The 2010 Seattle Seahawks could be called "Shock and Awe," but not for all the right reasons.
Seattle won the 2010 NFC West title and the right to host a playoff game with a losing record. NFL fans, and particularly fans of the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, were in shock that a team with a losing record made the playoffs. Seattle even lost to the two aforementioned 10-win teams in convincing fashion.
The awe came in their first playoff game. They were hosting the world champion New Orleans Saints, which might have overlooked the matchup.
Then again, Seattle had given the Saints all they could handle earlier in the season. The two teams exchanged scores, but a few costly turnovers, odd calls and the Seahawks' inability to score a touchdown inside the five-yard line tipped the contest to the home Saints.
Things changed in the postseason. Highlighted by the "Beastquake" run by Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, Matt Hasselbeck led the Seahawks to a 41-36 win against the heavily favored Saints.
Halfway through the current season, the Seahawks were sitting on a 2-6 record and the majority of the conversation was about what quarterback the Seahawks would be able to snag in the 2012 NFL draft. Seattle has since won three of four games and fans are actually thinking about a return trip to the playoffs.
While I may have touched on that topic last week, with the help/backup of ESPN's playoff model, I'm still going to assume the Seahawks win seven or eight games and miss the playoffs. This is not only the most realistic projection, it wouldn't be difficult to show how a 9-7 team is better than a 7-9 squad.
The starting and ending point with Seattle's success has been their defense. They parted ways with most of the veteran players this season, relying on their young talent stepping up to take control.
This approach has worked well at times, such as against the New York Giants. The defense made several big plays, including a late interception return to seal the win.
This has also cost the Seahawks. Breakdowns with the defense and tackling on special teams cost the Seahawks opportunities to beat the San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins.
The youth has shown in another area, as Seattle is one of the most penalized teams in the NFL. Part of the issues are those of concentration, such as a slew of offensive false starts. Some of them are young players new to the NFL learning just how much—or how little—contact they can get away with.
The coaching staff has worked on the issue, but the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) set limits on practice time before and during the season. The number of contact drills are also limited. The effect is coaches hands are a bit tied, unable to spend the extra time with their units. Pete Carroll, following a 23-17 loss to the Redskins in Week 12, said:
The things that we have chosen to do to make the points haven’t hit home. I told them the same thing in the locker room. I’m not getting it done with them. The point has to come to the position where we make the right choices, you know? I haven’t seen anything like this.
We’re going to figure it out. I told them, if they’re all doing it, it’s something I’ve got to figure out as a staff and all. I know our staff will take the exact same accountability for it as well.
Sometimes you have to put other guys in the game. You just have to do it. The same guys keep making mistakes, you’ve got to put other guys in. We’ll take a look at that.
Part of the penalty issue can also be blamed on officiating. I won't argue that teams like the Seahawks and Oakland Raiders are getting more than their fair share of penalties, but calls against both teams seem to be tighter than others.
Just as teams prepare for their next opponent, the referees also spend time watching film on their next game. That preparation will guide what they will be looking for in the game, even predisposing them to make calls that might otherwise not be flagged.
Despite the mistakes and penalty issues, the Seahawks are still on pace to equal or beat last season's record.
Their defense has shown marked improvement. They've gone from 27th to 14th in yards per game. Their 20.5 points allowed per game is in the top 10, down five points and up from 25th last season.
Seattle started well last season on rushing defense, but injuries to the defensive line undermined their efforts. They ended the year at 4.2 yards per attempt, good for 15th in the NFL. 2011 has seen that average drop by a half-yard, placing them in the top five in the NFL.
The importance of depth on this team can't be overlooked. Particularly on the lines, Seattle simply didn't have the bodies to rotate in last season when the inevitable injuries set in.
In 2011, though, they have five players that can rotate in at defensive tackle and not miss a step. The offensive line has worked through injuries to all five starters, with a new alignment being rolled out more often than not. Still, Tom Cable has them playing better each week.
The loss of Russell Okung could change that, though, as he has been a solid blocker for most of the season.
The real surprise has come at cornerback, though. Seattle entered training camp with Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond III expected to start.
Brandon Browner won the competition for right corner, but Thurmond was pushed into action when Trufant had another season-ending injury. Thurmond quickly followed suit, leaving rookie Richard Sherman to take over the position.
