When the Seattle Seahawks host the New York Giants in week 9 of the NFL season, the tale of the tape shows two teams leading their respective divisions, but occupying very different positions on the NFL totem pole. The Giants, coming off a bye week, bring the momentum of a four game winning streak into Qwest Field, also garnering the respect of being possibly the NFC's best team. On the other hand, a week after dressing up as a division bottom feeder on Halloween and being scared sideways by the Oakland Raiders, the Seahawks are relishing the opportunity to play at home again, a chance to dress the role of the division leader.
The appreciation for the 12th man the Seahawks organization has shown is nothing less than impressive; both the players and coaches have emphasized the importance of the crowd this week, more so than in the past. The new regime has stressed the impact developing a relationship with the fans can have on the success of the organization as a whole. Given the fact the Seahawks face the teams toughest test of the season thus far, it is no surprise the amount of encouragement that has been directed towards the fans this week, inviting their participation and acknowledging their importance to this team's energy on the field. As the Giants are focused on not coming out flat and stale, the 12th man will be instrumental in disrupting the Giants comfort zone early, even before kickoff, and energizing the stadium.
Looking to rebound from a performance that was the opposite of energetic, Mike Williams eloquently described the offense's mindset going into this game: "it's going to be big-on-big, so we'll strap it on and be ready to go." If our offense is to take on that attitude successfully, the injury riddled offensive line must find away to protect Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, a four year veteran making his first career regular season start. Offensive Lineman Chester Pitts is a player this organization has put a lot of time and effort into over the course of the season, working diligently with him to ensure a full recovery and ultimately a role in this offense. A sound performance early on by the veteran, making his second start after micro fracture surgery, is necessary for the Seahawks offense to find a rhythm in protecting Whitehurst.
A key element in protecting him will be identifying Giants Lineman Justin Tuck's position pre snap, and predicting where he is going post snap. Tuck's ability to move across the offensive line during the course of a rush opens up lanes for other players to come on delayed blitzes; the Giants use a lot of three safety alignments to bring pressure, often behind Tuck. The offensive line must be able to identify and successfully deflect the pressure if this offense is to have any success against a notoriously vicious defensive line.
With Matt Hasselbeck out due to a concussion, the Seahawks are provided the most favorable opportunity to learn the skills of Charlie Whitehurst without having to officially bench the teams aging franchise Quarterback. Whitehurst provides Offensive Coordinator Jeremy Bates with a more prototypical Quarterback for his system. As exemplified by the offensive scheme of the Denver Broncos in 2008, Jeremy Bates can successfully create an offense built around a big armed, mobile, raw quarterback. Whitehurst is an athlete with a big arm and good mobility, but he has shown an inability to make accurate progressions and ultimately the correct throw. He brings the potential to attack deep down the field; his natural tendencies are not favorable to check downs or short passes to his backs, and he lacks the touch Hasselbeck shows in the intermediate passing game. The Giants defensive line leads an aggressive defense that forces quarterbacks to move for survival; the little we know about Whitehurst suggests that he may do more than just survive when forced to use his legs.
The Seahawks would be wise to use a combination of 3 step drops, roll outs, bootlegs and play action passes with only two or three potential receivers to take advantage of Whitehurst's strengths, and limit his ability to get stuck in reading the defense. By moving the pocket laterally, the offense can neutralize the downhill pass rush of the Giants, attacking over the top of their pressure. Additionally, the Seahawks receivers are under the microscope, especially after last week's performance. Greg Johns of the Seattle PI quoted Williams as saying: "We're excited to get out there and make plays for him. We know we have to go above and beyond as a group. I'm not saying he's not capable or anything like that, but I know how I was in my first game. So we're excited for his opportunity."
