MMQB: Backup Battle Ends in Chiefs Victory

So much for the defense carrying the Seahawks this year. While there were some mild question marks about the pass defense, the run defense was expected to be dominating. Seven games into the season, the mild question marks surrounding the pass defense have become giant exclamation points. It all boils down to the front four, and their inability to make plays which cost the Seahawks the game.

Kansas City Chiefs 35, Seattle Seahawks 28
October 29th, 2006
Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, MO

Play of the Day: This has to go to WR Deion Branch's smart forced fumble to keep Seattle alive. After Seneca Wallace had a pass batted into the hands of DE Jared Allen, Branch came from behind and stripped the ball from Allen and recovered it, all while keeping his feet in bounds. That is the kind of play clutch football players make in key situations. With that forced fumble, Seattle maintained possession of the ball and had a second chance to come from behind and tie the game.

Bringing Their "A" Game: WR Deion Branch, for the heads up forced fumble/fumble recovery, as well as the most acrobatic catch of the year, a beautiful one-handed grab to give Seattle 1st and goal on the three... CB Kelly Herndon, who was unspectacular in coverage (but not abysmal either, an improvement) but "forced" a fumble and recovered it before scooting 60 yards for the touchdown... FS Ken Hamlin, who notched 11 tackles, tops on the team, though it's never a good thing when the safety leads the team in tackles... LB Julian Peterson, for 10 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble earlier in the game... LB Lofa Tatupu, who despite missing several tackles notched 9 tackles, including several for no gain... P Ryan Plackemeier continues to be the best player on the team, amassing a 49.5 average, including a nice boot that gave Kansas City the ball on their own 5 yard line.

The Bad and the Ugly: The Seattle offensive line. RT Tom Ashworth and LT Walter Jones did admirably, but the interior offensive line generated little push in the running game against a weak Kansas City interior... CB Marcus Trufant was awful, as perfectly average WR Eddie Kennison caught 6 passes for 132 yards on him, including a 51-yard bomb... The defensive line generating almost no pressure - a sin against the gimpy QB Damon Huard - while getting manhandled by the Kansas City offensive line... The ugly? How about the defensive gameplan for this week, as John Marshall/Ray Rhodes failed to exploit the groin/ankle injury bothering Huard and brought few blitzes.

Referee Report Card: The big plays all seemed to go in Seattle's favor. Branch's 26 yard reception was challenged, but the officials correctly ruled that Branch had possession and had both feel in bounds. On Kelly Herndon's fumble recovery, the officials ruled that placeholder Dustin Colquitt had fumbled the ball, instead of attempting a forward pass - a very questionable call that went in Seattle's favor and gave Seattle 6 points. The officials also correctly ruled that Branch stripped DE Jason Allen of the football with 1:58 remaining, giving Seattle one last chance to tie the game.

Offense: The big question mark for the offense was if QB Seneca Wallace, a first time starter, could successfully play quarterback in the NFL. Wallace answered those question marks by throwing for 3 touchdowns and running the offense as well as could be expected, though he did have two costly interceptions. Wallace turned the game into an offensive showdown, better than most Seattle fans hoped for, given a stingy pass defense. Wallace used his impressive speed to escape from trouble, and showed off his rifle arm, firing bullets to his recievers. His lethal pump fake, that made CB Ty Law bite on a 49-yard touchdown pass to WR Darrell Jackson, can work again and again: the only thing separating the motion from his regular throwing motion is the ball doesn't come out. He also showed a lot of touch on some passes, such as his touchdown toss to TE Jerramy Stevens, setting him apart from many mobile quarterbacks (See Vick, Michael).

Wallace was hardly perfect. He had two interceptions, one being a poor decision and the other due to his short stature. His stats aren't Canton worthy (15/30 for 198 yards), though that is at least partly due to that rocket arm - wideouts Darrell Jackson and Deion Branch both dropped passes, which can likely be attributed to the velocity on Wallace's arm. Seneca also needs to work on finding his secondary receivers - his interception was the result of staring down one receiver, allowing the defender to swoop in and pick off the ball. Lastly - and this can be attributed to Holmgren - Seneca needs to run more. His ability to make plays on the ground can open up things for the passing attack, as well as helping the offensive line open up lanes for the running game.

