Saturday, March 5, 2011

Looking Back on 2010, Part 6: Ominous October

Continuing a series of posts re-capturing the moods, debates, and plot twists of Pete Carroll's first year in Seattle. Links to previous installments available at the end of the page.

Seattle had gotten off to just good enough of a start in September to energize Seahawks fans, but there were still red flags.

Yes, Seattle was 2-1, but the opponents weren't all that impressive and the winning didn't look all that sustainable. San Diego had performed well against us and had lost due to a freak special-teams meltdown. The 49ers were, well, the 49ers. And the Denver Broncos, who would go on to finish the season 3-13, had whalloped us.

Part of judging a team is judging its opponents. I respected Seattle's 2-1 start more than I did its 2009 start, which featured a blowout against the bottom-dwelling Rams and Jaguars and then nothing else. The 49ers and Chargers were talented, the latter notorious for starting the season slow. So I wasn't about to dismiss the winning entirely, but I was nervous as October began as the Rams coming up. One of my colleagues at work was positive that St. Louis would beat us: "You can't keep a streak like that going forever".

She was right.

Week 4: St. Louis 20, Seattle 3

Anyone hoping that Seattle might be helped by a groin injury to Rams RB Steven Jackson, or by the arrival of WR Brandon Stokley, was disappointed as the Rams finally broke the 10-game losing streak to Seattle.

The Seahawks' offensive collapse was total. St. Louis looked competent, not amazing, keeping it conservative with rookie QB Sam Bradford as they did all season. Seattle's defense was therefore able to keep the blowout modest by blowout standards. But with Seattle mustering only a field goal, committing only two turnovers (pretty good for the post-Holmgren Seahawks), and not seeing the Rams' side of the field once after the half, well, you're not going to get anywhere. Two first downs in an entire half - not a recipe for success.

Lots of reasons for this meltdown. A key dropped pass by Michael Robinson in the 2nd killed a promising drive. RB Justin Forsett received a full game of carries but managed only 3.4 YPC. RG Stacy Andrews had the first of several bad games against solid 4-3 under tackles, in this case Fred Robbins, making me question again why Seattle insisted on playing Andrews out of position all year.

The defense deserves props for the game. They committed a lot of weird penalties, but they stayed in it until the end. Aaron Curry and Chris Clemons were continuing to play balls-out long after the game was decided. Earl Thomas notched another interception, this one in the end zone. The "blame ball" has gotten tossed back and forth like a hot potato between the offense and defense all season; this week, it sure didn't land with the defense.

The sitting of RB Julius Jones against the Rams was telling. A week later, during Seattle's bye week, we would trade for Beast Mode himself, RB Marshawn Lynch, for a fourth-round pick. It was a trade that a lot of rosterbating fans had already been theorizing about for a while, though I was skeptical. Lynch looked like a flash-in-the-pan who was unable to fight through the low quality of his surrounding talent, and how many players like that have come through Seattle lately? I wasn't interested at the time.

Lynch would not amaze in 2010. His YPC average was worse than the 2009 average of Julius Jones. This is where convenient excuses come in, and while I'm sick of making excuses for Seattle's offense in recent years, it has to be admitted that the run blocking of this offensive line absolutely sucks wastewater. It actually seems to have regressed from 2009. Lynch not only had no holes to run through, he usually couldn't even get to the line unmolested. LT Russell Okung showed some surprising run-blocking fortitude after mostly lacking it in college, which is encouraging, but our guards and Sean Locklear just couldn't hack it, couldn't coordinate. It didn't help that for too much of the season, our fullback was TE John Carlson.

You need to watch the tape to get the full extent of Lynch's improvement over Julius Jones. Lynch keeps his feet moving in the pocket. He's powerful and protects the ball. His unbelievable spirit and effort turned a lot of losses into no-gains or short gains all season. He lacks elite speed and burst, and his field vision and hole-spotting are merely decent, but 2010 is a wash for him. He needs another year to be fully judged.

Also during the bye, Seattle finally parted ways with one of its most maddening free-agent acquisitions, WR Deion Branch. Branch was unable to stay healthy or adapt to Matt Hasselbeck, and had sucked Seattle monetarily dry while doing so. The best part of the trade was that New England proved surprisingly generous to get him back, coughing up a fourth-rounder where most Seattle fans expected nothing more than a sixth. Naturally, Branch immediately started tearing things up again with the Patriots, racking up 48 catches and 706 yards in 11 games started for his old team. Terrific.

The Bears game was coming up, and most of us had written it off. 10AM game on the road - yeah, there's a loss. Next.

Week 6: Seattle 23, Chicago 20

Instead, Seattle hit Wrigley inspired, winning 23-20.

I'll start with the caveats. Some say that the game wasn't as close as the score suggested, but as long as the score is only ten points apart, the game is close. This is a Seahawks team that can meltdown at the drop of a hat. They also weren't playing key Chicago defender Lance Briggs, and that was a difference. Chicago's offensive line was amongst the league's worst at that point, having surrendered a bajillion sacks to the Giants the week before. OC Mike Martz didn't even try to establish the run, rushing 12 times and then knocking it off. It was not a whole Chicago team that Seattle beat. (But DT Brandon Mebane was also out with a calf injury, leveling the playing field a bit.)

