Matt Bryant’s 49-yard field goal sailed through the uprights, and the roar from the Georgia Dome crowd signaled the end of the Seattle Seahawks’ 2012 season. And yet, as I reflected afterwards on this memorable Divisional Round playoff game, I had the odd feeling that neither side lost. Though the Seahawks came up short on the scoreboard, they’d still rallied from a 20-point fourth quarter deficit behind Russell Wilson. His +7.2 grade in that loss was the highest single-game mark we gave any quarterback in last season’s playoffs, and the rookie left the Seattle fans dreaming of how far he could take them in the future. Atlanta had won the battle, but Seattle certainly looked well-positioned to one day win the war.
Devoting less than one million dollars of your salary cap to your starting quarterback is a huge luxury in today’s NFL, and Seahawks General Manager John Schneider took full advantage of that this offseason, signing a handful of productive veterans to short-term deals to bolster Seattle’s already strong roster. Will his moves be enough to put the 2013 Seahawks over the top? Let’s take a look at the reasons to be excited and hesitant about their upcoming season.
Five Reasons to Be Confident
The 2012 season was a coming out party for young franchise quarterbacks, and Wilson may have been the most unlikely one. He got off to a rough start in Week 1 with three penalties, 4.5 yards per attempt, and a -3.1 grade in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals. As the Seahawks coaches stayed noticeably conservative with his play calls, Wilson finished September with a -1.9 overall grade. But he then earned a +3.2 grade against the Carolina Panthers in Week 5, completing 19 of his 22 targeted passes. From that point on he seemingly improved every week as the Seahawks leaned on him more and more. He received only one more negatively-graded game (a modest -0.2 grade in an easy blowout of the Cardinals) and finished as the sixth-best quarterback in our rankings to earn our Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Diving into our Signature Stats, Wilson’s rookie season was impressive across the board. His 77.1 Accuracy Percentage was fifth-best among starting quarterbacks, and he had the fourth-best rate on Deep Passes. Only Kevin Kolb and Michael Vick were pressured on a higher percentage of their drop-backs, but Wilson earned an insane +10.9 grade when under duress. With a Time to Throw average of 3.35 seconds, no quarterback extended plays as long as Wilson did. And though the Seahawks called for play action on 36.1% of his drop-backs (the second-highest rate in the league), Wilson actually had a passer rating of 102.6 when not using a run fake. With such a diverse set of skills, Seahawks fans should believe the sky is the limit for their new franchise quarterback.
2. A Powerful Rushing Attack
While Wilson brings the most reason for excitement to the 2013 Seahawks, we shouldn’t overlook the engine of Pete Carroll’s offense in Seattle — the running game. Marshawn Lynch was always near the top of our Elusive Rating list even in his Buffalo Bills years, and he again proved to be one of the toughest runners in the league last season. His 58 forced missed tackles on running plays in 2012 were second only to Adrian Peterson, and with 32.9% of his yardage total coming on rushes of 15 yards or more, Lynch was also a top Breakaway runner. Backup Robert Turbin’s 15 missed tackles on 99 touches was also nothing to scoff at, and rookie Christine Michael may add to Seattle’s backfield depth. He’s averaged 6.9 yards per carry and earned a +2.4 rush grade in his two preseason games. Of course, it helps that this crew is running behind center Max Unger, who earned his position’s third-highest run block grade in 2012. Regardless of how Wilson develops this season, the Seahawks should still have one of the league’s best rushing attacks to fall back on.
3. Productive Receivers, With or Without Harvin
The Seahawks don’t have the reputation of a high-powered passing offense, but their wideouts are quietly among the most efficient groups in the NFL. Despite not getting the snap volume of other top receivers, Sidney Rice’s +13.4 grade in 2012 was the 13th-highest of any wideout. His 2.35 Yards Per Route Run from the slot was one of the best rates in the league. Golden Tate’s aggressive receiving style and elusiveness after the catch made him Seattle’s Secret Superstar of 2012. His 133.0 WR Rating was the second-highest of any NFL receiver with over 20 targets. And Doug Baldwin distinguished himself with a +7.2 grade on the back of some solid blocking. All this, and I haven’t even mentioned Seattle’s prize offseason acquisition.
