Monday, December 2, 2013 @ 10:15pm
By Danny O'Neil
"We made them look normal," said safety Earl Thomas.
Such a simple sentence. Such a monumental statement.
It was as complete a defensive performance as the Seahawks have had under coach Pete Carroll. It was as complete a victory as they have had this season. It was Seattle 34, New Orleans 7, and if we're being truthful, the score didn't have to be that close.
The Seahawks had 17 points before New Orleans had a first down, Seattle's defense scored as many touchdowns as the vaunted Saints' offense, and when time finally ran out with the Seahawks taking a knee, it was clear the NFC playoffs will end up going through Seattle.
That's not official. At least not yet. But the Seahawks became the first team to clinch a postseason berth, they have a two-game lead on everyone in the conference with four games to play and a win at San Francisco on Sunday will wrap up the division.
But none of those postseason implications are nearly as important as what Seattle showed against New Orleans in front of the largest-ever crowd at CenturyLink Field.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees passed for 148 yards, his fewest in any game since the 2006 season, tight end Jimmy Graham – the human mismatch – caught three passes for 42 yards and New Orleans finished with 188 yards of total offense, its fewest in any game since the 2001 season.
And here's what's most telling about it: Seattle didn't do anything special. There was no custom-made coverage plan to contain Graham, no one following running back Darren Sproles wherever he lined up. This wasn't any sort of exotic concoction that had the Saints sputtering.
"We do what we always do," Thomas said. "Single safety high. Challenge the quarterback. Challenge with our corners. And we made them look normal."
Russell Wilson threw for three scores and no interceptions, completed passes to nine different players and topped the 300-yard mark for the second time this season. (AP)
The Saints' longest play of the game was a 20-yard pass to Graham in the second quarter. New Orleans' second-longest gain of the game was courtesy of a 15-yard penalty against Thomas for roughing the passer when he slapped Brees' helmet in the third quarter.
Compare that to the Seahawks, whose offense was plenty explosive even with Percy Harvin sidelined because of a sore hip.
The Saints contained Marshawn Lynch, holding him to fewer than 3 yards per carry, yet that came at a cost, which New Orleans paid for on the back end. Quarterback Russell Wilson completed two passes of more than 50 yards and threw for more than 300 yards for the second time in a regular-season game.
Any questions about this Seattle team now? Because there shouldn't be. You can't harp on the caliber of the Seahawks' opponents or the quality of the quarterbacks they've faced.
|• Recap | Stats | Photos | 'The Pete Carroll Show'||• O'Neil: What We Learned||• Huard: How Seahawks beat Saints' blitz||• Henderson: Carroll says K.J. Wright stood out||• Henderson: Avril, Bennett team up for TD||• Stecker: Saints' vaunted offense sputters|
"We're not like everybody else," Thomas said. "You're not about to have a highlight tape on us."
Or in this case, any highlights as Seattle turned what was supposed to be this week's top matchup into a complete and utter mismatch.
And for anyone who wonders whether Seattle is able to be that dominant on the road, the answer is that the Seahawks don't have to be. If they win their two remaining home games they are assured of home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs, and Monday's game provided proof about just how valuable that is.
Monday, December 2, 2013 @ 7:44am
By Danny O'Neil
The two shortest quarterbacks in the league are starting in what might be the biggest regular-season game of 2013.
Expect to hear about that fact Monday night. Repeatedly. Seattle's Russell Wilson is 5 feet 11, Drew Brees is 6 feet tall and their shared (lack of) stature will be a focal point when Seattle hosts New Orleans on "Monday Night Football".
Drew Brees, the quarterback of the league's second-ranked passing offense, has been sacked just 23 times this season. (AP)
"Russell is more mobile," Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. "Drew Brees kind of stands in there. He stands in there and gets on his tippy toes and tries to see over the top of the offensive line.
"He's more of a pocket presence."
The Seahawks know where to find Brees, but can they get there? That's a whole different question, and the answer will play a greater factor in Monday's game than either the suspension of cornerback Walter Thurmond or the expected absence of receiver Percy Harvin.
The Saints have given up 23 sacks, fourth-fewest in the league entering Week 13, and Seattle's ability to pressure the passer – or its lack thereof – will be the difference between Brees picking Seattle apart and the Seahawks picking Brees off.
"We have to get this guy off a spot and be able to move him," said Dan Quinn, Seattle's defensive coordinator.
New Orleans – like Seattle – has thrived in large part because of its quarterback, but for a very different reason. Wilson has shown the ability to do whatever is needed for the victory, whether it is throwing from the pocket like he did in Week 1 at Carolina or taking the game over as a runner in the Week 4 comeback at Houston. And in those times when Seattle didn't have the best pass protection – for instance, most of Seattle's first eight games – Wilson's mobility is like a get-out-of-jail-free card.
