Niners Nation: Where is Russell Wilson in his development as a QB? After the Super Bowl everybody assumed he would get a monster contract, but this season I have seen some chatter that maybe the Seahawks will hold off on that.
Field Gulls: Yeah, there was a report out there a few weeks ago that said the Seahawks may wait on giving Russell Wilson a big second contract, but surprisingly it hasn't actually gotten a ton of attention in the press here. Regardless, I do believe that even if the team waits until during the season next year to sign him to a new deal, ultimately they will end up getting it done, and he will end up getting somewhere in the neighborhood of $18-20 million APY. There are many reasons for this - including the most basic fact that it's extremely difficult to find a consistenly better-than-average quarterback in this league - but I think the team still believes Wilson has an enormously high ceiling. He checks all the boxes they have in terms of work ethic, communication, and the intangibles that go into being the franchise quarterback, and I think they still see him as a developing player that is only in his third season.
Wilson's passing numbers have plateaued this year instead of exploding like many had hoped - touchdowns passes are down, YPA is down, and his QB rating is down, but his completion percentage has remained steady and his interceptions are down. Obviously, his rushing is up a ton this year (he's one of only six modern era quarterbacks to rush for 700+ yards) and as long as he continues to do it intelligently -- sliding, getting out of bounds, and avoiding hits -- I think the Seahawks really like that element of what he brings to the offense. His threat has a runner has really opened up the Seahawks' run game and they're lapping the field in terms of both traditional and advanced stats there. Seattle is averaging over 20 rushing yards per game (170 YPG) more than the second place team (149 YPG for the Jets) and per Football Outsiders are the 9th most efficient run team of all time, nearly three times higher in rush DVOA right now than the second place Chiefs.
Pete Carroll has always stated - even before Russell Wilson was drafted - that he wants to be a physical, run-first team with a point guard facilitator at quarterback, and the way that Wilson augments the run game really allows Pete to run the type of ball-control offense he desires. This all fits in with what he wants to do in marrying the dominant run game with the bootleg and play-action passing game. The deep passing game is the main thing that has been missing from the Seahawks' arsenal this year so that's a concern and a question mark, but you could point to a number of factors that have contributed to the decline there as compared to last season, including the fact that the Hawks let Golden Tate go.
Bottom line, I think Russ will be around for a while because ultimately what this staff wants out of the quarterback is a guy that does a great job of protecting the football, plays smart, and has the ability to engineer a game-wing drive now and again when called upon to do so. For better or for worse, it seems like they're dedicated to building this team around Russell Wilson so I don't really make much of that report that surfaced in late November. I think a deal will get done.
NN: The Seahawks defense seemed to take a step backward this season, but that also seems like it was due to injuries. The defense had some roster turnover, so where do things stand at this point?
FG: The Seahawks struggled for a stretch in the middle of the season and were definitely not as potent on that side of the ball as last year's team, but there's some indication that they're back to playing their brand of football now, at the right time. Over the last month, month and a half, getting Bobby Wagner back into the mix, getting Byron Maxwell back into action, and getting Kam Chancellor back to full health has meant the defense now seems to be firing on all cylinders.
Last year's defense only allowed 14.4 points per game - a pretty absurd number and one that was going to be hard to match this year, particularly against some of the quarterbacks the NFC West has had to face. That number has jumped to 18.1 points per game this season, and while that's ultimately the most important gauge of a defense's effectiveness, over the Seahawks' last seven games (in which they're 6-1), they're giving up an average of 13.4 points per game.
The 2013 Seahawks defense gave up 273.6 yards per game in 2013, and this year, they're giving up 274.5 total yards per, through 13 games. Breaking that out into passing vs. rushing - last year's defense gave up 101.6 rushing yards per game at 3.9 yards per carry, and this year they're giving up 84.1 yards per game on the ground at 3.5 yards per rush. Last year's team gave up 172 passing yards per game compared to 190.4 passing yards per game this season, but the big difference in the pass defense from last year is that they got 28 interceptions and this season they've only collected ten.
Ultimately, Seattle has had to deal with some roster turnover, some injuries, and it took them a while to get their pressure packages up front going full bore. They were not all "playing on a string" on defense and the chemistry definitely suffered for a while during the middle chunk of games this year. The pressure has improved lately though, which has in turn helped the secondary start to create some turnovers and accumulate some picks. Overall, the defense is playing fast, physical, and tackling well. That's really the basis for how they play, because their scheme isn't very complicated or exotic.
So, bottom line - they're playing well of late, but this part of the year is crucial. The NFC West games are always a crap shoot it seems like, so Seattle definitely can't lose the intensity that they seem to have re-captured. If they let up for a second, the Niners certainly have the ability to make them pay.
NN: Potentially connected to the first question, but with the loss of Percy Harvin and Golden Tate, the Seahawks wide receivers seem to be a question mark. Aside from Marshawn Lynch, what exactly is this team doing on offense?
FG: Well, I talked about the run game above, so apart from that, the Seahawks pass game is sort of centered on Doug Baldwin, then held together by a patchwork of role players. The wide receivers group, along with the tight ends group, has been a big topic of discussion this season for Seahawks fans and I think the simplest answer is: Losing two explosive, dynamic playmaking options at the receiver position has hurt the passing game. (duh.)
