Behind Enemy Lines: How do you win in Seattle?
In the past three years, only two teams have done what the Green Bay Packers are attempting this week.
Specifically, only two opponents have won a football game in Seattle.
CenturyLink Field is the loudest, toughest venue in the NFL. Need proof? Take a look at the Seahawks' 25-2 record – counting playoffs – since the start of 2012. No team in the league has won more games at home, or lost fewer.
So what does a road team have to do to get a win in Seattle? That's one of five questions Seahawks beat reporter Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times answered for Press-Gazette Media this week.
You can follow Condotta on Twitter at @bcondotta.
1. No defending Super Bowl champion had won a playoff game in the past decade before Seattle did it last week. How have the Seahawks navigated through this season and broken away from the norm?
The biggest thing is that they returned most of their key players from last year and stayed healthy enough both physically and mentally. While a lot was made of what Seattle lost in the offseason, they essentially returned 11 defensive starters and eight on offense – the bulk of a still young, emerging team. Seattle had some issues this year – the Percy Harvin trade and aftermath the biggest. And there were some injuries along the way, all of which contributed to a couple of the surprising losses at midseason. But Seattle got healthy in November and also had some team meetings that helped get things back on track. Once those things were solved, Seattle won its last six games to finish 12-4 and get the first seed and home field. That went a long way toward winning a playoff game. Recall that four of the last eight defending Super Bowl champs didn't even make the playoffs. Simply getting there was the first step.
2. How much did Bobby Wagner's return spark this season-ending run Seattle went on, and how different is the defense with him in the middle?
It was huge. Wagner got hurt in the first half of the Dallas game, and while he came back to play in the second half, he wasn't the same, and that's when Demarco Murray did most of his damage. He missed five games after that and Seattle lost two of them. The impact of Wagner's injury was not just not having him but that they also moved K.J. Wright from weakside to the middle, which also hurt that spot since his replacement, Malcolm Smith – the Super Bowl MVP last year – hasn't really been healthy this year either. So it sort of weakened two spots. Getting Wagner back put Wright back at WLB where he is a better fit, especially alongside Wagner. Wagner simply has a quickness, lateral movement and anticipation that is hard to replace.
3. To look at the numbers, the Seahawks defense appears impenetrable. Is there an area where they have some vulnerability?
Teams earlier in the year were able to do some damage against them by throwing to the tight ends and backs in the flat – shorter, intermediate routes, in essence. Seattle also had some issues at times this season on third downs and in the red zone. The Seahawks are willing to give up some shorter passes based in part on the idea that teams won't be able to complete enough of them to really do damage. San Diego, in particular, was patient enough to make Seattle pay. But the last six games of the regular season the Seahawks almost didn't have a weakness. They were good against everything down the stretch. Carolina had a little success with out-routes and misdirection runs. Seattle coaches and players said the latter worked in part because the Seahawks were focused on the running of Cam Newton.
4. It's hard to believe Russell Wilson is only in his third season. How have you seen his game grow this year?
His biggest area of growth this season has probably been in recognizing defenses at the line of scrimmage and setting blocking assignments accordingly. That's something Seattle coaches talked a lot about at the beginning of the season as a priority for Wilson this year, and there were a few games where that was an issue such as the first game against Arizona when Seattle gave up seven sacks. Seattle coaches said later those sacks weren't all on the offensive line, but that Wilson also needed to read the blitzes and set blocking assignments better. He did that down the stretch, notably in the rematch against Arizona when the Seahawks gained a team-record 596 yards, hitting a bunch of big plays against Arizona's blitzes.
5. You've only seen two teams walk out of CenturyLink Field with a win in the past three years. What does a road team have to do to get a win in Seattle?
The two teams that beat Seattle at home in the last three years were Arizona and Dallas. What's odd is that both played sort of sloppy – Seattle won the turnover battle in each game. I'd usually say a team would need to win the turnover battle to have a chance, though.
What each of those teams did was play defense well against Seattle on third down and in the red zone, and also stay committed to running the ball. A lot give up on the run quickly against Seattle, either falling behind or just getting frustrated with it. But you have to keep trying to run against Seattle to keep their secondary honest. For both Dallas and Arizona, that paid off in just enough big passing plays down the stretch to pull out wins.
-firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood