Over the past two weeks we've seen the Seahawks' offense reclaim their identity as a power running team. Marshawn Lynch and the offensive line punished the Bucs and the Falcons in a manner our upcoming opponents are surely hoping to avoid. It wasn't anything flashy, just some good old fashioned punch you in the mouth football. Establishing this brutality remains as essential as ever for Seattle's success.
Meanwhile, the passing game has undergone an evolution of sorts. I'll get to the possible causes and manifestations of this evolution in a moment but the result has been a lot fewer improvised plays by Russell Wilson, as well as the ball consistently leaving his hands more quickly.
A change in both Wilson's decision making and Darrell Bevell's play calling has encouraged this shift. For Wilson's part, we've seen him more readily anticipate routes and trust his receivers to make contested catches. He's also been more willing to check down instead of improvising. Concurrently, Bevell has dialed up more slants and other faster developing route combinations.
One need not look far to find the reasons behind veering away from improvisation and longer developing routes. The first and most relevant reason is the patchwork offensive line struggling to protect #3. I think Russell's fumbles in the Cardinals game, the onslaught he endured against the Rams, and some of the hits he took against the Bucs helped solidify the need for quicker decisions and a faster release. The way he took over the Texans game with his legs was incredible but he'd probably be the first to tell you he shouldn't
need try to do that every game.
Another contributing factor is probably Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse taking over for the injured Sidney Rice at the Z receiver position. Rice's length and ball skills made him ideal for working the sidelines. He was also a favorite target for Wilson when extending the play. Baldwin and Kearse can certainly work the sideline as well, but obviously don't present the catching radius that Rice did. On the other hand, they can more consistently create separation coming out of their breaks, hence increased emphasis on quick routes and anticipation throws.
As a possible indirect benefit of Russell getting rid of the ball faster, the OL maybe has a greater sense of accomplishment. This theory sounds like it should be accompanied with hugs and stickers, but in true Pete Carroll form, I think establishing a foundation for success can foster greater confidence and thus, further success. This philosophy was possibly further augmented against the Falcons by rotating a few OL position - nobody "became accustomed" to being beaten and defensive linemen couldn't set up their blocker with a progression of moves the way they usually would. This is just a theory but it's something to think about considering how much better the OL looked in Atlanta.
Overall I think the quicker passing attack has helped the Seahawks' offense, especially with regards to keeping Wilson clean and converting on third down. However, short, anticipation routes have a small margin for error and the likelihood for turnovers increases to some degree.
Russell's first interception against the Bucs is a good example of this increased risk. The free rusher barring down on him forced the errant throw. But Mark Barron was only able to come off his man (Kearse) to make a play on the ball because the pass came so quickly that Barron was still in the process of reading the play. Against the Falcons, Wilson almost threw another interception when Baldwin was picked off his slant route by a jammed Kearse, allowing Desmond Trufant an inside track to the football.
These examples shouldn't be viewed an indictment of playcalling, nor execution. They're meant as a reminder that a quick hitting, rhythm passing attack comes with a smaller margin for error. It's an easy assumption to make that Carroll's (understandable) turnover phobia has been a big reason why we haven't seen this approach sooner. It seems that in light of the offensive line debacle against the Rams, accepting a little more turnover risk for greater passing rhythm became warranted.
The real question is whether we'll continue to see this approach with the OL getting healthy?
My guess is we'll see fewer anticipation throws but a continued emphasis on a quicker passing attack. Unfortunately for the rest of the NFL, the emergence of Golden Tate as one of the league's premier playmakers has come right when the Seahawks will be getting Percy Harvin back. Any hope of keying in on Tate might soon be lost in the effort to limit Harvin.
I understand people's anxiety about redundant skillsets with Tate and Harvin on the field together but I feel this worry is misplaced. Tate and Harvin are both extremely capable receivers when it comes to the core requirements of their positions. Their dynamic playmaking ability with football in hand only serves to supplement the potential play calls targeting them.
For example, to use a few household names from yesteryear, imagine an offense with both Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs on the field together. You could certainly draw up some creative plays, but overall the offense would probably struggle because neither receiver was especially adept at the core receiver skills (route running and catching). That shouldn't be an issue for Tate and Harvin since both are good receivers, completely independent of their YAC ability.
The wide receiver screen game has often been described as a modern football expression of a running play. If I can run with this analogy for a moment, the combined rushing assault of Lynch, Wilson, Harvin, and Tate looks pretty nightmarish to defend. The nightmare might only worsen if Christine Michael can improve his pass blocking enough to get on the field more. Whether the quick passing attack continues or not, there's trouble ahead for opposing defenses.