Monday, January 31, 2011

NFC West Champion Seahawks fly into offseason raising the ceiling, Part 1 of 3: Program “buy in,” year two

Pete Carroll finished the season 2-1 coaching "championship football" in his first year as Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks.

The Seahawks 35-24 loss at Chicago in the Divisional Round was disappointing to a program on the rise, but expected by most outsiders who saw a young, inconsistent team in its first year under new leadership.

They started strong, a 4-2 record through six games, and finished with a division title and playoff win; losers in seven of nine games bridge the gap between the two.

The Marshawn Lynch Beastquake run; the video of Lawyer Milloy chanting "we all we got," the team giving back a resounding "we all we need." Before the loss in a slippery Soldier field, this program was coming together; no matter the result in Chicago, the season had turned positive.

A Mentality Solidified

Snow shocked: As soon as the snow started to fall at Soldier Field, the Seahawks looked spooked; they started the game in the typical "west coast team, 1 PM Est. game" manner. Flat.

  1. The uber consistent Brandon Stokley slipped off the line on the first 3rd down of the game, incomplete.
  2. A coverage breakdown by Safety Lawyer Milloy on 3rd and short, first defensive drive, allows for a long Greg Olsen touchdown catch down the seam.
  3. Safety Jordan Babineaux, "Big Play Babs," dropped a sure interception protecting the goal line down 7-0, leading to a Jay Cutler 3rd down, touchdown scramble.
  4. Momentum and the game, Bears.
The 4th quarter surge of three Hasselbeck passing touchdowns made this the only loss by less than 15 points this season, a true hallmark of this team's inconsistency in 2010, but also a sign this program gained traction in their playoff run; a better understanding of how to "buy in" for four quarters, no matter the score.

Credit Ben Malcolmson for the words of free agent to be Leon Washington, who provided the last words in the locker room this season; "The best is yet to come, believe that."

A strong finish: The loss at Soldier field solidified this unit as a team; a group of players and coaches who had bought into their roles, but furthermore, played hard for the success of the organization. "We are a football team of guys we like and guys who want to work here next year." The "mystical" team that came back against Carolina in week 13 would have lost 35-3 to Chicago.

In the last three games of the year, "championship football," the team hung together and validated their beliefs in Carroll's mentality; the struggle to "get it right," the streak of losing seven of nine, was just part of the growth process of learning to be a championship team; Carroll continually reminded his players if they kept believing, the best would come.

Why it matters: They accomplished the preseason goal of winning the division; Carroll took advantage of the opportunity and beat the "model organization" Saints at home, in the playoffs. I have chronicled the similar mentality of these organizations, using the concept of the Totem ( to describe the active, structured and permeating qualities of both programs--the Seahawks in the early stages of learning to build a program competitive with the Saints. Coach Carroll believes in many aspects the organizational and football methods the Saints used in building their championship program. 

Matt Hasselbeck described after the loss that any time you lose a game, especially a big opportunity like hosting the NFC Championship game, there is a really negative vibe; yet, the talk around the accomplishments of the season and the programs outlook was positive.

A little nugget of history--The Seahawks lost a playoff, snow game in Chicago just as a young New Orleans team did, 39-14, four years ago. 
Will it work? At his introductory press conference a little over a year ago, Pete Carroll displayed enthusiasm and confidence in welcoming the challenge of both building and coaching the Seahawks. His recent resume: nearly a decade building a college dynasty; 2 national championships and 7 consecutive Pac 10 titles.

Remember, this isn't Carroll's first jump from college to the NFL; his first move of such nature was from college coordinator to NFL position coach in 1984. This is his third NFL Head Coaching position; in his second, he took the team to the playoffs twice in three years.

The way Carroll runs this program is by the "formula" he has been shaping for nearly three decades. He acknowledged in the Divisional week press conferences that he has grown as a coach and teacher since coaching New England; priorities have changed and he understands the aspects of his program that need extra focus. The philosophy is communicated with more clarity.

Coach Carroll may have been a "rah rah" guy, but he is a more focused, confident and experienced coach than in the 1990s.

When asked where the program stands and what the focus of the team is going into the off season, Carroll's message was clear. "We are the division champs and that is a major part of the focus we will take going forward. We intend to own the division and grow from there." The Seahawks earned the right to create higher expectations and are aimed at surpassing year one's success. 
Year Two

Going into year two Seahawks players and coaches were informed of one, very crucial element of the offseason program. Each person would have to earn back their job; no one was going to feel fully comfortable in their current position. Competition starts again, pushing to a higher level. Earn everything.

The fit of the individual, "buying in" to this program, has been of the utmost importance since day one; the words of General Manager John Schneider last offseason, "this is not a patching thing, it's not a rebuilding thing; it's continually building as we go."

What will these changes do to the continuity of the organization; does each change start the process over?

Carroll revealed his perspective as to how these changes affect the players and the organization: this is just progress, as there "is a philosophy in place that we believe in and it's not difficult to stay on course." Carroll acknowledged the importance of hiring coaches from the same lineage; "these new coaches will keep the flow of the mentality, use the same language."

He iterated, "I'm very experienced at this—I don't feel uncomfortable at all."
The Seahawks have made significant changes to the coaching staff since the loss to Chicago. Carroll spoke a promising dialogue when explaining; part of his role as a leader is to make sure the new coaches come into Seattle both supported in achieving their personal goals and affect the players and team in the desired manner. New hires are approached as assets to the organization, not patchwork change. This attitude has made working with this organization an attractive position and created the opportunity for quality hires.