A crucial element of this Sunday's game is winning the pre-snap battle against Eli Manning and the Giants offensive line. The Giants suffer a blow as they will be without All Pro starting Center Shaun O'Hara for the 4th game in a row. Backup Center Adam Koets commented earlier in the week about the Giants loss in 2005 at Qwest; "When I first got here, I heard about that game. You always hear about playing at Seattle. I'm just looking forward to experiencing it." To expect the Giants to be unaffected by the loss of their offensive line captain would be naïve, especially with the amount of false starts that occur for opponents at Qwest. Manning has matured into a very good quarterback as shown in week 7 vs. the Cowboys, when he was directing traffic in an older-Manning like fashion; the Mario Manningham touchdown reception on a screen play was a result of an Eli Manning pre-snap adjustment, moving Manningham across the formation to an exploitable 1 on 1 matchup. The energy and noise at Qwest will make it much more difficult to correctly communicate necessary changes. I expect the Seahawks to move more than normal before the snap, using different formations and personnel to disguise their blitzes and coverage schemes against a very adept quarterback; Manning has not been as successful on both third downs and outside the pocket this season, a combination Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley could exploit on Sunday to get Manning on the run, and ultimately to the ground. If the Seahawks are able to pressure Manning and protect themselves against the big play, they will be able to increase both the +8 turnover margin at home and the Giants -6 margin on the road.
Last week the Seahawks defensive backfield was without two starters; this week, the defensive line is without two starters, creating a panic as to how to stop the running game. Red Bryant is out for the year and Colin Cole is out several weeks with an ankle sprain; enter replacements Kentwan Balmer and Junior Siavii, respectively. Balmer noted earlier in the week how Bryant has taken the role of a mentor to Balmer, stressing the impact of bringing 100% on every play. "I'm not going to go out there and disrespect Red, or disrespect this team, by not going out there and putting my best on the field," Balmer said. "Because I know that's what he would want." Gus Bradley added, "Actually, Kentwan has been playing better at that spot (end) than inside." Balmer's ability to fill in for Bryant will be under scrutiny, as Balmer was one of the more high profile additions towards the end of the pre season; a player that Carroll and Schneider were very high on, partly because of the familiarity personnel man Scot McCloughan has with Balmer as the man who drafted him as the former 49ers general manager. This is a true test for the competition built depth of this roster.
Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs create a dynamic backfield for the Giants, and will provide a wicked first test for this re-tooled defensive line. Mebane is likely to return this week, fortifying the inside for the Seahawks; Frank 'the tank" Okam, 6'5 320, was signed this week but can't be depended on as the answer for defending the run. I believe for the Seahawks to be successful against the run the remainder of the season, Lofa Tatupu needs to make his presence felt against opposing offenses. Last week in Oakland, he was a non factor in stopping Darren McFadden, and while he has helped facilitate communication on this defense, he has not appeared to be the individual player he was early in his pro career. Tatupu needs to help fill the void left by Bryant and play at a higher level, lead this defense with discipline and tenacity in stopping the running game; he is integral in helping this defense stay together as a unit, creating as smooth a transition as possible.
To say the Seahawks roster entered a transitional state this week due to injuries would be an understatement. Many patterns that were engrained into the play of this team have now been disrupted; the continuity that began to build has turned into disorder. In her novel Purity and Danger, Anthropologist Mary Douglas explains that disorder is both disruptive and constructive: "granted that disorder spoils patterns, it provides the material of patterns." We are able to recognize that disorder is destructive to existing patterns but it also has potentiality. I believe Douglas' take on disorder and creation is applicable to the Seahawks going into Sunday's game.
The disorder that came from the devastating loss to the Raiders ultimately created a Seahawks team that is re-creating its identity: an offense that struggled to move the ball downfield will refocus, hopefully, on becoming a downfield first offense; the defense shifts from a run stopping force to a more rounded scheme, hoping to find the strengths of the new defensive line; the special teams unit remains the teams strongest group and needs to exploit a disordered Giants special teams squad among the worst in the NFL. Ultimately, the Seahawks look to escape this transitional state as unscathed as possible, reminding people that, yes, this team is still the NFC West leader. A giant, unexpected victory on Sunday would undoubtedly serve as an adequate reminder.