Wallace's greatest asset - his exhilarating speed - helped hide yet another game where the offensive line struggled. He was under immediate pressure a couple of times, but he was able to roll out when most Quarterbacks - including Matt Hasselbeck - would've been forced into taking a sack. Wallace's dangerous speed might have hid poor pass protection, but it couldn't hide the pathetic run blocking that held RB Maurice Morris to 25 yards on 12 carries (2.1 YPC average). Morris actually looked fine, when the hole presented itself Morris seemed to gain substantial yardage, but those holes opened up rarely, and it was far more common to see Morris hit at the line of scrimmage than have an open running lane. It is worth noting that LG Rob Sims looks far better in the running game than C/LG Chris Spencer.

NOTE: When Wallace was rushed on his throws, it seems his go-to-guy was WR D.J. Hackett, who had yet another solid game. This guy is going to want a starting job (in this offense, the slot counts as starting) or he is going to leave for an observant team when his contract runs out. It is good to see his solid chemistry with Wallace, who looks to be the quarterback of the distant future for Seattle.

The poor blocking isn't limited to the big uglies up front. FB Mack Strong, as well as Morris, have been poor blockers all year. Morris whiffed on a block against the Minnesota Vikings that lead to Wallace's fumble and subsequent Vikings touchdown, while strong has allowed nearly a sack per game, including one against Kansas City today, when linebacker Derrick Johnson burst through the line almost untouched into Wallace. Mack Strong was outplayed by RT Tom Ashworth today (let that sink in for a second), not just in the passing game but also in the running game. Strong hasn't been able to finish his blocks with the same regularity he did last season, allowing linebackers to peel off of him and brush against tackle Morris.

Someone needs to get WR Deion Branch on the ballot for the November elections. Or maybe wait till the presidential race. Branch has been everything and more for Seattle, easily justifying the first round pick Seattle gave up to acquire him. Branch has yet to blow a game up in spectacular fashion, but he has caught almost every accurate pass thrown to him, made some clutch catches, ran a few perfect reverses, and topped today's performance off with a real heads up play (the strip). This guy has his own level of speed, Bobby Engram's craftiness, and hands worthy of his neon-green gloves. Seattle's next superstar.

While the offense kept this team in the game - with (and doesn't think feel out of place) some help from special teams - it's impossible to feel like Holmgren properly utilized Wallace's unique abilities. It was evident on Wallace's one real scamper - a 12 yard run for a first down - that he has special talent. However, Holmgren called a ton of plays designed to keep the diminutive (which is an understatement on par with "Marcus Trufant can't cover") quarterback in the pockets. There have been several games where Hasselbeck has been the QB, yet Holmgren has called more bootlegs and rollouts than he did today. If Wallace is told to stay in the pocket, his upside is Doug Flutie. If Wallace is given some plays outside the pocket and some chances to work in space, his upside is much higher.

Defense: Oh, how I remember the days when we shrugged off a 9-point performance by the offense, because our defense was so dominating that we could afford to sputter offensively. Hard to imagine that through the first two games the defense had allowed a total of 19 points. Even harder to imagine the gigantic turnaround, from "dominating" to "vintage '04" has taken place in only five games. The offense wanted a win, with a backup Quarterback and Runningback they put up 21 points. Even special teams wanted the win, notching seven of their own points. The defense wasn't required to play shutout ball, they only needed to hold the Chiefs to a reasonable number of points, which they were unable to do.

The lion's share of the blame for this lies with the front four. On just about every single running play, the Chiefs were able to open up holes (Seahawks offensive line, take note) for RB Larry Johnson to run through. The Seahawks' defensive line was so thoroughly dominated that even RB Michael Bennett - who can run really fast, but that's it - amassed 38 yards on only ten carries. Outside runs were sniffed out pretty well by the Seahawks' still fantastic linebackers, but on inside runs the defensive tackles were so thoroughly abused that there was always positive running room. Almost as bad as being pushed backwards, the defensive tackles weren't even able to occupy the interior linesmen, as usually one would be spotted downfield blocking the linebackers. Not having DT Marcus Tubbs was a huge hindrance to the Seahawks, as he creates a wall on his side of the line and frees up the linebackers to make clean tackles. On many of those missed tackles, the linebackers were having to find the runner while scooting around an offensive linesmen, which doesn't give them a very good angle to make the tackle.

This horrid performance against the run would be a little easier to swallow if the defense had been able to get to QB Damon Huard with any sort of regularity. Huard, nursing a groin injury, should have been a sitting duck for the defense, having the mobility of Cowboys QB Drew Bledsoe without the experience. Huard could not have been more perfect for blitzing, but instead there was not a six man blitz until the 3rd quarter. Huard was only sacked once as he threw for 312 yards and a score against the Seahawks. Perhaps the defense mistook the red Chief's jersey as being the "no contact" jerseys typically worn by quarterbacks during training camp? It would also explain the inability to tackle RB Larry Johnson.