Bye Bye Bates: Offensive Coordinator Jeremy Bates had hit or miss success as coordinator of the Seahawks, finding a rhythmic, explosive passing games at times, but engineered a rush offense in the bottom of the league. Carroll attributed this firing to a difference in philosophy; "this has more to do with me doing a better job of teaching the philosophy of the program than it does with Jeremy." I agree with the sentiment of many inside sources that Bates' personality and demeanor didn't fit, perhaps the main reason he was let go.

While his firing was due to general themes that existed over the course of the season, the Chicago game exacerbated some of the negative aspects of the offense this season:
  1. The loss of John Carlson on the second drive severely limited the Seahawks; Hasselbeck noted the play calling was reduced to a "corner" of the play card. Bates' season long inconsistencies of both calling a balanced game and adapting to personnel were magnified.
  2. They poorly mixed and eventually abandoned the running game with 12 carries for 34 yards in a road, snow playoff game. They continually ran into the Bears defense on 2nd and short and failed to run on any 3rd down, when Urlacher often dropped into coverage, in the first half.
  3. The offense predictably threw into the Bears on 2nd or 3rd and long, failing to set up play action on 1st and long or 2nd and short.

On the season, The Seahawks offense was efficient on 1st down in both the passing and running games. However, the running game on 2nd was easily identifiable by formations and often created negative plays; poor 2nd down play calling in the red zone, sans the Mike Williams misdirection play versus St. Louis, was an Achilles heel for the Seahawks offense. Furthermore, inconsistent 3rd down execution and very questionable play calls on 4th down were consistent problems this season. Bates did display a better understanding of personnel in the passing game the final three games of the year, but proved too little, too late.

An offense "back on track": The hiring of former Raiders Head Coach Tom Cable, now the Seahawks assistant Head Coach and Offensive Line Coach, and former Vikings Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell, in the same capacity with the Seahawks, forms a duo with experience and attitude; one that is exemplary of the style of coaching, and football, the Seahawks looked to establish from day one.

The key to this change is simple. The argument that breaking continuity of the offense is valid, but the factor here is that the language doesn't change; the communicators are simply more effective at communicating the message Carroll wants to send. "A lot of the change had to do with my ability to facilitate the attitude with the coaches in place." He mentioned continually during his post season presser the hiring of Cable "will permeate a certain attitude to the entire team. He is a younger version of Alex Gibbs." Yes, Cable comes with the some baggage—he reportedly punched an assistant in the mouth and had spousal abuse issues during his tenure in Oakland. However, Carroll understands the opportunity Cable brings to the table and is more than willing to support Cable in achieving both personal and professional success.

Some changes to expect under the new coaching duo:

  1. Think of Cable as the run game coordinator and Bevell as the pass game coordinator. They share an aggressive, tough minded mentality. Bevell is even keeled and focused, while Cable teaches tenacity.
  2. The offense will feature a tough, smash mouth run game and short passing game that creates yards on early downs, paired with a timing based, play action passing attack that uses a variety of short routes to create the vertical passing game; I do expect some "spread" elements to be integrated from the 2010 offense. Running backs will be heavily involved in all aspects of this offense.
  3. Bevell worked in Green Bay in the early 2000's as a Quarterback coach before going to Minnesota; he has worked with Hasselbeck and comes from the Holmgren coaching tree. He continually improved the Minnesota offense with a lack of Quarterback talent—Tavaris Jackson, Gus Ferotte and Kelly Holcomb led the offense before Favre's arrival. Familiarity with pocket passers and his lineage in the "West Coast" offense played a huge role in his hiring.
  4. Cable "was born to be an Offensive Line coach;" he will change the makeup of this offensive line. No more small Guards and the Tackles will be tenacious. Practices will focus on technique, tempo and toughness.
  5. This offense will focus on controlling the clock and wearing down opponents. The number one emphasis is winning the line of scrimmage, which will set up the big play. I expect these two coaches to work well together.
The Quarterback needs a coach: One unanswered question is who will replace Quarterback Coach Jedd Fisch, who left for the University of Miami; the Seahawks did make a last ditch effort to regain his services as Offensive Coordinator before hiring Bevell. Carroll said he wants this position to be separate of Bevell's position:

  1. Former Seahawks QB coach Jim Zorn was just released from the Baltimore Ravens and would be a savvy hire; the team has not been public in their pursuit of a new coach thus far. Zorn is a premium Quarterback coach that knows Hasselbeck and can develop depth at the position, but also creates an interesting power triangle on the offensive coaching staff.
  2. A second option would be to bring in a younger coach to serve under Bevell, someone with a "West Coast" offensive lineage or tie with a major member of the organization.
Update: Add Former USC Quarterback coach Carl Smith to the mix. He has over 30 years of coaching experience, including with Carroll in New England and as Matt Leinart's coach during his 2004 Heisman season. His extensive history with Carroll makes Smith a legitimate possibility. 

The change in direction on offense was executed for immediate success; I don't believe Carroll is operating on anything than more than a "four year plan," and that might be a generous assessment. The Seahawks have established a very good knowledge base to install a more traditional "West Coast" offense; justifying the decision to fire Bates by clearly upgrading the coaching staff and putting the offense in position to improve in 2011.

