Making the case for why this Seahaws team heading to Charlotte for the divisional round of the playoffs is the most dangerous Seattle has ever had
The good news for the Seahawks: Nowhere do style points mean less than in the NFL postseason. Each round forces you to face your season’s mortality; the relief of advancing outweighs any lessons that can be taken away from an ugly win. (And more good news: The weather in Charlotte this weekend calls for temperatures in the 50s.)
An epically frigid afternoon in Minneapolis affected the Seahawks’ passing attack, preventing wild-card viewers from seeing the most significant facet of this team’s 2015 stretch run: Russell Wilson’s improvements in the pocket. Consider it Exhibit A in the case for this being the most dangerous Seahawks team yet.
In five of Seattle’s final six regular-season games, Wilson completed more than 67 percent of his throws and had at least three touchdowns and zero interceptions. The Seahawks went 5-1. (The outlier was the Week 16 loss to St. Louis.) Almost more important than what Wilson did was how he did it: as a full-fledged progression pocket passer. This is a vital dimension of sustainable long-term success for NFL quarterbacking, and one previously unseen from the freestyling Wilson. Blessed with uncanny play-making prowess, Wilson, in his first 66 NFL outings (counting playoffs), had mostly relied on operating out of structure, which was why Seattle’s offense was difficult to play against but also maddeningly inconsistent. But starting with the victorious Week 12 shootout against Pittsburgh, Wilson began dropping back and getting rid of the ball within the timing and design of the play, reserving his preternatural runarounds for when they should be used: only after things break down.
Exhibit B in the case for this being the most dangerous Seahawks team yet is offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Even before his much-debated Super Bowl call, Seattle’s “12s” (as the fans are known) loved to skewer Pete Carroll’s fifth-year play-caller. The denigration was often unfair. Now it would just be plain irrational. Because not by coincidence, the best six-game stretch of Wilson’s career coincided with the best six-game stretch of Bevell’s. Seattle’s offense expanded to feature an influx of specific coverage-beating route combinations and play designs. Much of it has occurred out of spread formations—specifically from “11” personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE), with all three wideouts aligned to the same side of the field. Early in the year Seattle’s passing game featured lots of isolation routes, which practically invited the quarterback to push plays out of structure. With routes now working hand-in-hand with each other, it’s more imperative that Wilson read the field before the snap and early in the down. The built-in structure imposed by Bevell’s amended approach has worked beautifully.
Bevell isn’t the only Seahawks coordinator who found a late-season groove. First-year defensive caller Kris Richard, like his predecessor Dan Quinn and Quinn’s predecessor Gus Bradley, saw his unit allow the fewest points in all of football (marking four straight years). Richard is Exhibit C. Early in the season he introduced a variety of new coverage and pressure packages to this defense, which had previously prospered by playing a very vanilla, even simplistic, hybrid man-zone single-high safety scheme. (The man-to-man was outside, the zone inside.) It appeared Richard was trying to put his own stamp on this decorated unit. Unfortunately, it also appeared to be a case of fixing what isn’t broken. The Seahawks suffered several communication and execution breakdowns in their five fourth quarter blown-lead defeats before Thanksgiving. They allowed 34 points in the season-opener loss and then 27 points each in losses to the Packers, Bengals and Panthers before Week 6. They also got pasted for 39 by the Cardinals on a Sunday night in Week 10.
Though some of Richard’s new wrinkles worked, the 36-year-old abandoned many of them down the stretch. He returned to this team’s traditional approach and, beginning with a Week 13 throttling of the Vikings, saw his unit allow totals of 7, 6, 13, 23 and 6 points, respectively, to end the year.
Perhaps some of Richard’s schematic scale-backs had to do with newfound stability at the cornerback position, which is Exhibit D. Plagued by the capriciousness of an undisciplined Cary Williams outside, and a turnstile of underwhelming options in the slot, Richard may have felt he didn’t have the personnel to simply line up in basic coverages and out-execute opponents. But in Week 12 against the Steelers, DeShawn Shead stepped in at Williams’ right corner spot. Also, Jeremy Lane returned from the torn ACL and broken wrist suffered on his interception runback in Super Bowl 49. Williams was deactivated and, eight days later, released.
Shead proved to have the size and physicality to play on the perimeter, though Lane, the more experienced and athletic of the two, eventually captured the starting job. Lane had always been a standout slot defender and nothing more, but in Week 16 he completed a gradual transition to right corner. Shead has now assumed the slot duties. However the responsibilities are sliced up, the Seahawks are stable at corner again, allowing Richard Sherman to exclusively play his usual left outside position. And that stability allows Kris Richard to call the mix of basic Cover 3 and select man-to-man concepts that have a loaded lineup playing with optimum speed and awareness.
On the subject of speed and awareness, Exhibit E: the defensive line. Start with Michael Bennett, who somehow continues to get better, both as an end in the base 4-3 and a tackle in nickel. Bennett’s blend of initial quickness and lateral agility is the best in the league. Flanking him on passing downs are Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin, speedy, combustible pass-rushers. And rotating at the other spot inside are two new guys: second-round rookie Frank Clark, who is young and somewhat inconsistent but capable of erupting at any point, and veteran pickup Ahtyba Rubin, who, now surrounded by overwhelming talent, has eradicated his unevenness as a run defender. (Rubin made a lot of tackles with the Browns but far too often struggled to hold ground against drive blocks.) This defensive line is as dynamic and deep as any remaining in the playoffs.
Of course, Exhibits C, D and E are nothing new to the Seahawks, who have appeared in back-to-back Super Bowls on the strength of their defense. But without that unit dominating, Wilson and Bevell would not be tilting this club into new territories of potency. Mother Nature and a hard-fighting Vikings defense did not allow it to be seen this past Sunday, but this Seahawks offense is the best it’s ever been. Whereas before the Seahawks often had to make it a low-scoring affair in order to beat a quality opponent, they’re now capable of outscoring one. If they fail to make a third Super Bowl run, it will be because the other NFC teams that are still standing also got better. This is the most dangerous Seahawks team yet.