Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Seahawks scorch Cardinals, focus on bringing the heat to New Orleans

Pete Carroll stepped up to the podium for his post game press conference Sunday after the Seahawks 36-18 victory over the Cardinals and within seconds of beginning to speak, it was obvious this victory meant something different; he mentioned that "momentum" word again. It started slowly on Sunday, as usual, for the Seahawks as they surrendered a first possession touchdown to the Cardinals. The Seahawks team that showed up for this game, however, did not resemble the players that dressed in uniform the past two games; this team welcomed the challenge.

Take two

It's always nice to get a second chance. When the Seahawks beat the Cardinals in week 7 at Qwest to go 4-2 and take the lead in the division, the victory felt hollow; yes, the team was in a great position early in the season but it was showing cracks. The victory in week 10, however, left a very different mark; the Seahawks went to Arizona and scorched the Cardinals in their own desert. After the game, Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said "there was a time we owned this division, and they took it from us. Flat out. For the guys that were here and still are here, we know we had to earn it back." Before kickoff, Hasselbeck preached the importance of approaching this game like it was of championship meaning; when he led the Seahawks offense onto the field Sunday, it was clear his unit bought it.

Get pushed, push back harder

Needing a response to the Cardinals opening drive Sunday, the Seahawks offense more than adequately rose to the task. Coach Carroll exclaimed, "We were talking about hanging, hanging together; it was good we got smacked in the mouth right off the bat; we hung in there and took over the momentum." Hasselbeck led the team down the field on the first offensive possession Sunday, setting the tone the Seahawks hoped for. The offensive line picked up where they left off last week; "We had good protection and Matt got the ball out and got a rhythm—he really has a knack for getting things moving." Big Mike Williams got rolling with three catches, no drops, in converting three third downs on the first drive. A Marshawn Lynch reception on first down, inside the red zone, set up a Lynch touchdown. Quickly, Coach Carroll and his team showed they were ready to back up the rhetoric of the "active, terrific" game plan Carroll exclaimed was being created last Wednesday during his press conference. This team showed a reshaped attitude.

An active, terrific offensive game plan

Coach Carroll gave high praise to Offensive Coordinator Jeremy Bates after the game for opening up the playbook, showing aggressiveness in the passing game and versatility in play calling. Carroll was quick to emphasize his satisfaction with a newly found dimension of the offense; the running backs catching passes. "The running backs got yards after the catch; we've been waiting, wanting, and it gave us a boost moving the football." As our backs were now a factor in the passing game, drawing attention, it opened up the rest of the offense; on the 44 yard completion to Chris Baker to open the second quarter, Justin Forsett's motion out of the backfield to a receiver position took away a defensive player from the middle of the field, opening a lane for Baker. The usage of backs in the passing game also caused the defense to pay less attention to Seahawk journeyman receiver Ben Obomanu; a major contributor on special teams and a timely playmaker for the Seahawks offense in recent years, he has worked his way into the offensive rotation and showed his capabilities Sunday. His presence was most notable in the three receiver set with Williams and Deon Butler as he was effective as runner, receiver and blocker; his versatility allowed Bates to comfortably use three receiver sets, something the Seahawks have been unable to do often thus far. Simply put, Jeremy Bates displayed the understanding that involving the running backs in the passing game would open up the entire offense, an understanding I noted last week I hoped he would soon show. Unfortunately, however, the offense still struggled inside the 20 yard line, going 2 for 8 scoring touchdowns, as we "missed out on a ton of points." The Seahawks unveiled a new four tight end formation on the goal line which produced a touchdown but only 1 yard on 4 carries. The failed 4th and 1 quarterback sneak call was a great idea by Coach Carroll, as we were inside the red zone and inside two minutes left in the half; it was a weak play call. Our offensive execution thus far led me to believe that calling a large variety of plays could have gotten one yard, or a touchdown. The offense had an opportunity to attack and surge into halftime, but meekly failed. In the end, however, this game will be remembered as the game Hasselbeck finished with two cracked bones in his wrist, making it clear he is still this offenses' leader. As Carroll summed it up, "He led the whole thing—we gave him the chance, gave him options, choices to move via the pass." Move via pass he did like it was 2005. Not to be lost in the unexpected passing performance by the offense; Forsett led the combined effort in rushing for 100 yards as a team. The Seahawks controlled the line of scrimmage on the offensive side of the ball.

