Behind Enemy Lines: Seahawks/Saints, Pt. 2

In Part 2 of this week's two-part Seahawks.NET game preview, Doug Farrar trades questions and answers with Sunil Joshi of the Canal Street Chronicles blog. Among Sunil's questions to Doug: Can Seattle's defense maintain a "bend-but-don't-break" pace, what's the primary reason for Shaun Alexander's decline, and how much longer does Mike Holmgren have in Seattle?

Editor's Note: Since doesn't have a Saints publisher, we had to go "off the reservation" for this week's Behind Enemy Lines. Fortunately, Sunil Joshi, who runs an excellent Saints blog called Canal Street Chronicles, was willing (and very able) to do the back-and-forth. Since the articles will run on our site and his, they're going to run free on both as opposed to our normal premium content. Many thanks to Sunil for his time and excellent input!

Sunil Joshi, Canal Street Chronicles: Let's talk game-planning. How do the Seahawks plan on stopping the New Orleans offense? Who will they focus on? The Seahawks are ceding plenty of yardage but stopping teams before the end zone. Is this sustainable over the course of a full season? If not, which trend will break – will they clamp down on yardage or begin allowing more points?

Doug Farrar, Seahawks.NET: "Bend-but-don't-break" is a dangerous game. In Pro Football Prospectus 2007, Ned Macey and Jim Armstrong of Football Outsiders wrote an article about teams whose yards allowed far outstripped their points allowed. Their research found that not only are "B-B-D-B" defenses generally unsustainable over long periods of time, but that a positive defensive DVOA swing going toward the red zone (remember, defensive DVOA is better when it's negative) indicates a longer-term trend in the direction of more points per yard allowed.

Through five games in 2007, the Seahawks rank 17th in passing yards allowed, 20th in rushing yards allowed, and 7th in points per game allowed. This would indicate a winning trend, but Seattle's defensive DVOA gets worse the closer you get to the red zone, and the dropoff from midfield is drastic:

Deep (own 1-19): 3.9% (rank: 16)
Back (own 20-39): 16.0% (rank: 25)
Mid (own 40-opponent's 40): -57.9% (rank: 2)
Front (opponent's 39-21): 18.4% (rank: 24)
Red (opponent's 20-1): 30.7% (rank: 28)
Goal-To-Go (does not include plays on the 11-yard line or beyond): 18.5% (rank: 25)

Source: Football Outsiders Premium Database

The question is, will correlation equal causation in this case? We don't know exactly, but we do have an inkling that with such a DVOA hole in key situations, hell will come a-poppin'. It's a matter of time unless some adjustments are made.  As far as how they stop the New Orleans offense – unless there's a big shakeup in the lineup (and Sean Payton has made some noises about roster changes), it'll be about playing solid base defense and not allowing a slumping team to break out as a result of inconsistent play.

Sunil Joshi: My colleague John Morgan, who runs the Field Gulls blog, recently compared the Seattle offense to Bigfoot, claiming that it was "Lumbering, one dimensional and ultimately a hoax." He continued to say, "The book is out on how to play the Seahawks, play pass every time." Do you agree with his assessment of the Seattle offense? Is it really that easily defensible? Surely they self-scout; will they use the same attack-plan against the Saints' defense? What changes could/should they implement?

Doug Farrar: The book is indeed out, and Steelers coaches Mike Tomlin and Dick Lebeau read it to perfection. They had as many as eight defenders in coverage, boxing Seattle's receivers in and daring Shaun Alexander to beat them on the ground. With 25 yards on 11 carries, it's safe to say that Shaun Alexander wasn't going to make that happen. And it's not a recent problem – Alexander averaged less than four yards per carry over a full season for the first time in 2006, and the only time he averaged over four per carry this year was against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that has trouble putting three healthy linebackers on the field.

Sunil Joshi: Barring a truly magnificent effort against New Orleans, Shaun Alexander's last 16 games will show a precipitous statistical decline from the previous 16. To wit, in 15 games during 2006-07, Alexander's numbers look fairly pedestrian: 1,274 yards, 3.6 yards per carry and 9 touchdowns. These are his 2005 numbers (over 16 games): 1,880 yards, 5.1 yards per carry and 27 touchdowns. Is Alexander finally showing the effects of age? How have injuries factored into his statistical decline?

Doug Farrar: You asked earlier about "self-scouting" and changing things, but the answer isn't with Alexander or the team's offensive line – Mike Holmgren has said that backup running back Maurice Morris will get more reps through the season. Morris is a quicker scatback, and his "one-cut-and-go" style might better fit a team that a.) can't get sustained blocking for its running backs; and b.) no longer has a starting running back with elite speed and cutting ability.

