Let's recap what we have seen so far:
- Week 1: at Houston Texans
- Week 2: Jacksonville Jaguars
- Weeks 3 & 16: Philadelphia Eagles
- Weeks 4 & 15: New York Giants
This week we will be looking at our week 5 opponents, the Seattle Seahawks, who will likely prove to be one of our toughest games of the year. Despite the obvious storyline of facing reigning Super Bowl champions, personally I am very excited about this game. I think it is a chance for the Redskins and RGIII to wipe the tainted end of the 2012 season from their memories. That's right, it's time for some closure. The knee. "All in for Week 1". The doctor. The brace. The conflicting press conferences. The leaks. Kirk Cousins. The benching. The Shanahans. All of the above seemed to fall out of a dark cloud that was left hovering over Washington after that wrenching defeat to Seattle in the 2012 playoffs. Just to rub salt in the wound, the Seahawks have since gone on to enjoy one of the greatest 12 months of their history, and look set to dominate the league again in 2014.
The Seattle Seahawks are rightly one of the most talked about teams right now and most of the spotlight rightly focuses on their fantastic defense (if you would like to read more about that I would strongly suggest clicking here, here and here). As there has been so much great stuff written about this defense I would like to take a closer look at the other side of the Seahawks, their offense. I think it is an area that is often overlooked and might even be an area that the Redskins can attack.
In 2013 the team that would go on to win the Super Bowl had the 18th ranked offense during the regular season. To be honest they managed to scrape up to 18th because of their 4th placed rushing attack, led by the beast that is Marshawn Lynch. In terms of passing however, the Seahawks were a surprising 26th in the league. The recent Super Bowl against Denver has helped mask that the Seahawks are not always a fluid offense who blow teams out like Denver or the Eagles. The Seahawks often struggled on offense, and to court controversy I would go so far as to say Russell Wislon actually had a so-so year. Just for fun (before the anti stats brigade come marching) let's compare Russell Wiilson with RGIII, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning from their 2013 seasons, and while we do this bear in mind that RGIII sat the final three games.
Looking at the above, which QB was playing for the team that won the Super Bowl? Before I get crucified for this by Seahawks fans, in no way am I trying to say Russell Wilson is a bad quarterback (this article wraps it up nicely I think). A 101 passer rating last year proves he is pretty efficient at doing what he does. He has talent for sure, but I sense the perception in the media of the infamous 2012 QB class is shrouded in agenda, and needs putting in perspective when considering the respective situations these players find themselves in. In Wilson's defense he plays for a team that focusses it's offense squarely on the running game. Yet had Wilson been at the Broncos, Patriots or Saints (any pass happy team) and told to sling it around I think he would struggle. Also Wilson is helped out by the excellent Seahawks defense who led the league in interceptions (with 28) by a distance (Bills were 2nd with 23). The Seahawks defense scored 3 touchdowns and forced 2 safeties. They recovered 11 out of 17 forced fumbles, with one going for a touchdown. They consistently kept the opponents score below 20 points, giving Wilson and this offense good field position and a safety net to work with time and time again. RGIII could only dream of a situation like this in Washington - no more so than last year.
Wilson has been very fortunate to land in a team that has one of the best defenses in recent memory. A defense that will always give him a chance, no matter how many air balls he throws or big sack losses he takes, both of which were a reality in 2013. In fact the local media (and some national media) really picked up on his struggles as the season went on. Early in the season reporters were slinging around the infamous ‘sophomore slump' phrase with alarming frequency.
As I have said above, I think Russell Wilson is a good quarterback, and will get better as time goes on. Furthermore it would be a disservice to say that the Seahawks struggles in the passing game are purely down to him. In fact if you take a step back things start to fall into place.
Pro Football Focus ranked the Seahawks 27th when it came to their offensive line. Wilson was under pressure a lot, and was forced out of the pocket more than he would have liked. He was sacked more times than any QB outside of Ryan Tannehill, resulting in 294 yds lost (where are the cries of protection from the media as per RGIII?!). We know too well what constant pressure can do to your QB's performance, but one offshoot of this stat is how Wilson handles this pressure. The lost yardage indicates he is quick to break the pocket and unable to throw it away or find checkdowns. He is not alone in this criticism, it is something both RGIII and Wilson need to improve on if they want to become long term passers in this league. With this information it is obvious the offensive line was a big problem, and certainly an area of need for the Seahawks going into this 2014 offseason. It became an even bigger issue when they lost a couple of starters during free agency, however they drafted only two offensive linemen to bolster this group. Justin Britt who is a tackle (but many in Seattle think he may end up playing guard) was picked up in the second round when many thought he was a 4th or 5th round pick. They also picked up Garrett Scott another tackle later in the draft, who then had to be cut after the team discovered a rare heart condition. It's doubtful that the addition of Britt is going to change the fortunes of this line, immediately at least, which means that the Seahawks can expect much of the same treatment from 2013.
Let's also look at the receiving unit. The Seahawks lost Percy Harvin early in the 2013 season, leaving Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin to fill the void at wide receiver. Neither Tate or Baldwin managed to get over 1,000 yards in the season, and although both had flashes and some good performances here and there, they were hardly dominating, often struggling to get separation. Golden Tate left in free agency but then the Seahawks drafted two wide receivers in the offseason, so they knew this was a weak spot in their roster. Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood will certainly add depth and talent here, but wide receivers take time to adjust to the NFL, and I anticipate that this will continue to impact the team's ability to move the ball in the passing game. Support from the tight ends was a virtual non factor in 2013 as they relied on Zach Miller, who only caught the ball 33 times and struggled with injury throughout the season.
It is clear that the Seahawks are thin on true receiving threats. Even though a fit Percy Harvin will make a difference to this offense, they are relying on rookies to shine in a position that notoriously takes time to develop. With these issues in the passing game potentially continuing into 2014 it looks like the Seahawks will again rely on their star running back to keep the offense rolling. But is that a given?
Marshawn Lynch had another good season in 2013, finishing the regular season with 1,257 yards, good for 7th in the league. He was joint top with Jamaal Charles for TD's in this position with 12. It was a decline from his fantastic 2012 performance, but he carried the burden of this stuttering offense on his shoulders (literally in some cases) more than once. That all said, Lynch is not getting any younger, and he can not be expected to deliver this return week in week out, every year. The Seahawks play a mixture of zone and power running, with some read option thrown in for good measure, and Lynch is the perfect back to take advantage of this scheme, proving he can handle the heavy workload. Whether he can keep this up and stay healthy for another whole season is the question the personnel team in Seattle and opposing coordinators must be asking. If they lose him, or his performance drops off, this offense suddenly becomes rather toothless.
Standing back even further let's take a look at the coaches and the style this offense likes to play.
Pete Carroll and Darell Bevell are brains behind this organisation's offense, but you could almost as easily call them Mike and Kyle Shanahan. The principles behind this offense are very much what we have been used to in Washington for the last few seasons and are rooted heavily in the West Coast offense.
- Run the ball well and use the zone read running game
- Use Play-action and rollouts to fool the defense when they are biting on the run too hard.
- Move the pocket (hence the preference to mobile QB's)
- Use set drops and timing throws
- Stretch the field horizontally and vertically
More recently both the Redskins under the Shanahans and the Seahawks adopted the use of the pistol formation, read option and some spread concepts. Indeed the Redskins were the first to use these new wrinkles in their offense in week 1 of 2012 with their new weapon RGIII providing the dual threat to pull it off. We can only assume (but it looks pretty obvious) that Pete Carroll was watching closely to what was going on in Washington. Later that season he rolled out his own take on these concepts, at which point the Seahawks offense (and more importantly Russell Wilson) took a notable upturn in performance, for the same reasons why RGIII had such an exciting rookie year.
Obviously the Redskins have moved on from the Shanahan days, however many of the players and coaches remain on Jay Gruden's staff. Gruden himself uses many of the West Coast principles in his playbook, so there is a lot of knowledge in the building about how to play against this scheme. Percy Harvin adds an x-factor and you always have to be worried about Lynch, but if you can execute an effective game plan to take Lynch out of the game and get quick pressure on Russell Wilson you will give yourself a chance. I am sure that many a defensive coordinator has realised this quite easily, so I am in no way presenting the secret formula to beating the Seahawks here. We are talking about the Super Bowl champions, and it would be idiocy to rule out the Seahawks from putting up points in any game, but if you want to identify their weakness then this could potentially be it.
On the other side of the ball we will obviously have a fight on our hands against one of the top defenses in maybe our generation. Of course the Redskins now have the offensive weapons to worry any defense, but if we are going to win this game it may well be low scoring and a tight affair. Therefore the first priority on the Redskins gameplan has to be stopping this offense plain and simple.
In terms of evaluating their offseason, the Seahawks' goal was to keep their house in order. They let a couple of players go in free agency, most notably Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner, which may hurt their infamous secondary, but they managed to re-sign/extend many of the players they wanted to keep. The draft provided them with a chance to fill out their depth on the defensive line and pass rush, with players like Cassius Marsh looking to help keep this defense dominant. It wasn't the most overwhelming offseason for Seahawks fans, but when you are the champs it's usually difficult enough just to keep the team and coaching staff together for another run, and in that sense you would probably say mission accomplished.
Keys to this game:
Can Haslett scheme against this offense and neutralise Marshawn Lynch? The Redskins new linebackers are all renowned tacklers, and this will come into play heavily in this game. Stopping Marshawn Lynch will introduce classic West Coast reactions from Carroll such as roll outs and play action. What is our Plan B?
How much pressure can the unleashed and (hopefully) improved Redskins defense put on Russell Wilson and that fragile offensive line?
Will our smaller quick receivers match up well against the Seahawks bigger corners. I expect some quick short passes, direction changes and crossing routes. The screen game will be utilised frequently too.
Alfred Morris may be in for a tough day, but we have to stick with him to keep that defense honest.
Jordan Reed could be in for a big game as he attacks the Seahawks linebackers who traditionally play zone in pass defense.
How will the Seahawks play away from home on the other side of the country? Something that often troubled them prior to last season.
Will RGIII take his chance to right what was wrong from the 2012 playoff game!?
Over to you Jim Haslett. The fortunes of the Redskins in this game could rest on your shoulders. Do us proud.