Part two will evaluate defensive coaching changes, take a look back at some crucial 2010 moments and focus on how this team intends to build this offseason, especially given the uncertainty of Free Agency and the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement. Part three will focus on Personnel and the composition of the 2011 roster. Check back later this week for part two!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Seahawks shake Northwest, shock the Saints: Look forward to battle in the midway, take two

Pete Carroll's Seahawks are 2-0 playing "championship football."

The Seahawks knocked out the Saints in seismic fashion; they came back from 10-0 and 17-7 deficits in the first 22 minutes, leading to a 27-3 run. The champs crept back to within four in the final quarter, only to be undone by the Marshawn Lynch "Beastquake Mode" 67 yard touchdown rumble. I am fortunate enough to have witnessed the last 120 minutes of Seahawks football in person; this is a new team, one that believes in the feeling of championship football.

What is different about Championship football?

After blowout losses in weeks 14 and 15 to the 49ers and Falcons, Coach Carroll talked about the struggles that his "program" faced in prior first seasons; The Seahawks struggled to consistently play by the "formula," becoming a team that only wins or loses in "grand fashion." Carroll admitted he felt unprepared as to how to use the correct language while communicating with Hasselbeck when the team was making mistakes and losing.

This time Carroll was prepared; ready to be down 10 early in a playoff game, ready to get his team going after the defending champs came out hot. Carroll kept his game plan on track.

Down 3-0, Carroll spoke with Hasselbeck on the sidelines. Hasselbeck heard that whatever the Saints were about to do, which was go up 10-0, was out of his control; all he could control was what the Seahawks offense did going forward.

We all know what happened next.

41 Points: The Seahawks unexpected offensive explosion was fueled by many factors; Matt Hasselbeck took advantage of the absence of Saints Safety Malcolm Jenkins to throw four touchdown passes against a defense that allowed 13 all year. The offensive line protected Hasselbeck against the Saints pressure packages and consistently controlled the line of scrimmage. This was a complete, team effort.

  1. Great preparation: The Seahawks got results from the "championship" level of preparation that went into the offensive game plan. They attacked, and beat, Saints Defensive back Roman Harper all game. Coordinator Jeremy Bates took the design of John Carlson's second touchdown from the Bengals' game plan against the Saints weeks prior; Carlson dove to cut block a player and stayed on the ground as all 21 players moved away from him to the right; he got up, wide open on the left side of the field, and caught an easy touchdown. Credit the offensive coaching staff for their diligence in game planning for the Saints.
  2. Mixing and matching: I commend Bates' willingness to open the playbook against the Saints, using a variety of formations and play calls to outmatch the defense. The Seahawks opened the game in their first five Receiver set of this season and later lined up Ruvell Martin and Brandon Stokley side by side in a five Receiver set on 3rd down, which resulted in a crucial Martin conversion. The Seahawks used two receiver stacks or three receivers bunches to create picks and rubs, opening space for the intended receiver to make the catch. The Runningbacks were sent in motion, both split out and brought back into traditional set, to move defenders and create 1 on 1 matchups. The Seahawks persistence in creating mismatches was a key factor in the victory.
  3. A "Beastmode" offense: The Seahawks offense has been downright nasty the past two games. The offensive line has blocked for two straight 140 yard+ rushing performances and Guard Mike Gibson continues to standout; the unexpected retirement of coaching legend Alex Gibbs is nearly forgotten. Fullback Michael Robinson's blocking has opened the second level of the running game; Ben Obomanu, Cameron Morrah and Golden Tate are running with a "beastmode" attitude after the catch. The offensive unit has acquired toughness and attitude and it showed in the victory against the Saints.
  4. Welcome back, Matt Hasselbeck: Hasselbeck channeled his disappointment about not playing in week 17, executing one of the best performances of his career against New Orleans. Mike Williams noted that Hasselbeck was more vocal than usual after sitting out week 17; he communicated to receivers how he wanted plays to work and how to attack the Saints defense; the result was a level of anticipation not seen all season. Furthermore, Hasselbeck made much better decisions; instead of forcing throws down the seams, he usually settled for the smart incompletion. His one interception occurred on a questionable play call and his poor throw into triple coverage was luckily tipped incomplete.
  5. Third and touchdown: The Seahawks turned in their most impressive offensive third down performance of the season; they converted 43% of their opportunities. More impressive is the fact that
    Hasselbeck threw two of his four touchdowns on third and long and the Cameron Morrah 39 yard catch was mistakenly called out of bounds inside the 10 yard line. The Seahawks were aggressive in the passing game on third down and created big plays when they were needed.
Up and Down Defense: The Seahawks defense played inconsistently against the Saints, but made enough big stops to never surrender the lead. They held the Saints below their season average on third downs and harassed Brees enough to keep him below both his average completion percentage and average yards per attempt.

The front four: The Seahawks have rushed four or less players on more than 90% of defensive plays the past two weeks, partly to counter the fact that both Brees and Bradford like to get the ball out quickly; improved play of the defensive line has allowed this new scheme to work. Defensive Ends Chris Clemons and Raheem Brock continually pressured the pocket and forced Brees to extend the play. Furthermore, Brandon Mebane played one if his best games of the season, continually getting penetration in the run game. The Defensive Line forced Brees into enough miscues to keep the Saints offense from continually creating scoring drives.

