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Mega-#HawksMailbag - 1/14: How can the passing game improve?

Posted Jan 14, 2014

Answering your Twitter questions about the club ahead of Sunday's NFC Championship against the San Francisco 49ers.

Welcome to a special NFC Championship edition of our #HawksMailbag here on Seahawks.com, our weekly feature where we answer your Twitter questions about the club.

Today we tackle your queries on the recent regression of the Seahawks passing game, how the defense will look to contain 49ers running back Frank Gore and quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the status of wide receiver Percy Harvin, the play of rookie offensive lineman Michael Bowie and much, much more.

Let's get down to it.

It's clear the passing game needs to find ways to improve - no easy task against the San Francisco 49ers' seventh-ranked pass defense. The Seahawks offense has dipped from 193 passing yards per game during the team's 11-1 start to 144.2 passing yards per game the past five contests (at San Francisco, at New York, vs Arizona, vs St. Louis and vs New Orleans).

Quarterback Russell Wilson and coach Pete Carroll have said the defenses of those opposing units deserve a great deal of credit for limiting the Seahawks' air attack, but there are a few clear-cut areas Seattle will look to elevate - their success-rate on third down (19-of-65 for 29 percent the past five games), wide receivers creating better separation, and Wilson making better throws.

“I think he’s doing what we need to do in these games," Carroll said of Wilson's recent performance. "We can always do better. He’s very concerned about leading us in the way that keeps our philosophy intact - which is take care of the football - and he’s done a great job of that and he’s done that all year long."

It's a good point raised by Carroll. The Seahawks are doing what they need to do to win ball games. Look to this past weekend's divisional round, where teams that took care of the football at the quarterback position found themselves in good shape. The Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck tossed four picks in a loss to the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton threw a pair of interceptions in a loss to the 49ers.

“We’re winning a lot of football games and that’s the best thing," Wilson said. "I think that I can always do better, I’ve always thought that. So there’s a lot of room for improvement and that's the exciting about it. We have a huge game coming up and I’m expecting to play a great game and I’m looking forward to that.”

That completely depends on the game situation. The Seahawks attempted just 19 passes in their 29-3 Week 2 win over the 49ers, as the defense's ability to create turnovers set the tone for the afternoon. The Seahawks ran the ball a season-high 47 times for 172 yards in that game. San Francisco's front-seven is stout, but it can be beat. Look for the Seahawks to stay within their offensive formula that powered them to the NFC's No. 1 seed - good defense, good special teams, run the football, and win the turnover battle while limiting and executing explosive plays.

"It’s not about the stats and all that," Carroll said on Monday. "We didn’t put up a lot of yards against these guys when we played them at home and we didn’t put up a lot yards against the Saints to get our win. That has nothing to do with what’s important as far as the game is concerned."

On Monday, Pete Carroll didn't have an update on how wide receiver Percy Harvin is faring in his return from the concussion he took this past weekend against the Saints. Carroll said we should know more by Wednesday or Thursday of this week, saying the extra day off that came after Saturday's win over New Orleans helps Harvin's chances for this Sunday's NFC Championship against the Niners.

The good news? Even after the punishment he endured in the divisional-round, Harvin's surgically-repaired hip held up fine.

"He came out very well," Carroll said. "We’re way ahead of the game on that one."

Tight end Vernon Davis, running back Frank Gore, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick each present their own set unique set of challenges, but Gore is where you start when it comes to defending the 49ers offensive attack.

Pounding Gore in the run game helps open up opportunities for Kaepernick, Davis and wideouts Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree in the passing game. Sound familiar? It should. It's a very similar formula the Seahawks employ with running back Marshawn Lynch.

Just one team (Buffalo Bills) in the NFL ran the ball more than the Seahawks (509 attempts; 2nd NFL) and 49ers (505 attempts; 3rd NFL) this past season. Consequently, no team threw the ball less than the Seahawks (420 attempts; 31st NFL) and 49ers (417 attempts; 32nd NFL) did in 2013. Each club emphasizes the run game first, and whichever team is successful at throwing off that offensive rhythm has a good chance at advancing to Super Bowl XLVIII.

Niners running back Frank Gore's 39-yard run against the Carolina Panthers this past weekend definitely conjured up images of his 51-yard scamper that came against the Seahawks back in Week 14 at Candlestick Park. Gore is quite nifty in the open field where he can outmaneuver would-be tacklers at the second and third levels. Make a mistake at the line of scrimmage and his sense will make you pay with big gains. Defensive end Cliff Avril says containing Gore and the Niners run game starts with fundamentals.

"Frank Gore is a heck of a back and the biggest thing for us is being sound and playing disciplined," Avril said on Monday. "Not trying to do too much, like getting out of your gaps and trying to make that extra play, because he will definitely pick us apart if you do that."

Simply put? By getting after the quarterback.

Pressuring Colin Kaepernick into quick throws and maintaining keen situational awareness in the front seven of the defense will help contain Kaepernick's ability to run the football. But defensive end Cliff Avril says what worked last week in pressuring Saints quarterback Drew Brees won't necessarily translate well to Sunday's game against the Niners.

