Seahawks fans, resist the urge to reach for false assumptions after your team’s 33-27 loss at Tennessee. There are tempting ones regarding each side of the ball.
On defense, the 33 points and 420 yards allowed (including 195 on the ground) might seem to validate the narrative that this talented unit is on the cusp of washing up. That D stepped onto a humid, 100-degree field in Nashville and got worn out by a smashmouth ground game. In Week 2, the Titans had done the same to a talented, Seahawks-styled Jaguars defense.
It was a bad showing, yes, but this Seattle D still boasts ten—ten!—Pro Bowl-caliber players, eight of whom are in their twenties. (The two who aren’t, 31-year-olds Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, both still shine weekly on film.) This group has been together for several years. The safe bet is on its continued excellence in 2017.
The other false assumption is that, Hey, at least the offense finally has things figured out. They posted 27 points and Russell Wilson threw for 373 yards! Slow down. Much of the production stemmed from Wilson’s off-schedule playmaking (he’s as good as anyone not named Aaron Rodgers in that area, and in certain crunch-time moments that can be gold). But as the foundation of your offense, it’s fool’s gold.
Case in point: the same Seahawks offense that torched the Titans in the fourth quarter had their first six drives stall after six plays or fewer. Besides yielding nothing, those short drives put Seattle’s defense back on the field, which contributed to its attrition in the second half.
Seattle’s offense needs an identity. It has needed one since the departures of Max Unger, Russell Okung and especially Marshawn Lynch. So how do Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell find one?
It starts with understanding exactly what they have in Wilson. For starters, he may be the game’s best on-the-move quarterback, both as a runner and passer. His vision outside of the pocket is superb, and because he’s as an exceptional touch passer, he has a unique way of throwing receivers open when things break down.
But what’s also true: Wilson, at just under 5' 11", is short. His advocates deride anyone who dare mentions this, pointing out that Wilson has disproven doubters here. Except acknowledging Wilson’s height is not doubting him. It’s not old-minded football thinking. It’s physics. There are certain things a 5' 11" man can’t see behind offensive linemen six inches taller than him, as well as the outstretched arms of similarly sized defenders. It’s evident with Wilson every week on film. And because he is such a tremendous athlete, Wilson never developed the subtle pocket movement that a slightly less short guy, like Drew Brees, relies on for changing his view of the field. Wilson has always been able to run away from people; his tendency is to break down and leave the pocket.
For some players, that tendency is problematic. But for Wilson, it works often. It means, however, that the Seahawks can’t build a full dropback passing system around Wilson—just like the Patriots can’t build an offense around Tom Brady’s legs. A smart offense highlights its top player’s strengths and hides his limitations. For Seattle, that means putting Wilson on the move.
It might not matter if Wilson were a traditional pocket passer anyway because, with the way Seattle’s O-line is performing, the pocket often doesn’t exist. And that’s the underlining complication; what do the Seahawks do about their offensive line? The sports talk radio solution—pounding the table and declaring it must play better!—means nothing. Besides that being a statement of the obvious, there’s the reality that maybe the line can’t get better.
Yes, the line was better in Week 2 against San Francisco than it was in Week 1 at Green Bay, and if we want to be generous, we could say it was a little better in Week 3 at Tennessee than it was in Week 2. But the chances of significant and sustained in-season progress are low. At left tackle, Rees Odhiambo competes, but he lacks the lower body strength to anchor. That’s troubling when you don’t have long arms. At left guard, Luke Joeckel is coming off a serious knee injury and had never handled bull rushers well to begin with. At center, Justin Britt’s 2016 ascension has stalled. He has a nice enough blend of mobility and strength so maybe he’ll regroup, but not if issues remain at the guard spot to his right. Mark Glowinski doesn’t move well enough laterally to pass protect, so the team tried former Jets/Texans backup Oday Aboushi there on Sunday. At right tackle, Germain Ifedi is a project, the next phase of which should be for him to get his hands up in pass protection. It’s like he draws from imaginary gun holsters.
The only way the O-line won’t sink the Seahawks is if Bevell builds an offense that navigates around it. And therein lies the challenge: Wilson’s skills best lend themselves to a run-first offense. Besides what he can do on read-options, the best passing tactics with him—play-action, rollouts and bootlegs—all stem from the running game.
The Seahawks haven’t had a dominant running game since 2014, the last year Lynch was healthy. Lynch was great, in fact, because his tenacity and sneaky agility masked many O-line deficiencies. The Seahawks are fond of bruising seventh-round rookie Chris Carson, who has surprisingly captured the starting tailback job. Carson is an overachiever, but he has yet to be mistaken for Lynch. Like most running backs, Carson is dependent on his blocking.
If the O-line continues to struggle, the Seahawks will have no choice but to be a heavily pass-first offense. That’s challenging with a bad O-line and without a traditional dropback QB, but it’s not impossible.
On the Seahawks’ final drive of the first half, the first and last plays were both catches by Doug Baldwin. The first was a deep fade vs. cornerback LeShaun Sims for 36 yards. Fade balls are great for Wilson. They’re outside throws, so less downfield vision is required. They’re deep touch passes, Wilson’s specialty. And the ball hangs in the air, so it can be thrown quickly after the snap, before pass-blocking can break down.
The last play on that drive was a moving pocket rollout for Wilson. Baldwin caught a four-yard TD. When you move the pocket, the O-line moves with it, nullifying the defensive pass rush. (Pass rushes are built to attack a straight dropback; building one to attack a moving QB requires too much guesswork by the defensive architect.) Wilson could throw on the move while reading only half the field. And he gets to throw to one of the game’s elite underneath receivers.
The question is how much of your offense can be based off fade balls and moving pockets. Certainly not all of it. But considering how the tactics play to Wilson’s strengths, it’s something the Seahawks should consider doing again and again (and again).
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