By Chris Cluff
The Seahawks entered this season with two strengths and one major question mark. A great defense and running game seemed destined to give this team a chance to make the playoffs — if the rookie quarterback and passing game came together. The key to this season always has been whether surprise QB choice Russell Wilson would grow into a competent passer and develop chemistry with his receivers.
After a rough first few weeks in which the offense had big problems scoring, Wilson and the passing game have taken big steps the last few weeks. Even though the defense has slipped at times, the offense has stepped up and scored enough points — especially at home — to put the Seahawks at 6-4 entering their bye.
They are in good position for the stretch run, which begins with games in Miami and Chicago and also includes three home division games and one against Buffalo in Toronto. They need to win four of those to assure themselves of a playoff spot, and they seem to be coming together at the perfect time, with a much-needed week of rest to get healthy before making their push.
Here’s a look at the players who have made strides and enabled them to get to this point, along with a few who still need to step up in the final two months.
Russell Wilson: Wilson and the passing game didn’t do much in the first five weeks. They were one of the worst attacks in the NFL. But then they woke up in a big comeback against the New England Patriots in Week 6 as Wilson threw for 293 yards and three touchdowns, including the 46-yard game-winner to Sidney Rice in the final two minutes. Since then, Wilson largely has been very good. He is seeing the field better, he is not leaving the pocket early like he was in the first five games, and he is finding his receivers. Wilson has been great at home, with 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions. And, in his last five games, he has 10 TD passes and two interceptions. The offense still has fits at times, but Wilson already has matured greatly in the first 10 games of his career and seems set for a big finish.
Golden Tate: The third-year receiver has had a breakout season and been involved in some of the Hawks’ most noteworthy plays. It started with his bone-jarring (if illegal) block on Dallas linebacker Sean Lee in Week 2. Then came the most infamous play of the entire NFL season — his controversial winning touchdown catch against Green Bay on “Monday Night Football” in Week 3. He scored both of the team’s touchdowns in that 14-12 win. He also scored the go-ahead touchdown at Carolina, had two touchdowns against Minnesota and caught and threw TD passes in the 28-7 blowout of the Jets last weekend.
Sidney Rice: After an entire offseason and preseason filled with health concerns, Rice surprisingly has been the only receiver to play in every game. After a slow start that coincided with the struggles of Wilson and the rest of the offense, Rice has been on fire the last six weeks. After a solid game against Carolina (five catches for 67 yards), he has scored in four of the last five games — including twice against the Jets. He leads the team with 34 catches for 475 yards and shares the touchdown lead with Tate at six.
Bruce Irvin: The Seahawks were criticized — rightfully — for using their first-round pick on a part-time player. But they obviously had a plan for Irvin, and it has worked out pretty well. He is tied with Chris Clemons for the team lead with seven sacks. He had two in Seattle’s eight-sack first half against the Packers; he had two against Carolina’s Cam Newton, including the sack-fumble to clinch the game at the end; and he had two more against the Jets. He doesn’t play a lot, but he generally makes his presence felt when he does. And that’s all the Seahawks are asking of him right now. He figured to be a success if he finished with at least 10 sacks, and he certainly looks like he will do that.
Bobby Wagner: The second-round pick has been pretty solid as the starting middle linebacker. There have been times when he has had trouble with pass drops or in getting off blocks (see Frank Gore and San Francisco), but he leads the team with 81 tackles and six for loss, and he has two sacks. The rookie has played well and should get nothing but better over the next two months.
Max Unger: The fourth-year center has been the rock along a line that has seen a lot of players coming and going — he has had three right guards and three left guards — but still has played pretty well. The Hawks are seventh in rushing in the league, and their passing game has gotten better over the last month. Unger has been the anchor that has steadied the ship, and some have touted him for Pro Bowl honors.
Matt Flynn: The young veteran was signed ostensibly to be the starting QB and ended up getting beaten out by a rookie. The Hawks likely would have had another win — maybe two — if Flynn had started. None of their losses are by more than a touchdown, and you have to figure his experience would have been worth something in the 20-16 loss at Arizona and/or the 19-13 loss at St. Louis. Flynn is stuck as the backup for now, but it will be very interesting to see what happens with him after the season.
James Carpenter: A reach in the first round in 2011, Carpenter just has not been able to remain healthy. He finally returned from an ACL injury that ended his rookie season early, but he lasted just five games at left guard before a concussion sidelined him for two. He will still be worth the pick if he can become a permanent fixture at left guard. But so far, he has been a major bust. The Hawks need him to step up over the final two months.
Paul McQuistan: The versatile veteran showed his worth last season, starting at three positions. This year, he has done more of the same — starting at both guard spots — but his play at right guard over the last seven weeks has been very inconsistent. He had a horrible game against New England, missing several linebacker stunts that resulted in lost plays for Seattle. John Moffitt, who is no superstar, would seem to be the better choice if the coaches ever had their full complement of linemen available.
Braylon Edwards: Other than a huge fourth-down TD catch in the comeback against New England, Edwards has been largely invisible this season. Fortunately, Rice and Tate have been pretty good and the Hawks have started to use tight end Zach Miller more. Edwards was one of the only veteran gambles the Hawks held on to, and even he has not offered much for this young team.
Doug Baldwin: After a shockingly good rookie season, Baldwin has been waylaid by injuries in 2012. But he is finally healthy and has been making marginal contributions over the last four or five games. If he can step up in the final two months, it would make the passing game even more effective.
K.J. Wright: Wright is the only defensive starter to miss a game this season. He was leading the team in tackles before missing last week with a concussion. He also had five tackles for loss. Solid numbers for the second-year linebacker, although he had not made as many big plays as he seemed poised to make after a great preseason. The Hawks need him to come back from his head injury with a vengeance and see him explode over the final seven games, like he did last year.
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.