Touchdown or check-down: The Saints came into the game without their top two power backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory;
Head Coach Sean Peyton did a great job of replacing the power running game with screens and dump off passes. Brees played a touchdown or check-down style of football; the Saints called plays to attack vertically down the field, but if the receivers were covered Brees dumped the ball to the Runningback or Tight End underneath. These plays often converted first downs. The Saints were able to create an extension of the running game with short passes by taking advantage of a soft defensive scheme, making up for the lack of a conventional run game.

A suspect secondary: The Seahawks defensive game plan successfully negated the Saints vertical passing game, allowing one pass play over 40 yards. The secondary could not, however, consistently cover the Saints Receivers and were often well off in coverage.
The defense often played soft zone coverage, giving receivers room to run routes to the first down markers; the Saints converted 32 first downs, yet had the ball for less than half the game. Furthermore, the Seahawks secondary failed to communicate at times, exacerbating the soft spots in the zone.

Get down the field: Seahawks special teams did a phenomenal job tackling against the Saints. Ruvell Martin continually tripped up the return man. Will Herring and Michael Robinson covered with discipline. Punt coverage was consistently near the football when it landed. Though the Seahawks failed to create an explosive play in the return game, the coverage units consistently forced the Saints to cover a long field.

The championship mindset

The Seahawks had a "championship week" of preparation leading up to the Saints, as they maintained focus after winning the NFC West. For the second pregame speech in a row, Pete Carroll told his team they were going to win; last Friday, he told his players they knew the feeling that would come Saturday; he created an image in his players' minds of what the practice week would look like after the victory; the team would receive a three day mini bye and get right to it on Wednesday. Carroll told his team someone has to win the Super Bowl and he thought his team was just getting started. provided footage of the team after the victory; you see a team in the middle of the playoff storm. In the locker room Matt Hasselbeck grumbled, "This is great guys, but we're not done." Lawyer Milloy chanted, "We're all we got, we're all we need." The Bears got a bye; the Seahawks shocked the champs and nearly everyone else; except themselves.

Ben Malcolmson of quoted Carroll Wednesday morning; "We've got to understand how important it is to be humble with what's in front of us. There's only one way to get into this — with hard work. What we need to do is simple; it's not mystical. We've got to work hard this week, and that's something that's completely in our control."

This Seahawks team is well beyond the mystical comeback win against Carolina.


A completely different game: The Seahawks go to Soldier Field with the week 6 victory in the back of their minds; they are cognizant and appreciative of the experience, but understand that result is irrelevant. Here are four key differences to the re-match:

  1. Different personnel: In the first meeting the Bears were without All Pro Linebacker Lance Briggs; his presence on the field makes a tremendous difference for the Bears Defense. On the other side, the Seahawks offense has a plethora of emerging, secondary weapons; Martin, Morrah, Stokley and Washington have all found a role as situational playmakers since the week 6 meeting.
  2. Jay Cutler's first playoff game: Cutler has thrown three touchdowns in five games this season, but also taken six sacks in three other games. Cutler's decision making will play a key role in Sunday's game; a bad decision early and the Chicago fans won't hesitate to let him know their opinion.
  3. Defensive front four: The Seahawks used Defensive Backs to blitz on nearly 50% of the plays in the first meeting, sacking Cutler six times and consistently pressing the line of scrimmage. Bears Offensive Line Coach Mike Tice has since re-shuffled the offensive line and the protection breakdowns that occurred in the first meeting will not happen again. The Seahawks will rely on Clemons and Brock to continue their effort up front so Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley can create different blitz packages; the Seahawks must find ways to force Cutler to make the quick, not correct, decision. On the other side of the ball, the Bears will rely on their front four to create enough pressure to drop seven players and mix coverage schemes; their zone defense relies on a consistent four man pass rush to create pressure.
  4. A more balanced Bears offense: The Bears made a concerted effort to stick with the run game the second half of the Season; Bears Runningback Matt Forte had 90 yards rushing or more in his final three games. The Bears would be wise to employ a similar touchdown or check-down philosophy in this weekend game; the Bears need to limit Cutler's mistakes and get the offense in favorable third down situation, as they went 0-12 on third down in the first meeting. The Seahawks must not let the Bears establish the short passing game like the Saints; the screen game paired with an effective running game could be disastrous for the Seahawks.
Coach Carroll is making one message clear to his team; just because we beat the champions, don't expect that energy to keep going; don't rely on the mystical feeling that was lost during a week of sloppy preparation before the 49ers game. He told his team in the locker room after the Saints victory that they were going to do it again next week, no matter what anyone says, but it starts with working hard every day; "We're going to do this again and we need to focus each and every day. Don't change a thing."



Saturday, January 8, 2011

Seahawks prepare for championship football, week 2: Part 2

The Saints come to Qwest Field for the Wild Card round as the largest road favorites in playoff history. They carry the expectation of being the defending champions, but also carry the burden that comes with defending their title; the Seahawks will look to "play our ball and see if we can get a win." The Saints are simply looking to take care of business. Here are five more keys to victory for the Seahawks.

The early momentum: As I noted in part 1, the energy in Qwest field well before kickoff of the Rams game was reminiscent of the 2005 NFC championship game. It's imperative the Seahawks recapture that energy and come out of the tunnel, nearly an hour before kickoff, with the same tone. Coach Carroll noted "We know they are well equipped and will jump out fast. We have to play fundamentally right from the start." The champs will aim to come out fast and firing, using play action to give Brees easy throwing lanes and seam routes to accomplish the big play. Trust that Sean Peyton has made his team fully aware that falling behind early at Qwest is different than other stadiums; the 12th man is relentless on all downs, especially during a four quarter football game. The Saints will aim to make the fourth quarter a non factor; I'd be surprised if the Seahawks let that happen.

