Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hawks blindsided in the bay, NFC leading Falcons flying in fast: Part 1

The Seahawks traveled to San Francisco in week 14 for a pivotal division matchup; feeling confident and prepared for a crucial opportunity to separate themselves from the division, the Seahawks never displayed the attitude and discipline they intended to build upon from the prior week. They allowed another first drive touchdown to the opponent and were behind the entire 40-21 loss to the 49ers. Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll noted prior, "this game means the world to this team;" both Sunday and Monday in his presser's, disappointment was the overwhelming tone; the Seahawks fell drastically short of his expectations.

A mindset lost

The Seahawks were "looking forward" to building on the attitude and execution of week 13's second half comeback versus Carolina. Coach Carroll and the Seahawks had been looking to "get it right," find consistency in executing "the formula." After beating Carolina, he fully acknowledged that from the Oakland game in week 8 on, he could have had his team more prepared and maintained a better mindset. Carroll said he needed to convince his men "they could own it;" if they played as close to the "formula" as possible, just working on bringing it every day, consistent execution will come. Against Carolina, "it clicked;" the 'Hawks found it.

The Seahawks had a unique opportunity to build on their momentum going to Candlestick Park, as many members in the current Seahawks organization have recently, or not so recently, been a part of the 49ers; The Seahawks are an organization that prides itself on preparation and had great knowledge of the 49ers; the results did not show. After the game Carroll noted, "The field has always been like that, where it doesn't feel as firm as it is. I didn't do a good job of preparing our guys for that, I hoped that it wouldn't be an issue and it was." Clearly things were missed in "the challenge going into San Francisco," the hope "to find that attitude and make sure we bring it with us going forward." Wait, find it?

Coach Carroll finally said his team "got it right" against Carolina, after a rough stretch through "a tough month that took its toll." The goal should be to maintain the momentum that was created, not look for it week to week; letting the momentum ride, maintaining an "attitude" is how teams find winning streaks. Continually looking to find it, week by week, stunts growth and creates the expectation that it can continually happen; also creating disappointment and frustration when it doesn't. By acknowledging the fact that the Seahawks aren't "where we planned to be," not focusing on the disappointment, the organization will better accept their frustration; harnessing the energy of disappointment to increase the collective desire to work harder, together, is the desired result.

Five thoughts to bring forward

I noted in the halftime update, "I haven't lost my belief in this organization for current or future success, but I have released my expectation for this season. The Seahawks can still win the NFC West." However, they are no longer my pick and it's a three horse race to the finish. The Seahawks poor tackling was an obvious factor and needs to be a major focus—after the New Orleans game Coach Carroll strictly noted it was unacceptable for poor tackling to be a factor. Pre game I discussed the importance of protecting the ball; the offense needs to put in overtime this week working on ball security. In an effort to turn disappointment into hard work, below are five situations or sequences of plays from the week 14 loss that I hope are acknowledged and implemented into planning this week for the Atlanta Falcons.

The first defensive third down: San Francisco Quarterback Alex Smith got booed by the 49ers fans after the first two plays and was forced into an uncomfortable 3rd and 10; On the third play, the Seahawks blitzed five and Vernon Davis got a free release off the line of scrimmage; I noted pregame that Aaron Curry, a player who was strong in press, 1 on 1 coverage in college at Wake Forest, or veteran Safety Jordan Babineux needed to be used in disrupting Davis' release off the line of scrimmage. On the play, Davis released into the area of Lofa Tatupu, who dropped loosely in coverage off Davis instead of being aggressive, attacking him near the first down line; Tatupu established inside position and had an opportunity to break up the play. Instead, Davis completed his "Stick" route approximately 2 yards short of the first down line, made the catch and gained 15 more yards for a 22 yard gain on the play. Tatupu must be aware in this situation the 49ers intention is to get a first down; he had safety help over the top if Davis was to beat him deep. The Seahawks failed to grab early momentum because they failed to throw off the timing of Davis' timing based route, using tight coverage or different personnel are two easy adjustments that would have helped in this situation.

Against the Falcons: Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez presents another brutal test for the Seahawks defense. His height creates a major mismatch and his 13+ years of experience makes him a primary target for third year Quarterback Matt Ryan.

Outside the defense: The Seahawks have allowed big plays this season against the run partly because they haven't stayed "inside the defense," and have allowed runners to cutback or bounce outside. On a 1st and 10 at the Seahawks 49 yard line with 2:59 left in the first quarter, 49ers Runningback Anthony Dixon had a 37 yard run that was the result of both a good cutback and poor pursuit angles; Both Junior Siavii, who moved outside to Strong Side End with the return of Colin Cole, and Safety Lawyer Milloy a leader who preaches defensive discipline, were guilty of getting outside the defense. The play was a toss to the right that the defense covered well, except Siavii failed to maintain the backside of the play by fortifying the line of scrimmage; instead of being in a position to slow Dixon's progress, Siavii fell to the ground as Dixon ran free to the other side; Milloy, whose role was to keep Dixon in front of the second level, over pursued as well, creating the lane for Dixon to run free into the secondary. The defense held Brian Westbrook and Dixon to a combined 49 yards on 22 carries other than that play; the Seahawks defense played the run well, but the lack of discipline on the Dixon run, an easily preventable play, stands out as a major momentum killer for the defense.

Against the Falcons: All Pro Runningback Michael Turner is a powerful, low center of gravity runner that will make the defense pay for its mistakes; the Seahawks must maintain assignments and look to minimize Turner's success, not stop it.

