The Elephant in the Locker Room: The Weather Advantage, and Special Teams Revisited
By Greg Wright
What happens this weekend could be meaningless. It could also be a bellwether of sorts, letting us–and the Seahawks themselves–know if this team is of the 2013 Super Bowl champion variety or if this is merely a very good team. After all, with a marquee matchup of top-rated D vs. top-rated O, Sunday’s game has much of the feel of Seattle’s showdown with Denver in New Jersey.
You may remember that Seattle’s 2012 season ended with a heart-breaking last-second loss in Atlanta. That’s what a season (and team) looks like when it’s merely very good, but not championship-caliber.
You should also remember the beatdown of the Broncos at the end of the next season. That’s what a team looks like when it’s super.
You may also remember a rainy, blustery playoff game with New Orleans at the end of the 2013 Super Bowl season. Given the weather forecast for today and tomorrow, expect the game to have much of that feel. And it would be nice if it did. During that season, the LOB simply made marquee QBs look ordinary. They made superstud tight ends like Jimmy Graham disappear.
But you may also remember another key aspect to that Super Bowl season… and I hope you do, because I don’t think the LOB (or any defensive unit) is the team’s greatest weakness right now. As I wrote in January of 2015, I still think that if “if I were a coach looking for a weakness to exploit” in a matchup with Seattle “I’d be looking at Special Teams.”
Even before the Legion of Boom was famous, and when Russell Wilson was still wet behind the ears, Pete Carroll’s Special Teams were awesome. Remember Red Bryant’s perennial kick-blocking skills? Remember Leon Washington’s phenomenal kickoff returns? Remember Golden Tate being a threat to return a punt for a score just about any time he fielded one?
Remember last year’s punt coverage team threatening to set a record for the fewest return yards allowed ever? Remember Steven Hauschka becoming the most accurate kicker in the history of the league?
Well, I hope those are good memories—because they don’t represent what we’ve seen this season. Kam Chancellor’s back-to-back line-leaps aside, only one other special-teams moment this season gave us thrills: Doug Baldwin’s blocked punt, which turned into a TD for the Hawks… in a losing effort against the Cowboys at the Clink. And I bet you’ve almost forgotten about that one.
But this year, who can forget the Rams’ fake field goal, or their “fake” punt return for a touchdown in the same Hawk loss on the road?
Who can forget Hauschka missing three field goals in one game?
Would you be surprised to learn that Seattle’s opponents had a higher field goal percentage than the Hawks did this year?
Can you name Seattle’s leading punt returner? Did you even know there is a player on the home team named Bryan Walters? Many fans don’t. But that’s your guy, fans.
Are you shocked that opponents returned kickoffs an average of 24 yards, while the Hawks averaged only 21?
Are you bummed that the only player to return a kick for a score in the last two years isn’t even a Seahawk any more?
That opponents have blocked nine kicks over the last three seasons while the Hawks have blocked only five?
The only Special Teams category that the Seahawks have outdone their opponents in this season is percentage of punts downed inside the 20 yard line. Field position is important, yes… but when that’s your sole claim to Special Teams fame, there’s something awry.
Our hometown Special Teams aren’t awful… but if there’s any facet of the Hawks’ game that’s pedestrian, Special Teams is it.
To help address the Special Teams deficiency, Carroll and Schneider, of course, moved up in the draft to take Tyler Lockett, and he returned a kickoff for TD in the first week of the season last year. On kickoff returns for the season, he averaged 25, and later added a punt return for a TD. The net effect was that the team numbers were more like 2013 than 2014.
But the Hawks have still only blocked one kick attempt of any sort in the last 20 regular season games.
And this year, overall?
Lockett has not even returned a single kickoff. (Can that be right? Yes, it can.)
And when they have returned a kickoff, Seattle has averaged just 13.6 yards (dead last in the league), while opponents have averaged twice that (27.4 yards).
Seattle has downed 8 punts inside the 20. Opponents have downed 14 inside the 20.
Hauschka has been pretty brilliant as usual, but through four weeks Seattle’s Special Teams play has been decidedly subpar. The Hawks have been getting destroyed in the field position battle. In what shapes up to be a soupy, sloppy game on Sunday that could prove to be the difference.
And if kickoff coverage and returns do not improve over the season, it could also be the difference between an early exit in the playoffs and a third championship game for the Pete Carroll Seahawks.
Still… I’m betting that the LOB (and the weather) makes Matt Ryan look pedestrian on Sunday.
After four playoff appearances in a row, everyone’s paying attention… yet even with all the scrutiny, it seems that there’s always some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us weekly for a little closer look at our NFC West Champions.