Just two weeks ago, the Seattle Seahawks were one of the up-and-coming teams this season, and had the look of a serious playoff contender.
But two consecutive losses now have league observers wondering if Year 3 of Pete Carroll’s rebuilding effort in Seattle is more pretender than contender.
The Seahawks sit at 4-4, with surprising wins over Dallas, Green Bay and New England at home, and disappointing losses to Arizona, St. Louis and Detroit on the road.
The defense has, at times, looked dominant, but also has shown its youth and inexperience, with an inability to make plays on critical third-down situations.
Carroll said this week that this team is close to being 8-0, but they could just as easily be 1-7. Seattle’s four losses have been by seven points or fewer, but the Seahawks have won three of their four games by a combined seven points.
Offensively, Russell Wilson has played with great poise in the fourth quarter, but also has shown the rough edges expected from a rookie quarterback.
With relentless runner Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks continue to effectively run the ball, something they established in the second half of last season.
But Seattle still struggles to gain consistency in the passing game, ranking among the worst in the league in passing yards.
While better than last year’s 2-6 mark at the midpoint of 2011, Carroll understands that his team must take advantage of a second-half schedule that includes five of the last eight games at home, including all three NFC West opponents, if Seattle wants to make the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
“They know we can play football,” Carroll said. “They need to hang tough, be resilient, come back and get going, and see if we can put together a second half that really makes this season feel like we’re going in the right direction and making progress.
“There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that we can, we just have to go do it.”
With that, here’s a look at midseason position grades for the Seahawks.
A surprise winner of a three-way quarterback battle in training camp, Wilson performed about as well as can be expected for a rookie. Here’s the good – he’s led the Seahawks to a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks against two of the best teams in the league in Green Bay and New England, something last year’s starter, Tarvaris Jackson, could not do.
Among the five starting rookie quarterbacks, Wilson is first in touchdown passes (10), tied for first in wins (four) and second in passer rating (82.4). He’s also proved durable; he has not missed a snap due to injury.
However, Wilson also is second-to-last in the NFL in passing yards (171.1) and 26th in the number of passing attempts per game (26). He’s thrown all eight of his interceptions away from home, so it’s no surprise Seattle is 1-4 on the road.
Part of the reason for Wilson’s struggles has been Seattle’s conservative play-calling under the direction of Carroll. But if the Seahawks want to be a legitimate playoff contender, Carroll has to let Wilson air it out like he did against Detroit last week. The Seahawks may have found their franchise quarterback in Wilson, a third-round pick.
Lynch is on his way to a second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing campaign. He’s second in the league in rushing with 757 yards on 159 carries for a robust 4.8 yard-per-carry average. Lynch has three rushing touchdowns, including a career-long 77-yard rumble for a score Sunday against Detroit. Lynch has rushed for more than 100 yards four times this season.
Fourth-round pick Robert Turbin has been a nice addition as a complementary back to Lynch, rushing for 129 yards on 30 carries. And fullback Michael Robinson continues to block like a Pro Bowl player as a lead blocker for Lynch. Robinson also is among the league leaders in third-and-1 rushes for first downs. He’s 4-for-4 on the year.
Sidney Rice leads the Seahawks with 28 receptions for 367 yards and three touchdowns. Golden Tate is second on the team with 20 receptions for 255 yards and three scores.
Doug Baldwin, Seattle’s leading receiver last season, has been slowed by a series of injuries; he has 11 receptions for 149 yards on the year.
Seattle needs to make Rice more of a staple of the offense. However, the Seahawks still lack a true explosive receiver that puts fear into an opponent.
Drops also have been an issue as the Seahawks finished with five drops in a close loss on the road at San Francisco that factored greatly in the outcome. The Seahawks have just 16 passing plays of 20 or more yards – tied for second-worst in the league.
Zach Miller is not serving as basically a sixth offensive lineman like last season, and he’s more involved in the passing game this season, which has helped open up the middle of the field. The Arizona State product also continues to be a force in the run game.
After teasing us with his impressive play during the exhibition season, Anthony McCoy has had an uneven performance with 10 catches for 97 yards and a touchdown through eight games. Evan Moore has yet to record a catch, making Seattle’s decision to waive Kellen Winslow Jr. during final roster cuts in September look like a mistake.
Offensive line coach Tom Cable finally established some cohesion with this group. The Seahawks have had three starting offensive line combinations this season, but have started the same five the past four games.
And the consistent lineup has paid off. Seattle has given up just 14 sacks, tied for 10th in the league. Last year the Seahawks allowed 50 sacks, fourth-most in the league.
Seattle also continues to get a push up front in the run game, averaging 132 rushing yards a contest, No. 8 in the league. Offensive tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger are playing at a high level. However, the Seahawks still struggle with penalties. Okung (nine) and Breno Giacomini (seven) are two of the most-penalized players in the league.
The Seahawks have 21 sacks, which is tied for seventh. Seattle is on pace to surpass last year’s total of 33 sacks. Chris Clemons is tied for seventh in the league in sacks with seven, and rookie Bruce Irvin is among the rookie leaders in sacks with 4.5.
Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane is playing at a Pro Bowl level. Mebane has three sacks and is one of the main reasons Seattle holds teams to an average of 85 rushing yards a contest, which is No. 5 in the league.
Still, the Seahawks struggle to get pressure on the quarterback on third down, which is one of the reasons they have one of the worst third-down percentages in the NFL defensively. Twelve of Seattle’s 21 sacks came against Green Bay (eight) and Carolina (four).
Rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner has done a nice job of adjusting to the speed of the NFL. Wagner is second on the team in tackles with 62, and second-year pro K.J. Wright leads the team with 63. Both are athletic, rangy players who cover a lot of ground and are sure tacklers.
However, both have struggled in pass coverage because of their inexperience, leading to Seattle’s trouble getting off the field after third down.
The Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” have given up just nine touchdown passes – tied for seventh in the NFL. Seattle’s back four also has allowed just 20 passing plays of 20 yards or more, tied for 11th.
However, more playmaking ability was expected from Seattle’s talented secondary. The Seahawks have dropped several potential interceptions and are tied for 13th with seven picks. Seattle has yet to score a defensive touchdown this year.
Seattle’s kickoff coverage unit ranks first in the NFL with opponents starting, on average, at their own 19.4-yard line. Heath Farwell leads the team in special teams tackles with eight. Jon Ryan ranks third in punt average (50.2). Leon Washington is fifth with a 29.8-yard kickoff return average. Jeron Johnson scored a touchdown against Dallas off Malcolm Smith’s blocked punt, which helped Seattle earn an early-season win over the Cowboys.
In his third season, Carroll has done a good job of remaking the roster and getting younger. He knows how to motivate players, and Seattle has had a chance to win every game, which isn’t the case for every NFL team.
However, Carroll is 18-22 in Seattle, and another season spent hovering around .500 will be seen as a step back for this organization.