Ball control: The Seahawks need to formulate a game plan reminiscent of the week 15 loss against Atlanta; the Seahawks created a horizontal passing game early, aimed at slashing the middle of the Falcons defense with the run game. More importantly, it was a game plan focused on chewing time off the clock, keeping the ball out of the opponent's hands. Coach Carroll," We have to be efficient and keep that mentality. We have to find opportunities: In the kicking game, remain balanced in our approach, do the whole game well. We're going to use what we have to be dynamic, but I'm not going to say we have to extend our package to win this game. We must stay inside the game plan." The Seahawks will lose this game if they try and out gun the Saints; the Seahawks must take care of the ball, and the clock, to prevent the Saints from finding their rhythm.

The second time around: The Seahawks two biggest struggles in the first matchup was their inability to tackle and poor disguise of defensive coverage. The Seahawks took extra time this week to work on the fundamentals of tackling, an elementary yet savvy move to make sure poor tackling is not a factor for the Seahawks. The Seahawks are cognizant of the fact that the Saints big play offense presents defensive opportunities and a large part of creating those opportunities comes with coverage schemes; the Seahawks must mix and match their defensive coverage so the Saints are unable to key on tendencies. Expect defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to use blitzes and stunts in spurts, as well use motion to counter the Saints ability to find matchups.

Reggie Bush and Julius Jones: The Saints come to Qwest banged up; they are without power running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, as well as Tight End Jimmy Graham and Safety Malcom Jenkins. Increased playing time for Bush and Jones change the complexion of the Saints offense; Bush may be uncharacteristically used as a traditional running back, running between the tackles on first down and staying in for pass protection on third down—when split out wide, the Seahawks must press Bush at the line of scrimmage and throw off his timing. Jones was cut by the Seahawks before the season; he is a fast straight line runner with decent hands, but has poor vision and an inability to run through piles. The Saints are lacking their power run game, but do not expect them to abandon the run; the Saints will use draws and sweeps to complement the passing game. The Seahawks must stay disciplined against the run and not give away an unexpected advantage.

This opportunity: In the 2006 season the Saints made an unexpected run to the NFC Championship game, ultimately losing to the Bears; though it took four years to reach their goal, the organization showed the NFL they had arrived and they were for real. The Seahawks find themselves in a similar position.

Just four weeks ago no one, including myself, expected this team to be hosting a playoff game.

They are a double digit, home underdog in the most raucous stadium in American professional sports, as the first ever sub .500 playoff team.

To quote a fan made sign from last week's game, "7-9, No Body Cares."

Coach Carroll on Monday, "After last night, more than ever, our guys believe in what we are setting out to do. Lofa, Lawyer, Matt, Leon, Mike Rob kept the message alive and in line, not distracting from the mission."

He added, "There is something about the playoffs that is unlike college football, the suspense and opportunity to play again."

This week's message is simple; if we play our ball, we can play again; lord knows very few are expecting that.

Welcome to championship football. Win or lose, enjoy the suspense. Expect the unexpected.



Friday, January 7, 2011

Seahawks prepare for championship football, week 2: Part 1

Pete Carroll is 1-0 in championship football as Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks.

The Seahawks succeeded in their final attempt to get it right; in a 16-6 victory over the Rams, the Seahawks produced a steady, not flashy, version of championship football. The victory was a performance exemplary of the caliber of football this team has believed it could play: the offense, especially the running game, was efficient and created big plays; the defense took the idea of "a successful third down game" to a whole new level, forcing seven three and outs for the Rams offense; special teams made plays in coverage and limited the Rams return yardage. The Seahawks "got stronger off the ball as the game went on," finally playing a complete football game, unexpectedly bringing it in the team's first national TV appearance.

Impressions from week 1 of Championship football

The most convincing answer yet: In my pregame post I acknowledged the Rams game would provide the most convincing answer yet to the mystery of Coach Carroll's Seahawks; a potential playoff team that had suffered all of its loses by 15+ points. Ben Malcolmson quoted Carroll during last Saturday's pregame speech, "Every single step we go it's a statement of who we are."

Statement made.

Coach Carroll on Wednesday, "Now it's what you do with that, it's just a step in the process of getting a club to the mindset it takes to prepare and perform like a champion. We have to understand what it takes to get there and how to use the language properly in pursuit of maintaining that. We got the first step of it with many lessons to be learned."

I would be quick triggered to say the Seahawks are a legitimate playoff team, but they did take the step I've been anticipating for the last three weeks; four quarters, a decisive victory.  A much needed first step in the championship direction.

Running right:  Guard Mike Gibson anchored the right side of the Seahawks offensive line against the Rams, helping lead the team to 141 yards rushing; this performance justifies Offensive Line coach Art Valero's decision to replace Stacy Andrews with Gibson three weeks ago, a decision I noted at the time would be crucial to the team going forward. Gibson is a third year pro out of the University of California, where he blocked for a dynamic duo; Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett. I commend the organization's foresight to realize the familiarity Gibson has with the Seahawks duo could be a factor for a struggling rushing attack. The offensive line is thin at the moment with the loss of Chester Pitts and Andrews may find a new spot on the line as a versatile backup. The Seahawks were able to seal the division behind a powerful, agile right side that will be an instrumental piece of the game plan in attacking a weak, injury riddled left side of the Saints defense.