It's not Brees' improvisation that is the key to the Saints' success, but his expertise in Sean Payton's offense.
"The biggest thing is the chemistry between the head coach and the quarterback," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "I think it is extraordinary."
The Saints average the most passing yards in the conference and they've thrown for the second-most touchdowns in the league, a fact that has only added to the handwringing over the four-game suspension handed down to Thurmond. Throw in the absence of Brandon Browner because of a groin injury and looming suspension of his own, and Seattle heads into this game without two of its top three cornerbacks on the depth chart.
That will put a premium on applying pressure to Brees, which makes this exactly the kind of game Seattle was thinking of when it upgraded its pass rush last March. It was the top priority of the Seahawks this offseason, the reason they signed first Cliff Avril and then Michael Bennett.
Through 11 games, Seattle has 33 sacks, which is tied for 12th most in the league and four more than the team had through 11 games last season.
This game will be a more accurate progress report, though. After weeks of playing also-rans and afterthoughts, the Seahawks are playing a bona fide Super Bowl contender led by one of the top quarterbacks in the league.
And while Brees is not someone who's a threat to run down the field, that doesn't mean he's stationary. Far from it. While the pocket can look like a crowded mess of bodies, Brees has a knack for taking a step or two to buy himself some time.
"He's more slip and slide inside and find a spot," Quinn said, "and then he can get the ball out of his hand fast. I think one of the things that set some of the really good quarterbacks apart is the mental quickness that they have."
That's one reason facing one of the league's shortest quarterbacks will be one of the biggest challenges the Seahawks' defense faces this year, and it's how quickly Seattle's pass rush can get to Brees that will determine the trajectory of Monday's game.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013 @ 4:45pm
By Danny O'Neil
"Person of Interest" is a weekly feature in which we put the microscope on one player from the Seahawks' upcoming opponent. This week, it's New Orleans' Jimmy Graham.
With 946 receiving yards in 11 games, Jimmy Graham is on pace for the most prolific season by a tight end in NFL history. (AP)
• Position: Tight end, two-sport stud
• Height: 6-7
• Weight: 265
• Age: 27
• Experience: Fourth season
Graham has replaced Antonio Gates as the NFL's patron saint for converted basketball players, and he paved the way for a prospect like Julius Thomas, whom the Broncos drafted out of Portland State.
Graham played one season of college football at Miami before he was drafted in the third round by New Orleans, and halfway through his rookie season, quarterback Drew Brees could tell the Saints had something special.
"He was doing some freakishly athletic things," Brees said.
He was just getting started. Graham has led the Saints in receiving yards each of the past two years, and he has a chance to have one of the best receiving seasons for any tight end in NFL history.
Through 11 games, he has caught 65 passes for 946 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. That puts him on pace to break Rob Gronkowski's record for single-season receiving yardage by a tight end, which was 1,327 yards in 2011.
Graham has more touchdown catches this season than two different teams in the NFL, and he ranks ninth in the league in receiving yardage, the only player at his position in the top 20. He presents, quite simply, one of the most unique strategic challenges the Seahawks will face this season.
"He's a tremendous talent," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Graham. "He's a ball-control catcher and he's a downfield threat that causes problems. They use him in numerous ways. They use him inside and outside. He plays as a wide receiver."
Seattle has a similarly wide array of options for defending Graham.
Do the Seahawks stick with their standard defensive playbook and trust a linebacker like K.J. Wright or a safety like Kam Chancellor to be able to stay with Graham or do they utilize their rare size at cornerback to put Richard Sherman on Graham the same way he was assigned San Francisco's Anquan Boldin in Week 2?
Carroll – understandably – wasn't all that eager to provide the details of his defensive plans.
"We have to cover him in multiple ways," Carroll said. "It takes everything that we have to slow a guy down like this."
Tuesday, November 26, 2013 @ 8:22am
By Danny O'Neil
League rules prohibit the Seahawks from discussing the pending suspensions of their pair of cornerbacks.
That doesn't mean they can't respond, though. In fact, they must have an answer both in the short term without Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner, and perhaps more importantly in the long term.
Brandon Browner (39) and Walter Thurmond (28), each facing NFL suspensions stemming from alleged substance abuse, are the latest Seahawks to run afoul of league policy. (AP)
This is not a call for the Seahawks to cut ties with either Thurmond and/or Browner. It's not a demand for a pound of flesh for two soon-to-be free agents who've already cost themselves millions of dollars. This is about spelling out the team's expectations for the players, which means this is one case where words will matter as much as actions. Seattle and its coach have to make it clear what is acceptable and what is not.
