Churchill: Seahawks Make Key Adjustments
While I did not see a significant difference in the style — it’s still a zone blocking scheme with a goal of often getting the guards and center into the linebackers’ faces — the run plays seemed a occasionally and slightly different from Marshawn Lynch’s perspective.
A handful of times, Lynch can be seen getting the ball, headed for his usual running lane somewhere between the two tackles and behind a guard or the center, but instead of simply powering ahead as he always does, regardless of the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the point-of-contact blocking, Lynch crabbed to one side, the right more often than not, and found his way to the hole.
It can look like a bit of a delay or draw, but it’s not. It’s simply Lynch making a subtle, but noticeable, adjustment as he’s handed the ball. The slight delay or pause in his approach to the line of scrimmage, appears to allow the line and fullback Michael Robinson another split second to lock up their blocking assignments.
It’s worked. Lynch had his best game since November 10 at Atlanta, six games ago. During that span, Lynch had averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Sunday, No. 24 was back over four yards per attempt and totaled 97 yards. On the four plays in which I noticed Lynch pausing and slipping to one side with a quick crab step, he tallied 24 yards. I imagine there are times he’s making this adjustment on the fly and the sidestep or pause is not there. Either way, it’s a key adjustment that worked Sunday, and one that allows defenses to over-pursue and leave an even bigger hole.
Wagner back to elite status
Remember when MIKE linebacker Bobby Wagner was injured and missed weeks six and seven at home versus Tennessee and at Arizona, and K.J. Wright moved to the middle and Malcolm Smith filled in for Wright and the team played well defensively, including versus the run? Yeah, that started a bit of a trend, as if Wagner was easily replaceable.
Sunday I wrote that Brandon Mebane was my pick for the team’s Most Valuable Player on defense, and the big defensive tackle may be the most irreplaceable. If that is true, Wagner is No. 2 on that list, if he’s not No. 1, just edging out Wright, who is among the top five coverage ‘backers in football. Not just because Wagner a very good player or because the Seattle Seahawks do not have the personnel to back him up in a case like Week 12, because they do. Wright and Smith are terrific linebackers and played well in Wagner’s absence.
Wagner has graded well in rushing the passer for most of the season, but has struggled, in terms of production, versus the run at times. Sometimes that can happen for reasons not in the player’s control; if the D-line struggles against the opponents’ O-line, the linebackers are asked to an awful lot, and can find themselves trying to shed blocks of players outweighing them by 50-80 pounds.
Wagner had his best game of the year Sunday versus the Rams, and his best game of the year against the run. He did it with Wright out and Smith in, and against a team that shredded the Hawks for over 200 yards on the ground back in October.
Wagner is peaking, just as the Seahawks need him to do so.
Thurmond more than back
Everyone knew Walter Thurmond was activated for Sunday’s reason finale. What we didn’t know was how much he would play, if he would take over the nickel spot from Jeremy Lane or how well he’d play. We have answers to each of those questions.
Thurmond played 18 snaps versus Lane’s 17 and graded out fairly well, especially considering he’s been inactive on GameDay for the past month. On 15 pass-coverage plays, Lane allowed one reception on one target, for a short gain of six yards and just one yard after the catch. Thurmond gave up one catch for seven yards, all after the catch. Both players played pretty well, giving head coach Pete Carroll and DC Dan Quinn a lot of options in the playoffs.
Maxwell a stud
Speaking of corner play, Byron Maxwell now has seven consecutive weeks with a positive overall grade from Pro Football Focus, with positive grades in pass coverage in each game and just one below-average effort versus the run.
Sunday, Maxwell was targeted twice and did not allow a catch after yielding three receptions on four targets last week versus the Cardinals. Even the moderate success Arizona had against Maxwell — Palmer dropped back to pass 28 times and only saw an opening against Maxwell four times — he allowed just six yards after the catch.
If the Seahawks attempt to bring back Thurmond — he’s a free agent after the season — it doesn’t appear it will be as the No. 2 corner. Maxwell has that job corralled for 2014.
Good signs from the O-Line
Against one of the top defensive lines in the game, the Seahawks offensive line played well enough Sunday, led by guards J.R. Sweezy and center Max Unger. Right tackle Breno Giacomini was good on run plays and fine in pass protection. The line as a whole was good in run blocking, and Russell Okung, facing Robert Quinn all day, was the lone weak spot in protecting Russell Wilson.
Paul McQuistan had one of his better games of the season — James Carpenter struggled in 22 snaps — and may have the inside track on the left guard position in two weeks, possibly depending on the matchup.
Okung also blocked well in the run game, and the full week off may help his toe heal up a bit more before the divisional round. He posted two great weeks in a row versus the Giants and Cardinals before Sunday’s slightly below-standard performance.
Passing Game Trends
What may appear to be a bit of a change in the way the Seahawks are targeting their wide receivers, it seems to me is just coincidence.
Coincidence that Doug Baldwin has one catch total over the past two weeks and was not targeted even once Sunday versus the Rams. Coincidence because he had six catches on seven targets for 71 yards and a score versus the Giants and has three other 4-plus reception games since back-to-back one-catch games in October.
Golden Tate, after being targeted just three times versus the Cardinals, caught eight balls Sunday — in nine targets — for a carer high 129 yards. He had six catches at San Francisco three weeks back, however, and had four in three quarters against the Saints.
Jermaine Kearse, who did not play Sunday due to injury, seems to be the wild card every week. He’s gone from zero targets to five targets to seven targets over the past five games, and remains one of the more efficient recievers in the league.
Wilson finished the season with his twelfth solid-or-better outing in 16 tries after struggling a bit in two of his last three — the losses to the 49ers and Cardinals. One of the adjustments made on Wilson by some teams the past several weeks is fewer blitzes — the Rams blitzed just eight times Sunday and the blitzing Arizona and Giants defenses did so just 15 and 16 times before that.
The 49ers blitzed only nine times in their 19-17 win earlier in December, too. The formula to slow down the Seahawks offense is clearly not to blitz Wilson a lot, but to focus on Marshawn Lynch and the running game, and take away the edge from Wilson as well as the short, quick reads, forcing him to throw it away, force a pass or hold the ball and take the sack.
What offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has done to combat that is run more short routes, meaning multiple short routes on certain plays, plus more often calling for the shorter drops for Wilson. The result is more opportunities for Tate and Lynch.
More Mike Rob?
Michael Robinson played just 24 of 180 snaps versus the 49ers, Giants and Cardinals combined, but was in there for 18 of 68 Sunday against the Rams. Part of that could be as a result of the success of the ground game, but after watching the game a second time Sunday night, it’s pretty clear Robinson was a key part of Lynch’s success. So, the egg came before the chicken in this case.
– Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
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