SEATTLE – A sports season is mostly just a long-running play with lots of changing plot points along the way.
Two weeks into the Seahawks’ season, a few mostly ominous plot points appeared to be emerging. The team couldn’t run the ball any better than it had last season (ranked 29th in the NFL in yards per game at 69 and 27th in yards per attempt at 3.6). Also, there seemed to be a lack of cohesion between coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, leading some to wonder if Carroll’s big offseason coaching shakeup was already a failure and if, as a result, his own coaching future would soon be in question.
But that wasn’t all. The offensive line seemed no better than a year ago, despite an offseason coaching change and recent commitments in draft picks, trades and extensions that gave Seattle four first- or second-round picks up front.
That led many to wonder if the Seahawks were wasting the prime of an elite quarterback, one whose own long-term future is hardly settled with a contract that runs out following the 2019 season.
Then, there was a defense that opened the season allowing 470 yards to Denver and a few weeks later was suddenly playing with only one member of the Super Bowl era – middle linebacker Bobby Wagner.
It all appeared to give some validity to an oft-retweeted tweet from ESPN’s Mike Clay in late August that “Russell Wilson is the only reason we’re not talking about the Seahawks as a viable candidate to pick first overall in the 2019 draft.’’
A month later, all the storylines have turned around as Seattle has won three of four games and sits a half-game out of a playoff spot in the NFC.
True, two of those wins came against what might be two of the four worst teams in the NFL: Oakland and Arizona. The third win came against the conundrum that is the Dallas Cowboys. The combined record of those teams this week is 5-15.
But the numbers posted along the way point to some staying power.
Seattle has recaptured its running game – according to TeamRankings.com, no team has run it more than the Seahawks over the last three games (Seattle at 57.87 percent), with Seattle ranking second in rushing yards per game in that time (172.0,) and seventh in yards per carry at 5.0.
Coaches and players contend that the running game has helped set up big plays in the passing game. Whether it’s that, or that Seattle has simply been better at making those big pass plays, the stats show the Seahawks have averaged 8.0 yards per pass attempt the last three games (eighth in the NFL) with five TD passes (sixth) and a passer rating of 118.3 that is fourth.
The defense, meanwhile, has allowed 17.7 points per game over the last three (which includes the 33 given up to the Rams) fifth in the NFL, and allowed 5.2 yards per play, seventh.
So what’s changed?
Here are three thoughts on what’s led to the improved play:
1. Carroll allowed Schottenheimer to take control of the offense.
This reason comes straight from Carroll. He admitted again Monday that he was too involved in what the team was doing on offense the first two weeks, when Seattle attempted 69 passes and 38 runs, and that he needed to let Schottenheimer and the running game take over.
“It took us a couple of games to find the rhythm and the mix that we wanted to begin the season with,” Carroll said. “It’s not Brian at all. I misevaluated a little bit how far we had come in the offseason and we just needed to reevaluate.”
Carroll said the Seahawks reevaluated, and in Week 3 they re-emphasized the run game and made sure “that was the essence of what we were all about.”
That has worked wonders so far.
“Russell (Wilson) has really become efficient. His numbers have gone up in all areas. Pass protection is just totally flipped in regard to the mix that we’re doing,” Carroll said. “Brian figured me out, probably as much as anything.
“He’s got it wired in pretty good right now and we’ll try to keep growing.”
2. The offensive line stabilized with D.J. Fluker’s return in Week 3 and the improvement of right tackle Germain Ifedi.
Fluker missed the first two games with a hamstring injury, but his return in week three – which also meant moving J.R. Sweezy to left guard – has helped give the Seahawks the kind of interior play it has lacked in recent seasons. Ifedi took much criticism the first two weeks when he had to go against standout pass rushers Von Miller and Khalil Mack. But since then, he has played the best stretch of his career in recent weeks.
A new metric unveiled by ESPN this year rates Seattle’s tackle duo of Ifedi and Duane Brown No. 5 in the NFL in pass blocking this week.
“I think, in the big picture, he sees the game much better than he has at any other time. I think he understands what’s expected of him and what’s expected of the schemes and he just has a better understanding and he’s more consistent at everything he’s doing,” Carroll said of Ifedi. “His relationship with (new offensive line coach) Mike (Solari) and D.J., and really having the full-time guy on the other side like Duane, who was a guy he looked up to growing up in his play – all of those factors have been really positive. Experience is really valuable and in his case, he’s banking on it and hit it off really well with Mike.”
3. Young players on defense have begun to emerge.
The defensive numbers come with the caveat of Seattle having played an Arizona team that has the worst offense in the NFL at 220 yards per game, and a reeling Oakland team with a banged-up offensive line sandwiched around the loss to the Rams.
Still, some things are obvious – third-year player Jarran Reed is becoming a standout, fourth-year end Frank Clark is playing as well as anyone in the NFL at his position, Bradley McDougald is showing he can lead the secondary, and the cornerback tandem of Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers appears ready to carry on the tradition of those who came before them. Above all, the group is anchored by the continued consistency and leadership of Wagner in the middle.
Carroll on Monday noted the improvement while acknowledging that there will be tougher tests ahead.
“We are getting better and we’re improving in a lot of areas, on defense in particular. It was great to see the four-man pass rush come to life like that (with six sacks against the Raiders). I don’t think I can go much further than that,” Carroll said.
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