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Friday, December 11, 2009
Mailbag: Possible Seahawks improvement

By Mike Sando

Heather from Seattle writes: Hello, Mike. I have become a fan of your blog this season. I just wanted to get some of your thoughts about the Seahawks. I know that our record is less than desirable. However, I do feel that with all of the changes that occurred during the offseason and during the season that it would be hard to become a 12-4 team. Do you think we are showing signs of improvement?

Mike Sando: Glad to have you on onboard. Thanks for reaching out. Some players are showing signs of improvement. Jordan Babineaux has quietly become a more consistent safety. Max Unger has steadily improved at right guard. Deon Butler's 32-yard reception with the game on the line Sunday was a step forward for him. Justin Forsett has clearly improved. Josh Wilson is becoming a good cornerback.

The team hasn't improved as much as some of these individual role players have improved. The Seahawks hoped their young defensive linemen would flourish under the new coaching staff. The pass rush simply isn't good enough and that reflects poorly on the talent. On offense, the line has a chance to grow together over these final games. Sean Locklear does not look like the answer at left tackle, however, and Matt Hasselbeck has not enjoyed good enough protection.

NFL teams with weak pass rushes and poor pass protection will have a hard time winning half their games, let alone 12 of them.

I thought the Seahawks would win between seven and nine games this season, depending largely on whether Hasselbeck, Patrick Kerney and Walter Jones could regain elite form following injuries. Those three have combined to make 20 of 36 possible starts this season. Injuries diminished Hasselbeck in some of the games he played. Kerney has also battled injuries. Jones hasn't even played.

Let's charitably assume the Seahawks, with those three key players at their best, might have posted an 8-4 record to this point. Multiply the eight potential victories by the percentage of games those players have started -- 55.5 -- and you'll get 4.4 victories. It's totally unscientific, but how those players performed was going to be pivotal, no question.

Will from Boston writes: Mike, in the Rams' first seven games, they were 0-7 and outscored by 21.6 points points per game. Since then they are 1-4 and outscored by just 4.8 points per game. Is that progress or just statistical coincidence?

Mike Sando: Those numbers are indeed accurate. It's impossible to call that anything other than progress. Holding the Saints to 28 points -- seven of them on a kickoff return -- looks impressive now. We should probably keep that in mind as the losses pile up.

The Rams have possessed the ball longer than their opponents in three of their last four games. But there's no sense this team is gaining momentum. The Rams set a season low with 233 yards against the Bears in Week 13. That felt like a step back.

Spooney from Phoenix writes: Seems to me that most teams tried to follow the dink-and-dunk blueprint against the Cards defense that San Francisco beat them with in Week 1. Bill Davis (hey Clancy, how's things in KC?!?) seems to have made adjustments accordingly. He has stuffed the line of scrimmage, giving his boys a double advantage: gonna stop the run, and pressure the QB into quick throws.

If Davis gives up the big play, then so be it because that gets his team's offense onto the field that much faster, and no one short of New Orleans would dare to shoot it out with the Cards. Against the Vikings, they let Favre dink his way down the field on the first couple of drives, then took that away, dared him to throw downfield, and challenged his talented but speed-deprived receivers to make plays, which they did not. Any "pass distance" stats to back up my theory? How about for the season, wins versus losses (except maybe the Carolina annual Warner Brain Dump game aberration)?

Mike Sando: Interesting theory. I know the Cardinals are not OK with giving up big plays, though. It's been a point of emphasis. The success Arizona enjoyed on offense seemed to pressure Brett Favre into playing more aggressively, leading to some mistakes. The passes Arizona picked off were 15 and 18 yards downfield.

ESPN Stats & Information does track pass-distance information. I'll see what I can find out.

Chris from Brooklyn writes: Hey Sando, I'm a big Cards fan and wrote into you last year a bunch about Anquan Boldin. I think it's time to revisit the issue. It has become all too easy to say the Cards should cut ties with Boldin because no one player is bigger than the team. Well, I agree with the latter part of the argument, but it doesn't sit right with me that the Cards would get rid of him.

Fitz is amazing, no question, as is Breaston, which some argue makes Boldin a luxury. But Boldin has a huge place in this offense, too, and last week showed it, again. While Boldin's potential replacement, Early Doucet continues to grow, he has not come close to Boldin's YAC skills, nor his ability to put fear into defenders prior to making a hit on him.