The NFL prohibits teams from talking about the details of the respective cases, but there's nothing to prevent Carroll from using words like "disappointed" and "responsibility" to spell out what is expected from his players.
These suspensions are not the franchise's fault. They are not Carroll's fault. They are not something that could have been prevented by another team meeting. These are grown men we're talking about, two professionals in their 20s who were in the league's substance-abuse program and therefore absolutely had to know both the scrutiny they would face with up to eight random tests per month and the stakes of another mistake.
Now that they're about to be suspended, the Seahawks are a punchline for the second consecutive year. That will fade with time, however. The bigger issue is about what this franchise will tolerate, and for the first time Seattle is dealing with repeat offenders, so to speak.
Thurmond had to test positive for what the league classifies as a substance of abuse at least twice to receive a four-game ban. Browner was previously suspended four games for PEDs, and now faces a year-long ban under the substance-abuse policy. He will be 30 by the time he's eligible to play in the NFL again, and already there are reports he won't be back with the Seahawks.
Thurmond is more than three years younger than Browner, and his suspension doesn't necessarily spell the end of his career with Seattle nor should it. That doesn't change the need for the Seahawks to make a clear statement regarding the incident.
In the past, Carroll has erred on the side of discretion when it comes to discussing the mistakes his players made, both on the field and off it. He needs to be more blunt this time to make the team's expectations of its employees clear.
Monday, November 25, 2013 @ 9:56am
Coach Pete Carroll says the Seahawks could reach out to veteran Antoine Winfield given the team's sudden need for cornerbacks.
"That's a possibility," Carroll told 710 ESPN Seattle's "Brock and Danny" on Monday, a day after news broke that cornerback Walter Thurmond is facing a four-game suspension for an alleged violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
Released at the end of training camp, cornerback Antoine Winfield (21) is an option for Seattle with Brandon Browner injured and Walter Thurmond facing a suspension. (AP)
Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane are next up on Seattle's depth chart. Tharold Simon and DeShawn Shead are other in-house options, though neither are on Seattle's 53-man roster. Lane is the only player among those four who has stared an NFL game, which makes Winfield a seemingly intriguing option even though he's 36 years old and hasn't played since he was released by Seattle at the end of training camp.
Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network – who broke the story about Thurmond's suspension – reported via Twitter Monday that Winfield's potential return has been discussed and that the cornerback is still physically in football shape.
Winfield's signing in free agency was a coup for the Seahawks, who were adding a three-time Pro Bowl selection that would give them even more firepower in their star-studded secondary. His release was a reflection of Thurmond's emergence and the depth the Seahawks had accumulated elsewhere in their defensive backfield.
Now, Browner is sidelined indefinitely because of a groin injury and Thurmond is facing a suspension as the Seahawks prepare to face the league's second-ranked passing offense in a game that could help determine home-field advantage in the playoffs.
It's another reminder of how quickly fortunes can change in the NFL, the Seahawks finding themselves in need of a cornerback and possibly reaching out to a player they once released only because they had so many capable alternatives.
"He's a really good football player," Carroll said. "With the news that we may have here going in to this game, that's a possibility. We'll figure that out when the time comes. But he's a great kid. Really quality kid to bring in to your team at a time like this. He knows his way around. Everybody knows him and respects the heck out of him."
Simon, a rookie who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds, has the size and physicality that are distinguishing traits of Seattle's cornerbacks. He's on the Physically Unable to Perform List because of a foot injury but is expected to begin practicing week.
"That's really important to us to see what he looks like and see how he does. We really don't have any information on him as one of our guys. He's just a big, tall, good-looking guy," Carroll said of Simon, a fifth-round pick out of Louisiana State. "He looks like one of our guys, but he hasn't practiced yet."
Shead, meanwhile, is a former undrafted rookie out of Portland State who has the versatility to play cornerback and safety. He's on Seattle's practice squad, but Carroll indicated that he's working his way toward a promotion to the active roster.
"DeShawn Shead has done a great job with us. He's very close to being a part of this club, and on the regular roster and all that," Carroll said. "He's been practicing beautifully throughout the season so far, and we really trust him."
Follow Brady Henderson on Twitter @BradyHenderson.
Monday, November 25, 2013 @ 7:57am
By Danny O'Neil
Sometimes there's no need for analysis or interpretation.
Sometimes all you can do is shake your head. Or grit your teeth. Or grunt in exasperation.
All three of those responses would be understandable, even appropriate, when it comes to the looming suspension of cornerback Walter Thurmond.
