Doug Farrar, Publisher, Seahawks.net: Playing in a weak division and a weak conference has a lot to do with it – I don't think the Seahawks would have come anywhere near the playoffs this year if they were still in the AFC West – but the same could be said of any NFC team. Chicago benefited from this even more that Seattle did because the Bears' division opponents went 17-31, while the Seahawks' NFC West foes finished the season with 20-28.
This is why the NFC is anyone's ballgame – there isn't a team that's been consistently impressive all season long.
JC: Defensive tackles Bryce Fisher and Grant Wistrom are very talented players, but neither one of them appeared to put much pressure on the quarterback this season. However, Seattle still gets a ton of sacks, so who is getting them?
DF: Wistrom's more of a 'tweener, providing run support and occasional quarterback pressure. Fisher's sack total dropped from nine to four in 2006, and that was his lowest total since 2003. I'd put that on two factors – injuries to several members of the interior rotation that limited the effectiveness of the defensive line overall, and a decrease in the number of twists and stunts Seattle ran with the front four. In last year's playoffs, that line was able to get great pressure with imaginative formations. But that didn't really carry over into this season, and I have no idea why.
The Seahawks led the NFL with 50 sacks in 2005 and finished sixth this year with 41. That was one rare part of the team's overall performance that didn't really drop off that much. That had a lot to do with Julian Peterson, the free-agent linebacker from San Francisco, who racked up a career-high 10 sacks. In 2005, Seattle's front four was responsible for 32.5 sacks, or 65% of the team's total. In 2006, that number dropped to 60% (24.5 of 41). Not bad at all but indicative of the line issues I detailed.
JC: Lofa Tatupu is going to the Pro Bowl and Julian Peterson has been there before, but not much is said about LeRoy Hill. Tell me more about the least-heralded member of the Seattle linebackers and what he brings to the table.
DF: Hill is the team's best run-stopping linebacker, right up there with Tatupu. Though he didn't have quite the season he had last year (he struggled with a shoulder injury), Hill finished third on the team in tackles with 92.
However, there is a Football Outsiders stat called Stop Rate, which measures defensive success per player by the total number of plays that prevent a successful play by the offense. This is defined as 45% of needed yards on first down, 60% of needed yards on second down, and 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down. In general, 'plays' refers to tackles, passes defensed, fumbles forced, or interceptions. In his rookie season, Hill was among the league's best defenders with a 63% Stop Rate. This season, that number was a far more pedestrian 51%. Part of that is pass coverage, which is not Hill's strength. Part of it is the injury factor – I know I keep using the 'I'-word, but you have no idea how beaten up this team was this year.
JC: I'm a Florida State alumnus, so you know I have to ask a question pertaining to every former Seminole. Safety Michael Boulware's numbers are down across the board this season, but is there more to his game than just the statistical performance?
DF: This was Boulware's most challenging season, no question about it. He was benched as the starting strong safety after six games because he was giving up too many big plays over the top. What Mike Holmgren intimated at the time was that Boulware's instincts as a linebacker (his position in college, as I'm sure you know) sometimes work against him – he will sell out to the run in pretty obvious passing situations. He spent eight games as a reserve player, mostly on special teams, To his great credit, he did everything asked of him, worked harder than ever before, and regained his starting job in time for the Christmas Eve contest against the San Diego Chargers.
It will be interesting to see how Boulware responds to this past year when the 2007 campaign rolls around. That will be his crucial fourth season – the one before free agency for most players.
JC: Seattle seems to be signing cornerbacks off the street after the injuries to starters Marcus Trufant and Kelly Herndon, yet Dallas still didn't throw the ball particularly well last weekend. What was the key to protecting that weakness?
DF: There were two primary keys. First, Tony Romo wasn't exactly Mr. Accurate. He kept missing open plays with weird angles, throwing inexplicably at the feet of his receivers at the slightest hint of pressure.
Second, defensive coordinator John Marshall implemented a brilliant gameplan, resisting the temptation to blitz his linebackers and dropping the mid-level defenders into coverage to help his inexperienced secondary. Because the front four was able to get consistent pressure in this game, the plan worked. Romo often found his checkdowns covered when pressure came, and he seemed to have difficulty backing out of his first read. This is a common theme among first-year starters – I'm sure it's a factor for Grossman when he struggles and something Romo will have to overcome to reach his great potential.
JC: Bottom line ... what is going to be different about this matchup than Week 4, when the Bears pounded the Seahawks 37-6 before a prime time audience at Soldier Field? Seattle is healthier and Chicago is more beat up, but what more do you see?
DF: First, Alexander and Stevens are back, and their most effective selves would provide major differences to the Seahawks' offensive gameplan. Alexander carried the ball 26 times per game through the end of the regular season after returning from injury, and his ability to help Seattle control the ball will pay great dividends if he's able to do it against a Chicago defense still adjusting to the loss of Tommie Harris. Stevens's recent hot streak has been well documented – let's just hope he can keep it up.
The offensive line that was demolished against the Bears last time has a bit more continuity, and while nobody would mistake them for the great 2005 line, it's not what the Bears faced last time.
There's also the team Seattle's playing. The defense has slipped, and Rex Grossman isn't the player he was last time. He authored two of the worst quarterback performances in recent memory in December, and his comment that the New Year's holiday may have affected his ability to concentrate was ill-advised to say the least. If Seattle can exploit a still-great defense with a couple of recent weaknesses and make Lovie Smith pay for not giving Brian Griese more reps earlier in the season, they might just be able to pull off the upset.
The Bears host the Seahawks in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs this Sunday at Soldier Field.