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. 

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