Note: This is a guest post by Curtis Allen and the first in a weekly series. In each piece we will take a look at the Seahawks and their opponents and discuss key factors.
The promise of a new season is exciting and intoxicating. Especially this year.
A new offensive coordinator.
A wide receiver in DK Metcalf who is poised to take his place with the best in the game.
A franchise quarterback that is one of the best in the NFL.
A running back who can infuse the entire team with a tough mentality.
A Hall of Fame middle linebacker roving the field looking for targets to take down.
Those are the knowns. Then there are the unknowns.
The Seahawks have kept both their offensive and defensive concepts and personnel groupings almost completely under wraps in the preseason. What has Shane Waldron cooked up to exploit the explosive talents of his personnel?
Can Darrell Taylor be the pass rush terror the team desperately needed when they drafted him?
Can Jamal Adams turn a full offseason with the team and the security of a new contract into an explosive season that can tilt the field with regularity?
Ultimately – can the Seahawks turn a tumultuous offseason into a real run at the Super Bowl?
Add in the fact that fans are champing at the bit to get back into the stadium and see their team live and you have the makings of an incredible adventure.
Week One sees the Seahawks starting on the road in Indianapolis against the Colts. One of the AFC’s best last year, the Colts have had their own turbulent offseason with a major quarterback change and multiple injuries to key players.
But you know they are spoiling for a fight just like the Seahawks are.
How can the Seahawks start the season off 1-0 with a win on the road against a tough as nails team? Let us look at it in this week’s Watch Points.
Here we go.
Find a way to contain the running backs
With TY Hilton out for this game and the OL and QB positions having some questions — it is obvious the game for the Colts will be won or lost on the back of their running game.
Digging a little deeper really shows why that is not a bad bet for them.
This group is dynamic.
First up, Jonathan Taylor. The second-round pick took his place among the NFL’s top backs last season, finishing in the Top-10 in all of the traditional stats: Attempts, Yards, Rushing First Downs and Touchdowns.
He is very good right now and will only get better.
With his vision, speed and toughness, Taylor is a perfect fit for this Colts offensive system.
Nine of his ten longest runs last year were between the tackles.
But make no mistake, he is not just a grinder. That 4.39 40 speed is actual football speed, not combine testing speed.
Taylor recorded the NFL’s fourth fastest speed on offense in game situations last year at 22.05 MPH.
For reference, amateur track star DK Metcalf’s rundown of Budda Baker last year was clocked at 22.64 MPH. Taylor has some serious speed.
The Colts also utilized him in the passing game last year, with 36 balls caught for an 8.3 yards per catch average.
It is not a coincidence that when Taylor got 20 touches in the 2020 regular season, the Colts were 5-0.
The Seahawks cannot afford to let this monster shake loose.
The beauty of the Colts’ offense, however, is it does not entirely rest on Taylor.
They have another back in Nyheim Hines that is better than your standard support back. He troubles defenses in his own right and caught 63 balls out of the backfield and added 4.3 yards per rush.
Between Taylor and Hines, they generated 129 first downs last year.
The entire rest of the offense? 76 first down. Yes, 63% of their first downs came from those two players.
And for the third head of this beast, Indy also brought first-down machine Marlon Mack back into the fold for another season. So, we will be seeing a lot of action out of the backfield Sunday.
The Seahawks have invested heavily in speed and tackling ability at the linebacker and safety spots. They must get their money’s worth in this game in order to contain these threats.
Of course, there are the trenches between them…
Prevent the Colts’ offensive line from dictating the game
Indianapolis has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and they use it like a weapon. So many teams have their linemen focus on protecting and not allowing the defense to disrupt their plays. The Colts, in contrast, are aggressive with their lineman. They send them on missions to wipe out would-be tacklers. They are a coordinated, ferociously tough unit.
How good are they?
Last year, Jonathan Taylor’s 8.3 yards per catch I referenced above? He caught those passes an average of 1.9 yards of depth behind the line of scrimmage. So there is over 10 yards of room between him catching the ball and being tackled to the ground. That comes not just by Taylor’s ability but the lineman’s skill and effort in implementing the playbook to get out to the perimeter and block.
It gets even worse when you look at the running game.
Taylor led all starter-level running backs in the NFL with a sparkling 3.0 yards before contact per attempt.
How good is that? Only seven other starting level running backs made the top-50 in that stat. Derrick Henry was a distant #2 at 2.6 yards before contact.
Think about that. Jonathan Taylor was clean 15% more yards before contact than the next best guy.
On every single attempt.
Add that much room to roam untouched to the fact that he has game-breaking speed and you have a match made in heaven.
Or hell if you are trying to defend that.
How do the Colts accomplish this? With an offense that is much more horizontal than vertical. They are experts at moving north to south, creating gaps for exploitable cutbacks by funnelling defenders out of running lanes and taking on linebackers in the flat.
Look at the passing grades Philip Rivers experienced for passing behind the line of scrimmage in 2020:
Those numbers passing to the perimeter of the defense behind the line of scrimmage are a far sight better than what he had ever done with the Chargers in previous seasons and it is indicative of the horizontal nature of their offense.
