In week 13 of the NFL season the Seattle Seahawks look to regain their winning ways at home as they host the Carolina Panthers. Despite the Panthers 1-10 record, Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll stressed "we're not playing weeks past;" the Panthers record doesn't reflect the effort displayed on the field and Carroll knows "we would really make a big mistake if we didn't realize the focus is on just this week." Unusually uptight and reigned in, the Seahawks look to capitalize on the opportunity to bounce back at home against one of the NFL's most underachieving teams. Panthers Coach John Fox knows firsthand the demoralizing effect the atmosphere of Qwest can have on an opposing team, as his teams loss in the 2006 NFC championship game, a game I attended, was over 20 minutes before kickoff. After two poor home performances the Seahawks understand the home crowd is growing restless and regaining the support of the 12th man is crucial in helping rattle Panthers rookie Quarterback Jimmy Clausen; by focusing on "the ball," the Seahawks will look to re-create the raucous atmosphere that is the hallmark of Qwest field and gain momentum early against a slow starting Panthers team; the Seahawks started well this week in practice and appear confident heading into Sunday.
Practice to play
In my previous post I noted the Seahawks needed to practice this week with a sense of urgency, implementing the "back to the basics" approach Coach Carroll used to get his team to a 4-2 start, but an admittedly underachieving 5-6 record overall. Carroll is focused on having his team believe one idea; they are capable of putting themselves in the "champion position," and for that to happen they must prepare to a level that "allows us to be comfortable on game day." It doesn't matter the opponent. Ben Malcolmson of Seahawks.com quoted Carroll; "This is how you find consistency, finish the season and win championships." The Seahawks came out sharp and worked hard Wednesday and Thursday, allowing an unconventional Friday practice to take place; 40 minutes of touch free, pad free rehearsal. The light workout kept legs fresh, as Carroll noted this was a planned opportunity to adjust the routine to keep players mentally and physically energized, rewarding everyone for the hard work that has gotten the team to this competitive, yet criticized, point. Coach Carroll pushed his players this week with the goal of getting their minds right, regaining the mentality of the "formula," for Sunday.
The Seahawks defense has flat out underperformed in the past six weeks, continuing to lack the answer for how to stop the run without Red Bryant. Furthermore, a newfound lack of pressure on the Quarterback has put too much strain on the secondary. The Panthers offense is among the worst in the NFL and presents a great rebound opportunity for the defense.
Another week, another 1-2 punch: Pete Carroll is very familiar with Panthers lead Runningback Jonathan Stewart, as the 5'10, 235 pound bruising, explosive runner is a former Oregon Duck; Change of pace back Mike Goodson was the "top guy one year" Carroll recruited at USC and in no way is he surprised by success of the second year player from Texas A&M. Not forgotten is the fact that the Chiefs duo of Jones and Charles gashed the Seahawks for 270 yards rushing last week and Colin Cole is likely to remain sidelined. Junior Siavii has continued to play well at Defensive Tackle as Kentwan Balmer has struggled of late filling in for Red Bryant at the strong side end spot; the Seahawks need to explore their personnel by moving Siavii to the strong side end, opening time for Jay Richardson and Craig Terril at tackle. Additionally, the potential of recently signed 6'7, 300 pound rookie Clifton Geathers needs to be explored in the attempt to find Bryant's replacement and slow down the Panther running game.
Third down defense: The Achilles heel of defensive success for the Seahawks has been the unit's inconsistent ability to stop opponents on third down. Last week the Chiefs dominated the third down battle; "we pressured and got done the things we do on 3rd down; we just couldn't convert." The Panthers will look to attack on third down, especially in short yardage, using their Runningbacks in both the running and passing game. The Panthers have dialed down the offense under rookie Jimmy Clausen and the Seahawks will look to apply extra pressure; the Panthers will attempt to attack a weakness of the Seahawks defense, throwing screen passes and running draw plays, as Goodson caught eight passes last week and three or more in five straight games. The Seahawks defense needs to crowd the line of scrimmage with Safeties and Cornerbacks to confuse Clausen as a way to neutralize the Panthers third down attack. Additionally, starting Cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings are under the microscope, as both have let poor play and penalties devastate this defense, especially on third down.
Support the Defensive Line: Seahawks Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley needs to creatively use Linebackers and Defensive backs to support the injury riddled line; Physicality is strength of this defenses depth. Lofa Tatupu has struggled to consistently practice due to an unhealthy knee and his continued every-play presence on the field is beginning to hurt the defense. David Hawthorne was deservingly given a one year extension this week and Will Herring has continued to contribute on special teams and situational defense; these Linebackers need to be more involved in the rotation. In the Defensive backfield rookie Safety Kam Chancellor has an opportunity for increased playing time; his size, 6'3 and 230 pounds, provides a tactical counter against Stewart as the Seahawks will look to put an extra man in the box for run support. The Seahawks must rely on new faces, play together and be accountable if they are to provide a backbone to this injured Defensive Line.