Percy Harvin didn't play much last year so taking him out of the offense isn't a big change, but the opportunity cost of going with Harvin and then allowing Golden Tate to leave in free agency (then trading Harvin) is definitely being felt this season. Tate is a big-time playmaker - he's not the most consistent guy ever and his numbers were never huge here (no WR's numbers will ever be huge in Seattle's offense) - but if you go back and watch some of the Seahawks' divisional games last year, particularly against the Cardinals and Rams, he was all over the place. Making guys miss, beating guys downfield, going up and over a corner to make a catch, then running after the catch for big gains. You can see what he's done in Detroit this year in a higher-volume passing offense. Tate was also a huge playmaker in the punt return game last year, which has been an absolute non-factor this season (and that's being generous).
Harvin's role in the offense early this year was different than Tate's, but the bottom line was that he was/is a "tilt the defense" type of player that the Seahawks never really utilized all that much early on. Still, it was a huge bummer to lose Harvin and the trade can accurately be described as an abject failure, the repercussions of which will be felt for a while. So, the fallout of losing those two guys (plus a first round pick and a third round pick) is that Jermaine Kearse is now Seahawks' de facto outside #1. Doug Baldwin has been playing lights out in the slot of late so that's definitely a bright spot, and two rookies in Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood have seen their reps increase over the 2nd half of the year.
Overall I think losing Tate and Harvin has meant that while Seattle's receivers are still solid within the construct of Seattle's run-based offense, they are missing the element of "downfield playmaker" and/or a "go-to" guy in the redzone that they had last season with Tate and at times, Sidney Rice. Additionally, the loss of Zach Miller hasn't helped the pass game - both from a protection point of view and a "Russell Wilson security blanket" point of view.
The Seahawks have made up for it by running the ball more, utilizing their group of young and/or inexperienced tight ends in the passing game more, and they've utilized their running backs in the passing game more as well. Last year, Golden Tate, Sidney Rice, and Zach Miller accounted for 13 of the Seahawks' 27 passing touchdowns. This year, you've got Doug Baldwin with 3 TDs, then a mishmash of targets filling in the rest: Ricardo Lockette has two touchdown catches, Cooper Helfet has two, Tony Moeaki has two, and Luke Wilson has one. It's just a different group, and I'd venture that most of America wouldn't know who those guys are. Marshawn Lynch actually leads the Seahawks with four touchdown catches.
In other words, the passing game remains a work in progress.
NN: Gossip time: What exactly went down with Harvin, and how do Seahawks fans view the whole thing?
FG: Well, I don't have any verifiable inside sources on this so I can't tell you exactly what happened (rumors and/or reports have it that he punched Golden Tate, got in a fight with Doug Baldwin, was trying to undermine Russell Wilson, and had taken himself out of games in key moments), but just on the surface I think the fact that they'd dump Harvin for nothing, after giving up such a huge cost to acquire him, shows just how big of a problem that he'd become. Bottom line, the Seahawks' brass' decision to trade a guy that cost them first- and third-round picks for essentially nothing pretty much tells you everything you need to know.
This is just me speculating, but I think the reports that he was taking himself out of games at key moments (I guess in protest for how he was being used) was the biggest factor at play. Before this trade went down, there was much public speculation as to why Harvin was on the sidelines while the Seahawks were trying to mount game-winning drives late in games against the Chargers and Cowboys. Harvin denied he'd taken himself out, and the team didn't specifically address it, just noting something about formations and "being ready to play," but something just wasn't adding up.
This has led to the belief that while the Seahawks can handle a guy that creates a little drama off the field (Marshawn Lynch and his contract disputes, for instance), they absolutely cannot abide a guy that refuses to compete. This goes against Carroll's whole program (and motto). Whatever happened - whether it was locker room discord, Harvin taking himself out of games, or a combination of the two - it was a fiasco for Seattle from the start (beginning with his immediate season-robbing hip injury last year).
First round picks are supposed to be longterm stars in your system, and 3rd rounders are generally hoped to be solid starters or role players, so while the immediate effect of the trade was a soothing of tensions and a return to the Seahawks' run-first identity, the long-term effect of this trade is still not known. Teams obviously miss on first rounders all the time, but long term success depends on hitting on as many draft picks as you can. The loss of these two picks will reverberate down the Seahawks' depth chart for a while.
NN: How would you attack the Seahawks defense?
FG: Well, I think back to the NFC Championship game last year and I would be a little nervous that the Niners would turn Colin Kaepernick back into a true dual-threat pistol-read-option running quarterback. I'd possibly "turn him loose," in effect. As you remember, Kap rushed for 130 yards in that game and whenever the Seahawks looked to have the Niners offense bottled up, he'd create a big play with his legs. A lot of his success came on designed runs and bootlegs, and this has historically been one of Pete Carroll's achilles heels in defending (maybe that's why he loves Russell Wilson so much). So, that might be one thing I'd try if I were Greg Roman.
Otherwise, I think getting the running backs involved in the pass game underneath is an effective way to mitigate some of the success of the Seahawks' deep pass defense, and with Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde, I think San Francisco has the horses to create some problems in this area. With Gore and Hyde, the Seahawks will have to be on their game in terms of tackling and pursuit.
Finally, getting Vernon Davis involved in the pass game could be important. The Seahawks have given up absurd amounts of touchdowns to tight ends this season so it still remains the thorn in their side, particularly the "switch verticals" concept which would have Davis run a wheel route up the sideline after the outside receiver carries the cornerback inside.