One major area that I thought a lot about in the week leading up to the Seahawks - Cowboys game was the penalty issue. The Seahawks were playing fairly clean in the preseason and Pete Carroll had mentioned that penalties were a huge point of emphasis during training camp. As you probably know, the Seahawks were the 2nd most penalized team in 2011, behind the Raiders.
In Week 1, the pace of the game, combined with the replacement referees and generally "square-wheel" type of Seahawks offense made watching the game a gut grinder. The 13 penalties had me, and I assume most Seahawks fans, exasperated. In the Arizona game the Seahawks had:
-- Two (2) defensive pass interference penalties (both on Richard Sherman, and I had no problems with these two plays - not saying they were or weren't good calls - but the Seahawks are going to get some of these in most games with the high volume of NFL passing and the nature of the secondary play).
-- One (1) special teams holding penalty (these are killer for field position and are especially killer when Leon breaks long returns) on Jeremy Lane.
-- One (1) roughing penalty on special teams (I believe on KJ Wright).
-- Three (3) false starts penalty (on Russell Okung; this has to be cleaned up across the whole line, and was still a problem in the Cowboys game).
-- Two (2) delay of game penalties (Is this on Russell Wilson or Darrell Bevell? I know the Seahawks usually want to drain clock, but you can't have these).
-- One (1) holding penalty (on Marshawn Lynch) picking up a blitzer - not a huge issue for me.
-- One (1) intentional grounding (on Russell Wilson, I am sure he was under duress, but have to get it either out of bounds or over the line of scrimmage near a WR).
-- One (1) offsides penalty (on a blitzing Marcus Trufant).
-- One (1) personal foul (was an offsetting penalty on an Arizona sack at the end of the 1Q) - I believe on Breno Giacomini.
When it was all said and done there were three (3) defensive penalties, two (2) special teams penalties, and eight (8) offensive penalties. The offensive penalties are the most worrisome. The offense is a year or more behind the defense in terms of every sort of traditional and sabermetric statistical ranking. With a rookie quarterback and Carroll's ball control/QB manager philosophy, the offense needs to "stay on schedule". On 1st down, Carroll is more than happy with gaining 3 or 4 rushing yards and then setting his quarterback up in 2nd and 6 or 2nd and 7. At that point the defense has to continue to respect the run and not attack the quarterback with abandon. The Seahawks could very well run it again for 3 yards on 2nd and 7 and be happy with lining up on 3rd down with a manageable 3rd and 4.
Penalties attack at the heart of this strategy, mutating 2nd and 7s into 2nd and 12s, and 3rd and 3 becomes 3rd and 8. In this case - with a rookie quarterback and the least productive passing game in the NFL after two weeks - advantage goes to the defense.
How did the Seahawks do against Dallas? Much better, thank you.
The good news? The defense and special teams had zero penalties. With how aggressive the team plays on these squads - that is quite an accomplishment. Against the Packers, there could be a couple of defensive pass interference penalties - no need to panic there. It is not reasonable to expect the defense to pitch penalty "shutouts" every week. Special teams have had a fantastic two games, with forced fumbles, great coverage and great returns from Leon. Two penalties versus Arizona on special teams was frustrating, but they cleaned it up versus Dallas. Here are the 5 penalties versus Dallas (all offense)
1Q, 2nd drive at Dallas 46 yard line, 3rd and 10. False Start on McQuistan.
2Q, 2nd drive of quarter, at Dallas 22 yard line, 2nd and 6. Chop block on J.R. Sweezy (questionable - former All-Pro NFL fullback Daryl Johnston disagreed wholeheartedly with the call).
2Q, same drive as previous, at Dallas 12 yard line, 2nd and 12. False Start on Giacomini.
2Q, same drive as previous two, at Dallas 10 yard line, 3rd and 8. Delay of Game - Russell Wilson.
4Q, 1st drive of the quarter, 2nd and 7 at Seatle 27. False Start on Frank Omiyale.
The cavalcade of penalties on the 2nd drive of the 2nd Quarter may have been the difference between the eventual field goal versus a touchdown, which equates to a 4-point swing.
Three of penalties took place in long down and distances (3rd and 10, 2nd and 12, and 3rd and 8). Six false starts and three delay of game calls are worrisome, particularly with the conservative nature of this offense. If you're throwing the ball 20 times a game - really, this might be the most conservative offense in the NFL at this point -, each one of those penalties can literally kill the drive they occur in.
At this point, the Seahawks are weakest in 2nd and long and 3rd and long situations - which is true for any team - but with rookie Russell Wilson still adjusting to NFL defenses, these situations should be avoided as much as possible. There's a huge difference between 3rd and 4 and 3rd and 9; 2nd and 7 and 2nd and 12. Teams will blitz, and Wilson's effectiveness, at this point, against 5+ man rushes is limited. Cleaning up these false start and delay of game penalties is of paramount importance for this offense, particularly on Monday.
The rest of those calls - especially on special teams and defense - are bound to happen in the course of a game - roughing, pass interference - you have to think that this team walks the line of 'too' physical as much as possible. The good news is - I do think the offense can correct many of the drive-killing penalties.
With more chemistry between Russell Wilson and the offensive line I would expect these little drive stalling penalties to reduce, but how quickly the Seahawks can make that jump to a more disciplined team certainly remains to be seen. If Seattle hopes to upset a team that went 15-1 in 2011, they'll have to execute and make fewer mental errors. It's something I'm going to be watching for closely on Monday Night's matchup with Green Bay.