Where Can the Seattle Seahawks Improve Most in 2013?

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Where Can the Seattle Seahawks Improve Most in 2013?
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The Seattle Seahawks are one of the few teams on the short list of favorites to win Super Bowl XLVIII. My confidence in this team has been no secret this offseason, already choosing Seattle to become the league's next dynasty.

What better time to start winning championships than in 2013? This will be the 38th season in team history. None have yet to end with a Super Bowl win, but never has the team entered a season with more hope than this year.

Last season, the Seahawks, very unexpectedly, had some of the markings of an elite team followed by a juggernaut in the second half of the season. Football Outsiders had the Seahawks ranked No. 1 in their Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) system with a top-four ranking on offense, defense and special teams.

Seattle finished 11-5, but had the statistical prowess of a team with 12.6 wins, which was the third-biggest decline in expected wins in 2012. With all their losses being close, the Seahawks could very well improve on that record this season.

Even dating back to 2011, Seattle went a league-best 24 consecutive games without trailing by more than 13 points. That streak ended in the playoffs where Seattle made one comeback in Washington, but could not close out the Falcons in the final 31 seconds.

The wild playoff loss was a disappointing end to a season that saw the Seahawks outscore their final eight regular-season opponents by 161 points (272-111). Only the 2010 Patriots (174) and 1984 49ers (177) finished in more dominant fashion.

With a young, talent-laden roster and the ability to play the run and pass on both sides of the ball, the ingredients are all here for a title run. Throw in the league’s best home-field advantage and an improved roster, and you have the favorite in the NFC right here.

This does not mean there were not some flaws from last year that must be corrected if the Seahawks are to live up to their potential.

 

Does Russell Wilson Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Some rookies have been said to have hit a “rookie wall” late into their season. If Russell Wilson ever encountered a rookie wall last year, he must have been given augmentations (Deus Ex: Human Revolution style) to plow right through that sucker.

Yes, we know Wilson finished with a 100.0 passer rating and tied Peyton Manning for the rookie record with 26 touchdown passes, but that’s hardly the full story.

His season was overshadowed somewhat because of the league’s historic rookie success, but it may have been the greatest example ever of a quarterback having the training wheels removed and being allowed to dominate. That’s right. Dominate. Held without a 300-yard passing game until he put up 385 yards in Atlanta in the playoffs, Wilson was dominant in terms of his efficiency.

It’s not like the offense struggled in the Detroit game, but the turnaround in the second half of the season was stunning:

Wilson was not throwing the ball more (just 24.5 attempts per game in the final 10), but his efficiency sky-rocketed. This was also against some of the better 2012 pass defenses like Arizona, Chicago, New York Jets, San Francisco and Atlanta.

A rookie sustaining a 115.8 passer rating through 10 games is remarkable. Only Aaron Rodgers (122.5 in 2011), Peyton Manning (121.1 in 2004) and Tom Brady (117.2 in 2007) have been able to finish a season above 113 before.

Wilson is not on their level yet, but he’s far ahead of all of them through the first season of their careers.

Wilson also stepped up his game on third down. He finished the regular season converting 41.8 percent of his third-down plays. Among recent rookie success stories, that only trails Andrew Luck (42.6 percent) and Matt Ryan in 2008 (42.5 percent). That’s another reason I was more impressed with his season compared to Washington’s Robert Griffin III, who only converted 32.6 percent on third down.

As Colts Authority’s Kyle J. Rodriguez shows, Wilson was also excellent in the red zone.

Wilson no doubt benefitted from a strong running game and defense, but his deep ball was very effective. He also had a higher passer rating when not using play action (102.6) than he had when using play action (95.0), according to Pro Football Focus.

While Wilson did start running more in the second half, do not buy into the trend of the zone-read option just yet. According to ESPN’s Mike Sando, Seattle used the zone-read option on just 55 plays in 2012, which made up 5.6 percent of its total plays.

Wilson did have some designed runs (37 to be exact), but he only kept it on the option 26 times for 200 yards. He scrambled 57 times. You can see his full rushing breakdown here, along with other important information I am about to reiterate.

Some thought Wilson’s height (5’11”) would be a big problem, which is why he was a third-round pick. After just one season he’s arguably the fourth-best quarterback under 72 inches in NFL history.

Though if there is something to watch with the height, it would be the way Wilson led the league in drop backs (119) and passes thrown outside of the pocket (105) despite only throwing 393 passes all season. Throwing 26.7 percent of your passes outside of the pocket is way above average, so maybe this was the compensation for the lack of height.

The good news is Wilson was equally effective in the pocket (73.5 QBR) and outside (73.4 QBR). Keep in mind that’s the ESPN QBR stat rather than passer rating. A 50.0 is considered average.

Wilson loved to hold onto the ball last season, often looking for a receiver instead of just running. Fran Tarkenton and Ben Roethlisberger would be better comparisons than Michael Vick or even Griffin.

According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson took an average of 3.35 seconds to throw, which was the longest time in the league. He may want to speed things up this season, but this should come with experience and natural progression.