A division championship, not the starting job: Coach Carroll revealed on Thursday that Matt Hasselbeck would start for the team Saturday despite Charlie Whitehurst's solid performance. Whitehurst managed the game well, escaped pressure with his mobility and didn't turn the ball over; he did what was needed to win. He did win in a championship situation in his second career start.

But he missed some major opportunities, especially down the middle of the field; his hesitation on many throws actually created some of the trouble he successfully got himself out of. He exposed himself when sliding and is feeling the effects this week.

Matt Hasselbeck gives the Seahawks the best chance to win in the playoffs.

I believe Carroll made a smart decision in splitting reps in practice; he was able to see that Hasselbeck was OK, but more importantly that Whitehurst was not 100% after a physical game last Sunday. Hasselbeck has the playoff experience that comes with winning four division titles and the capability to score points in bunches. He shredded the Saints for a season high 366 yards passing in week 11, the week that began an unexpected plummet for the veteran; a plummet that has most calling for the end of the Hasselbeck era.

Trust that Hasselbeck does not want this to be his last start in a Seahawks uniform.

The Qwest Factor: I entered the north gate of Qwest approximately 45 minutes before kickoff to the tune of the Blue Thunder band and a barrage of green towels behind handed the fans way. I was just in time to see the Seahawks take the field for pre game warm ups. After a couple minutes of looking around, I turned to a good friend and told him the last time I had felt this sort of energy in Qwest was the 2005 NFC Championship game; you could tell the whole house was about to bring it.

In the speech to his team Saturday night, Carroll: "When we win, let's gather at the 50 to celebrate together; there isn't any doubt to how we are going to play. It's going to be awesome." I witnessed the gathering after the game, a group with a championship spring to their step; a team that earned a taste of what Carroll has been preaching all year. A team that is hungry for another bite.

They met at the 50 because they played to protect their totem, their symbol; at the core of championship football is taking advantage of playing at home. The Saints protected the Superdome en route to the Super Bowl.

Mixing and matching: Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley did a very good job of mixing players and formations against the Rams; they're willingness to use the entire playbook was a major factor in the Seahawks victory.

The 4 headed monster: All four Seahawks backs touched the ball in the first quarter against the Rams, an occurrence I noted pregame was crucial for this offense to get going. Washington and Forsett both saw time split out at wide receiver, as well as numerous snaps together in a two back, shotgun formation.  Forsett still needs more touches, but I commend the Seahawks commitment to their backfield.

Will Herring: Herring was used as a linebacker in Nickel formations Sunday, playing only 25% of the defensive snaps, but made a tremendous impact; he was instrumental in coverage against Rams go to slot receiver Danny Amendola, maintained a strong backside presence in run support and capped the night off with his interception. Herring has been one of the team's most consistent performers this season; the Seahawks have extended David Hawthorne's contract, now its Herring's turn.

A stuffed Steven Jackson: Jackson had 3 catches and 67 total yards in the first half; he had 4 catches and 84 total yards for the game. The Seahawks made one of their best adjustments of the season at halftime; after continually letting Jackson leak out of the backfield and run with authority in the first half, the Seahawks committed a spy to Jackson and turned him into a non-factor in the second half.

Relying on Ruvell: Ruvell Martin assumed the role of the #3 receiver in the absence of Brandon Stokley; his 61 yard reception and two first downs on three catches led to 10 of the Seahawks' 16 points. His size, good hands and route running ability make him a factor for this offense; look for Bates to keep him involved, possibly creating a package that places both Martin and Stokley in the slot.

Week two

On Monday, Coach Carroll couldn't have been clearer about his team's attitude towards Saturday's matchup against the defending champion New Orleans Saints. "We're really fired up about bringing this game to Qwest. The champs come in and it perfectly sets up for a great opportunity. We see that coming."

Wednesday brought different circumstances than the regular season, as the Seahawks play a Saturday game and therefore started practice Tuesday. The Wednesday presser gave a unique opportunity to see and hear Carroll's mindset in the midst of a championship week. "We are in the middle of the week now. We've had good start. The guys are spirited, upbeat, have an attention to the detail and the focus your looking for at this time is there. I like the feeling of how we are preparing." Sounds like the Seahawks are continuing to "cross your T's and dot your I's," the way Aaron Curry described last week's attitude.

The Seahawks have tremendous regard for what the Saints have done; they carry their expectations because they have proven themselves. They have a "model" program, a program Coach Carroll aspires to replicate in building the Seahawks.  The Saints are a program that thrives from the energy and excitement of a championship situation, a mindset Coach Carroll is continuing to build into his players this week.

"I can tell from our players they are really pumped about this game; they are not afraid of the opportunity. They are not in the wrong state of mind about this thing, and that gives us a chance."

After last week, there is no convincing this Seahawks team otherwise. They believe in championship football.

Part 2 coming soon!

In the meantime, please scroll down for my guest post on SeatGeek Blog, Seahawks vs. Saints: Showdown in the wild, wild Qwest. 


Guest post on SeatGeek Blog!