"I think for us if we’re playing sound defense, if we stop the run - they’re definitely going to try and run it - then for us upfront it’s getting after the quarterback," Avril said.. "You know he’s mobile, so some of the pass rushes that you would use against let’s say a Drew Brees, you can’t use because he’ll take off and run.”

The Seahawks seemed content to let Kaepernick take off and run in their two meetings this season while challenging the third-year pro when he dropped back. In those two games, Kaepernick rushed for 118 yards on 18 carries, completing 28-of-57 passes for 302 yards, one touchdown, and four interceptions, suffering 5.0 sacks.

Kaepernick has ran 15 times for 113 yards and a touchdown in two games this postseason, 98 yards of which came against the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round.

Rookie offensive lineman Michael Bowie got the start at left guard in place of James Carpenter in Saturday's divisional round against the New Orleans Saints.

Bowie, a seventh-round draft pick out of Northeastern State (Ok.), started seven games at right tackle when Breno Giacomini went down with a knee injury earlier this year, but he was inactive for five of the last six regular season games. So what changed during the Seahawks first-round playoff bye that made Pete Carroll insert Bowie in the starting lineup?

"It was competition," Carroll said. "Really it was competition. Mike had done a lot of good things. We think he’s a fine athlete. He’s shown poise and smarts and all that in the nine games that he's had, with the two weeks [before the divisional-round]. So we said, ‘Let’s give him a shot and take a look at it.’ We started in the bye week and carried it through and he did a nice job."

Bowie not only took the place of the former first-round pick Carpenter, but veteran lineman Paul McQuistan as well. Carpenter and McQuistan had been splitting time relatively evenly at the spot. But against the Saints all five offensive linemen played 100 percent of the snaps. Carroll said we'll have to "wait and see" if Bowie holds onto the spot moving forward, but the fact he played every snap and helped power running back Marshawn Lynch to a Seahawks postseason-record 140 yards rushing bodes well.

Wide receiver Ricardo Lockette was with the San Francisco 49ers during their run to Super Bowl XLVII last season, but he spent his time on the practice squad and did not play in the team's conference championship win over the Falcons in Atlanta.

Fellow wideouts Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin were with the Minnesota Vikings in 2009 when quarterback Brett Favre led the club to the NFC Championship game against the eventual Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Rice registered four catches for 43 yards and a score and Harvin hauled in five balls for 38 yards, carrying four times for 15 yards and racking up 33 yards on a pair of kick returns. But Rice will miss this week's conference title game on injured reserve and Harvin's status is in question as he recovers from the concussion he suffered against the Saints in last weekend's divisional-round.

Linebacker Heath Farwell and backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson were with Rice and Harvin during the Vikings' run in 2009, with Farwell registering one tackle.

Defensive Chris Clemons was with the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2008 NFC Championship against the Arizona Cardinals, collecting one tackle in a 32-25 defeat.

And kicker Steven Hauschka played for the Baltimore Ravens in the 2008 AFC Championship, performing kickoff duties in a 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What were some of the player reactions to the #DearSeahawks messages from the #12thMan? #HawksMailbag #GoHawks — Jackie Lund (@jackie_lund) January 13, 2014

Our gameday photographers caught wide receiver Golden Tate taking in your #DearSeahawks messages on his way to the locker room prior to kickoff last weekend against the Saints. But the most notable reaction comes from quarterback Russell Wilson, who makes it clear your showings of support were very well received.

"It just shows how much our fans really care about us," Wilson told reporters on Monday afternoon. "It gets you a little bit emotional just thinking about all of the quotes on the wall and all of the experiences that people share on the wall and just the energy that we have in the stadium with our fans. It just shows how great this city is and the Seattle Seahawks want to bring something special to this city. And to do that, we have to play the best 60 minutes of our life. That’s the way we look at it - see how many great minutes that we can put together and see how many great plays that we can put together and see how many great days this week we can put together, and then see what happens come Sunday night.”

You know that championship mentality Pete Carroll is always preaching? Well, this is as about as literal as it gets.

Carroll has prepared the Seahawks all season long to treat each game as a championship game. The approach instills work habit, focus, and preparation of the highest level for each opportunity. The hope being when an actual championship opportunity comes along, you'll treat it the same way you've treated the rest.

"That’s been our mentality the whole year - to go 1 and 0 every week," quarterback Russell Wilson told reporters this week. "To have that championship mentality, to have a championship offseason, to have a championship season. And to do all that, you have to be focused and be in the moment all the time. That’s the exciting part about it right now. It’s nothing different than what we’ve been doing all year."

You sure can. Have you checked out our I'M IN page yet? It's a concept we drew up heading into last week's divisional playoff game, but one we're continuing with ahead of this week's conference championship. We've added an "Enter To Win" sweepstakes to the bottom of the page where you'll get the chance to win one of two pairs of tickets for this weekend's game against the 49ers.

Good luck and Go Hawks!

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