As far as rookie seasons go, Wilson just had one of the best ever. It does not look possible he can sustain his second half of 2012 level of play for all of 2013, but he has the tools and right situation to deliver an epic sophomore season.

Dan Marino (1983) and Ben Roethlisberger (2004) each set rookie quarterback standards. Both reached the Super Bowl in year two. This is the company Wilson put himself in last year and it’s the company he will look to keep in 2013.

 

Situational Defense Needs to Step Up

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Seattle’s rushing defense certainly has room for improvement, but the team was No. 2 in passer rating differential (28.8), which is far more important to winning.

However, despite the No. 1 ranking in scoring defense (245 points allowed), Seattle’s defense was a bit of a letdown in crunch time last season.

As ESPN’s Mike Sando foreshadowed, these late collapses, often on the road, could hurt the team in the playoffs. It sure did when the Seahawks took a stunning 28-27 lead with 0:31 to play in Atlanta, only to see Matt Ryan easily complete two passes for 41 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

Sure, Ryan is the master of the one-minute drill, doing it three times last season (five times in his career), but Seattle made it look too easy for being such a highly-respected defense.

The evidence was there in the regular season as well.

In Week 1, Arizona went on an 80-yard game-winning drive using the dastardly duo of John Skelton and Kevin Kolb at quarterback.

Against the Rams in St. Louis, the offense had just closed to a 16-13 deficit. The Rams then went on a drive that took up half the quarter while tacking on a field goal for a 19-13 lead with 6:07 to play. Sam Bradford converted passes for first downs on a 3rd-and-10 and a 3rd-and-13 on the drive.

In Detroit, Matthew Stafford led two go-ahead touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning touchdown pass with 0:20 left in a 28-24 win. That’s big given Stafford is 1-23 against teams with a winning record in his career. This is that lone win.

The only fourth-quarter comeback win of Ryan Tannehill’s rookie season came against Seattle in Week 12. Tannehill led Miami on three consecutive scoring drives of 82, 80 and 65 yards to score 17 fourth-quarter points in a 24-21 win.

As Sando points out, “Seattle's fourth-quarter road defense ranked sixth-worst in QBR allowed (81.8) and worst in third-down QBR allowed (98.9).” Keep in mind that QBR scale only goes up to 100.

If you are not a fan of QBR, then let’s look at the raw data from Pro-Football-Reference. Here are the five worst defenses in the 2012 regular season on 3rd-and-long play, defined as needing at least eight yards to convert for a first down. Also included is the 2012 league average:

No one allowed a higher conversion rate than Seattle’s 36.4 percent, which is considerably above the league average of 25.1 percent. No one allowed more first downs in these situations than Seattle’s 32.

Now this is not as bad as the days of Mike Holmgren’s defenses in 2003-05, who allowed Anthony Wright to complete a 44-yard pass on 4th-and-28 or Ben Roethlisberger to set a Super Bowl record for longest third-down conversion with a 37-yard pass to Hines Ward on 3rd-and-28.

Has the PTSD kicked in yet?

This isn’t that bad, but it’s still an eyesore for what is usually a very good defense, especially in the secondary. Of the 88 plays Seattle faced, 77 were passes, as you would expect in these situations.

The way to fix this is to generate a better pass rush. The inconsistency Seattle had in that area can make it hard on even the best secondary to cover receivers that long. There’s no overpowering force on this defense like a J.J. Watt or Von Miller, so pressure has to be created through blitzes or someone just stepping up to make a play when the game is on the line.

Getting a more consistent pass rush will help in these situations, whether it’s third down or late in the game. It would also help if this defense’s level of play at home carried over to the road more often.

 

Rise and Shine: Playing Better (Early) on the Road

Seattle’s 2013 regular season will be defined by how it plays against the 49ers and how it fares in a handful of tough road games.

Last season the Seahawks were the best home team with the only unblemished record (8-0) and the league’s largest scoring differential (plus-148 points). This is not news to NFL fans, as for years Seattle has been an elite home team.

Put them on the road and Seattle was just 3-5 with four of the losses to non-playoff teams like the Cardinals, Rams, Lions and Dolphins. The road woes led to an odd split in the regular season, where Seattle went 5-1 against teams with a winning record and 6-4 against teams without a winning record.

In the playoffs, Seattle started out very flat in Washington (fell behind 14-0) and Atlanta (fell behind 20-0). The Atlanta game did start early with the Seattle player’s body clocks set to 10:00 A.M. PST, which has always been a concern for the teams from the West Coast.

It just happens to be that unavoidable factor of the schedule that these teams must deal with each year, which is why getting home-field advantage in the playoffs is extra important for this team.

Under coach Pete Carroll, Seattle is 4-9 (.308) in these road games with the early start time. Three of the wins have come in Chicago, but one of those was not the 2010 playoff loss when Seattle fell behind 28-0.

For a road game, whether it starts early or late, there has to be a better sense of urgency at the start of the game for Seattle so it stops falling into such huge deficits. Maybe that comes in the form of better game-planning with the script of early plays, or the team just needs different habits in these situations.

