This story originally appeared in the November 8 edition of Hawk Mail. To subscribe to Hawk Mail, click here.
Midway through the 2017 season, the Seahawks have done some good things on their way to a 5-3 record. The Seahawks won in Los Angeles, a victory that could prove crucial given the Rams' success this season; they came out on top in one of the most exciting games of this NFL season, a 41-38 thriller against Houston; and they have gotten standout play from a number of players on both sides of the ball, providing plenty of reasons to believe they can keep alive a streak of winning 10 or more games and advancing to at least the divisional round of the playoffs that dates back to 2012.
All of that being said, the Seahawks aren't where they want to be just yet, which was all too evident in last week's home loss to Washington that featured several self-inflicted miscues, most notably 16 penalties.
"We have so much to improve, and I am surprised somewhat that we aren't farther along in these areas that we are talking about right now," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Because these are things that we really can control. We have a chance to be good. We have been putting up a ton of yards, moving the football like crazy for a while now. We have a chance to have a good season and we got to get at it. We can't let any slippage in here, but the season is wide open for everybody at this point. We are at the halfway point. A lot of things that can happen."
Before the Seahawks kick off the second half of their season Thursday night in Arizona, let's take a look back at the players and moments that stood out in the first half.
Offensive MVP: QB Russell Wilson
Wilson will be the first to admit that he wasn't at his best in last week's loss, throwing a pair of interceptions, but his overall body of work this season has shown why he is one of the game's best quarterbacks.
Halfway through the season, Wilson has a more-than-respectable 95.9 passer rating and is on pace to establish career highs in passing yards, touchdowns, completions and attempts. And unlike last year when ankle and knee injuries limited him throughout the season, Wilson is again healthy, allowing him to be the team's leading rusher with 271 yards, putting him on pace for his highest rushing total since 2014.
Most impressively, Wilson has posted a 132.9 passer rating in the fourth quarter this season, a number that leads the NFL by a wide margin. That strong play late in games allowed Wilson to lead against Houston the 23rd game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of his career, a number that would have gone up to 24 if not for Kirk Cousins leading a comeback of his own last week.
"He's way off the charts in what he has done fourth-quarter wise, the comebacks and all that kind of stuff," Carroll said. "I don't know what they are, but he's got to be way up there, it's happened so often. It's his belief that it's going to happen, unwavering confidence that he'll be able to figure it out and do what he needs to do. I think also his ability to uplift the guys around him. I heard Jimmy (Graham) talking about that after the game—his poise and his presence affect people around him. And he has been the beneficiary of a long steady climb to understand and command these situations. He's really well prepared and well-schooled. There's nobody I can imagine wanting more than that guy back there if you've got to come back and get it done. That's a great strength on our club."
And in what is an encouraging trend for Seattle's second-half hopes, Wilson has been a better quarterback late in the season than he has early in the year throughout his career. Whether you look at passer rating, competition percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns or just about any other number, Wilson is better in November and December than he is early in the season.
If we were to give a non-quarterback version of Offensive MVP, that would have to go to Doug Baldwin, who has been one of the team's best and most consistent performers this season. With 49 catches for 538 yards, Baldwin is on pace to break the franchise record for receptions in a season—a record he tied last season with 94—as well as a third-straight 1,000-yard season, something only accomplished by Steve Largent in franchise history.
Defensive MVP: LB Bobby Wagner
Like Wilson, Bobby Wagner repeats from our first-quarter honors, building on what might be the most impressive season yet of an already decorated career. A two-time first-team All-Pro, Wagner again leads his team in tackles with 72, a total than ranks fourth in the league. He also has seven quarterback hits, a fumble return for a touchdown, one interception, five passes defensed and 1.5 sacks, including a sack for a safety in last week's game.
Given the consistently high level of play Wagner is demonstrating again this year, he deserves to find himself in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation when year-end awards are voted on after the season.
"He is doing great," Carroll said. "… He is having a fantastic season and continues to just be so productive and making so many things happen."
Of course as is always the case with Seattle's defense, there are plenty of other worthy candidates, including Earl Thomas—an NFL Comeback Player of the Year candidate—Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor and K.J. Wright.
Special Teams MVP: CB Neiko Thorpe
Thorpe missed out on first-quarter honors because he was injured, missing two of Seattle's first four games, but now that he's healthy, he is showing again why he is not just Seattle's top special teams player, but one of the best league-wide. Despite that missed time, Thorpe is tied for second on the team in special teams tackles with six, one off Bradley McDougald's team leading total. Thorpe also deflected a punt in last week's game and made a big tackle in punt coverage that demonstrated again why he's one of the best gunners you'll find in the game.
McDougald, the first-quarter winner in this category, continues his strong play on special teams while also being a big part of the defense, and the Seahawks have also gotten big contributions from the likes of D.J. Alexander, Justin Coleman, Tanner McEvoy and Tre Madden, who unfortunately went on injured reserve this week with a calf injury.
Jon Ryan also deserves a mention in this category, posting a 40.2 net average, the second highest total of his career. Ryan has also had 39 percent of his punts downed inside the 20, the best percentage since 2012.
Best Rookie: CB Shaquill Griffin
Yes, Shaquill Griffin's most recent play was one he'd rather forget, but despite getting beat by a great throw and even better catch late in Sunday's loss to Washington, the third-round pick is having a fantastic rookie season overall. Playing opposite Sherman, Griffin is tested often, and despite a very rare miscue, he has held up very well overall, and because teams throw his way, Griffin has been able to rack up a team-leading eight passes defensed.
