By Chris Cluff
The Seahawks are right where we thought they would be after 10 games: 6-4 and getting better. Of course, that record was predicted back in April, when the schedule came out and it was believed that Matt Flynn would be the quarterback, not rookie Russell Wilson. But Wilson has taken great strides since the first month, and the defense and running game have been every bit as strong as fans thought they would be.
The Hawks went into the bye on a two-game winning streak, with impressive wins over Minnesota (30-20) and the New York Jets (28-7). The Hawks have three road games and three homes games remaining, and they will need to find a way to carry over their home success (5-0) to other stadiums, where they are 1-4.
They probably need four more wins to make the playoffs — meaning they need to win at least one more road game, depending on how they do in their three home games against their division opponents. They also have a decent shot at winning the NFC West. They trail the San Francisco 49ers (6-2-1) by 1.5 games, and their meeting in Seattle on Dec. 23 could decide the division.
Here’s a look at what has gone right for the Seahawks, along with a look at what they need to improve in every phase if they are to make the playoffs.
As expected, Marshawn Lynch is having a great year. He is second in the NFL with 1,005 yards — on pace for the third-best season in Seattle history. Lynch has four straight 100-yard games, and the Hawks have run the ball 88 times for 369 yards in the past two contests.
That has helped Wilson succeed with a play-action staple. Wilson completed 65 percent of his passes and threw for five touchdowns and no interceptions in the win against the Vikings and Jets. Wilson has 11 TD passes and no picks in five home games — all wins. The trick will be for him and the offense to play better on the road, as the Hawks go to Miami and Chicago in the next two weeks. He has eight picks and just four TD passes on the road.
While the Hawks have had plenty of injury trouble at receiver, Golden Tate and Sidney Rice have come up big. They combined for six touchdowns against the Vikings and Jets, including Tate’s TD pass to Rice against New York. Head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell were pretty conservative early in the season as they waited to see what Wilson could handle, but they have opened up the offense over the last month and Wilson and his receivers have responded. Bevell has called some great games the last three weeks, and the offense has performed well.
The offense is still last in the league in passing (174.8 ypg), but the running game is churning out the yards and Wilson is hitting three or four big throws a game in addition to running a zone read for a couple of nice gains each week. The Hawks have taken big steps on offense since the first five games and should continue to improve. The key will be for this fragile unit to remain healthy. The line has used five combinations — not starting the best five all season — and the receiving corps has not been 100 percent either.
The Hawks also have to continue to keep $6 million tight end Zach Miller involved. He has been in and out of the game plan all season, but they have begun to target him more in recent weeks — 14 of his 32 targets have come in the last three games — and need to throw it to him even more.
Over the last three games, Bevell has done a great job of varying the play calls and yet sticking with the run. And he has started calling those zone read options for Wilson, which have been pretty effective. If Bevell keeps it up, the offense should continue to get better. Season grade: C+
The defense carried the team early in the season, keeping it in every game. The only letdown has come in Detroit, where the defense let Matthew Stafford pick it apart and drive for the winning score with 20 seconds left.
They have been a top-five unit all season (currently No. 4), but have let had some problems with their zone in some games (New England and Detroit) and been gashed on the ground a couple of times (San Francisco’s Frank Gore and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson). But, other than the Detroit game, they have always tightened up in the red zone. They are the fourth-best scoring defense at 16.1 points per game.
Going forward, they don’t face any more elite quarterbacks this season — unless you count Jay Cutler — but they need to fix their zone defense to avoid giving up big chunks via the pass. They have been beaten by quick-throwing teams at times and need to tighten up their coverage in those cases.
They also need to improve on third downs, where they rank in the bottom third of the league at 40.6 percent. They have been good in that department in three of the last four games, allowing the 49ers, Vikings and Jets to convert just 8-of-32 (25 percent), but in between they let Detroit convert a ridiculous 12-of-16 (75 percent).
Somewhat surprisingly, the Seahawks are tied for second in the league with 28 sacks. Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin account or half that total with seven each. Clemons has been pretty quiet
They also need to get K.J. Wright more involved. He was the team’s leading tackler before he missed the Jets game, but he really has not made the big plays it seemed like he was poised to make this season.
The Hawks also need to force more turnovers. They have had some key takeaways and are averaging 1.6 per game, but if they are going to win the division, they will have to increase that number. Season grade: A-
The special teams got off to a hot start. Leon Washington set up 10 points with big returns in the opener at Arizona and the teams played a huge part in beating Dallas 27-7 in Week Two. But they also essentially lost the game in St. Louis, giving up a fake field goal touchdown and botching an onside kick.
Punter Jon Ryan has been stellar, with a 49-yard average that is third in the league. His net of 42.5 is sixth. If he doesn’t make the Pro Bowl this year, it will be because of New Orleans’ Thomas Morstead, who is averaging 51 yards per kick.
Washington is eighth in the league on kick returns at 28.3 yards and is averaging a middling 9.1 yards per punt runback. He has had some big returns — like the 25-yarder that put the Hawks in position to drive 57 yards for the winning touchdown against New England.
Overall, the teams have been steady if not spectacular beyond Ryan. Season grade: B
Carroll and his staff have been outcoached in perhaps three games — St. Louis, San Francisco and Detroit. Jeff Fisher’s Rams beat them almost purely because of coaching. The Hawks never adjusted to the 49ers’ trap running plays, which is why the 49ers won that slugfest 13-6, and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley did not fix his zone defense at all in the Detroit game, wasting a great game by the offense.
Bevell got off to a very uneven start in the first six or seven games, but he has been mostly stellar in the last month as the offense has made obvious strides — the 49er game aside. Carroll and Bradley have had trouble getting their young players to play the zone properly — their drops have been too deep at times — and the coaches should have gone away from it more often.
One thing Carroll has done well is reduce the penalties that were plaguing the Hawks early in the season. After five games, they led the NFL with 44 flags for 363 yards, including 14 for 118 yards against Green Bay. Granted, the first three weeks — including that Monday night game against the Packers — were officiated by replacement referees.
Breno Giacomini was the poster boy for Seattle’s penalty problems, and Carroll benched him briefly in the Carolina game to send a message.
“I had to sit him down,” Carroll told reporters after that game. “We’re talking so clearly about the issues that are coming up with these penalties. I’ve been with him and on him since OTAs. But it showed up again, [so] we had to sit him down just to make the statement that you can’t keep doing stuff.”
Carroll also chewed out the entire team about the problem, and it seemed to work. In the last five games, Seattle has just 20 penalties for 159 yards.
Carroll and his staff have certainly stumbled at times, but overall they have guided the team in the right direction.
The Hawks still have not put together a complete game yet — although the past two games were as close as they have come. If they can get all phases playing well over the final six games, the Hawks could cruise into the playoffs with a home game or two and have a good chance to advance. Season grade: B-
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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.