The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks square off this Sunday in the NFC Championship Game. We know plenty about each other, but it always helps to learn a little more. I sat down with Danny Kelly from Field Gulls to discuss the Seahawks. This first post consists of five questions about the Seahawks offense. I answered five questions about the 49ers offense, so give that a look if you feel like adding to what I said. And if you feel like being a troll about things, head in to the troll thread.
Niners Nation: Russell Wilson's numbers have been down in recent weeks, or at least he has seemed inconsistent lately. What do you make of his sophomore season, both in terms of how he has improved, and where he still has to improve.
Field Gulls: Going back the last four to five weeks, Wilson's overall aggregate numbers have tapered off some and the eye test would confirm that during stretches of games, he hasn't looked as smooth or poised in his play, at times missing throws and missing open receivers. His pocket presence can waver and frankly, there have been times where he bolts the pocket before he needs to. There is blame to go around as far as some drops by receivers and porous blocking by the offensive line, but the unflappable, accurate, aggressive and playmaking Wilson from his rookie season and most of his sophomore campaign has come and gone over the past couple games. The two stinkers that really show up on the stat sheet were the Week 16 Arizona game (11-for-27, 108 yards, 1 TD/1 INT) and this past game against the Saints (9-for-18, 103 yards, 0 TD/0 INT).
It's tough to really know of what has gone on. Teams and players can obviously go through slumps and have peaks and valleys in their play, opponents can attack and scheme for some of your strengths, matchups can dictate game plans and overall offensive effectiveness, and it's been noted by Wilson, Carroll and his staff recently that they favor a conservative approach when leading, and this has handcuffed Wilson somewhat at times as the Seahawks play it safe and avoid risky throws.
All that said, most of Wilson's numbers this season are up, including his rating (101.2), yards per attempt (8.25), yards (3357), and he had one fewer interception to finish with 26 TD to 9 picks (he had 26/10 last year). Considering Seattle's run game has been less explosive and less consistent than last year and the true read-option hasn't been quite as big of a wow-factor that defenses have to account for (as you guys have probably seen with Kaepernick for the most part... except against Green Bay, I mean), on the whole, Wilson's improvement is encouraging. The Seahawks have definitely used him more as a pocket passer and tried to rein in, somewhat, the randomness of his play. He still improvises often and does a great job doing it, but playing within the construct of the passing offense, from the pocket, has seemed to be a bigger goal this year. There are growing pains involved with that, I think.
Wilson has some areas that he needs to improve on - 3rd down passing is one big thing, and accuracy in the intermediate game has been up and down. A lot of this is experience, learning to diagnose and pick apart defenses, and getting better with reads on quick throws. His pocket presence, climbing the pocket and not sensing phantom pressure, is something that I think he could work on. Overall, there are a million nuances in NFL quarterbacking that he'll have to pick up as he goes along.
At the end of the day, though, Wilson has played remarkably well thus far in his career and Seattle fans are optimistic about his prospects as the franchise QB. Wilson's 52 touchdown passes is tied with Peyton Manning for 2nd best all time for a sophomore QB (behind Dan Marino), and that honor comes in an extremely low volume passing offense. There will invariably be areas to work on for Wilson, but his play this season, even with some inconsistencies of late, has been impressive.
NN: So, Marshawn Lynch is pretty good. He had a monster game against the Saints, which came after six weeks in which he had one game with a ypc over 4.0. Was there anything of concern during that time for Seahawks fans? Or just a late season slump?
FG: There was some talk that Lynch was finally starting to wear down/slow down, but after this past week's performance, that thought kind of went out the window for me. He looked rejuvenated and explosive, and the extra week off seemed to help a ton.
I think some of Lynch's struggles in the run game down the stretch were due to a number of factors - obviously, playing exceedingly tough opposing defenses made a difference. The Hawks faced a Saints D that sold out to stop Lynch and ended up doing that at the expense of the pass defense as they were blown out through the air. Seattle saw all three badass defenses from the NFC West, plus the stout Giants' run D, and these teams did a great job in taking away the Seahawks' main weapon on offense. Adding to this, the Hawks have had some shuffling on the offensive line (a platoon system at left guard that never seemed to work plus starter Breno Giacomini returning to action after missing a big part of the year), so the lack of stability there hurt. As with almost anything in the NFL, a lot of it was matchup based and specific to each week.