"I'm continually impressed with that he's holding up such a consistent level of play, and he's getting checked out too," Carroll said last month. "He's getting opportunities and all of that, and I think (defensive backs coach) Andre Curtis and (defensive coordinator) Kris (Richard) and our defensive coaches are doing a great job. For him to be playing at this level—he is aggressively playing; he's not just out there surviving it, he's going after it and taking on the challenges and he's played very consistently—that's what's really impressive. He hasn't wavered at all"
As for getting beat deep last week, Griffin has vowed to learn from that and not let it happen again, and his coaches are confident they'll see the right kind of response from Griffin going forward.
"This kid is a stud, he's a stud," Richard said. "He's prepared to get back out there and keep competing, and there isn't much that has fazed this guy throughout the time that he has been here. He has been poised, he has been confident, and he's exactly the way that you want a cornerback to be."
And Griffin is hardly the only member of his draft class making significant contributions. Ethan Pocic has played well at left guard since taking over that job from an injured Luke Joeckel; Nazair Jones is an important part of the defensive line rotation and has contributed one sack, three passes defensed, an interception and a forced fumble; and before he went on injured reserve with a leg injury, Chris Carson was the team's leading rusher.
Best Newcomer: DT Sheldon Richardson
Richardson, who was acquired in a trade just before the start of the season, has become a key player in Seattle's defensive line, and while his job as interior lineman means he doesn't always get the big tackle or sack numbers, he has shown a knack for making big plays. Richardson had both an interception and fumble recovery in Seattle's win in Los Angeles, and he had a crucial third-down tackle against Houston to give the ball back to Wilson and the offense, who answered with the game-winning drive. And when Richardson hasn't been making big plays, he has been commanding double teams that in the past were often reserved for Michael Bennett, which in turn has helped Bennett pile up a team-leading 6.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits and 10 tackles for loss, which is tied for the fifth-best total in the league.
Also of note in this category are McDougald, Joeckel and Oday Aboushi. McDougald played well in his first start last week, filling in for Thomas, and before that has been an important part of the defense as a third safety in sub packages while also being a top special teams player. Joeckel was one of Seattle's best and most consistent offensive linemen before being sidelined by his knee injury, and Aboushi has helped solidify the line since taking over at right guard earlier this season.
Best Play: Earl Thomas' Interception Return Touchdown vs. Houston
Paul Richardson, who earned first-quarter honors for his game-winning catch against San Francisco, could have easily gotten the nod here again for his leaping 48-yard catch on the final drive against Houston. But instead we'll go with another crucial play from that game, Earl Thomas' 78-yard interception return for a touchdown.
That play came early in the game, but it was big not just because it gave the Seahawks an early score, but it also momentarily slowed a nearly unstoppable Houston offense. Had Thomas, who had a rare miscue on the previous drive to allow a big touchdown, not made that play, jumping a route and racing 78-yards to the end zone, the Texans may have ended up with an early two-score lead and a lot of momentum. The Seahawks have overcome plenty of big deficits under Carroll, a 10 or 14-point hole wouldn't necessarily have decided the game, but as well as Watson and the Texans were playing, the Seahawks might have had a hard time getting back in the game if not for Thomas' fourth career touchdown.
"I kind of banked on my preparation, I banked on what I thought he would do, and it happened," Thomas said. "… Just a savvy vet move."
Thing To Build On: Overall Strong Defensive Play
Seattle's defense has hardly been perfect this season; the Seahawks have surrendered more big plays than is usual for this group, and despite a very strong overall performance against Washington, they did give up two big completions at the end of the game that allowed Washington to score the winning touchdown. All of that being said, however, Seattle's defense looks very much like a unit that is more than capable of leading the Seahawks on a deep postseason run. The Seahawks are currently giving up 18.6 points per game, which ranks fourth in the league, and they were first in that category before their shootout win over Houston. They also held the Rams, who are the highest scoring team in the league, to just 10 points in L.A., the Rams' only game with fewer than 20 points this season.
The defense also appears to have cleaned up the big play issues in the running game that were a problem early this season. Since San Francisco's Carlos Hyde and Tennessee's DeMarco Murray posted back-to-back 100-yard games on the strength of one big run each, the Seahawks have shut down opposing backs. In their past five games, no opposing running back has gained more than Houston's Lamar Miller, who needed 21 carries to reach 54 yards.
Seattle's defense feels like it can still get a lot better if it cleans up a few issues, but the numbers across the board are impressive, with Seattle ranking in the Top-10 in a lot of key stats, including red zone defense (T-3rd, 40 percent), opponent passer rating (6th, 77.0), third-down percentage (8th, 34.9), takeaways (T-8th, 14), explosive plays allowed (T-9th, 49), and thanks to 11 sacks in the past two games, they're tied for eighth in that category with 23.
Thing To Clean Up: Penalties
Sunday's 16-penalty performance really brought the penalty issue to light, but it was hardly an isolated incident. Even before that game, the Seahawks led the NFL in penalties enforced against them, and they now are averaging more than 10 per game with 82 penalties for 672 yards in eight games.
"We've had enough penalties already this season where you could say one of these games it's going to jump up and bite you, and that's exactly what it felt like today," Carroll said after Sunday’s loss. "It's really important that we find our way and find our way back and play good football."
The Seahawks don't need to play penalty-free football to win—they led the NFL in penalties while going to the Super Bowl in back-to-back seasons in 2013 and 2014—but they need to get to a point where those penalties aren't setting them back so much, particularly on offense.