The only thing standing between the Bengals and their first 5-0 start since the 1988 Super Bowl team is...the two-time defending NFC Champions. To give us some insight on the Bengals' opponent this week, we are joined by Danny Kelly, editor of FieldGulls.com. For our questions and answers with Field Gulls, you can click this link to check those out, too! As a disclaimer, these questions were answered before Marshawn Lynch was declared out for the game.
Q: Between Kam Chancellor's holdout, Bruce Irvin getting upset that his option wasn't picked up and players (and now players' moms) questioning the final Super Bowl play call, the Seahawks' had anything but a quiet offseason. How have these outside distractions affected the Seahawks locker room? And do you believe any of these off the field issues have played a role in Seattle's slow start in 2015?
A: I think Chancellor's holdout was the big factor. This team has always been a media circus - going back the last three or four years since Pete Carroll arrived, and there's never a shortage of controversy and off-field antics to deal with around the Seahawks. That said, they've always managed to leave the off-field circus off the field when it comes to game-day and have been one of the most successful teams over the past few years in spite of all the drama. The Chancellor thing did have a major effect, and the defense just did not seem to be "itself" during the first two games of the year. Now that he's been back, the defense has taken a huge step forward (granted, against some bad offenses) and looks more like the team they've been over the past three seasons. We'll see how they play against a very good offense in Cincy.
Q: What does Kam Chancellor's presence mean to this team?
A: He's the enforcer, first and foremost. He's an intimidating factor over the middle that opposing receivers and quarterbacks have to keep in the back of their mind. Considering almost all passing offense is funneled into the flats underneath and to the mid-range middle of the field, and these two areas are where Kam, aka the "Deathbacker," roams. He's a great run defender, he's really good in zone coverage in those areas, and maybe most importantly, he's the "heart and soul" type leader of the defense, sort of in the way that Ray Lewis used to be for the Ravens (not comparing the two players, but just as emotional leaders and tone setters for their defense).
Before Kam held out, I think I underestimated how important he is to the defense. It's pretty clear now that he's the glue.
Q: The Seahawks made one of the biggest trades I can remember when they acquired Jimmy Graham this offseason. In his last four years in New Orleans, Graham averaged 138 targets, 89 receptions, 1,099 yards and 11.5 touchdowns. The Seahawks certainly run a much different offense than they do in New Orleans, but through four games, Graham is on pace for just 72 receptions, 696 yards and 8 touchdowns on just 92 targets. Why has Graham not been more involved in the offense?
A: Well, it's funny that you say "just" 72 receptions on "just" 93 targets, because those are actually pretty good numbers in the Seahawks' low-volume passing attack.
Let's compare New Orleans' offense to Seattle's. Based on last year's numbers, Russell Wilson threw the ball 452 times compared to 659 times by Drew Brees, or 68% of Brees' total attempts. Adjusting for that volume difference, 68% of Jimmy Graham's average numbers over the last four years, as you quoted above would be:
61 catches for 752 yards and roughly 8 touchdowns on 95 targets.
The national narrative is that Jimmy Graham is wasted in the Seattle offense but when you look at his pace so far while factoring in the Seahawks' low passing volume and slow-as-molasses (by design) pace on offense, he's right on with the kind of target-share and volume-share of what he's done in the Saints' offense over four years. For context, right now, Doug Baldwin leads the Seahawks in targets with 24 and Graham is second with 22.
The Seahawks' offensive numbers are always just underwhelming. Doug Baldwin led the Seahawks with 66 catches and 3 touchdowns in 2014, so Graham is on pace to better the number of receptions and destroy him in touchdowns. In other words, in this offense, Graham's numbers have been pretty good (obviously Graham > Baldwin), and for me the most important number is that touchdown total. If Graham can contribute 8-10 touchdowns this year I think it'd be a fabulous success and make the trade well worth the cost. I'm not as concerned with the volume of catches at this point because the Seahawks are one of the slowest-paced offenses in the NFL and attempt way fewer passes than most teams.
Bottom line, I've been pretty pleased with how he's been featured in the offense thus far, and while it's been a little feast-or-famine (6 for 51 with 1 TD Week 1, 1 catch 11 yards Week 2, 7 for 83 and 1 TD in Week 3, then 4 for 29 in Week 4), I still think he's going to be an enormous asset for Russell Wilson as the year goes on and as they find some better chemistry together. Until then, though, the national narrative that he's invisible is going to be annoying, but that was to be expected. He was never ever going to produce in Seattle the same numbers he produced in New Orleans. The bottom line for me, again, is touchdowns. Get 8-10 touchdowns for the Seahawks this year and that should in theory shut everyone up.
Q: Speaking of the Graham trade, many people overlook who the Seahawks gave up - Max Unger - who in my opinion, is one of the best centers in the league. Thus far, the Seahawks run game has struggled and Russell Wilson has been sacked 18 times, second only to Alex Smith. How much of the offensive line struggles can be attributable to Unger's absence? And did the Seahawks underestimate his value.
A: The Seahawks certainly miss Unger and their offensive line has really struggled this year without him. The biggest impact that Unger made was he was really experienced at making line calls and in getting all his line mates on the same page, and that hasn't happened to this point with his replacement in Drew Nowak. I think the team knew they'd have a falloff from Unger to whoever replaced him, but it's been worse than maybe they expected. That said, in terms of valuing Unger, I think there was a reason they felt that the Graham trade was worthwhile to them. There's the belief that Unger's body has broken down, and it's something that the coaching staff mentioned a few times after it went through. Unger missed all but six games last season and, based on what I've heard, the team didn't know if they could rely on him to stay healthy all year. To get an elite player like Graham, you have to give up some value, and that's perhaps a big part of the reason they felt they could part with a player they all loved.
Now, the team has to adjust. The sacks have been crazy, and this week doesn't get any easier against a really strong Bengals front line. I don't know if Seattle honestly have an answer for it, and I'm guessing Wilson will have to run around a lot. That said, getting Marshawn Lynch back this week (I think) may help in the run game and there are things the Seahawks can try to do to mitigate their issues on the OL, like quick passing and screen plays and the like. Overall I think it's going to be very tough.
Q: If you were the Bengals coordinators, how would you attack this Seahawks team on offense and defense?
A: The most successful formula for beating the Seahawks has been to attack the underneath zones with quick passes and matriculate down the field in this way with yards after the catch and the like. Generally speaking, it's been hard to beat Seattle deep over the top, but obviously the Bengals are doing that at an amazing clip thus far, so mixing in a deep shot or three would be on my gameplan. One more thing - the Seahawks have struggled defending tight ends over the past few years so it would not surprise me if Tyler Eifert has a big day.
Defensively, I think the key will be to pressure Russell Wilson and when you flush him from the pocket, make sure to pursue well and tackle. He's got a way of extending broken plays so maybe you try to mush rush on the outside while bringing pressure up the middle to keep him in the pocket while destroying Seattle's iffy interior line.
Bonus: What is your prediction for Sunday?
A: I picked the Bengals, primarily because of the Seahawks' offensive line woes and because Cincy is playing out of their mind well right now. This is a home game and an early start for Seattle so those two factors may be big. Overall I just think the Bengals look hard to beat.