Real Game 1: Seahawks at Panthers (Preview)

If you’re looking for a possible surprise team this season, you’ve found it: the Carolina Panthers.  Actually, scratch that.  If you’re looking for a surprise team this season, you’re out of luck.  With the Internet there are no longer surprises.  For every NFL team, there is somebody with an online forum somewhere picking them to go to the playoffs.  (Well, except the Raiders, that is.)  But the Panthers could legitimately be good this year.  The folks at Football Outsiders like them a lot, and those guys are pretty smart.  They use math and everything.

The good news for Seahawks fans is that the ‘Hawks are supposed to be even better.  Even with their star offseason acquisition out for a substantial portion of the season, and the D-line a bit banged up, there isn’t any gaping weakness on this squad.  (I mean, other than possible systemic substance abuse.)

In this post, I’m going to preview the offense and defense by discussing what I think is the most likely way they will be better and worse.*

Most Likely Way the Offense Improves
This is easy.  Russell Wilson plays a full season like he did the second half last year.  Overall he was quite good last season, a top-10 QB, but it was a tale of two halves.  Over the first eight games, he averaged a touch under 7 yds/att and a 5-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio; over the last eight games, these numbers where 9.03 and 8-to-1, respectively.  Now, there is nothing particularly special about the eight-game mark (other than it divides things evenly and we like even things) and using arbitrary endpoints in assessing a player can be very misleading.  It’s a hack move to present one’s performance across a sub-interval specifically designed to help prove your point, as opposed to the bigger interval as a whole.  But in the case of a 23-year old rookie, it seems perfectly reasonable to think that late-season improvement might be real — signs that the player is legitimately getting better — not just randomness in his performance distribution.  Wilson probably isn’t going to throw eight touchdowns for every interception this year, nobody is, but it’s quite possible he’s the next-generation model of Fran Tarkenton, and it’s pretty cool.

Most Likely Way the Offense Drops Off
This is also pretty easy. Beastmode goes pussycat on us.  Good running backs are like good sitcoms; they’re usually only exceptional for a few seasons, and then they crash.  And when they crash, they crash quickly.  Seahawks fans certainly don’t need to be told this.  We all watched Shaun Alexander go from MVP to “secretly sucky”** to completely unusable in just a two-year span.  Marshawn Lynch was probably the second best running back in the game last year; he ran for almost 1,600 yards at 5.0 yd/att clip.  Would it be that surprising to anybody if, for whatever reason, these numbers slide to something like 1,050 and 3.9?  And if they do, is Christine ready to pick up the slack?

Most Likely Was the Defense Improves
Better run D.  The ‘Hawks simply got gouged last season by good, and sometimes not-so-good, ground games.  It’s one thing if Adrian Peterson lights you up for 200+ yards in a comfortable win where Christian Ponder throw for less than 50 yards; it’s another when Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas combine for a buck-fifty in an agonizing loss.  A lot has been made of the need to improve the pass rush — and hopefully a soon-to-be rehabbed Chris Clemons along with newly acquired ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril accomplishes this — but getting better against the run seems at least as important to me.  One stat I’ve seen pointed to more than once is zero sacks in the playoff loss in Atlanta.  That’s not good, obviously, but neither is giving up 153 yards on 24 carries (6.4 yd/att) to Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers.  I mean, if you can’t contain these two guys, trying to stop Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick is not going to go so well.  Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams should be an interesting first test on Sunday.

Most Likely Way the Defense Drops Off
Too much ’85 Shitheads, not enough ’85 Bears.  After one particularly brutal loss last year, I believe it was to the Detroit Lions, I texted a friend that the Seahawks were the ’85 Bears on first and second downs and the ’85 Shitheads on third down.  He replied that this was unfortunate as the ’85 Shitheads weren’t very good.  I don’t know whether or not the Seahawks were actually substantially worse on third down, but I can say that my Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde characterization was quite accurate.  Football Outsiders tracks a stat called “variance” that measures a defense’s consistency.  The Seahawks were dead last in the league in variance last year.  Now, it’s important to point out that inconsistency isn’t necessarily a bad thing (vacillating between great and mediocre is obviously better than being consistently awful), but it does show that the Seahawks’ D did not dominate on a weekly basis.  But this is something people who watched the games last season already knew.  One team they did dominate, however, was Carolina.  Hopefully the encore comes Sunday.

*I don’t talk about the most obvious way the O or the D could be worse: injuries.  There isn’t much to say about them.  If they happen they happen.
**This actually wasn’t a secret.  ‘Hawks fans were just in denial about it for a while.