Seahawks have vulnerabilities a season after winning it all
After crushing the Denver Broncos in last season's Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks look like an uncommonly talented young team that could go on a multiple-championship run.
After bludgeoning the Broncos 43-8, the Seahawks talked openly of a possible dynasty. In postgame interviews, safety Kam Chancellor said players already were talking about winning another title and not putting any limits on what they could accomplish in the coming years. At the team's victory parade, coach Pete Carroll said, "We're just getting warmed up."
And the franchise has reason for such hopes. Carroll and general manager John Schneider have the league's reigning best defense, a fine young quarterback and all the resources they could hope for from owner Paul Allen, one of the wealthiest people in the world.
But the Seahawks should be warned: The Green Bay Packers stand as evidence of how quickly things can change.
After winning the Super Bowl in the 2010 season, the Packers likewise appeared in position to go on a run of titles. Aaron Rodgers had emerged as a premier quarterback, and all of their best players except defensive back Charles Woodson were younger than age 28.
To be sure, the Packers have been a very good team since that championship — they went 15-1 in the 2011 regular season and have won three straight NFC North Division titles. But a second Super Bowl hasn't materialized, and they've been bounced from the playoffs in the divisional round in each season since.
Of all the factors in those unfulfilled hopes, two stand out: Woodson's play declined because of age, and safety Nick Collins' career ended because of a neck injury. The Packers' 15-1 record masked the lost playmaking that saw their defense drop from No. 2 in the NFL in points, No. 5 in yards and No. 1 in defensive passer rating in 2010, to Nos. 19, 32 and 9 in '11. The Packers still are trying to rebuild that side of the ball.
So yes, the Seahawks have the makings of a top team for the next several years. Bovada.lv has them as the second-best odds to win the Super Bowl at 6-to-1, behind only Denver's 11-to-2, for good reason. But life on top is precarious, and this week we consulted three NFL scouts to assess the Seahawks; where things could go awry for the defending Super Bowl champs; and what the Packers will have to do to beat them in tonight's NFL opener.
As for what could go awry, one of the scouts pointed to running back Marshawn Lynch's age and health as an area of concern. Lynch is a premier back and has topped the 1,200-yard mark in each of the last three seasons. With Lynch hammering defenses rush after rush, young quarterback Russell Wilson hasn't had to carry the offense.
But Lynch also is 28, an age when many NFL backs begin showing at least some decline, and he has a history of a back issues plus a violent running style that's punishing not just for defenders but also himself.
"The team kind of goes as Lynch goes," once scout said, "and if they start relying on the pass too much their lack of talent shows up in the receiving corps."
Another of the scouts said that personnel losses on both lines could have a cumulative effect.
The Seahawks don't have a defensive lineman who's key to their pass rush but count on a deep corps to provide waves of fresh rushers to pressure quarterbacks. Still, in free agency they lost maybe their best rusher in defensive end Chris Clemons and an effective rusher in Clinton McDonald (5½ sacks). They also cut one of their best run defenders, Red Bryant, for salary cap reasons.
On the offensive line, the Seahawks lost two starters: right tackle Breno Giacomini, who brought a mean streak to that group, and Paul McQuistan, a versatile player who started 30 games combined at both guards and left tackle the last two seasons.
"There's been some attrition," the second scout said. "That will be a little bit of a factor, especially later in the year."
The third scout said that despite the Seahawks' great depth on defense, the health of safeties Earl Thomas and Chancellor is critical to their title hopes.
"They have a lot of confidence in their second wave of defensive linemen," the scout said. "I don't think if they lost one of them they'd miss out. (But) if they lost their free safety (i.e., Thomas) or lost Chancellor, that would hurt their defense."
Following are the scouts' takes on the Seahawks, as well as how the Packers' match up:
QUARTERBACK RUSSELL WILSON
The scouts had very different evaluations on the third-year pro who finished his college career at the University of Wisconsin. One ranked him in the second tier of quarterbacks behind the group of Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and ascending Andrew Luck. The second put him at about the bottom of the top 10. The third put him in the middle of the pack of NFL starters.
One of the scouts said Wilson is better than San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, one liked Kaepernick better, and the third called it a push.
The scout who liked Wilson most said the quarterback compensates for his height — Wilson measured at 5-feet-105/8 — by sliding a foot to his left or right in the pocket to find throwing lanes.
"He's so even-tempered," the scout said. "He's an old soul. He's like a guy that's played in the league 13 years, and this is what, Year 3? He doesn't get rattled, and if he does, he doesn't show it. He doesn't come across that way in the huddle from what I hear. Everything is totally under control. He's just a unique player to be so young."
Wilson ranked only No. 22 in the league in pass attempts last season, which is a sign of the Seahawks' run-oriented offense. In his two NFL seasons, he has a 100.6 rating and 63.6 completion percentage.