In 2013, the Seahawks will begin with an early game in Carolina in Week 1. They won a mid-afternoon game there last season. It will not get any easier with back-to-back trips to Houston and Indianapolis in Weeks 4 and 5.

Given the huge Week 2 game at home with San Francisco in prime time, Seattle must not let these road games with the early start times derail the shot for home-field advantage. The Seahawks will also return to Atlanta for an early game in Week 10. The Falcons are the only team to score 30 points on that vaunted Seattle defense in its last 34 games, and Atlanta has done it twice.

If that’s not enough, the Seahawks are scheduled to play the Giants on the road in Week 15 at 1:00 P.M. EST. Maybe this one will change with flex scheduling, but you never know if the Giants are going to be in playoff mode late in the season.

Keep in mind the 49ers will get Houston, Indianapolis and Atlanta at home this season. They do open with Green Bay, but swept them last year.

Right now the Seattle schedule presents five huge road tests coming with the early start time. A team like the 2011 49ers in Jim Harbaugh’s first year went 5-0 in such games, so it can be done.

Last year the Seahawks lost four road games to subpar competition, which is why they were a wild-card team. They must understand it’s going to take that much more of an effort this year to win on the road (early) against what should be even better competition.

 

Departures and Arrivals: The 2013 Starters

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Credit to Ourlads in helping create this list of potential 2013 starters:

Guard James Carpenter needs to stay healthy. He has only played in 16 games the last two years after the team made him a first-round pick in 2011.

For the most part, the offense is the same as last year, but with the big addition of Percy Harvin via the trade with Minnesota. He reunites with Sidney Rice, which was a duo Brett Favre enjoyed in his excellent 2009 season.

Harvin had a freakish season in 2012. He gained 81.4 percent of his receiving yards after the catch, which is unheard of for the position. Harvin can also contribute in a big way to special teams, which lost Leon Washington.

You have to expect Seattle to throw more this season, so Harvin will get his share of plays down the field in addition to the screens, and he should still be a threat in the backfield as this offense experiments with the zone-read option a bit more.

Golden Tate and Rice played well last year, but Harvin gives this team three really nice options plus Zach Miller at tight end. If you thought Miller was always wide open in the playoffs, then how do you think it will be with Harvin in the mix? The key is going to be durability, as Harvin and Rice have missed their share of time over the years.

Seattle’s first 2013 draft pick was used on running back Christine Michael in the second round. It feels like a luxury pick with Marshawn Lynch still running strong and Robert Turbin as the backup, but Michael should get some touches this year.

This was already the third-most effective offense in terms of run-and-pass balance last season, but it’s only gotten better this offseason.

Wilson has a stable, young and talented offense to work with here. In fact, that’s how this whole team is built right now with 10 Pro Bowl players under the age of 30 this season. That total does not include Richard Sherman, who was first-team All-Pro in 2012.

On defense, the line has gone through many changes, so good luck figuring out a starting lineup there. Part of this is due to Chris Clemons recovering from a torn ACL in January and last year’s first-round pick Bruce Irvin will be suspended for the first four games in 2013 due to violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

Alan Branch and Jason Jones are gone. Cliff Avril (Lions) and Michael Bennett (Buccaneers) were key free-agent signings expected to make an impact. Defensive tackle Tony McDaniel was signed from Miami. He has played 79 games, but only made five starts. Seattle also drafted two defensive tackles: Jordan Hill (Penn State) in the third round and Jesse Williams (Alabama) in the fifth round.

There’s a little hole in the other outside linebacker spot with Malcolm Smith and Heath Farwell among the players in competition right now.

This defense will continue to be lifted by its secondary, which remains the best in the league. Sherman had his breakout season last year, so it will be interesting to see how he handles that star status in 2013.

The team also went out and signed veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, which looks to be a perfect fit. He’s 36, but he doesn’t have to play big snaps, doesn’t have to cover top receivers and he can play nickel and cheat on the run where we know he’s a great tackler. Winfield was the highest-graded cornerback by Pro Football Focus last season.

In Seattle, he just has to be the third-best cornerback on the field. Some teams know how to spoil themselves.

 

Conclusion: Winning the NFC West Is Crucial

For the Seahawks to go the distance, they must win the NFC West to earn at least one home playoff game. This team is fully capable of winning 12 or 13 games, which could be enough for home-field advantage in the NFC, which may benefit Seattle the most.

The main competition will come from conference champion San Francisco again, with the first showdown in Seattle in Week 2. Almost three months will pass before the teams meet again, but a sweep would be the easiest way to the division crown for Seattle.

While the division has gotten tougher with St. Louis and what should be a more competitive Arizona, Seattle still has the best team on paper, and I see at least 11 wins on this schedule.

Wilson may not be ready to light the league up in 1984 Dan Marino fashion, but if he continues his stellar play with a better supporting cast, along with what should be a top-five defense again, this team is going to have a chance to win every single game.

Seattle already played that competitively last season, but expectations should be for even greater results in 2013.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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