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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Seahawks.com 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 Seahawks.com 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.