There was some talk in Seattle about how the Seahawks would cover HOF TE Tony Gonzales. The answer would apparently be: They wont. Gonzales had 6 receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown. In what is considered creative for the Seahawks' coordinators, Julian Peterson was used much less as a pass-rusher and much more in coverage, but the result of that was that Damon Huard had all day to wait for Gonzales to get open, since nobody stepped up and replaced Peterson's pass-rush. Gonzales is a great tight end who should be a first round Hall of Fame choice, but Seattle could have stopped Gonzales from amassing such gaudy stats if they had forced the ball out of Huard's hands before Gonzales could find his way past Peterson.

Of course, a certain benched safety could have helped stop the running game while helping cover Gonzales. He's known as SS Michael Boulware, and he matched up much better against this offense than CB/S Jordan Babineaux. Babineaux certainly isn't to blame for this defensive debacle, but Boulware could have helped this defense more than Babineaux did. Babineaux, aside from missing a tackle on Larry Johnson's 38-yard touchdown run, seemed tentative to join the line of scrimmage, which helped the Chiefs' running attack steamroll the Seahawks. He wasn't used much against Gonzales, probably because he is on the smaller side and lacks the physical nature of Boulware. It is time for the Babineaux experiment to end - not that Babineaux is a bad safety, but his presence didn't cure Seattle's mysterious defensive ailment, and he doesn't have the knack for key plays like Boulware does.

If Seattle is anxious to bench someone, it should be DE Grant Wistrom. Wistrom brings a fiery intensity to this team that is great. He is considered a vocal leader and a real team player. However, he also has done nothing all year. Last year Wistrom didn't get to the quarterback much but provided a solid pass rush the same. This year he isn't even forcing the quarterback to adjust. Bryce Fisher, who has taken 90% of his snaps from either LDE or LDT, has more sacks from RDE than Wistrom does. Darryl Tapp isn't that good against the run, but then today neither was Wistrom, who missed more tackles (2) than he made (1). Tapp can't do too much worse against the run and can reach the quarterback while gaining valuable experience. Much like Mack Strong, Wistrom's best days are behind him and he needs to be replaced.

All of these problems - the inability of the front four to do anything well, the missed tackles, Gonzales' great game, etc. could have been solved with some good game planning. Seattle, who blitzed so creatively and with such deception last year, telegraphs their bland blitzes this year. The stunts that put Rocky Bernard at the top of Defensive Tackle sack lists last year have been wiped from the playbook. This team, with the addition of Tapp and Peterson, should be set to improve upon last year's 48 sacks, instead it looks like all of the sacks will come from Peterson and Peterson alone, since the line can't create pressure and the linebackers aren't blitzing. Where has defensive coordinator John Marshall wandered off to and why did we replace him with Ray Rhodes?

Special Teams: Well, the kickoff return and coverage units were abysmal, but other than that the special teams were actually special. CB Kelly Herndon (who, for the first time since Arizona, didn't really blow a coverage) scored seven on his "fumble recovery", P Ryan Plackemeier continued to boom fifty yard punts, the punt coverage team kept WR/PR Dante Hall to 9 yards on two punts, while CB/PR Jimmy Williams returned one punt for 11 yards without fumbling. It has been years since the Seahawks special teams were anything other than a glaring weakness, but this week they played exceptionally well.

Summary: This offense will persevere. I have enough faith that even if (knock on wood) David Greene were to take over as Quarterback, we'd generate points. However, the defense is caught in some sort of flux. The run defense has shown flashes of being dynamic (Detroit, Arizona, St. Louis), but has also been trampled (Minnesota, Kansas City) mightily. The pass defense has been consistently bad. This is a defense without an identity. Is it a big play defense? Today it forced three fumbles. Is it a bend-but-don't-break defense? It has stiffened in the red zone at times. It may be easy to classify this defense as being similar to '04, but the defense still has heart - it played hard the entire game.

It isn't '04, it isn't '05... It is somewhere in between. For the sake of the season, the defense needs to decide who it is, and how to apply pressure.

 

Kyle Rota is our fine MMQB, and is also known as "Rotak" on our message boards. You can e-mail him here.




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