Not just because he plays a position where the Seahawks are already missing starter Brandon Browner, and not just because it mirrors the situation Seattle faced a year ago right down to the timing of the report. What makes this so very maddening is just how avoidable this was, because if Thurmond is going to be suspended under the NFL's policy regarding substances of abuse as the league's own TV network reported, well, then it almost certainly wasn't his first slip-up. But we'll get to the specifics of league protocol in a second.
Right now, there's not all that much to say. At least not for the Seahawks. The team is forbidden from discussing the issue by the collective-bargaining agreement, which threatens a fine of $500,000. So coach Pete Carroll will say he can't discuss it, the team will prep Byron Maxwell to step into the starting role outside with Jeremy Lane as the nickelback and perhaps reach out to Antoine Winfield, who was let go at the end of training camp.
So we're left to wrestle with Thurmond's situation, a reminder of how much the trajectory of an NFL season can fluctuate based on the judgment of men in their 20s, or more accurately, the lack of judgment. But before you go comparing Thurmond's situation with the four-game suspensions of Browner and Bruce Irvin, not to mention the one against Richard Sherman that was overturned on appeal, it's important to note a critical difference.
Those suspensions were levied under the policy against performance-enhancing substances, a program that stipulates a four-game suspension for a first violation.
Thurmond, according to the NFL Network, will be suspended under the league's substance-abuse policy, which is entirely different. The details are important because a positive test for substances of abuse doesn't call for a suspension. Instead, the first offense puts a player into the league's substance-abuse program.
Once in the program, the player is subjected to as many as eight random urine tests a month, and he must notify the league before he leaves town and provide an address of where he's going and must be available to provide a urine sample within four hours of being notified.
The scrutiny – and the stakes – could not be any clearer for the player. Once in the program, there's no margin for error, and the fact four-game suspensions for substance abuse are rarer than they are for PEDs speaks to the effectiveness of the program.
It is also the reason that Thurmond's suspension – if accurate – is nothing short of shocking. After three seasons overshadowed by injuries, Thurmond was just this year coming into his own. In training camp, he beat out Winfield for the job as Seattle's third cornerback. He started the first two regular-season games when Browner was out with a hamstring injury, and Thurmond is the reason that Browner's potentially season-ending groin injury wasn't inspiring hand wringing.
Last week, Thurmond returned an interception for the first touchdown of his NFL career, and now he may miss most of the final month of this season because of a mistake. Well, probably more than one.
This wasn't about the culture of Seattle's team or its leadership or the lack of understanding about NFL rules. The nature of the league's substance-abuse program makes it certain that Thurmond had ample warning and understanding.
And at this point, there's nothing left to say. You just shake your head. Or grit your teeth. Or grunt. This is a mistake that's tougher to understand than it is to explain.
Friday, November 22, 2013 @ 8:03am
By Danny O'Neil
The Washington Huskies are at a crossroads.
Saturday's game in Corvallis, Ore., is being cast as one more referendum on the coaching tenure of Steve Sarkisian, a chance for his Huskies to show the program is continuing to make progress with him at the helm.
Kind of like that road game at Stanford earlier this season. Or the home game against Oregon a week later or any of another half a dozen games over the past three seasons that were deemed an opportunity for the Huskies to make a statement and move up the Pac-12 pecking order.
The fact that we're two games from the end of Sarkisian's fifth year and still having this conversation says everything you need to know about this program's ability to take that next step: I don't think it can. Not under Sarkisian, which is why I'm hoping the Huskies have a new coach next season.
I'm not happy about that conclusion. I even hope that I'll be proven wrong over the remainder of this season, but I know that a victory at Oregon State for the Huskies' first conference road win in 2013 won't be enough to change my mind.
We have five years of history under Sarkisian, more than 60 games, and while his resuscitation of the program should be commended, the inability to get the Huskies beyond conference mediocrity is not only undeniable, but indicative of what the future holds under him.
This team's inability to develop across the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball and a dumbfounding insistence on committing penalty after penalty has left it high-centered in the Pac-12. Not only is it looking up at Oregon, but this season Arizona State and UCLA – two programs in their second season under new coaches – beat the Huskies decisively.
Washington's inability to keep quarterback Keith Price upright is an indictment of the coaching staff's failure to recruit and/or develop talent on the offensive line. (AP)
Sarkisian deserves a ton of credit for bringing a pulse back to this program that had flatlined before his arrival. He showed that it could again be a destination and that beautiful new stadium is due in part to the enthusiasm Sarkisian brought back to a program that had all the hope of a condemned building when Tyrone Willingham was fired.