Don't expect him to be surrendering his starting spot any time soon.
The fifth-round draft pick from Stanford has played as well as any rookie has at the position. One has to wonder what prompted Jim Harbaugh to let his San Francisco 49ers draft Chris Culliver instead of taking Sherman.
Turnovers have also been an important change for Seattle. They have already surpassed their 2010 total of 22 takeaways. The offense has been a bit turnover-prone at times, but they would need to double their current turnover rate over the last four games to reach their total of 31 last season.
While statistics are one thing, on-field performance also backs up the claim that the Seahawks are much-improved.
In their nine regular-season losses last season, the margin was at least 15 points in every game. A few of those games were closer than the score, but by and large the Seahawks were not competitive in their losses.
Seattle simply didn't have the depth to weather injuries last season.
The 2011 squad has had several close losses. I'm not a proponent in the idea that teams will turn close losses from one season into wins the following year. Good teams win close games.
However, it is hard to ignore the competitive nature of this team.
In every game but their Week 2 contest with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Seahawks have been within one score in the fourth quarter of every game.
The Seahawks lost on a missed last-second field goal to the Atlanta Falcons.
Their offense under backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst left the defense stunned in a 6-3 Week 7 loss to the Cleveland Browns. The defense returned the favor a few weeks later, allowing 16 unanswered fourth-quarter points to the Washington Redskins for a 23-17 loss.
The offense hasn't been nearly as dynamic as last season, but that isn't necessarily a surprise. Pete Carroll wants to win with defense and consistent, mistake-free play on offense. That has led this team to wins against the Baltimore Ravens, St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles in the last four games.
The offense is also struggling through growing pains. They have four new starters on the offensive line, and none of their original starters had played together in a regular season game prior to Week 1 of the 2011 season.
The recipe for their issues is simple beyond the new offensive line. Add in the consideration of new starters at quarterback, wide receiver and tight end. Dash in a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Blend in the lack of offseason mini-camps and organized team activities while a new CBA was negotiated and the result is an offense that started the season just a bit flat.
Perhaps the Seahawks have finally adjusted their recipe to playing at sea level. They will be challenged moving forward, though, as they've lost three starting linemen for the season in the last three weeks.
Seattle needs their revived ground game to continue to play well.
Marshawn Lynch has rushed for more than 100 yards in four of their last five games. Lynch has also scored a touchdown in six straight contests, including another highlight reel effort.
Lynch had a 15-yard touchdown run against the Philadelphia Eagles that defied logic. He ran into a huge pile at the line of scrimmage and kept trying to bust through one of the holes. Each time he was pushed back. Finally, he created an opening...thanks in part to his offensive linemen and Okung not giving up.
The best way I can describe the run is it was like the Eagles were playing whack-a-mole. Each time Lynch's head started to poke out, someone was there to smack it. However, the mole finally opted to bust open a new hole in the board, thumb it's nose and take off running to the end zone.
If Lynch wasn't already nicknamed "Beast Mode," there could be an argument for working on the whack-a-mole moniker. Regardless, it is the extra-effort from Lynch in the second half of the season that has gotten this team headed in the right direction.
Early in the year, holes were difficult to find and Lynch didn't seem to bring the expected intensity. Seattle fans can only hope, should he be re-signed by the club, that his invigorated running wasn't the result of his agent reminding him he is in a contract season.
There are plenty of reasons for the Seahawks to expect their growth from 2010 to 2011 to continue to next season. Their team revolves around young talent. Their starting secondary includes three players in just their second year in the NFL and a rookie.
Granted, Brandon Browner did spend several seasons in Canada following an injury-riddled attempt in the NFL after leaving Oregon State early.
The defensive line offers depth and could be greatly enhanced with another top pass rusher. The linebackers are young, but David Hawthorne and Leroy Hill are both free agents after this season.
As the season winds down, final overviews of the offense and defense will be published. It will expand on what the defense is doing well and how it can be expected to improve in 2012. I will also get into Harbaugh's biggest mistake with personnel decisions, this one dealing with another former Cardinal that could be starting in San Francisco.
The position reviews will serve as a springboard to free agency and the 2012 NFL draft, where a few remaining needs should be able to receive significant attention.