There appear to be two versions of the Seattle Seahawks in the public consciousness. There is the juggernaut that has gone 18-3 in its last 21 regular-season games and is nearly unbeatable at home. That Seahawks team has one of the best young quarterbacks in Russell Wilson, a dominant running back in Marshawn Lynch and a defense that can shut down -- nay, embarrass -- any offense it faces.
Then, there's the Seahawks team that has lost two of its last four games -- both to excellent division opponents, and one was at home. The Arizona Cardinals' 17-10 victory at CenturyLink Field provided a template to beat this Seahawks team, even in its own backyard -- push Lynch off his axis after you've shredded his sub-par line, run Wilson to death after his pass protection erodes and outlast a defense increasingly staffed by backup cornerbacks.
As with most narratives, there's truth to both sides of the story. The Seahawks are, by advanced metrics, the NFL's best team -- at least in the regular season -- for the second straight year. Their point differential of +186 is second-best to Denver's, and their defense is just as good as the stats imply. Perhaps even better given that those backup cornerbacks, like Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane, have jumped in and played like starters from the word "go." And Wilson has thrown more touchdown passes in his first two seasons (52) than anyone not named Peyton Manning.
On the other hand ... the offensive line can be a sieve at times, especially at guard, which is one reason Lynch's rushing totals have plummeted of late -- from 5.2 yards per carry in November to 3.6 yards per carry in December. "Run-to-win" is often an unholy misuse of correlation and causation, but in the Seahawks' case, it rings true. One of the main reasons they went 3-2 in December was that Lynch is the force around which everything else revolves.
But the road to the Super Bowl goes through Seattle this season, and the last time that happened (the 2005 season), the Seahawks made it to Super Bowl XL, where they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They're going to be favorites no matter who they face this postseason, starting in the divisional round with a New Orleans team they crushed 34-7 on Dec. 1.
That said, if home playoff status were an inevitability for victory, we wouldn't bother having the postseason in the first place. The reality is there have been enough five- and six-seeds taking home the Lombardi Trophy in the last decade to make it more than interesting for everyone involved. And with that in mind, here are five ways to take care of a Seahawks team that has been unbeatable at times -- and all too vulnerable at others.
1. Wait for protection breakdowns, then spy Russell Wilson to the sideline.
Wilson threw outside the pocket a league-leading 25 percent of the time in 2012, and he's continued that trend out of necessity in his second NFL season. Seattle's pass protection is inconsistent at best and disastrous at worst -- and though pass protection is generally tougher with mobile quarterbacks who extend plays, Wilson makes it easier by running out of the frame and away from designed pass-rush sets.
When he gets outside and his reads to the open side are covered, Wilson has the arm to throw across his body, but he also has to manage the time before the play breaks down. Times like these are when he'll bail and run. You can't always assign a spy defender to trail Wilson, but if you have the kind of defense that can cover downfield without help, putting a fast linebacker on No. 3 is a good way to prevent those embarrassing downfield quarterback runs.
The San Francisco 49ers have two such linebackers in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, and Bowman might be the best sideline-to-sideline 'backer in the league right now. When San Francisco beat Seattle 19-17 in Week 14, Bowman ended the Seahawks' first drive of the day with a 12-yard sack that came out of his ability to revert from coverage and expertly play the spy role.
Bowman (53) started inside and rolled to his right as tight end Zach Miller and receiver Jermaine Kearse ran short crossing routes. But as Aldon Smith collapsed the pocket to Wilson's blind side, Wilson had to run. And that's when Bowman turned on a dime, matched Wilson step-for-step, and took him down for a 12-yard sack.
New Orleans' Curtis Lofton isn't quite in Bowman's league, but he's a smart, quick linebacker who could have a similar impact on Saturday -- as Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin told me on Tuesday, Lofton is "always in the right place." If that's the case, and he's spying Wilson, that could be a problem for Seattle.
2. Keep your defense disciplined against Wilson's play-action shot plays.
When Seattle's run game is working, it sets Wilson up for long passes off of play-action, and that's a primary staple of Seattle's offense. According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson has thrown from play action on 34.1 percent of his passing attempts this season, the highest in the league. He's averaged two more yards per attempt out of play action, and while his touchdown total (13) is the same either way, he's got three fewer interceptions with fakes to his running backs.
