Seahawks Preview: Advantage to the Champs
Although it’s been a decade since a defending Super Bowl champ has made it back to the conference championship game, we still ask every year if a repeat is possible. With the Seahawks, it seems more apt to ask: How could they not?
Being relatively young, their smash-mouth defense could be even better in 2014. But given how difficult it is to win Super Bowls the same way twice, it’s imperative that the offense assumes a greater role in this team’s success. Here’s the amazing thing: let’s say 25-year-old quarterback Russell Wilson makes no progress at all—unlikely considering his intelligence, leadership and underrated physical prowess—this would still be a wildly more dangerous offense than it was a year ago because of Percy Harvin’s full-time return.
By far Seattle’s most dynamic weapon, Harvin is the wideout whom coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider gave up a first-and third-round pick and $25.5 million guaranteed to acquire from Minnesota last year. He has only played in 10 quarters (including the postseason) due to hip problems. But in that time, Harvin had 97 yards from scrimmage, plus kick returns of 87 yards (the TD against Denver) and 58 yards. And with him in the lineup, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell can run a more futuristic system.
We could see revolutionary stuff in 2014, because unlike last year Bevell & Co. have been able to practice with Harvin throughout the offseason. His vertical and horizontal speed and explosiveness present myriad dimensions.
The Seahawks got away from the read-option a bit last season, but we should expect to see it return, only with triple-option features involving Harvin on end-arounds and jet sweeps. Even if he doesn’t touch the ball on these designs, a defense still has to account for him. And when Harvin does touch the ball, he’s an erudite runner thanks to his experience coming out of the backfield. He’ll be featured and especially dangerous on the perimeter, where the force defender will often be a slower outside linebacker or a lighter cornerback.
The Harvin factor also enters in the screen game, something Wilson could become very good at orchestrating. In the more traditional form, Harvin also gives this offense the big-time downfield receiving prowess that it has lacked. Defenses will have to think strongly about doubling Harvin over the top, which then creates opportunities for others underneath.
Those “others" form a better receiving cast than the Hawks had in 2013. Slot connoisseur Doug Baldwin could see more action on the outside. That isn’t mandatory, however, after the arrival of second-round rookie Paul Richardson and fourth-round rookie Kevin Norwood. And undrafted returning players Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette, who both came on toward the end of last season (Kearse especially was great down the seams) will also vie for reps. So will second-year pro Luke Willson, who could take a few snaps away from Zach Miller, the consummate solid tight end.
The beauty of the Harvin dimension is that it doesn’t ask more of Russell Wilson. There’s a belief that the third-year pro is a superstar because he’s quarterbacked winning teams. Yes, Wilson has performed well on big stages (he was an extraordinary 7-of-8 on third down in the Super Bowl), and he’s the first quarterback in NFL history to have a 100-plus passer rating in each of his first two seasons. But he’s also aided and closely managed by a system that’s designed perfectly for—for, not around—his skill set.
Wilson is a game-manager with superb playmaking ability. He uses his feet exceptionally well, not just in scrambling but also in extending plays outside the pocket. No one is a better on-the-move touch thrower—especially as a right-hander moving to his left. But all of this comes from play designs that keep his reads reduced to either/or concepts that put him in prime position to bail with his feet. It’s evident that Wilson is coached to take off and run if his early progressions aren’t open. The Seahawks are comfortable with this because Wilson is masterful at protecting himself on scrambles.
The built-in scramble opportunities are, like the two-progression pass designs, a way of helping a quarterback who can’t read the entire field. Another form of such aid: rolled pockets, which always have a defined read (usually a crossing route or a backside deep route). Some of Wilson’s limitations in seeing the field are just natural symptoms of inexperience. And some of them are literal: at 5’11”, there are parts of the field Wilson simply can’t spot. That’s one reason he doesn’t do a lot of straight drop-backs from under center.
This season, look for the Seahawks to ask more of Wilson but still leave the reins on. With Harvin healthy, there will be more three-receiver formations, which means an expanded passing game underneath.
SEAHAWKS CAMP REPORT: Enjoy 2014, because things will never be the same
This doesn’t mean Bevell will get away from Seattle’s black and blue zone rushing attack. The ground game will remain this offense’s foundation, if for no other reason than because play-action is such a big part of the scheme. Marshawn Lynch is 28; with his tenacious style, he’ll hit a wall hard, but that is not likely to come in 2014. Still, to delay that, there’s been talk of giving more touches to Robert Turbin and last year’s second-round pick, Christine Michael. That’s easy for Bevell to theorize in the summer; it’s harder to actually execute in the fall. Lynch is one of the few power backs in the NFL who is also capable of creating his own yards. In fact, he’s shown very impressive lateral agility and, when needed, acute initial quickness when running out of three-receiver sets.
