On Sunday the Seattle Seahawks play the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs with the right to advance to the NFC Championship Game on the line. In advance of the game Jason Hirschhorn of Acme Packing Company asked five questions of Field Gulls, which I was happy to answer.
1. The Seahawks are a difficult team to pin down. On the one hand, they finished the regular season with the worst point differential among playoff teams. Conversely, they came within inches of toppling the 49ers, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, for a division crown. What do you think of the Seahawks this year relative to the rest of the conference and how do they compare to Seattle teams of the past?
This season has been a growing season for the Hawks. They have a ton of young upside and potential on the roster, but that talent is still inexperienced. Thus, veteran leaders like Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner have had to carry the team to victory, perhaps to a greater extent than in the past. Add in injuries to some of the other key veterans through the season, including Quandre Diggs, Justin Britt and Duane Brown, and Wilson and Wagner have certainly been tasked with doing more than they have in the past.
That said, Seattle is one of those teams that has a puncher’s chance against any team in the NFL simply because with Russell Wilson under center they have the potential to score on each and every possession. The question, of course, is whether they let Russ be Russ, or whether they take the ball out of his hands and try to control the game through the ground.
On the defensive side of the ball, Quandre Diggs, acquired from the Detroit Lions at the trade deadline shines a bright light on how influential a single player can be for Pete Carroll’s defense. The Seattle defense took a big step backwards when Earl Thomas wasn’t on the field, and his departure for Baltimore prior to this season left a void that Tedric Thompson, Lano Hill and Marquise Blair weren’t able to fill. Slipping Diggs into that position was like flipping a light switch and the defensive splits with and without him in the lineup are striking.
So, compared to teams in the past, it’s the same potent offense led by Wilson, but he’s coming at you with new weapons, the names of whom fans of other teams may not yet be familiar.
2. When watching Seahawks games, it seems like the offense requires Russell Wilson to break out of structure and make plays through improvisation more often than we see with other teams. Does the offense function this way due to the coaches running it or does Wilson simply choose to improvise more often than he should?
It seems to be less about the offense requiring Russell Wilson to operate out of structure, and more about Russell playing it safe. Wilson is very protective of the ball, and he seems to prefer to wait and play it safe rather than unleash a pass about which he’s unsure of.
Having said that, a lot of what appears to be out of structure or improvisation for the Seahawks appears to be a derivative of Steve Spurrier’s Fun N Gun offense from the University of Florida. Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was a backup for the Gators under Spurrier for three years, after sitting out the 1993 season once transferring from the University of Kansas. A key component of Spurrier’s offense was that it appeared to involve a lot of improv, but that appearance was simply the result of the dynamic routes the wide receivers ran.
From a 2002 article in the Washington Post while Spurrier was the head coach of the Washington Redskins:
The aim is to pass to the open area of the field -- preferably deep -- wherever the defense is most vulnerable. Conversely, the standard NFL offense usually sticks to the script, even if it appears headed for a bad ending.
The simplistic aspect of Spurrier’s offense is summed up by wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr.: “Throw it where they ain’t.” The intricacy is that each receiver has up to four options for his routes, which are punctuated with sharp, rhythmic passes. When the offense is at its best, quarterbacks appear clairvoyant, throwing darts to areas where receivers suddenly appear.
After studying the Seahawks passing game since Schottenheimer arrived, it seems as though the offense has adapted some of that, particularly in the deep passing game and the scramble drill. The scramble drill seems disorganized and like a bunch of chickens running around with their heads cut off, the receivers most certainly appear to make specific breaks and move in specific directions, depending on their position on the field, the location of the man in coverage and in relation to Willson. In short, what appears to outsiders to be unstructured improvisation is actually a highly structured subset of the offense.
3. The Seahawks lost Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny to injuries, forcing them to sign previously retired running back Marshawn Lynch to help fill the void. What does Lynch have left in the tank at this point in his career and how does he factor into the Brian Schottenheimer’s offense?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Lynch in his first two games back with the team, and he should be getting into a groove. While Lynch has indeed retired twice, 2016 is the only season in which he did not play. In 2018 his 90 carries topped the 85 carries that Seattle gave to Rashaad Penny. Was there likely some rust having not played in 14 months? Absolutely, but he appears to be getting back into the groove.
The important thing to watch with the Seattle running game will be the injury report. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card game, the entire left side of the line was backups. Left tackle Duane Brown was out after having meniscus surgery, left guard Mike Iupati missed the game with a neck injury suffered against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 17 and starting center Justin Britt went down with a torn ACL against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 8.
That’s left the team with Joey Hunt (C), Jamarco Jones (LG) and Goerge Fant (LT) starting in the Wild Card round. All three of those players entered the NFL considered undersized, and while Fant has reportedly added about thirty pounds, the Hawks continue to list Hunt and Jones as under 300 pounds. Both are technicians with fantastic technique, but they don’t necessarily have the size to move larger interior defenders in the run game the way Britt and Iupati are able to.
Against the Eagles the inability to get the run game going, in part because of these issues, led Seattle to call more than twice as many pass plays compared to run plays through late in the third quarter. As a Seahawks fan who believes the team has one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the NFL in Russell Wilson, this was welcome, and I’m hoping for more of the same against Green Bay.
4. How would you build a game plan to attack the Seahawks on offense? On defense?
Slowing down the Seattle offense is relatively simple, in theory. The offense almost never throws deep when shown multiple high safeties, opting instead to throw short or run the ball when given that look. That means a defense can sit in a two high safety look all day and force the Seahawks to beat them repeatedly on the ground and with short passes. The Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams both did this pretty well down the stretch, though the Hawks’ ground game was working when the Minnesota Vikings tried it and Chris Carson (23 carries, 102 yards, TD) and Rashaad Penny (15 carries, 74 yards, TD) gave them the business.
On defense, the Hawks played more base defense than any other team in the NFL during the regular season, in part because of a talented linebacking corps that includes Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Mychal Kendricks. Kendricks is now on IR after tearing an ACL, and whether in base or in nickel, his replacement is a rookie. When the Hawks are in base personnel, rookie Cody Barton is the third linebacker, and when in nickel it’s Ugo Amadi. Those are the two defenders I would likely test and go after, simply because they’re rookies and haven’t seen as much as some of the other guys on the field.
Past that, this is the worst run defense for the Seahawks in a long time. It’s not good. They rank near the bottom of the league at stopping the run, so if cold weather turns the game into a low scoring affair, that could turn out to be key.
5. Finally, it’s prediction time. Which team wins on Sunday and why?
The Seahawks because they’re the only team that will put an elite quarterback in his prime on the field on Sunday.