Why would the Cards get rid of one of the toughest WRs in the league, when the team is trying to build an image of the toughest bunch in the NFL? Why would the team rid themselves of the player that one can argue has the best chemistry with Kurt Warner? And why send the message to guys like Darnell Dockett (who the Cardinals will also have to find a way to keep) that you can talk your way out of town? It makes no sense. And since Kurt Warner is back for one more season, I just don't see how they could get rid of Anquan this offseason. I hope they pay him. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

Mike Sando: Keeping Boldin for the sake of Warner and the current Super Bowl window does make sense. It's the strongest argument for holding onto an asset that will lose value once Boldin reaches the end of his deal (the assumption being that Arizona will not be able to reasonably satisfy Boldin's expectations on a new contract relative to Fitzgerald's deal). Let's see how Boldin holds up physically, how he finishes the season and how he performs during the postseason.

Ed from San Francisco writes: Mike, Jimmy Raye's offensive strategy makes perfect sense to me. The 49ers do not run block well, and up until a few weeks ago they were not pass blocking well, either. Alex Smith was averaging more than three sacks and a few turnovers per game.

By moving to the shotgun, Alex Smith gets the ball quicker, makes better reads, reacts to the pass rush in advance, and gets rid of the ball sooner. It seems like Jimmy Raye has found that using the shotgun formation actually covers up the 49ers' biggest weakness -- the offensive line.

Maybe it's just coincidence that since transitioning mainly to the shotgun, Alex Smith has been sacked only once and thrown zero interceptions. But I think Jimmy Raye has found that the shotgun formation simply cuts down on the time it takes Alex Smith to get rid of the football, and that can't be a bad thing if you don't have much confidence in your offensive line's pass blocking ability. Your thoughts?

Mike Sando: Yes, that analysis makes some sense. I'm not quick to rip coordinators because they generally have legitimate reasons for the philosophical decisions they make. Raye would probably agree with the idea that Gore would ideally be getting more carries.

Smith has seven touchdowns, one interception and four sacks against the Packers, Jaguars and Seahawks. The team is 1-2 in those games. Gore has 32 total carries. The 49ers have been playing teams with relatively poor pass rushes. The Packers lost Aaron Kampman. The Jaguars have 12 sacks in as many games, a horrible total. The Seahawks' pass rush is not very strong. The 49ers will need that running game against good teams and it probably will not be there for them.

Nick from Fargo, N.D., writes: Mike, the Niners have been competitive in every loss this year except against the Falcons. What do you make of that? Poor coaching combined with mediocre players? Good coaching combined with poor players? Bad luck? I have no idea what to expect with this team in the next game or for next season provided they keep much of the same personnel both on the field and in the clubhouse.

Mike Sando: The 49ers are an average team with some physical and mental toughness. They have generally limited turnovers, which helps keep games close even when an offense has limitations. The 2008 team suffered 2.2 turnovers per game. The 2009 team is suffering 1.4 turnovers per game. That's a big difference and validation for the 49ers' more conservative offensive approach this season. Alex Smith's ability to limit turnovers while throwing more frequently has been another key.

Ken from Los Angeles writes: Hi Mike, I am an old-time Rams fan and I can't understand how poor Rams' passing game is. I don't know if it is because of poor play calling or inexperienced receivers. To be honest, I am not and have not been happy with the the play of either QB. Should we be? I do know the O-line has been a problem, but they can't be the only reason they aren't going downfield on passing plays. Also, what do you think is the biggest weakness on defense, the quality DL ,LBs, or DBs or play calling?

Mike Sando: People ripping the play calling can't have it both ways. The Rams were supposedly overlooking their best player when Steve Jackson had only 16 carries against Seattle and 17 against Washington in the first two games of the regular season. Jackson has become the focal point of the offense since then, and rightly so. He is by far the best option on offense for the Rams.

The team has lost its starting quarterback and multiple key receivers. Tight end Randy McMichael has dropped passes and generally struggled as a receiver. Left tackle Alex Barron has struggled. Right tackle Jason Smith remains injured and unavailable. Center Jason Brown has been banged up. Right guard Richie Incognito missed a long stretch to injury and is only now coming back. The only deep threat at receiver, Donnie Avery, continues to struggle with injuries that are clearly limiting his effectiveness.

Given those factors, what smart offensive coordinator would decide to open up the offense and strike downfield? It would make no sense. The Rams are playing not to lose because it's the only way they can keep scores close enough. As Will from Boston noted earlier in this mailbag, the average margin of defeat per game has fallen from 21.6 points during the 0-7 start to 4.8 points over the subsequent five games.

Other coaches, including the Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt, have told me they think the Rams are a well-coordinated team. Greg Knapp, the Seahawks' offensive coordinator, said he counted a dozen "unscouted" blitzes from the Rams in the season opener, a high number.

The Rams need help throughout their defensive front seven. They obviously need help at quarterback and wide receiver. They could use a backup running back. Once those areas are addressed, we'll learn more about whether the coaching staff is doing a good job.