Watching Alexander this season has been painful, because you can see him struggle to hit the hole and make plays he would have made two years ago. I think it's less about injuries, because the wrist injury doesn't affect his ability to plant, cut, and accelerate. This is a guy who's 30 years old, and he may be bumping up against an expiration date.

Opposing defenses will now defy Seattle's rushing attack to beat them until it actually happens – that's the way it works.

Sunil Joshi: On a similar note, over the past two seasons, the Seahawks have averaged about 3.8 Adjusted Line Yards per carry. Between 2000-2005 they were consistently above 4.00, often around 4.3. How much of this decline can be attributed to the loss of Steve Hutchinson? Can Shaun Alexander's decline be attributed to the struggles of his line or is Alexander dragging a good line down?  

Doug Farrar: People in Seattle (including people in Seattle's front office) don't want to admit it, but the line has never recovered from the loss of Hutchinson to the Vikings before the 2006 season. Second-year guard Rob Sims puts forth a decent effort and he's going to be a good one, but the combination of Hutchinson and Walter Jones was dominant and unstoppable through 2005. It's worth mentioning that before 2006, Alexander's worst statistical season was 2002, when Hutchinson missed 12 games with a broken leg and was replaced by the immortal Floyd Wedderburn

There have been other adjustments, as well – veteran center Robbie Tobeck put together a Pro Bowl season in 2005 with spit, baling wire and holding penalties, but he missed the final eight games of 2006 with a hip injury and subsequently retired. Chris Spencer, his replacement, is an immensely strong and talented player who still needs to get up to speed on the more advanced line calls. Basically, Spencer was asked to put a decade of NFL experience in his head overnight, and that's too much to ask of anyone. Left Tackle Walter Jones, who really should have been the NFL MVP in 2005, isn't the same player at 33. He's still very, very good, but not quite where he was. This is a line very much in transition, and the loss of Hutchinson was a major hit.

The answer to your question, "Is it Alexander, or the line?" is, "Yes".

Sunil Joshi: The Seahawks are the first NFC West opponent that the Saints will face. In the preseason, prognosticators frequently selected the 49ers, Rams or Cardinals to win the division; the Seahawks were often ignored in those predictions. Yet the Seahawks seem to be the healthiest team after five games. Is the NFC West ripe for Seattle's plucking? Why are the Seahawks going to win the division? What could prevent them from doing so?

Doug Farrar: The Seahawks weren't ignored, really – I think people assumed that there was still enough talent to make a run in a very weak division, and as a result their status was sort of taken for granted. Certainly the 49ers were regarded as the team to beat, but we had no idea how much their offense would regress after Norv Turner moved on. Funny, isn't it, that Turner's ruined two offenses – San Francisco's with his absence, and San Diego's with his presence. Some guys should just stick to being coordinators!

Obviously, the Rams are out of the race with their catastrophic injury situation. The team that may finally be ready to make a move after years of wrong-headed hype is the Arizona Cardinals, who now have the coaching to match their talent. If the Seahawks don't win the NFC West again, it will be because Arizona took it away from them, but you have to wonder about an offense that's in the hands of the now fragile and inconsistent Kurt Warner. They'll have to have one of those seasons in which everything breaks right from here on out to overtake Seattle. It's not out of the question, though.

Sunil Joshi: The Seahawks are clearly a team that is built to win now. With time working against some of their most important players, should the Seahawks fail to advance deep into the playoffs, will Mike Holmgren's job be in jeopardy? If this core is unable to win the Super Bowl, does ownership owe it to the players to give them a shot with fresh leadership?

Doug Farrar: I don't know that Mike Holmgren's job would ever be in jeopardy … but then again, a coach that led his team to a 14-2 record last season got fired this year in favor of a man with a 60-85-1career record, and I never thought THAT would happen, so what the heck do I know? (Okay … enough with the Norv-bashing. Sorry!) Seriously, I think it will be Holmgren's choice to walk away. After a rough start to his time in Seattle, he led this franchise to a Super Bowl and several division titles. He's prone to the occasional lapse in judgment – I wouldn't wish his clock management skills on a high school coach – but overall, he's still one of the most respected coaches in the league, and it's still very much his team on the field.

Off the field, team president Tim Ruskell rules the roost, and I'm quite sure Ruskell wants to bring in his own guy when the time is right. I can't see Holmgren getting bumped aside for that, but it's important to note that former Falcons head coach Jim Mora, who Ruskell got to know when he was Atlanta's assistant GM in 2005, is biding his time as Seattle's secondary coach.

As far as being unable to win a Super Bowl, I don't think that's a fair barometer for any coach. So much can happen when you get to the postseason – so much can go right or wrong. The Seahawks certainly experienced one of the strangest Super Bowls ever, so we observers speak from experience. Top Stories