"He's smart, he extends plays because he's mobile and he has the arm to find people downfield," said the scout who ranked Wilson at the bottom of the top 10. "If (he and Kaepernick) are both standing there and you go through what you're looking for in a quarterback, Kaepernick might get the edge. They both have good arm strength, they're both mobile and athletic. Wilson's probably a little more accurate a passer. You like the measurables on Kaepernick a little bit better. They're both smart."
The third scout said Wilson is a limited passer in the pocket, so the pass rush has to prioritize contain over sacks.
"Keep him in the pocket and make him make plays with his arm, not with his feet," the scout said. "If you can do that, you've got a great shot. But if you rush the quarterback the wrong way and he's able to escape the pocket, then he will extend the play and it becomes kind of playground and he can make plays with his feet."
Wilson lost his leading receiver last year, Golden Tate, to Detroit in free agency. But he'll have slot receiver Percy Harvin, who played in only one regular-season game last season because of a hip injury.
"Harvin is extremely explosive with the ball in his hands," one of the scouts said. "Then there's the durability, because he's a little guy that tries to play like a big man, so he's going to take a beating. But he's explosive, he's fast, he's competitive, he's got good skills. He's a lot of what you like. He just lacks size and takes a lot of punishment."
THE FRONT SEVEN
Seattle doesn't have a dominant defensive lineman or two but instead relies on waves of good, fresh pass rushers and overall team speed to pressure offenses. Their leading sacker last season was Cliff Avril, who had eight, but along with their deep line they have two pass-rushing linebackers in Bruce Irvin, who can line up at defensive end on passing downs, and Bobby Wagner, who's a top athlete and effective blitzer.
All three scouts said that the Packers' chances of protecting Rodgers rest on halfback Eddie Lacy, who wasn't with them two years ago when they gave up eight first-half sacks at Seattle.
"You have to control (the line of scrimmage) by running the football," one scout said, "and then when you decide to throw it, you have to protect that quarterback. If they allow (the Seahakws) to get into pass-rush mode, they're going to put pressure on you from all different points, and that makes for a long day."
In the Seahawks' three losses last season, they gave up 127 yards rushing to Arizona's Andrew Ellington and Rashard Mendenhall combined; 102 yards on 27 carries to Houston's Arian Foster; and 110 yards on 17 carries to San Francisco's Frank Gore.
"(Lacy's) size and his power, his second effort, his yards after contact," the second scout said. "They don't like battling a big back like that."
Seattle has the best safety tandem in the league in Thomas and Chancellor, and one of the best cornerbacks in Richard Sherman.
Thomas is an athletic free safety who allows Seattle to play a variety of coverages and blitzes, whereas Chancellor is a leader and enforcer. The scouts actually were split on who is more important: one said Thomas, one Chancellor and one deemed it a split.
"Earl Thomas is that kind of catalyst," one scout said. "He's probably their best guy on defense."
Chancellor, 26, started his college career as a quarterback at Virginia Tech and moved to linebacker and then safety. At 6-3 and 232, he still has a small linebacker's size.
"Exceptional physicalness. Exceptional size," another scout said. "He's a very smart football player, and with that quarterback background, he understands the game and angles and things like that. He's kind of a quiet leader in the back end. He gets the DBs to watch film and dissect opponents. As fiery as he can be with the big hit, he's the guy that keeps things calm on the back end."
Last year the Seahawks had the biggest cornerback duo in the league in Sherman (6-3, 195) and Brandon Browner (6-4, 221). Browner left for New England in free agency; Sherman signed a four-year contract that averages $14 million a season.
"People seem to attack (Sherman) when he's defending the routes he defends the best," one of the scouts said. "Instead of, with as leggy as he is, making him stop and start, running double moves on him or deep in routes on him. They seem to want to run (go) routes on him and fades on him, and that's the stuff he defends the best."
Said another scout: "(Sherman) is a sucker for double moves. The problem is, can you protect long enough to throw a double move? Can you throw a stutter go, or a slant and go, when they get great pressure with a four-man rush? At least they did last year. This year, we have to wait and see."
The oddsmakers have the Seahawks as a 6-point favorite. One of the scouts picked Seattle, one picked the Packers, and the other called it a tossup.
"I have Seattle because of home-field advantage," one scout said. "If it was in Green Bay, I'd pick the Packers. The 12th man is just enough edge to give them that victory."
Said the scout who picked the Packers: "I think the Packers have a better roster than what (the Seeahawks) have. I do. (The Packers) have a hell of a quarterback and a great supporting cast. They'll be great at getting the ball out quickly — that's the great thing about the West Coast system, you have built in hot (reads), so if things break down (Rodgers) knows who to go to right now without having to change anything else. I think they've got a great chance. And they can run the ball pretty well."