Hey readers! Just wanted to let you know that I wrote an article Seahawks vs. Saints: Showdown in the wild, wild Qwest for SeatGeek's Blog discussing the Seahawks's Keys to Victory (follow this link!) this weekend. You can find your Seattle Seahawks tickets for the playoffs and the 2011 season on SeatGeek, the leading ticket search engine that enables fans to discover the best deals for sports and concerts.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Seahawks host Rams to decide the NFC West

The Seattle Seahawks host the St. Louis Rams in week 17 in the regular season finale, both teams fighting for the division title and the opportunity to host a playoff game. As losers of seven of their last nine games the Seahawks are in a unique, some would say unfavorable, position to become the first team to win a division with a sub .500 record. Head Coach Pete Carroll realizes the stigma attached to his team, but frankly, doesn't care one bit. "The story lines of the season are forgotten for us; It's all about this game, this opportunity, right now." Carroll noted there was a lot of energy around the building and he could see the players and coaches are looking forward to this weekend; Aaron Curry, "You cross your T's and dot your I's; you're appreciative of what you have been given."

A forgettable season: 16 weeks into the 2010 season the Seahawks approach the game that has been anticipated by most, for nearly two months, as the game that will decide the NFC West champion. The Seahawks debacle against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a huge loss in terms of gaining momentum for this week; last week's loss lacked energy, discipline and urgency. Carroll played to win the game, starting his usual 22 players as he should have. This week, they leave "last season behind us." Carroll has preached to his players it doesn't matter what has happened up until this point, the 6-9 record, because the team is in the position to achieve the goal they set during off season workouts in March; they have the chance to win the division. Mike Williams, "We're zeroed in. We have wiped the slate clean." When you start the playoffs, everyone's record goes back to 0—0.

The program: The argument has been made that this game is important for building the future of the organization and losing this game to acquire a more valuable draft pick is in this organizations best interest; I fully disagree. As Carroll noted this week, "This is something we have aimed for, but it comes in an unusual manner. We have a huge opportunity for our fans. We're going to work together with them as always, make this a big event for us." He added, "Try to imagine how skewed my mind would be right now if I was thinking about the draft pick." A successful program must first learn what it takes to be a champion, dealing with the adversity, and it had to start somewhere. Just because this Seahawks team is a "work in progress," doesn't mean the goal is forgotten; it's worked towards; a chance to build momentum for the program going into the off season, attracting young, veteran talent. They look to protect the totem, the Seahawks' symbol, on national TV. This program wants to show it is about one thing; winning.

An unfamiliar leader…or not: Charlie Whitehurst has been given the opportunity to be this weekend's starting quarterback due to the injury to Matt Hasselbeck; he has practiced with the first team, He is looking to rebound from a week 16 relief performance that started slowly, showed a lack of confidence throwing the ball downfield when given the opportunity, choosing to drop the ball short and to the outside. This week, he has showed improvement and budding confidence. "I'm prepared, ready to go, execute." The Seahawks need to continue to give him his chances and keep the playbook open, not protect him with an ultra conservative game plan like they did against the Giants; the Rams have allowed 50 passes of 20 yards or more.

There is one catch; Hasselbeck has been insisting he will play all week, as he intensely rehabs his injury. Coach Carroll has called such a return miraculous, but is willing to give Hasselbeck the opportunity to start come Sunday evening if he is healthy enough. The offense is familiar with Hasselbeck's quick cadence, velocity on the ball and snap count; anticipation of the snap count becomes a factor, as the Rams have big, physical cornerbacks that will create problems if the Seahawks lack continuity getting off the ball.

Carroll believes Whitehurst has the ability and understands the offense; "I think it's a matter of time before he's a really good starting quarterback in the NFL." That's beyond a bold statement, especially for a player who has struggled through one NFL start and a few relief appearances.

Start Whitehurst, keep Hasselbeck active if he can play. Whitehurst has earned his opportunity, but can easily give it away; setting up a second half comeback for Hasselbeck, using any strategies that may help the team win Sunday.

Get it goin', keep it goin': I commend the Seahawks for trying to keep the running game going last week against Tampa Bay, as the backs got 24 carries despite being down big most of the game; for Whitehurst to succeed, the Seahawks need to continue that balance this week. One key factor in the running game will be the replacement of Left Guard Chester Pitts with big, athletic Tyler Polumbus; though the communication level on the offensive line is much better than the first time these two teams played, another change to the offensive line creates a risk the Seahawks cannot afford to let be a factor. The Seahawks need to convert third down conversions to mix the running game. Polumbus needs to be a factor in gaining positive yards over the left side of the line and providing more power than Pitts around the goal line.

Furthermore, the Seahawks need to get the 4 headed monster going early. Give all four backs first quarter touches, give every back an opportunity to be the guy. The Rams base defense is a very solid group, solid on the edges with explosive defensive ends and sound tackling corners. The Seahawks need to use the backs to create mismatches in the open field, backs against a Linebacker or Safety, to get the Rams out of their base defense that has accounted for over 75 percent of the team's 43 sacks without using many blitzes and stunts. The Seahawks "understand the scheme," and they need to attack the Rams' weaknesses by both splitting backs out wide and rotating their backs.