In the end, though, Seattle did just what it needed to do to win. They scored early with a 22-yard TD pass to Deon Butler to put the pressure on, refusing to bow to an early Bears score. They then settled into a field position game, keeping the Bears pinned and denying Devin Hester the explosion he needed. Meanwhile, they scored themselves.

The Seahawks' skill position players made the game. WR Mike Williams blew up at last, catching 10 passes for 123 yards and proving a favorite target for Matt Hasselbeck. Marshawn Lynch was sensational in his effort, if not his results. Beast Mode's ability to turn tackles for loss into no-gains or short-gains kept Seattle out of the third-and-long situations that usually lead to interceptions, extending drives and proving the difference. Lynch powered through blocks for a goal-line touchdown, flashing exciting memories of 2005, while Justin Forsett and a crowd of Seahawks was virtually pushed into the end zone by Russell Okung. It was an exciting day for the offense.

The defense continued to give up big passing plays, needing to blitz to achieve those six sacks it notched. The safety by Jordan Babineaux proved crucial. Lost amongst the mockery of Jay Cutler was that he posted 290 passing yards in 17 attempts and could have posted more had the offense been given any balance by the play-calling. Seattle's D gave up 120 yards to Johnny Knox.

The Chicago win was hailed by fans and pundits as a breaking of Seattle's perennial road curse, and indeed the Seahawks deserve credit for getting that particular monkey off their back. But the win was almost lost at the end as Seattle tried to give back its special-teams karma from San Diego, allowing a punt return for a TD by Devin Hester and almost a kickoff return by Danieal Manning.

Week 7: Seattle 22, Arizona 10

The Arizona game was another frustrating triumph that needs to be examined with a microscope. Cardinals QB Max Hall, coming off a supposed hot streak and a series of glowing ESPN life reviews, quickly reminded the league that oh, yeah, maybe there IS a reason he's just a third-stringer. He was awful, and the Seahawks took advantage at home to win 22-10.

Over and over Arizona fumbled, and over and over Seattle could not convert the gifts into anything but field goals. They actually had two scoring drives of negative yardage. It was a disturbing display of Seattle's true abilities in goal-line offense. Stupid penalties abounded. CB Walter Thurmond started at outside corner in relief of the injured Kelly Jennings and was lauded for his ability to defend Larry Fitzgerald one-on-one. Apparently nobody realizes that even a #1 wide receiver can be easily defended if his QB doesn't know what he's doing.

Once Hall was officially sunk, Derek Anderson replaced him at QB, and Arizona promptly rumbled down the field on a 70-yard scoring drive on which Seattle's vaunted run defense allowed 5 rushes for 28 yards by Chris Wells, including the 2-yard score. The Cards would finish the day with 113 rushing yards on 20 carries. Convenient how often this game gets omitted from the Red Bryant memorials.

Nevertheless, Seattle was 4-2. I think it was at this point that Tony Dungy called the Seahawks "the best in the NFC". Dungy is a good man and a quality announcer, but best in the NFC with all those caveats and terrible opponents? No Kool-Aid for me. Seattle's October was about to end on a much more appropriate note.

Week 8: Oakland 33, Seattle 3

Seattle's 33-3 loss to Oakland on Halloween wasn't just an indictment on the Seahawks, but a reminder of how talented the Raiders' defense is. They dominated the Seahawks from the first snap, holding Marshawn Lynch to 7 yards on 9 carries and keeping Hasselbeck under. A plethora of oh-so-close catches by WR Golden Tate ended with his injury.

The worst injury, and the one that most Seahawks fans fixate on, was the loss of DE Red Bryant. I'm not sold on Bryant's importance to this defense, but his departure did make an immediate difference. The Raiders were suddenly breaking off long runs right and left. DT Colin Cole left for the locker room himself eventually, and - I never thought I'd say this - made the defense worse by his departure.

There weren't a whole lot of turnovers. It was simply a bad offensive performance, especially by the line. Whether by scheme, talent, or extra help, Seattle's pass-blocking generally improved in 2010, but against Oakland they relapsed badly. Andrews again stood out with his struggles against under tackle Richard Seymour. K Olindo Mare missed two field goals, but that was hardly the biggest problem. Once Seattle had sat around long enough, Oakland eventually just took over on offense, making Darrius Heyward-Bey, Marcel Reece, and Michael Bush look like all-stars.

It was an ominous ending movement for Seattle's deceptive October symphony. Just how good was Seattle, and how valid was its 4-3 start? November was looking a lot more intimidating: the Giants and the Saints, both recent Super Bowl winners, and the suddenly-hot Kansas City Chiefs. It was looking like November would be the best test yet of whether Seattle truly deserved mention as an NFC elite.

To be continued...

Part 5
Part 4
Part 3
Part 2
Part 1

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