Paving the way on the ground is an offensive line that, just by staying healthy, will be better than it was a year ago. Its anchor is Max Unger, a sixth-year center who takes great angles to blocks and can consistently reach the second level. The personnel directly next to Unger is less appealing; right guard J.R. Sweezy is very average and left guard James Carpenter, a 2011 first-round pick, could not solidify a starting job last season. In the playoffs, Carpenter was benched for Michael Bowie, who did not perform well. But, with Bowie and fellow backup Pat McQuistan both gone now, the job is clearly Carpenter’s. Second-round rookie Justin Britt captured the starting right tackle job. At left tackle, Russell Okung has Pro Bowl tools but is frequently battling some sort of lower-body injury (lately it’s been a foot and ankle). He must stay healthy because Seattle’s depth up front is almost nonexistent.
The best defense in football does not have to outsmart opponents, it can simply out-execute them. Aside from a few amorphous third down blitz packages, that’s what coordinator Dan Quinn’s unit aims aim to do with their hybrid man-zone Cover 3 scheme.
It starts with the Legion of Boom. The corners get most of the pub, but the safeties are critical. Earl Thomas, who signed the richest safety contract in NFL history this offseason, is the rangiest centerfielder the league has seen since Ed Reed in his prime. Kam Chancellor (whom Schneider wisely locked up before the 2010 fifth-round pick lit the world on fire during last season’s playoff run) is the most imposing strong safety in the league. Chancellor is also a superb cover artist, both in man against tight ends and as a read-and-react robber in the base scheme. His proficiency here was the biggest of several overarching factors in the butt-kicking of Denver.
On the outside, of course, there’s the NFL’s best boundary corner in Richard Sherman. His understanding of route designs and a ball’s flight are second to none. There’s almost no chance of him matching his league-leading eight interceptions (plus several near-interceptions) from a year ago because quarterbacks won’t throw his way.
Instead, they’ll throw at Byron Maxwell, an ascending fourth-year pro who probably would have wrestled a starting job from the now-departed Brandon Browner this year anyway. In nickel, Maxwell will operate alongside another former sixth-round pick, Jeremy Lane, who is assuming the slot duties with Walter Thurmond now gone. Lane, like Maxwell and Sherman, has figured something out: NFL referees will only throw so many illegal contact and pass interference flags. (Even though they claim differently this year.)
With a breadth of low-round draft picks thriving at corner, it’s presumable that Carroll and defensive backs coach Kris Richard are phenomenal at teaching press technique and field-reading angles. The new sixth-rounder they’ll be grooming next is rookie Eric Pinkins (currently fighting a Lisfranc injury), a college safety who, at 6’3” and 220 pounds, fits the Seahawks mold. (Interesting side note: Maxwell and Lane are both only 6’0”; they seem much taller though because they have long arms. Coaches will tell you that long arms creates the illusion of tight coverage—and that often has the same effect as actual tight coverage: no pass attempt.)
Up front, despite releasing Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, the Seahawks are still formidable. Bruce Irvin will replace Clemons in nickel. The third-year pro prospered at a new linebacker position last year but, with his explosive first step and short-area movement, should see more reps off the edge in 2014. Defensive tackle Tony McDaniel will move outside and replace Bryant as the five-technique. McDaniel was solid last year, but at 6’7” and 305, he’ll have a different style of two-gap play than the 6’4”, 320-pound Bryant.
Rounding out the rest of the D-line: Michael Bennett was re-signed, giving the Seahawks an active first and second down strongside end and destructive third down tackle. At nosetackle, Brandon Mebane continues to play with quickness and leverage. At three-technique, with McDaniel now at end, 2013 third-round pick Jordan Hill is in line to get first-string reps, with longtime Viking Kevin Williams likely rotating. Incredibly, Seattle’s best pure pass rusher hasn’t been mentioned yet: Cliff Avril, who fires off the edge and has a knack for forcing fumbles (21 over his six-year career, 13 of them in the past three years).
Sandwiched between the Legion of Boom and a destructive D-line is what might be the fastest linebacking unit in football. Its driver, Mike backer Bobby Wagner, accentuates his speed with shrewd diagnostics skills. Like Sam backer K.J. Wright, Wagner is as deft against the pass as he is against the run. It helps that the press corners outside condense the interior zones that these linebackers are accountable for. On the weak side in base will be either Malcolm Smith or Bruce Irvin. Both have terrific speed.
Steven Hauschka made all but two of his 35 field goal attempts last season. Jon Ryan had 28 of his punts land inside the 20 and just five go for touchbacks. In the return game, Percy Harvin is a dynamo on kickoffs. He’s said that he’s open to also handling punts, but those duties have surprisingly fallen to Earl Thomas.
Nothing suggests that the Seahawks won’t make it back to the Super Bowl. Working in their favor is that their two biggest competitors, San Francisco and Green Bay, both have to play them at CenturyLink Field. Wins in those games would help put Seattle in position for home-field advantage—a significant advantage indeed.