Monday, February 3, 2014

The New Way To Win

Over Before It Began
The way of the NFL is this: once you win, everyone imitates how you did it. And since Seattle won tonight, and did so with the force of a sledge hammer, over and over again, I wanted to point out a recurring pattern in this game.

Denver came in with the best WRs in the game, and a QB that's very difficult to sack, with a quick and accurate release, and unmatched pre-snap reads. So what Seattle did was simple, elegant, and brutally effective. They disguised no coverages, they sent no blitzers, and they beat the living hell out of anyone who caught the ball. Immediately, if not sooner, and in so doing, they more or less set up an impossible honey trap for Denver to resist, especially when they took the early lead on Denver mistakes and their own remarkable effectiveness on third down conversions.

DeMaryius Thomas was open all night; he caught 13 passes. But he almost never caught them down the field, because the standard rush for Seattle was getting close enough to make deep throws worrisome, and the outstanding Seahawk safetys let the corners play as aggro as they liked. And oh, man, everyone on that damned team can run like wolves and hit like hate. How many times did you see a linemen get back into coverage and end a screen, or punish a crossing pattern?

All year, Denver has made hay from crossing patterns and pic plays, particularly when either Thomas (the WR or the TE) got one on one. Then, they'd use the physical mismatch and exploit it for big gains, and when you overplayed that, you got Wes Welker moving the chains in the middle or Eric Decker getting the deep ball, and Knowshon Moreno gashing you up the middle. But with Manning avoiding Richard Sherman on Decker, that took the options down a lot... and when you have Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas blowing the hell out of guys looking for picks/blocks to get free, the willingness to sell out for those plays goes right out the window. I'm not saying that Denver got alligator arms in this game, but I am saying they got a lot less good at making people miss. Pain will do that to you.

How should Denver have attacked it? Well, the usual way to deal with overpressure is screens and draws, and the line was just outstanding at getting back to disrupt the former, and the latter didn't hit for anything tonight. You can also try quick hitting deep balls, flies and back shoulder throws, or try to do more innovative things with the running game (end arounds, since the read option isn't working with Manning under center). If I was the Denver OC, given the physical nature of the Seahawk secondary and the likeliness that you were going to get the better of the refs tonight, I'd have tried multiple deep balls to try and draw flags, the way that San Francisco was able to get some success. I'd have also tried some (any?) double moves to see if I could get separation that way, or run it enough to let play action be effective.

Instead, John Fox pronounced himself happy with the way his team was moving the ball, but displeased with those pesky turnovers that was ruining everything... as if the Seahawk defense wasn't just lying in wait with the occasional blitz package (easier to do after the first quarter, when it became obvious that Sherman had made Decker invisible and impotent), or that sustaining long drives while behind was something you should want to do. We'll refer to this in future football textbooks as the Andy Reid Losing Gambit. But I digress.

Oh, and I'd have kicked the damned field goal at the end of the first half, rather than try to force a long conversion. The first points of a game are important, even if a defense feels good for stopping the touchdown, because the longer you go with that goose egg on the board, the more everyone tries to do too much. Witness Thomas' fumble that was one of a series of killshots for Orange tonight, or how sloppy Denver's tackling got in the second half, when punching the ball loose and coming up with a miracle play took precedent over simply getting the receiver to the ground.

None of this really mattered in the long run, of course: Seattle is just in a different tier from everyone but San Francisco, and the Denver team that showed tonight would have had a hard time beating any NFC playoff team. But they might have kept it a game for a little while longer, and done more to salvage the candidacy of Manning as something more than a regular season pinball machine with a shockingly poor playoff record.

Because the dirty little secret about Manning as a QB is that it also means that you get Manning as an OC. And Manning the OC did Manning the QB absolutely no favors tonight...

Anyway, back to the main point. What you are going to see now is part of the pendulum swing back to defense. The Seattle way -- rush the minimum, allow no YAC, punish the WR -- is problematic, in that it requires you to find and train up low ranked DBs through the draft, since no team can just go out and buy guys like this in the market. It also requires great GM work, since DBs are fungible and FA bait; the fact that Seattle is a young team is not the best evidence of their dynastic tendencies. The best instance of the latter for that is the idea that Russell Wilson can do more and will do more, and since he was a third round pick in an environment that artificially degrades his stats, he won't be able to drive huge dollars for his own deal right way. Offense is more consistent than defense, and the most successful franchises build around the former more than the latter.

But oh, man, when you win with defense? It's just satisfying on every level, with aspects of domination that you just don't see in football any more. Seattle had plenty of room for error tonight and used them; witness the early red zone trouble that didn't come back to haunt them at all. This game could have gone for 8 or 12 quarters, and it wouldn't have helped Denver. On this day, with this personnel, they were outclassed and they knew it. You only really get that kicked in and helpless feeling from a dominant defense feeling its oats, and I gotta say... I'm envious of the year that Seahawk Fan just had. This just feels like the first of others, that they are starting a 5-year-run where the championship always goes through them, and how no one in the league is going to have more fun rooting on their team.

All of that can go poof in an instant, of course; they need injury luck (unlikely given how hard everyone hits), continued stellar coaching (after the league raids them to promote assistants and coordinators), strong GM work (hard with the lowest pick every round and the cap eaten up by guys who now have rings) and perhaps most worrisome of all, discipline (less PED work, please). You are better off betting the field and not by a little, and honestly, the Niners weren't that far from beating them last year.

But, well, the Niners have spit the bit twice now, and the Seahawks have rings. The Niners have a defense that's a little older and, with the injury to Navarro Bowman, not as good. Seattle has better WRs if (and it's a big if) Percy Harvin can stay healthy, and better RBs. You also have to wonder if maybe Wilson is a better idea than Colin Kaepernick under center, if only because it's hard to see the former trying to beat Richard Sherman in the end zone with time, timeouts, and downs all staring him in the face.

We might have the makings of a dynasty here. And it's the first one to do that with defense in, well, forever. (Yes, I know that defensive teams like Baltimore and Tampa have won recently. They also were freely regarded at the time as pretty fluky; Seattle was the number one seed and ran the table.)

And I don't know about you, but I like the idea of being able to build for more than a one and done situation based around random chance turnovers and passing game over-reliance...


CMJDad said...

"We might have the makings of a dynasty here. And it's the first one to do that with defense in, well, forever."

Not so. This team is very similar, with QB being the exception, of the 1974 Steelers. Tough young defense, enough play makers on offense. Free agency won't allow for a similar dynasty, but they will be a tough out for a long time.

DMtShooter said...

40 years = forever...

CMJDad said...

Yet to me, it's like yesterday! Don't laugh, I'm not that much older than you are!

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