Sarkisian brought Washington from a winless season in 2008 to a bowl game in 2010 and helped Jake Locker become a first-round pick and kept Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams from leaving the state, all of which were so incredibly important for this program.
But Sarkisian has had five years now, and while there have been memorable moments like that home upset of USC in 2009, the closest the Huskies have come to a win that would vault the program into an era of contention was that 2010 Holiday Bowl victory against a decidedly disinterested Nebraska team that had a less-than-healthy quarterback and had beaten Washington by 35 points in Seattle earlier that season.
More than anything, Washington's record has not improved even as its schedule has gotten easier. Not only is this program no longer playing at LSU or hosting Nebraska, it's facing lesser-division college football programs like Eastern Washington and Idaho State for the first time in the program's history.
The Huskies even changed the offense this season, going to an up-tempo approach despite the fact that Sarkisian is one of the better pro-style playcallers in the college game. But Washington wasn't able to keep pace with teams like Oregon and Arizona State – who already played at that place – and was decisively outmuscled at UCLA a week ago.
Which brings us back to this weekend's game, the Huskies sitting at 6-4 for the third successive season and everyone pointing to this game at Oregon State as a chance for Washington to show it is making progress.
Trouble is that I've been down this road too many times already. I'm ready to turn back.
Thursday, November 21, 2013 @ 6:03pm
ESPN.com columnist Jeffri Chadiha no longer considers Russell Wilson a game manager, the term he used to describe Seattle's quarterback during a conversation with 710 ESPN Seattle's "Brock and Danny" back in June.
While he's seen more improvement from Wilson than the other NFL's other star quarterbacks who are in their second seasons as starters, Chadiha hasn't come around on Wilson so far as to consider him an MVP candidate.
Russell Wilson has garnered some MVP consideration for the job he's done leading the Seahawks to an NFL-best 10-1 record. (AP)
It's a discussion that only figures to pick up steam with Wilson and the Seahawks owning the NFL's best record and seemingly poised for a Super Bowl run. Wilson has thrown 19 touchdowns to six interceptions, he's completing 64 percent of his passes and has a 105.1 passer rating that is fifth best in the NFL.
That should be good enough to land Wilson on the shortlist of MVP candidates, though he'll face stiff competition. Quarterbacks Peyton Manning (especially), Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford are all putting up tremendous numbers for division-leading teams, and there's a case to be made that Wilson isn't even the MVP of his own team.
Chadiha said his vote would go to running back Marshawn Lynch if he was choosing between the two Seahawks. His reasoning is based on how much of Seattle's offense goes through Lynch, who's second in the NFL in rushing with 925 yards and is tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns with nine. Nearly 56 percent of Seattle's offensive plays have been rushes (though that total includes designed passing plays that resulted in Wilson scrambles).
While those who believe Wilson should be in the MVP discussion would note that he's played behind a makeshift offensive line for much of the season, Chadiha thinks Lynch's contributions lessen Wilson's MVP credentials.
"I don't think he'll ever get that kind of respect or that kind of adulation until he's doing it the way Tom Brady is or Drew Brees is or Peyton Manning is or even Aaron Rodgers has done it in recent seasons where you clearly don't have a dominant running back on your team and the offense is clearly built around your skillset," Chadiha said.
"That's not a knock on him; you've got to play the way they want you to play. That's not just my opinion, either. That's other coaches I've talked to around the league, quarterbacks coaches, who have said he's a really talented kid, but when you have a great defense and you have great special teams and you have a great running back, you can succeed a lot easier, you can call plays differently. He hasn't had to face that kind of pressure that those guys have faced."
While Chadiha may not be buying Wilson's MVP candidacy, he lauded the quarterback for what he did to avoid the second-year struggles that some of his peers have fallen victim to.
"I think he's just shown that he's ready to handle that challenge that comes with being a star in this league. I remember talking to Warren Moon ... earlier this year for a story that involves Russell and he talked about how he had told Russell, 'Look, just don't work on the things you're not doing well; work on the things you do well for this coming season,' because too many quarterbacks in this league, once you take away what they do well, they don't have a plan B or a plan C, and it seems that Russell was ready for that challenge. I don't know how ready Robert Griffin was for that, I don't know how ready Colin Kaepernick was for that, we're seeing how Andrew Luck is responding without Reggie Wayne.
"... I think it's very easy especially in these times with Twitter and Facebook and around-the-clock coverage to fall in love with yourself. And to me, the most impressive thing about Russell Wilson is that he's not caught up in who he is; he's still trying to get better as a player."
Follow Brady Henderson on Twitter @BradyHenderson.
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