If Percy Harvin returns healthy at some point this season, the Seahawks will get a big boost from the NFL’s most versatile and dangerous offensive weapon. His +16.3 grade in 2012 was 10th-best at his position. His 27 forced missed tackles (five of them on running plays) were the most of any wide receiver. His 8.7 average yards after the catch was the best of any receiver with more than 10 catches. And this all came without him taking a snap after Week 9. The Seahawks’ receiving corps, already formidable, could be downright scary with a healthy Harvin.
4. Reinforcing The Edge
For as stacked as they were at other positions, the 2012 Seahawks were very short-handed at defensive end. Chris Clemons again proved to be one of the league’s most underrated pass-rushers, highlighted by his four-sack, five-QB hurry effort against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football in Week 3. But on the other side, Red Bryant had the worst Pass Rushing Productivity rate of any starting 4-3 defensive end in the NFL. In 329 pass rushes, he didn’t record a single sack or QB hit. Bruce Irvin was a good situational rusher, but his poor run defense showed why the Seahawks are moving him to linebacker this season. When Clemons was sidelined for the playoff game against the Falcons with a torn ACL, the rest of Seattle’s defensive ends combined for a -6.9 grade.
Seattle attacked this weakness head-on in the offseason, grabbing both of our top free agent edge defenders at value. After earning the second-highest run defense grade of any 4-3 defensive end in 2011, Michael Bennett showcased his pass-rushing chops in 2012 with the sixth-most QB pressures at his position. Cliff Avril’s 10 sacks last season were a bit misleading, as he added only another 24 QB pressures — but with a +24.2 pass rush grade in 2010, the talent is certainly there for him to dominate. If Seattle’s defense is more dangerous on the edge this season, then credit Schneider for turning a weakness into a strength.
5. The Complete Cornerback
While Seattle needed to address their defensive end position, adding veteran Antoine Winfield gives them an embarrassment of riches on an already-stacked cornerback group. The Seahawks boast 2012’s best cover corner in Richard Sherman. While allowing a mere 41.1 QB Rating on throws into his coverage, his breakout season was Darrelle Revis-like. Opposite him, Brandon Browner allowed a reception for every 13.1 coverage snaps, also one of the better marks in the league. And when Browner missed time late in the season, Walter Thurmond chipped in with a +2.1 grade in Week 14, while Byron Maxwell earned our Best Defensive Sub award in Week 15.
With this kind of depth, it seems almost unfair that the Seahawks were able to scoop up the NFL’s most complete cornerback. Thanks to his brilliant run defense and excellent work in the slot, Winfield has earned the highest overall CB grade in three of the past five seasons. And he’s no slouch on the outside either, as his +35.1 coverage grade is the fifth-best since we’ve been tracking players. There’s always the chance that Winfield’s production will slip at age 36, but if the Seahawks get the player the Minnesota Vikings saw the past few years, Seattle will have the unquestioned best cornerback group in the league.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. An Uneven Line
If there’s one group that could derail the Seahawks’ playoff plans, it’s their imbalanced offensive line. I’ve already touched on Unger’s excellent run blocking, and Russell Okung had the third-best Pass Blocking Efficiency of all starting tackles last season. But at the other end of the spectrum are their linemates, all of whom received a negative grade in 2012. Right tackle Breno Giacomini’s 93.0 Pass Blocking Efficiency was among the worst at his position. Though he earned a +6.7 grade in the playoffs, his inconsistent track record makes me skeptical that he’s about to turn things around in his sixth season. Left guard Paul McQuistan is an adequate pass blocker but underwhelms in the run game. And right guard J.R. Sweezy compiled a -14.6 grade in just 395 snaps his rookie season. While the Seahawks upgraded at many positions this offseason, this is one they neglected.
