SEATTLE — The blueprint for stopping the Seahawks is drawn.
Cram the line of scrimmage. Stop the run. Get pressure on Russell Wilson. And challenge Seattle’s receivers with tight man-to-man coverage.
San Francisco did it and won. So did Arizona. In both games, the Seahawks couldn’t connect on big passing plays to loosen the line of scrimmage and make defenses pay.
“I don’t know if they have a true No. 1 receiver on the outside, a guy that strikes fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators,” said Bucky Brooks, an NFL Network analyst and former defensive back. “So you’re seeing more teams not only bringing pressure to attack Russell, but also clamping down on the receivers on the outside and they’re unable to create separation.
“That’s why the Percy Harvin injury looms large. Because we saw even in the small sample size that he played against Minnesota, it changed how Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate and those guys were able to get open. His presence on the field really lifted the blanket on some of those guys.”
That’s part of the reason Harvin’s expected return to practice this week is so important. The Seahawks still went 13-3, and their receivers take exception to the idea they need Harvin to win.
But Harvin, who has played just 19 snaps and caught one pass because of a hip injury, provides an explosive element that can change games in an instant. His presence can also change how defenses play. A safety, for example, might have to favor the side Harvin lines up on because of his speed.
“We’re just going to add him in and see where he fits,” coach Pete Carroll said, “but when you put the ball in his hands, things are going to happen … If he gets a chance to play, and he can get through it and show that he’s ready, then he just may do something in the next game.”
“To have a guy like Percy,” Wilson said earlier this season, “it changes the game.”
If he returns for the playoffs, he could push Seattle over the edge. He did, after all, return his lone kickoff 58 yards. If he doesn’t, Seattle’s remaining receivers will have to make the big plays that mostly eluded them down the stretch.
“For the Seahawks to win and go to the Super Bowl,” Brooks said, “their receivers on the outside have to win, and Russell’s going to have to make a handful of throws in the game that really punishes the defense for using those tactics.”
Harvin has drawn plenty of scorn, but that wasn’t always the case. The trade to acquire him was largely applauded at the time. Think about the juicy possibilities of a backfield featuring Harvin, Wilson and Marshawn Lynch.
As NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said before the season, “They’ve effectively been like a Floyd Mayweather team. They just jabbed you for 12 rounds and by the end they’d beaten the other guy up and won. But then they got excited about having the Mike Tyson ability to knock teams out with one punch with huge plays from Harvin.”
Harvin is making $14.5 million this season between his signing bonus and salary, which only adds to the frustration. But, as CBS NFL Insider Jason La Canfora wrote before the season, “He’s making what he’s worth … His versatility and game-breaking skills at several receiver spots, running back and on special teams cannot be overstated.”
Seattle gave up its first-round pick in 2013 (21st overall) to get Harvin, and in retrospect you could argue that the Seahawks would have been better off adding a weapon in the draft.
But the trade made sense, and Harvin still has five years on his deal.
“Justifying Percy Harvin, he had proven within the league that he is uncoverable,” said John Middlekauff, a former scout with the Philadelphia Eagles. “Was it a risky move? No question. But you know the guy can be a difference-maker. He’s proven it. The risk-reward, if you do get the reward, it’s elite.”
If Harvin doesn’t return, the Seahawks will rely on the same receiving corps that helped them to the best record in the NFC.
Proponents of Seattle’s receivers point to their explosive plays — Baldwin and Tate have combined for 26 catches of at least 20 yards — despite the fact the Seahawks rank second-to-last in passing attempts.
Opponents counter that Seattle doesn’t have a guy who can consistently make the tough catch in traffic in a crucial situation.
What’s clear is that teams are going to test the Seahawks with tight man coverage, just like the Cardinals did in holding Seattle to a season-low 108 passing yards. Seattle’s offense relies heavily on explosive plays. Baldwin calls it “high-risk, high-reward.” But when teams like Arizona take away those big plays, the Seahawks can look stale.
“I think our whole receiving corps took that personal,” Baldwin said. “We’ve got to improve and move forward because we know we’re going to get the same stuff in the future.”