for stopping Russell Wilson. The Rams D-line did a good job of containing the edges and keeping Wilson from slipping out into space. This left him pumping in the pocket looking for targets. Along with some well-timed stuffs of Lynch early on, the Rams were able to shut down an offense that had just scored 150 points in its last three games. Seattle's right-side O-line deserves some grace in light of the defensive line it faced, despite its horrid performance.
The Rams' plan in a nutshell: force Wilson to be Peyton Manning by stuffing the run, containing the edges, and requiring Wilson to beat the blitz through the air. In other words, a complete defensive effort. That's probably the closest thing to a blueprint for stopping this Seattle offense that exists at this point, though it required a very talented and well-coached defense to do it. (It's a little disappointing that Darell Bevell didn't try so much as a single screen or swing pass that I can offhand remember. A back-to-earth moment for him as well.)
How does an offense address this? If you look back over the last two months and watch Wilson's biggest plays with an objective eye, you'll notice that he's needing a lot of scrambling and improvisation to make it happen. He succeeds, so nobody questions them or looks for a cause. But it's an indicator that our wide receiving corps, now even more depleted than earlier, has nobody who gets quick separation or clears out zones consistently, leaving Wilson in the pocket tomahawking empty air with the football. He's not going to make a lot of risky throws (nor should he), so he needs that separation. And against defenses that can contain the edges, like St. Louis, that will leave him exposed, the O-line overburdened, and the offense jerky and stop-start like it was today.
Part of averting any sophomore slump for Wilson, in my opinion, lies with restacking our WR corps. They're obviously not going to leave the roster with four guys including Jermaine Kearse, so this is moot. But I'm looking forward to guys who can break off crisp routes and flash open quickly, and/or offer a deep threat to draw coverages away. Give Wilson even more options, hand Lynch a couple more yards up front, make defenses work even harder. Perhaps not in the first round, because Wilson's height will hide some of the shorter stuff anyway and thus can't fully justify a big WR investment. Cobi Hamilton of Arkansas has recently caught my eye as fitting the PC bill; I might write more about him soon.
Defense: Interior pass rush, slot cornerback
Seattle's pass rush was once again unaccounted for, negating the best coverage efforts of our secondary (even Marcus Trufant had a couple wily plays from the slot). Worse yet, today was the worst home performance we've seen from this unit all year. This will not do, either against Tony Romo or Robert Griffin III, to say nothing of who comes afterward. DT Jason Jones' move to IR has proven his value in retrospect, but even he may be too oft-injured to be the answer. An answer is needed, because despite Bruce Irvin's eight sacks this year, his impact has been spotty. Like Aldon Smith, he needs a lightning bear next to him to open up opportunities up the middle, and he needs experience, more pass-rush moves, and more discipline. As it is, he's still sorta the delayed-gratification pick he was in Week 1.
Earlier last week, CB Walter Thurmond tweeted that his season had come to an end. The Seahawks never confirmed that they had moved Thurmond to IR. Don't hold your breath expecting him to wind up there this week either, as neither Marcus Trufant nor Jeremy Lane performed particularly well in his absence. Lane has promise, but remains as raw as a rug burn. Pete Carroll has established a habit of making roster moves based on what other talent he has available on his roster. It says a lot about Thurmond's potential that Pete drafted him in the fourth round after a gruesome college injury and then hung onto him up until this point. He might still have a place on this team.
The linebacking corps is not a glaring need nor necessarily demands a first-round move, as few 4-3 defenses are known for their linebackers. Also, only a churl would complain about the linebackers on the #1 scoring defense. But you could say that OLB is perhaps not "competition-proof". Perhaps we should just settle for a stud defensive tackle and see what Malcolm Smith and KJ Wright become.
The Seahawks have defied my expectations. A young team with a bunch of rookies and sophomores, especially at vital positions - I figured 10-6, but with my projected wins concentrated in very different parts of the schedule.
Instead, the Seahawks have played tough, persevered through ups and downs and some undeserved criticism from fans and media alike. The result: the 3rd 11-win season of the franchise against incredibly touch competition, the #1 scoring defense, a rookie QB breaking records and vying for Offensive Rookie of the Year (who cares, go to the Super Bowl!), five Pro Bowlers and a gaggle of alternates including the best cornerback in the league, all the love that DVOA can muster, a playoff berth that was an agonizing Braylon Edwards drop away from being the #2 seed...
...and most importantly, validation. The Rams handed this team a knuckle sandwich today, and they spun around and jumped right back into the fray. They are alive in January with the experience, credibility, and self-confidence to be considered a legitimate NFC title contender. Imagine them after this upcoming draft, rich in all the missing pieces this team needs.
This could get really, really good.