By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) If the season were to end today, Seattle would travel to Chicago for a Wild Card round matchup. Granted, a lot of shuffling can – and will – happen over the next six weeks, but this Sunday is a huge game for both teams.
The Seahawks are an unconventional team. In a pass-happy league, they’re one of three teams to run more than they throw, leading the league with a +79 run-to-pass differential. Head coach Pete Carroll – who does have previous NFL head coaching experience – runs the Seahawks with the same youthful exuberance he did during an epic run at USC. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson was a third-round draft pick, who defies unwritten “rules” about what a franchise quarterback in the NFL should look like.
Yet, the Seahawks are in the mix for a playoff berth.
Given the empire he built at USC, Carroll’s decision to leave for a Seahawks team fresh off a 5-11 season raised some eyebrows. As it turns out, it was a prescient decision. Five months after Carroll inked his deal, USC was stripped of their 2004 National Championship, forced to vacate their 2005 season, had their scholarships reduced to 75, and received a two-year postseason ban. Apparently, Pete knew exactly what he was doing.
After watching the quarterback situation devolve from the timeworn Matt Hasselbeck to middling Tarvarus Jackson, Carroll and general manager John Schneider made improving the quarterback position a priority this offseason. Again, in an unorthodox manner.
First, they signed Green Bay’s Matt Flynn. Flynn parlayed a season-ending shredding of the awful Lions secondary into $10M guaranteed. Quite a haul for a former seventh-round draft pick with average-at-best arm strength, whose true apex is a reliable back-up. Next, the Seahawks defied draftniks by using a third-round selection on Russell Wilson (Wisconsin).
Despite gaudy collegiate stats that told the tale of an accurate, wise decision-maker, scouts focused on one statistic, Wilson’s height. At 5’11”, Wilson doesn’t fit the mold of an NFL quarterback. In a league where offensive lineman average 6’5” and 310 pounds, finding passing lanes is more challenging for shorter quarterbacks.
Wilson had only four passes batted at the line of scrimmage in his senior season at Wisconsin, which is a credit to both his footwork in the pocket and calling plays to get him out of the pocket to give him a less obstructed view of the field. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell runs an inside zone running scheme, and his passing game is predicated on play-action off of it.
The Seahawks are fairly consistent with their personnel groupings, primarily running plays out of the following sets:
- 3WR-1TE-1RB (Rice, Tate, Baldwin, Miller, Lynch)
- 2WR-2TE-1RB (Rice, Tate, Miller, McCoy, Lynch)
- 2WR-2RB-1TE (Rice, Tate, Lynch, Robinson, Miller)
Running back Marshawn Lynch remains the centerpiece of the Seahawks offense. Lynch has already surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the season, and is second in the league with 231 rushing attempts. Lynch is a powerful runner in between the tackles, but also possesses the lateral quickness to make a defender miss at the second-level.
While Bevell’s playcalling can be unimaginative, and the blocking can be shoddy – particularly on the right side of the line – having a running back who draws safeties into the box like Lynch, opens up play-action opportunities down the field. Wilson has taken advantage on play-action, throwing seven touchdowns of 20 or more yards.
Despite losing last week in Miami – which had more to do with some curious play-calling on both sides of the ball down the stretch – Wilson became the first rookie to complete 16 consecutive passes in a game, and post three consecutive games with a quarterback rating of at least 125. Impressive numbers given a limited set of weapons in the passing game.
Sidney Rice was the Seahawks big-ticket free agent acquisition before the 2011 season; however, injuries cut into his season and productivity. This season Rice has been healthy and is posting better numbers, but still nothing worthy of a receiver who was paid to be a No. 1 ($18.5M guaranteed). Rice and teammate Golden Tate lead the Seahawks with six touchdown receptions apiece.
Tight end Zach Miller had some very productive seasons in Oakland. Seeing the success teams have had using tight ends on bootleg plays against the Bears over the past few weeks, Bevell would be wise to increase Miller’s targets this weekend.
Defensively, the Seahawks are a talented group, especially in the secondary and defensive line.
Reports surfaced this week of positive performance enhancing drug (PED) tests for cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. Both players have appealed and should be available on Sunday. This duo marks a new trend/concept of cornerbacks who are long-armed (both are 6’3″) and physical enough to play bump-and-run on the edge with the new breed of NFL wide receivers.
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley mixes both man and zone concepts. Free safety Earl Thomas is one of the most complete players at his position in the league. Thomas plays with great range as a single-high safety, and aggressively pursues down-field in run support. Flanking Thomas is the condor-like Kam Chancellor. Many thought Chancellor would be converted to outside linebacker, given his size, but Chancellor has settled in nicely as their thumper in eight-man boxes.
Seattle’s surprise move in the draft wasn’t limited to the Wilson selection. In the first-round, they went against the grain in their selection of defensive end Bruce Irvin. Irvin is a slightly built speed rusher off the edge, who at the moment is a one-trick pony.
In a passing league, “situational” pass rushers are at a premium, given the fact that those situations are typically more than 50% of the snaps in a game. However, Irvin can’t set the edge against the run, and needs to develop counter moves to justify his draft status.
The rest of the Seahawks line is filled with massive space eaters who can anchor against the run. Defensive end Chris Clemons is the complete package. Clemons has size, speed, and has perfected the inside spin move.
Defensive tackles Alan Branch and Brandon Mebane will be huge tests for the recently reshuffled interior of the Bears offensive line. Branch is developing as one of the better nose tackles in the NFC. At 6’6″ 325, he possesses the length to disengage blockers, as well as the strength to overpower them.
The second-level of the Seahawks defense is their most unproven group, primarily due to inexperience. Second-round draft pick Bobby Wagner (Utah State) has been productive as the mike linebacker. Asking a rookie to man the middle is a risky move, but Wagner has responded, leading the team in total tackles, and tackles for loss. Wagner is flanked by K.J. Wright and Leroy Hill.
The Seahawks defense is stingy. They allow the third least points and passing yards per game, the fifth least total yards per game. Given their size along the defensive front, and their ability to jam and re-route receivers on the outside, the Bears defense will have a difficult time moving the ball on Sunday.
This season and beyond, the Seahawks are going to be looking up at the 49ers. Thus, their best bet for success is to remain competitive for a Wild Card using their formula of ball control on offense to set up play-action shots down field, and disrupt opposing passing games with their size in the secondary.
Carroll inherited a talentless roster, and in short order, has turned things around. In his first season, he led the Seahawks to the playoffs – despite a 7-9 record – and a playoff win. In his second season, he took the Seahawks from the league’s 27th-ranked defense to ninth. This season, despite flaws on offense – particularly in the passing game – the Seahawks compete every weekend.
With a 1-5 record on the road, you have to question Carroll’s routine for road games. The Seahawks know what’s at stake this Sunday, so this matchup should have a playoff feel to it. Per usual, this game will come down to which team can make four or five plays in the passing game.
Will Wilson’s recent run of success continue in Chicago? Or will the Bears slam the door shut on the rookie?
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.