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Seahawks offense must find ways to be better, even against the best

Posted Jan 13, 2014

Monday metatarsal musings: In their past five games, the Seahawks’ offense has faced four Top 10 defenses. They produced enough to win three of those matchups, but will need even more against the 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship game.

Chuck Knox always used to say, “It’s not who you play. It’s when you play them.”

But even the Seahawks’ former coach would have to agree that the who-factor also factors in at times. Just look at the Seahawks’ offense the past five games.

The lack of offensive production in the four games to close the regular season and during Sunday’s divisional playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints is prompting handwringing all around as the Seahawks prepare for this week’s NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers at CenturyLink Field.

And, sure enough, it was the Week 14 matchup against the 49ers at Candlestick Park where the Seahawks’ issues began.

Over the past five games, the offense is averaging 18.6 points and 265.8 yards – compared to 26.6 points and 364.3 yards during the Seahawks’ 11-1 start. This five-game stretch also has included 19 three-and-outs and a 29-percent conversion rate on third downs (19 of 65), a combination that has led to the Seahawks averaging 57 offensive plays. The Seahawks’ 10 touchdown drives have covered 80 yards (twice), 72 yards, 62 yards (twice), 61 yards (twice) and 60 yards, but also 24 and 16 yards (thank you NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense for the field position).

But as quarterback Russell Wilson and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell have pointed out on a weekly basis, look who the Seahawks have played in their past four games.

The 49ers, who ranked No. 5 in average yards allowed and third in average points allowed during the regular season. The Giants, whose defense ranked No. 8 even if the team did finish 7-9. The Arizona Cardinals, who were No. 6 in overall defense and No. 1 against the run. The St. Louis Rams, another 7-9 team that featured a defense which ranked No. 15 overall and No. 9 against the run. The Saints, who ranked fourth in average yards allowed, No. 4 in overall defense and No. 2 in pass defense.

Tough sledding against some snowbank opponents, and here we go again. The 49ers’ defense enters Sunday’s title-game rematch with the Seahawks ranked No. 3 in average yards allowed (303.0) and fifth in average rushing (108.5) and passing yards (194.5) in the postseason after having dispatched the No. 4-seed Packers in Green Bay last week and the No. 2-seed Panthers in Carolina on Sunday.

The Seahawks know they can beat the 49ers, especially at CenturyLink Field, because they did it in Week 2 this season (29-3) and in Week 16 last season (42-13). But they also know that to do it again on Sunday, they’ll have to be more productive on offense than they’ve been over the past five games.

With that said, here’s a look at three things that worked in Saturday’s victory over the Saints and three things that need work as the Seahawks prepare for the 49ers – again:

What worked

Marshawn Lynch – Literally, figuratively, forcefully, all those -ly’s. The Seahawks’ leading rusher was at his Beast Mode best when most needed, scoring both touchdowns while rushing for a club playoff record 140 yards. And he did it on 28 carries, tying his season-high from the Week 2 game against the 49ers, after averaging 19 in the previous four games.

When the defense set the table with Michael Bennett’s fumble-forcing hit and recovery in the second quarter, Lynch was there to score on a 15-yard run. When the Saints were threatening to pull a comeback in the fourth quarter, Lynch iced the outcome with his 31-yard touch run.

Lynch forced 13 missed tackles in the game, according to Pro Football Focus, and it seemed like more.

He had gone six consecutive games without a 100-yard rushing performance, Lynch’s longest drought since the first six games he played in 2011. But Saturday, he emerged with three of the top four rushing performances in franchise history: 140 against the Saints; 132 in last season’s Wild Card win against the Redskins; and 131 in the 2010 Wild Card win over the Saints.

And this is a franchise that also has featured Shaun Alexander, who ran for 132 yards in the 2005 NFC Championship game against the Panthers; and Curt Warner, who had 113 yards in the upset of the Dolphins in Miami in 1983 that sent the Seahawks to the AFC Championship game.

The defense – Again. Still. For three quarters, coordinator Dan Quinn’s crew showed why it led the NFL in average points, yards and passing yards allowed during the regular season. The Saints had zero points, and everything that QB Drew Brees and running back Mark Ingram tried seemed pointless.

And the Seahawks got plays from so many players. Bennett’s fumble-forcing/recovering tackle of Ingram to set up the game’s first TD. Bennett and rush-end Cliff Avril teaming up for a fumble-forcing sack of Brees. Avril pressuring Brees into throwing an incomplete pass on fourth down. The All-Pro safety tandem of Kam Chancellor (14) and Earl Thomas (11) combined for 25 tackles and each also coming oh-so-close to intercepting passes. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner fighting off a block from 310-pound guard Ben Grubbs to tackle running back Darren Sproles for a 3-yard loss on a second-and-9 play and later rejecting Brees’ fourth-down pass. Nickel back Walter Thurmond breaking up a third-down pass. Linebacker Malcolm Smith and Chancellor dropping Ingram for a 1-yard loss on a first-and-goal play. Thomas coming over the top of 6-foot-7 tight end Jimmy Graham to break up a third-down pass.

Doug  Baldwin as playmaker – He only got two chances, but his sideline grab of a Russell Wilson pass for a 24-yard gain just before Lynch scored his second TD must be seen (again) to be believed. Baldwin has been making big catch after big catch all season, but none was bigger than the one he made Saturday afternoon.

What needs work

The passing game – Now that Lynch seems to have his groove back, more consistent production from Wilson and his receivers is the next step – especially against a 49ers defense that will be stacked to stop Lynch and also has Pro Bowl inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis to plug the inside gaps that Lynch is so good at exploiting.

Wilson had a career-low 103 passing yards against the Saints, in part because it was so difficult to throw in the second and fourth quarters while working against the 20 mph wind that was blowing from the south end zone to the north. But he passed for 108 yards in the Week 16 loss to the Cardinals and has had only one 200-yard passing performance in the past five games (206 against the Giants).

Finishing what they start – In the two games they lost during the last month of the regular season, the Seahawks had the lead with 6½ and 7½ minutes to play, but the defense couldn’t hold it. And the Saints also made Saturday’s game closer than it should have been after the way the Seahawks’ defense dominated the action for three quarters.

Third downs – The Seahawks converted 5 of 14 against the Saints. That’s 36 percent. Not great, but an improvement over their efforts to close the regular season – 27 percent in four games (14 of 51). The 49ers allowed the Packers and Panthers to convert 42.9 percent (9 of 21), so the Seahawks must find ways to produce more drive-sustaining plays.