With either Carson Wentz starting and coming off one of the shakiest quarterback seasons in recent NFL history, or Jacob Eason starting his first ever NFL game, there is a very high probability the Colts will give both several simpler plays of this nature to take away the burden. You can expect the offensive line to carry a bigger load than normal in this game.
The Seahawks must be ready. Defending the perimeter will be critical. Regularly setting the edge is mission critical. Whoever the Seahawks have at SAM and 5-tech must be able to hold their ground and not get pushed around. ‘Read and react’ will be an integral skill to display in this game.
Again, Jordyn Brooks, Jamal Adams and Bobby Wagner will be key players in this game.
One thing to note that could provide a spark to the Seahawk defense: say what you like about their cornerbacks but Tre Flowers and DJ Reed have no problem fighting off wide receiver blocks and getting involved in run defense. This was a real weakness for Shaquille Griffin and Quentin Dunbar. Not for these corners. With the nature of the Colts’ offense as it is, we can expect they will be tested in this area several times. A couple of key blocks or tackles by the corners to kill drives would be very impactful.
Another point in the Seahawks’ favor: The Colts’ offensive line might be banged up and a bit uncoordinated due to not getting much practice time in camp. Quentin Nelson and Ryan Kelly have missed time with injuries and the COVID list.
Eric Fisher has just come off the PUP list and might practice this week, so likely the LT start belongs to Julie’n Davenport. What do we know about him?
Well, the reason he is in the NFL is due to his size – he is 6’7” 325 with 36.5” arms. Great measurables there.
The reason he is a journeyman player though is he doesn’t have the skill or speed to match that size. He is slow. Like Jamarco Jones slow. And neither is he a drive-blocker in the run game.
He played for Miami last year. Arguably his best game was in Week 4 against…you guessed it…your Seattle Seahawks and their early season pass rush misadventures. In 25 snaps he did not allow a pressure. But that was against Benson Mayowa, Shaquem Griffin and Damontre Moore and without any blitz support. Hardly a murderer’s row there.
If the Seahawks can carefully mix and match at the LEO/SAM position opposite Davenport, they could be very disruptive. Darrell Taylor’s speed and bend will be too much for Davenport – but with his NFL inexperience he could easily be prevented from setting the edge. All Davenport would have to do is lean that massive frame on Taylor and he is taken out of the play. A Carlos Dunlap or an Alton Robinson would fare better there in those more run-centric downs.
This is really a game where the Seahawks can employ the depth at the DL position they have collected over the summer. Effort and energy will be critical. The Colts were flagged for more holding penalties than all but four teams last year. Not many things kill drives with horizontal offenses more than pushing them back ten yards. Rotating fresh lineman at key times could provide just enough burst to draw some flags.
Another bit of good news is there is some familiarity there. The Colts’ offense is not unlike what San Francisco has run out in recent years. Move horizontally, open gaps, have the QB get the ball out quickly and let the playmakers take over.
Adjusting, maintaining positioning and gap integrity with your hands and flying to the ball are all concepts this defense is familiar with.
Can they excel at it though? They will have a tough task on Sunday.
At the very least, the defensive line needs to hold this powerful Colts line to a draw.
Get creative running the ball on offense
The Colts’ defensive front is one of the best in the NFL. DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart are a fantastic duo inside. With Darious Leonard creeping closer to a Bobby Wagner-level of play, it is no wonder that this defense was the second-best in the NFL against the run last season.
They will be lining up over a starting offensive line that has been shuffled around and has not gotten any preseason reps together other than a mock game. Expecting them to function like clockwork right out of the gate, and against a tough defensive front, is a very tall order.
Some creativity would go a long way in establishing some rhythm in offense by generating some easy yards on the ground. This defense is too good to just ground and pound all game and hope you break through eventually.
We have yet to see any real run concepts in preseason aside from the return of the fly sweep play with Dee Eskridge.
Yet the Seahawks cannot just rely on Russell Wilson to carry the team. A few creative concepts to stretch the field, give them time to settle into a groove, keep the defense fresh and build a little confidence would be just what the doctor ordered.
Let Russ be Russ if it is needed
There is a lot of talk about this offense being quick tempo and utilizing the short passing game along with some newer run concepts. Actually using the tight ends to open up space and also getting the ball to Metcalf, Lockett and Eskridge in space and standing back and watching them make magic is a thrilling proposition. It is exciting to anticipate what we will get to see on the field.
A new offense with a quarterback sporting a 70% completion rate would be a sight to see.
The Seahawks will need balance though.
The Colts were the second-best team in the NFL in turnover differential last year. They likely will not give the Seahawks cheap points.
Their offensive and defensive lines will do their best to disrupt the entire game.
They run the ball well.
This team, though clearly not up to full strength, are going to present a real challenge.
This has all the makings of a close, but winnable game.
The game may come down to the talents of their best and highest paid player. Nothing hurts and frustrates a defense more than doing everything right, only to have Russell freaking Wilson break containment, extend the play with his legs and find a streaking Lockett or Metcalf for a backbreaking gain.
A new offense that has all kinds of new features and may tease some dazzling success is certainly the order of the day for this team in 2021. But at the end of the day, it may be the quarterback’s singular ability that takes this team where they want to go. If the game calls for that kind of moment, the team should be able to put Russ in a position to meet it.
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