Four: Less than half the roster remains from the old regime; however, many of those older players have underperformed this season. These four crossover players have possibly their final opportunity to prove themselves worthy of remaining a Seahawk:

  1. Marcus Trufant: a former elite Cornerback, he continually surrendered outside position last week, allowing receivers to get open and attack the ball; he has consistently given up crucial plays. The Rams do not have a legitimate number one receiver, but rookie Denario Alexander has shown big play ability at times. Trufant must hold his ground in 1 on 1 battles this weekend.
  2. Brandon Mebane- the Defensive Tackle has struggled since his return from an injured calf in mid November. Mebane has been one of the most consistent lineman on the team the past few seasons and needs to contribute in rushing the passer on Sunday.
  3. Chris Spencer- the Center has two crucial jobs Sunday; helping the offense adjust to the different cadence of Whitehurst and make sure he snaps it cleanly. No fumbles on Center-Quarterback exchanges.
  4. John Carlson- Carlson was expected to become one of the NFL's most consistent, young Tight Ends this season but has struggled. Used early in the season in pass protection, he underperformed when given the opportunity and Cameron Morrah has earned playing time. Carlson needs to step up this weekend and get first downs for the Seahawks.
Rams Coach Steve Spagnuolo: Spagnuolo is credited for creating the base pressure packages and third down success limiting defenses that were so effective pressuring the quarterback as Defensive Coordinator of the Super Bowl winning Giants in 2008. Rams End Chris Long is especially explosive from a 4 point stance and can play coverage against Tight Ends. Spagnuolo understands the mentality a defense needs to play with and the importance of good field position and a ball control offense. This Rams team has been steadily improving as the year has progressed and the young team presents a tough challenge.

Defend the first five yards: Running back Steven Jackson is the Rams' leader; he has stayed in St. Louis to carry the torch and maintain the legacy of great Ram's running backs. He is the driver of this team. He is a powerful, strong runner that can punish defenders, consistently gains positive yards and is a very solid receiver out of the backfield; he had a 49 yard screen reception in the first meeting this season. His low yards per carry, 3.7, is misleading; his role has been to move the chains and put his rookie quarterback in friendly third down situations. The Seahawks need to press the line of scrimmage and stack the box, as the Rams are among the league's least prolific vertical passing attacks; stopping the Rams from gaining chunks of 4 to 6 yards with the short passing game and running game will be a major focus for the Seahawks defense.

On point, on time: Rookie Quarterback Sam Bradford has shown great poise in leading his team to a 7-8 record; Coach Carroll, "His consistency is a statement." Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has done a good job of helping Bradford quickly become a high percentage passer; Bradford gets the ball out quickly using play action roll outs and 3 step drops. Look for play action swing routes to Jackson or screens outside the numbers to Danny Amendola or Brandon Gibson. Recently, teams have begun inching up into press coverage and taking away the quick pass that has been so effective for the Rams' passing game; press coverage has proven to be one of the biggest weaknesses for the Seahawks cornerbacks. Bradford will attempt to use more of the play clock to force the defense into showing their coverage; Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley must counter by both mixing and disguising coverage's, using more Linebackers and Safeties, Will Herring and Jordan Babineaux, and less "base" defense.

Welcome back, Brown: Kicker Josh Brown left Seattle for St. Louis after the 2007 season to become the NFL's highest paid kicker. He was consistently clutch for the old regime, one of the NFL's most surefooted, big game kickers. He is very familiar with Qwest in all conditions and will definitely be a factor Sunday. His responsibility will partly be to kick away from Leon Washington; the Seahawks lost the special teams battle the first time these teams met, failing to create opportunities, and are focused on creating momentum with good punt coverage and explosive returns.

The Second Season

Many questions exist about the Seahawks season to this point: Did they peak in October? Did the Marshawn Lynch acquisition change the offense into something it's not? The defense showed up against Atlanta and Carolina, but otherwise has lacked the backbone, discipline and the energy this staff teaches. If not for a scrappy, smart and saavy special teams unit, today would be a play for the pick day.

This team has been just hanging around, possibly guilty of looking ahead to this game as everyone has. They aren't playoff contenders, as I said they can't be until they play 4 quarters. But this team was given another shot; they still have a chance.

A win would result in two home, playoff games in a row. They've been to Chicago, New Orleans and Tampa Bay; hosted Atlanta and New York.

Coach Carroll has tried to convince media and fans through the 2-7 streak that the team is close, that "we think we are better than you do". Somehow, someway, you still have one more chance Coach Carroll; but that's it. If the 'Hawks intend to be the first 7-9 playoff team in history, they must do it in style or go down swinging; this is possibly the biggest chance you will get, Pete Carroll, to have others buy in.

Sunday at 5:30 under the lights, the Seahawks get their most showcased chance to answer the question, who are they; what kind of coach is the post USC Pete Carroll?

I have been waiting for Carroll to show the media the man who talked to his players at halftime against Carolina. And on Wednesday, 15 seconds into his presser, it was clear it's championship time. He's fired up. His entire staff is fired up.

It looked a whole lot more like coach that showed up to the introductory presser.

Can he channel the digitally imposed, larger than life posters that hung on the stadium on opening Sunday, a day that feels like it was a season away?

Carroll was 2-0 in week 17, season deciding games as Head Coach in New England. He explained, "When we didn't have a chance, they showed me that you can be surprised by the way a team plays;" in one of those wins he started his backup quarterback.

I can promise you one thing; If the Seahawks bring it Sunday, the 12th man, which will be honored during the game, will bring it right back because they have been waiting for it all year. On Sunday, the Seahawks have a somewhat fluky, but very real final opportunity to respond versus the Rams, to show a rockin' house at Qwest they are capable fulfilling expectations and playing championship football.