The Saints know all too well how this works, because Wilson nailed them for a 60-yard completion to tight end Zach Miller with 4:02 left in the first quarter. The Seahawks had third-and-1 at their own 36-yard line, and a two-tight-end set seemed to indicate a run play. That's certainly what the Saints thought -- all three of their linebackers bit on the fake, allowing Miller to get a clean release into open coverage.
3. Set your power-run game against Seattle's pressure fronts.
In the first half of the season, Seattle's generally formidable front seven encountered a recurring problem when opponents discovered that they could run against those fronts, especially in more obvious passing situations. The Seahawks have a deep and versatile line rotation, and the team's interior linemen create consistent pressure up the middle by sliding against offensive linemen and shooting through gaps. However, the downside of this approach became apparent when those same lines started pushing Seattle's defenders around -- a task made easier when the Seahawks overpursued and forgot about their gaps.
In Week 9, Seattle gave up a season-high 205 rushing yards to a Tampa Bay team that had not yet won a game, and 158 of those yards to sixth-round rookie backup Mike James -- whose single-game high outside of that game is 45 yards.
Seattle's risk-reward approach to gap control was exposed as flawed over and over on that day. With 58 seconds left in the first quarter, the Bucs had first-and-15 after a false start from James, and the Seahawks slid to push against Tampa Bay's zone protection.
It took a while for Seattle to figure this out, but the team has recovered nicely in the last few weeks, moving from 15th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics against the run in Weeks 1-9 to third in the season's second half. Still, head coach Pete Carroll has his eye out for any backslides in this department, and there's reason for concern -- the 49ers ran for 163 yards in Week 14, and the Cardinals put up 139 yards two weeks later.
“Fundamentals," Carroll said on Dec. 30. "The tackling, the fundamentals of the game, the pursuit, all of the things that make up the high level of play that you’ve seen, come from that and we really stressed it from somewhere … After the Tampa game -- that was probably the time where we made the turn; that we realized that we were going into the wrong direction. We were not playing really good, solid football fundamentally, and that wasn’t scheme-wise, although that was part of it. It was really running and hitting and tackling and leverage and pursuit and block protection and all of those things that are so necessary. To play on the ball and all of that stuff. We just continued to really focus on that; to try to be the best fundamental team in the league. We’re going to try to win with fundamentals and see if that doesn’t show up here at the end.”
4. Stuff the inside gaps in key short-yardage situations.
No need for screencaps here, unless you want to see a bunch of short-yardage stops that shouldn't be short-yardage stops with a back of Lynch's power. As the season has progressed, opposing defenses have become more aware that the best way to slow Lynch down is to pound it between the guards with power, and force those guards into disadvantageous situations.
The numbers aren't pretty -- according to Football Outsiders, the Seahawks have been successful on a league-low 49 percent of their power situations -- designated by FO as runs on third or fourth down, two yards or fewer to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. The Saints have allowed power success on 69 percent of the run plays against them, but Lynch ran for just 45 yards on 16 carries when these teams met in Week 13.
5. Throw complex combinations at their preferred coverage concepts.
Seattle's first loss of the season came against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Oct. 6, and one of the reasons the Colts were able to pull off the 34-28 victory was a total understanding of how to exploit the Seahawks' talented and aggressive defensive backs. Seattle plays press coverage as much as any NFL team, whether in man or zone, but they backed off against the combination of veteran Reggie Wayne and second-year speedster T.Y. Hilton. Against uncharacteristically soft coverage, Hilton caught five passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns, including this 73-yard score with 1:04 left in the first quarter.
Richard Sherman, Seattle's best cornerback, appeared to play bail technique, but it was an error. The Colts lined up in a bunch formation with motion, which is an excellent way to battle defensive backs who prefer to jam receivers at the line -- by switching up their routes from the line, they force defenses to play different zone concepts to avoid giving up big plays. But Hilton simply ran through the misbegotten zone and had a quick touchdown before the Seahawks knew what had happened to them.
“We made a mistake," Carroll said the next day. "We saw something in the route and Sherm needed to stay deep on that one and he just missed the look of it. It was a nicely-done route. It was just a thing that happened and was unfortunate. It was a mistake.” Saints head coach Sean Payton is one of the league's more creative and effective formation designers, and it was surprising that he didn't attack Seattle's defense in similar ways. We'll see if that changes in the rematch.