The good ol' days
The Seahawks organization made a savvy move this week in deciding to honor retired, soon to be Hall of Fame Left Tackle Walter Jones during the two minute warning; honoring the legend brings the current offense in focus as they have failed to perform to the level of the Jones led offenses, especially in the running game. The Seahawks look to take advantage of the weak Carolina Defensive line to regain some traction on the ground.
Take the training wheels off: The Seahawks have allowed only four sacks in last four games, but have averaged a disappointing 3.2 yards per carry. For the third time this season, the Seahawks Offensive Line will start the same unit in consecutive games; the last time that happened was the two game winning streak against Chicago and Arizona, the birth of the "Beastmode" backfield. Coach Carroll noted, "It makes me really uncomfortable about how we are running the football," and I fully agree; luckily, the Panthers are among the league worst in run defense. The hamstring injury that sidelined Fullback Michael Robinson, whose importance I chronicled in my week 12 preview, limited the offenses ability to mix personnel and balance play calling. Robinson's return should give Coordinator Jeremy Bates the flexibility to open up the running game and involve Justin Forsett in more formations, using Marshawn Lynch to wear down the defense as a change of pace back; The Seahawks need to explore new options if they are to be effective running the football.
An underrated back seven: The Panthers Defensive Line is among the league's worst in mounting a pass rush; Seattle should not have to use extra blockers to "max protect," allowing offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates to use more three and four receiver sets. The Seahawks must be careful, however, in attacking the Carolina pass defense, which ranks in the top 13 overall. Coach Carroll noted in his Wednesday presser, "The Panthers have been trying to cause problems with their coverage scheme and they are aggressive in their style of play." They do a good job of mixing and rotating their zone coverage as the Linebackers are good in pass coverage, allowing Carolina often run their base 4-3 defense; Starting Cornerback Chris Gamble is doubtful for the game, which will provide an opportunity to attack the Panthers secondary. Matt Hasselbeck needs to avoid making bad decisions or this Carolina Defense will keep the game close.
The realized importance of Mike Williams: In my October post Hawks Flyin High, written before week 1, I noted "Realize how important this organization believes the success of Mike Williams is to this Seahawks team;" a little more than three months later I hear Pete Carroll saying the same thing, loud and clear. "Mike brings the dominant presence of the big guy; that is unique and I really have enjoyed it in our offense;" It was clear Carroll badly missed him last week, but was cautiously optimistic he could play Sunday. On Friday when Williams practiced, the weight of his shoulder pads brought the expectations that have once again been placed on him, a notion that seemed impossibly foreign at the beginning of the season; Carroll noted "we are counting on him." On pace for nearly 1000 yards receiving his on the field production is undeniable; his off the field comments make me think he is capable of even greater success. In a live chat Thursday afternoon on Danny O'Neil's Seattle Times Seahawks Blog Williams revealed insight into his personal life, work ethic and professionalism. Williams admitted he has a low pain tolerance and that he was not yet an elite receiver, noting Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Wes Welker are the three receivers who inspire him every week; three receivers who exemplify work ethic and toughness. He also acknowledged his favorite NBA player is Kevin Garnett,—in my mind, the 2008 NBA MVP as he changed the culture of the Boston Celtics and lead them to a championship—perhaps the NBA's most intense, focused player. Mike Williams unknowingly told me he isn't just doing work on the field; he is studying, learning from his most talented and dedicated peers how to consistently improve his game and maximize his abilities. He realizes that if he is to succeed, the expectations that were placed on his shoulders at USC will always remain. The cherry on top; he noted on his twitter page this week he doesn't need, or want, a big contract to stay in Seattle. All that matters is that he stays important to this Seattle offense.
Coach Carroll has been talking a lot recently about "getting it right" and "the ball;" you can tell its weighing on him as he continually notes "I've been saying this for weeks now that we are close, but it's just not quite right. We are in this mode of flux." It may be the "irrational optimism" Carroll exudes about the potential of his program, an optimism comparable to the concept of Karl Mannheim's Utopia explained in my post Seahawks lost in the breeze, but floating up; Though Carroll is a coach his players believe uses his words wisely, his words are getting worn. Beating a 1-10 Carolina team at home won't do too much to change opinions, no matter the outcome, as most think this Seahawks team is on the downfall; if they beat Carolina, it was a lob. But that does not necessarily mean that inside the locker room the players and staff share that negative belief; for a team looking for something, a little win can end up going a long ways. The Seahawks still have great intentions of winning the NFC West and look to kick start the push by beating Carolina; baby steps.