The Schneider Factor.
I walked into the Seahawks’ locker room after the 23-15 win over New Orleans and looked around. To the left, quarterback Russell Wilson, unwinding. To the right, wideout Doug Baldwin and running back Marshawn Lynch, heroes, surrounded by reporters. Middle of the room, right, the DB area, were corner Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas holding court, and safety Kam Chancellor walking through. To the left, pass rusher Cliff Avril, and farther down, defensive lineman Michael Bennett and middle linebacker/defensive signal-caller Bobby Wagner, all talking about their roles in an impressive defensive performance.
The keys to Seattle beating the Saints and advancing to the NFC Championship Game. All acquired by Seattle since 2010. All acquired under the watch of GM John Schneider, who ducked into the locker room for a second too, long enough to unobtrusively stick a hand in front of Sherman, shake it, say, “Nice game,” with a wide smile, and disappear into a back room.
Think of those players. Nine players. One, Thomas, drafted with a Seattle first-round pick. Wagner came in the second round and Wilson the third of 2012. Lynch came in trade, for fourth- and fifth-round picks, from Buffalo. Sherman and Chancellor were fifth-rounders. Baldwin was an undrafted free agent. Avril and Bennett came as reasonably priced free agents when the market was depressed last spring. What Schneider has tried to get are players who love football, who have been marked down, who have some special gifts (Wilson’s charisma, and his Tarkenton-like ability to evade and then throw accurately), and who, rarely, as in the case of the costly trade for Percy Harvin, require a very big risk. Harvin has played in only two games because of a hip injury and now a concussion, and his status for the title game is in doubt. “But you see him on that fly sweep we run,” said Sherman, “and you see why we got him. He makes us so different on offense.” Only time will tell if Harvin was worth the picks and the money; it looks like a reach now. But Schneider’s not sorry he did it. Cost of doing business. He won’t play it safe.
“John convinced me on Russell,” said Pete Carroll. “He was on him early, then he came back from seeing him late in his season at Wisconsin, I think against Michigan State, and he was so enthused about him. I watched a lot of tape on him, and John was right on. Then he got here, and he was everything John said he was.”
I thought Saturday was the first day that the Seahawks had the defense playing the way Carroll and Schneider envisioned in the offseason when they bought Avril and Bennett. Everyone can’t play outside when you’ve got rushers like Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin already in-house. So Bennett, who had played as a rush end in Tampa, moved inside mostly with Seattle. “I just trusted the coaches,” he said. “It’s different, for sure, but coaches are smart. They’re paid too. They thought it would be best for me and best for the team, and I’ve probably been inside 85 percent of the time, rushing from there. I like it. And I think it shows I’m one of the most versatile players in the NFL.” Actually, according to Pro Football Focus, Bennett’s time has been split nearly evenly outside and inside this year (340 snaps outside, 333 inside, including Saturday’s game), but the points is, he never played inside with regularity before this year, and he likes it. Bennett forced a fumble on Mark Ingram that was a huge game-changer, and then he and Avril combined on a strip-sack of Brees.
The game against the Saints was a street game, with lots of trash-talking, before and during. I think the Seahawk defensive backs got into Jimmy Graham’s head. Whatever happened, Graham, who had to be restrained from some Seahawks before the game when they kicked a Saints ball away from him in warmups, was a non-factor, almost passive at times. This was the best tight end in football? I don’t think so. Sherman and Thomas made Graham’s life miserable, timing their physical arrival to a millisecond before a pass arrived and driving Graham nuts. There’s an art to that. Some call it interference that isn’t called. The Seahawks call it pass defense. And it worked until desperation time near the end of the game.
I remember covering the Ravens-Steelers championship game in January 2009 and seeing Phil Simms at halftime, shuddering over the hitting he’d witnessed in the first 30 minutes, glad he wasn’t experiencing the blows those defenses were handing out. That’s the kind of game I see San Francisco-Seattle being. It’s one of the few times these days that you say, “Looking forward to the running game.” When I asked Arizona’s Campbell about how the game would go, he said: “Very, very physical. They’re probably the only teams in football on 3rd-and-7 who’d run the ball and tell their defense, ‘Go win it.’ ”.
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The Patriot Way is any way.
Watch the 53-yard pass from Tom Brady to Danny Amendola Saturday night in the rout of Indianapolis. Know why it happened? Colts safety LaRon Landry got sucked up by the threat of another run by New England, another reminder that these aren’t the aerial Patriots. These are the ones who can crush your spirit with a 46-carry, 234-yard, six-touchdown game.
So what’s happened to New England? Is this a permanent change, some nod to Tom Brady at 36 not being the thrower he once was?
Not at all. Not even close.
The Patriots are doing what they’ve always done under Bill Belichick: what works.
The top five receivers from last year, from Welker to Woodhead, are gone. The tight ends are gone. In their place, at least Saturday, were these men, who played the most snaps of any players in their position group out of New England’s 75 offensive plays against the Colts:
|Position||Player||No. of plays||Stats||How acquired|
|WR||Julian Edelman||68||6 catches, 84 yards||7th-round Kent State option QB, 2009|
|TE||Michael Hoomanawanui||74||1 catch, 7 yards||Signed after being cut by Rams, 2012|
|RB||LeGarrette Blount||28||24 carries, 166 yards, 4 TDs||Acquired for RB Jeff Demps, 2013|
|FB||James Develin||35||1 carry, 0 yards||Undrafted Brown Univ. DE, 2013|
There were times Saturday night that Develin or Hoomanawanui were split wide. Not to give the impression that they’d run a wideout’s route, but simply to lessen the traffic in the middle of the field so the Colts couldn’t plug the box with eight men. Add to this the fact that the New England line is playing well, with Logan Mankins and Nate Solder leading the way, and you can see why the Patriots are comfortable letting Blount be the leading man.
You’d never think the Patriots would be a running team, with Tom Brady playing quarterback. But even in the face of a strong Denver run defense led by the ex-Jag Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them continue the running streak. Blount hadn’t had an 80-yard rushing game this year before Week 17. He lit up the Bills for 189 yards that day, and kept it going Saturday night with 166 against Indy. With a mashing offensive line averaging 316 pounds, and the lead-blocking of the 251-pound Develin, this is what the Patriots do best now—particularly when the weather turns the way it did Saturday night.
It’s a tribute to Belichick, and to his offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels (and to Brady, quite frankly, because he won’t squawk about turning and handing it off 46 times), that the offensive transition hasn’t grounded the team. When Belichick looks back on his career, whatever happens Sunday in Denver, he’ll know that this season defined what he was as a coach. He did what the skill level of his 53 players called for him to do. He forced no square pegs into round holes. It’s the definition of what a good coach is.