2. Shallow At Defensive Tackle
For all the Seattle defense added at the defensive end position, it may have lost as much on the inside of its front line. Alan Branch, whose +16.5 run defense grade in 2011 was third-best of any defensive tackle, is now with the Buffalo Bills. Versatile pass rusher Jason Jones, whose eight combined sacks and quarterback hits in 2012 was third-most on the team, is now with the Detroit Lions. Brandon Mebane can be a dominant run defender at times, but his perpetually inconsistent play earns him head-scratching performances, like a +8.2 grade in Week 1 and a -5.6 grade in Week 7. New veteran acquisition Tony McDaniel has reached 10 quarterback pressures in just one of the past five seasons. It’s good that the Seahawks reinforced their ends, because they may not find as much production from the inside of their line.
3. The Weakest Side?
Sometimes forgotten in the fervor over Wilson’s rookie season is that Seattle’s 2012 second-round draft pick, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, was also a Rookie of the Year candidate. On the strong side, Seattle’s linebacking corps also gets solid production from K.J. Wright. But the Seahawks head into the 2013 season with some uncertainty about what to expect from the weak side spot. Veteran Leroy Hill is gone and Seattle is replacing him with Malcolm Smith, who’s played just 248 snaps in his two NFL seasons and has just two defensive stops in three preseason games. Backup Kyle Knox is a rookie undrafted free agent, and O’Brien Schofield logged a -8.1 grade in part-time duty for the Cardinals the past two seasons. On a defense without many holes, an unproven youngster will likely be tested often by Seattle’s opponents.
4. Not Always Safe
Safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor received their share of praise last season, but there were times when Seattle’s back duo didn’t play up to their accolades, particularly when it mattered most. Thomas was voted First-Team All-Pro by the press on the back of his extensive coverage range, but he received a modest +1.5 grade thanks to the fourth-highest missed tackle total of any safety. He notched an interception in each of the Seahawks’ playoff games, but he also missed another three tackles in those contests. Chancellor made lots of noise with violent hits on opposing receivers, but his eagerness also made him susceptible to play fakes. He received the worst grade of any Seahawks defender in their loss to the Falcons, allowing one touchdown in coverage and too often leaving his teammates out to dry. In one particularly poor drive, he was pushed back at the point of attack on a running play, flagged for holding Tony Gonzalez on the next play, and then left the middle of the field wide open for a Roddy White touchdown catch. Seattle’s safety duo isn’t bad by any means, but Thomas and Chancellor have some improvements to make before their production can match their already lofty reputations.
5. Next Man Up?
Wilson’s mobility brings an added dimension to his already excellent pocket skills, but it also brings its share of risk. He doesn’t take the violent hits on running plays that Robert Griffin III or Michael Vick do, but his tendency to evade tacklers within the pocket opens him up to some tough shots. If he is injured at some point, Seattle’s offense will take a serious downgrade. Tarvaris Jackson has looked good this preseason, but his last regular season action under Pete Carroll left a lot to be desired. He earned a negative grade over 14 starts with the Seahawks in 2011, and had a 40.7 passer rating and -11.4 grade when pressured. Brady Quinn, if he beats out Jackson for the backup quarterback job, doesn’t inspire confidence. He has a -33.1 overall grade in 20 starts since 2008, and his 71.44 PFF QB Rating in 2012 was second-worst for any passer who took more than 200 snaps. If Wilson is sidelined at some point, the Seahawks can’t realistically expect their next man up to match his production.
What to Expect?
I’m always wary of the sexy Super Bowl pick, as August’s darling rarely looks as pretty by January. But with the 2013 Seahawks, the substance is worth the hype. Trying to poke holes in this roster was a tough task, as there seemed to be an abundance of talent and depth at each position group. Seattle’s only stark deficiency last season was their pass rush, and they added two productive edge defenders in the offseason. After already having one of league’s premier cover cornerbacks, they added the best run defending corner as well. And if last year was any indication, there’s no ceiling for how good Wilson can become. Playing in the suddenly tough NFC West could make the regular season a dogfight, but I’d be shocked if Seattle misses the playoffs. Once they get there, they may not come up short on the scoreboard again.
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