The turning plays: The Seahawks had an opportunity to cut the 49ers lead to six points towards the end of the first half; coming out of a timeout 2nd and 5 at the 49ers 32 yard line with 4:29 left, the Seahawks deployed the "11" 1 back, 1 tight end formation with Justin Forsett in the backfield. The Seahawks have shown a strong tendency to hand off to him from "11;" the fact that he was yet to carry the ball was an obvious key for the defense in this situation. He carried for 1 yard as the San Francisco Lineman and Linebackers were not fooled; play action would have fooled them. On 3rd and 4, the Seahawks ran Forsett from "11" again. My question is, if the defense had keyed in on the fact that the Seahawks offense brought in Forsett to establish him and its "4 down territory," why not throw a five yard route to Stokley, an out to a tight end, or swing to Forsett from the backfield on third down? The third down run was not disguised and based on the failure of the previous Forsett running play, it was too obvious an attempt to run again in hopes of gaining 3 yards; earlier in the season Leon Washington was "mixed" in similarly- the small amount he was used was poorly disguised.

The 4th down call again resulted in the dastardly 20-30 yard "fade" route, though not to Golden Tate, that I have questioned the previous two weeks. Coach Carroll acknowledged the play is not primarily designed to be a fade, but it is an option on that play, and he would prefer it not be; he does not, however, have plans of removing it from the playbook. This sequence of plays stalled a crucial, momentum grabbing drive. If the Seahawks wanted to continue the power running game, they should have used a clicking Michael Robinson, who was used phenomenally I must note, or Marshawn Lynch who averaged 2.9 yards per carry in the game; not force Forsett to find a rhythm in a tough, power running situation with his first carry.

Against the Falcons: The Falcons are solid against the run, but vulnerable against the pass. The Seahawks need to come out throwing in run based formations and mix Forsett into other formations besides "11." As I have advocated for weeks, get him on the field in new formations and give him a minimum of 14 touches. His involvement will open up the offense, especially for Lynch.

Big play Brian Westbrook- I noted pregame Tatupu's job should be to "spy" Brian Westbrook, one of the all-time best receiving backs, which would help Earl Thomas in the defensive backfield; mission not accomplished. On 3rd and 8 at the Seahawks 42 yard line with 12:00 left in the second quarter, Tatupu and Safety Jordan Babineaux dropped into zone coverage, with the responsibility of covering late releasing receivers from the backfield and protecting the first down line. The Seahawks were nearing Alex Smith when Westbrook leaked out of the backfield, right in front of Tatupu and Babineaux, caught the ball and got the first down. Tatupu failed to recognize that Westbrook was still in the backfield, and would be Smith's only option; furthermore, Babineaux had the other half of the field covered, giving Tatupu an opportunity to attack the check down area before Westbrook leaked. Tatupu did a great job of "finding the ball" in pass coverage versus Carolina, but again struggled versus San Francisco. The lack of attention on Brian Westbrook ultimately led to a 62 yard touchdown on a quick throw, catch and run, on a 3rd and 4 after the 2 minute warning.

Over the past month I have chronicled the improvement of Linebacker David Hawthorne, "the heater," and advocated he receive more playing time. He is described by his teammates as a "player who knows how to find the ball, make plays;" his goal line interception in New Orleans, a goal line stop of Jamaal Charles against Kansas City and 14 tackles against Carolina creates a strong case. Tatupu was on the field for all 56 defensive plays, Hawthorne only 42; Hawthorne deserves an open competition at Middle Linebacker.

Against the Falcons: If healthy, backup Runningback Jason Snelling is an excellent, powerful receiver out of the backfield; he is used on screens and as a slot receiver. He can make big plays when forgotten about by the defense, similar to the Westbrook touchdown this past week.

Hard working Washington: Leon Washington's 84 yard punt return to the 2 yard line in week 13 was well documented; he slowed at the 40, raised one arm in and air and got "ankle slapped" by the punter inside the 15 yard line; Coach Carroll even opened his press conference the Monday after the game mentioning that Leon just wanted to give the red zone offense a chance to punch it in. The criticism, as joking and "rah rah" as it may have been, worked; Washington slipped away a possible touchdown on his first return of the game and scored on a 92 yard kickoff return where he busted through the defense and finished, strong, in the third quarter. Washington showed that this team can perform when challenged, a silver lining that must be taken from the loss.

Against the Falcons: The Falcons don't make many mistakes; Washington is an X factor, crucial in helping the Seahawks get good field position and put unexpected Special Teams touchdowns on the board.

Hard work, no expectations

Coach Carroll must make sure his team knows "you can't expect success," and then ask the question "but do you want it?" Expectations can break you, but if you let expectations go, emotional boundaries will widen and desire can strengthen. There is no value in recapturing the momentum gained in the Carolina victory; it's gone. Harness past desires, lost expectations, to grow together. Explore new avenues of growth, such as "mind body work:" Yoga, Imagery and Mediation. Give your players and coaches mandatory alone time outside, rain or shine, on Friday for 10 minutes; Let the defense think about all the missed third down opportunities and the offense think about the turnovers. Then let them go practice with a little contact, a little consequence.

November and December in Seattle brings brutal weather; The Falcons are a notoriously good dome team and the preliminary forecast is a high of 45, 70% chance of rain; there will be consequences of feeling the wet, December air for both teams. The Seahawks, however, start with a small advantage. They need to build on being back home at Qwest.

But most importantly, this team must be taught one grows by trying, not by being afraid of the consequences. There are always consequences. The Seahawks need to realize that by working harder together this week, consequences can turn positive.

Part 2, an in depth game preview, will be posted in the coming days!


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