A successful defensive formula on the road

The Seahawks controlled the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball as well. The defense was able to stop Tim Hightower and the run game, always priority number one for Coach Carroll. In his Monday press conference, Carroll noted, "If you remember last week I talked about how Junior Siavii played very well for us (against the Giants) and he did again. Kentwan Balmer held up his part of it, too;" The competition for playing time on this defensive line created good depth at the position, a major question after Red Bryant's injury. Brandon Mebane's successful return also proved crucial in stopping the run, as he provided rested legs after being out four weeks with a calf injury. The success of the defensive line allowed the defense to create, as Carroll exclaimed, "a classic game." We were strong on third downs; Aaron curry led the defense in pressuring the pocket and sacking the quarterback, as the unit created turnovers and "brought the formula" on the road. Curry, as I noted in the week 10 preview, was under my microscope this week as a player who needed to truly define his capabilities in this defense. Coach Carroll noted after the game, "Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley mentioned that Aaron had a look in his eye before this game that was different, and I don't know why it was different. We need him badly to continue to factor in, as we are using and moving him around a lot on third down." Curry got his opportunities and made plays registering 7 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble. He answered his call and flashed a capability to be dominant on the line of scrimmage and the complement the Seahawks need to help provide pressure opposite Chris Clemons. The defensive motion before the ball Carroll spoke of didn't apply to just Curry, as the Seahawks confused Cardinals Quarterback Derek Anderson with variety of defensive looks and movement, notably in containing the Cardinals passing attack in the second half. The defense's solid play in the second half was instrumental in masking the offenses' inability to score touchdowns, and ultimately kept the momentum for this team.

Bringing it in the Bayou

The momentum of a second chance at leading the NFC West carries the Seahawks organization into week 11 as they prepare for a matchup against the New Orleans Saints in the overly raucous Superdome, the only NFL stadium that can match the noise and mayhem of Qwest field. Coach Carroll noted on Monday the team has now repeatedly seen its capabilities when playing on the road, especially when being successful at communicating in noisy environments such as Chicago and Arizona, and they must focus on continually performing on that level; "The special part of the application of the mentality is to stay consistent, to stay with that, make sure our guys realize we can go on the road and play really good football."

The Seahawks face a situation similar to after the Chicago victory; then, the team had the opportunity to build on a big road win and take over the NFC West; though the Seahawks did win in week 7 against Arizona to go 4-2, there wasn't a convincing feeling the team had grabbed the momentum associated with leading the division. Three weeks later, the Seahawks have an even greater opportunity to build on a big road victory in looking to win two in a row on the road. This Sunday is an in person test against, as Coach Carroll exclaimed, "a model organization;" as I noted in my October post On top of the NFC West, but looking up at the ceiling, the Saints are an organization that displays a unique dedication in representing the team's symbol and culture; furthermore, the players and coaching staff encourage a unity with the people of New Orleans; Pete Carroll is a coach that emanates a "psychic energy" similar to Sean Peyton. Thus, I believe the Saints are an organization the Seahawks needed to model themselves after. Coach Carroll explained Wednesday, "We are aware of so many of their strengths and realize the challenge they present. The Saints are an organization with all of the right stuff, they've won a championship: Drew Brees, Sean Peyton, the coordinators, what they are about as a group, all these guys have great expertise, and it's a great challenge." He understands the unique opportunity this game presents, as it is a rare chance to measure his program against the best.

In preparation for facing the defending champs, a fact Carroll noted he was not going to emphasize at all this week, the Seahawks leave a day earlier than normal in traveling to New Orleans, a decision made in an effort to replicate the formula used in preparing for the Chicago game. When a reporter asked Wednesday if Coach Carroll felt like a decisive underdog this week going into New Orleans, he replied "that'll probably be the only time I'll hear that this week, but it doesn't matter and I don't care." It was clear he felt his team was equally capable of winning this game. He added, "To me this is one of the tests; can you deal with it. It will be a playoff atmosphere." To me, it sounds like the NFC West leading Seahawks are out for blood in the Bayou.


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