In general, the Saints game eased some concerns about Lynch's BeastModeness, but running against the Niners' defense will be the real test. I'm cautiously optimistic that he'll have some success, but I definitely respect that the Niners can and do shut down opposing run games.
NN: Percy Harvin and Luke Willson were the only offensive players on the injury report last week. Harvin obviously is going through the concussion protocol. Were there any other injuries besides Harvin in the Saints game? How much do the fans even think about Harvin at this point in terms of potential production?
FG: No injuries to report from the Saints game apart from Harvin. Luke Willson is back in action and should be good to go for this week, and the long waiting game for Harvin to clear concussion protocol goes on. The good news on the injury front for Seattle is that there's a chance they get starting WLB K.J. Wright back into the fold. Wright broke a bone in his foot in Week 14 vs. the Niners, and after having surgery, has rehabbed to the point where he's running again. It's still unclear if he'll play, or even practice this week, but if he can come back, that'd be a big boost to the defense.
As for Harvin, I think the majority of fans around here have gotten used to the idea of not having him in the offense, but the few glimpses we've seen where he's on the field have been pretty tantalizing. He definitely changes the offense for the better - tilts coverages his way and opposing players and coordinators have to account for him every time he takes the field. That said, the Hawks got to this position without him, and will approach this game in the same way they've done all year.
Personally, I obviously really hope he plays though. He adds a lightning element to the offense that you can't really create with anyone else.
NN: Tell us about Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin and what they bring to the passing game. They seem to be the focus of it. Neither comes across as spectacular, but they seem to make key plays for the Seahawks.
FG: Yeah - both players are solid, confident, sure-handed catchers, and I'd say both are somewhat underrated because of the Hawks' low-volume passing attack. Doug Baldwin has an amazing catch radius, runs precise, crisp routes, and has a knack for making toe-touch grabs at the sideline to extend drives. He had a huge, big-time catch down the sideline on Saturday to help Seattle move the chains late and put the game nearly out of reach, and that seems to be a pretty consistent thing. He's definitely Russell Wilson's go-to guy on third down and he's arguably made more big plays for the Hawks this year than any other receiver. He still holds that chip on the shoulder for Jim Harbaugh because Harbaugh didn't sign or draft him out of Stanford. For that reason (or maybe just by coincidence), he seems to have big games against the Niners.
Golden Tate is more of a space player than Doug - he's a former HS running back that actually led the NFL in yards after the catch per reception this year (7.7) per PFF, so his specialty is taking short passes, breaking tackles and picking up tough yards. He also has a huge catch radius for a guy his size (it's something John Schneider specifically targets), and has been known to make some circus style catches in traffic. Tate has run hot and cold this year though - so I'm really hoping he steps up in this game, particularly if Percy can't go. Tate is very good in the punt return game too, which could be a big factor this week.
NN: Russell Wilson has been sacked 44 times this season, and Football Outsiders ranks the Seahawks offensive line No. 32 in adjusted sack rate. Is this in any way misleading? If it is, how so? If not, what's the problem in pass protection?
FG: It's somewhat misleading in that scrambling quarterbacks do tend to take more sacks than quick passing pocket statues and Wilson's been so trained into not making risky throws that you'll often see him cock back to throw then pull back and tuck it at the last second, preferring to take the sack than throw into traffic. Overall though, I wouldn't say it's THAT misleading, because the line has been pretty bad this year, particularly in pass protection.
There was a long stretch during the year where the Hawks were missing both starting tackles in Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini (starting a journeyman guard in Paul McQuistan at LT and a rookie 7th rounder in Michael Bowie at RT). They have also gotten subpar production from former first-rounder James Carpenter, who was in a platoon system at LG with McQuistan but was a healthy scratch last weekend as the Hawks moved Bowie to LG. You could make the argument that protection has been the Seahawks' biggest issue all year.
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