Season’s first half has been a battle for Seahawks

SEATTLE — So far this season, the Seattle Seahawks have been, depending who you ask and when you’re asking, a juggernaut poised to repeat, a team in turmoil battling a divided locker room, a team battling a Super Bowl hangover, or just a team going through a rough stretch of injuries and is poised to bounce back.

Seattle’s most-recent game, a closer-than-expected 30-24 victory over the winless Oakland Raiders, inspired such confidence-inspiring quotes from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll as:

“I know y’all like it easier and smoother and cleaner and all that, but it’s a battle, so suck it up.” And, “We survived the game and got through it, and the quarterback didn’t get killed. We made it through it, and on we go.”

While “suck it up” and “the quarterback didn’t get killed” might not be what you were hoping to hear about a defending Super Bowl champion trying to repeat, the fact remains that, for all the ups-and-down in the first half of Seattle’s 2014 season, they are still, despite three losses, in control of their own destiny in the NFC West. Obviously, the Seahawks didn’t hope to match their 2013 loss total in the first six games of this season, but with second-half schedule loaded with NFC West games, as well as a game against Philadelphia, another of the NFC’s top teams, all of Seattle’s goals are still there for the taking.

But before we look ahead to the second half of this season, let’s look back and the good and bad from the first half.

MVP, offense

QB Russell Wilson. Yes, Wilson has struggled the past two games, but during the course of the first eight games, he has still been the most important player on Seattle’s offense, and probably on the entire roster. Wilson’s first half numbers, even with the struggles against Carolina and Oakland, still have him on track for another Pro Bowl-caliber season, and in a few cases this year, he has had to carry the offense. Perhaps most encouraging for the team’s hopes for second-half improvement, however, was that the Seahawks won Sunday not because Wilson made magic happen, but because they ran the ball and played well on defense, the trademarks of last year’s championship squad.

MVP, defense

DT Brandon Mebane. Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman might be Seattle’s most talented and even most important defensive players, and Bobby Wagner was playing great before his injury, but nobody has been consistently better this season than Mebane. He is quietly having one of his best seasons at a position that doesn’t lend itself to accolades. If you have the game saved on your DVR, go back and look at how often Mebane was in the backfield disrupting plays against Oakland. As a nose tackle, he’ll never put up big stats, but Mebane has been a huge reason (pun intended) that the Seahawks have been one of the NFL’s best teams against the run this season.

“I really think Brandon is having his best season,” Carroll said. “I think he’s having the most impact that he’s had since we’ve been here. He just seems to be on his game and causing problems. He knocked the line of scrimmage back a couple of times for big plays for us. He’s been around here a long time, and sometimes you forget about the nose tackle, but he’s been a big deal for us again.”

Best rookie

T Justin Britt. No, Britt hasn’t played mistake-free football this season, but the fact remains that he has been on the field for nearly every offensive snap for the Seahawks, and has mixed in plenty of good play with the occasional bad beat in pass protection. There is absolutely room for improvement for Britt in the second half, but no rookie has done more for the Seahawks this season.

Don’t be surprised, however, if by the end of the season receiver Paul Richardson earns this award. Not only has Richardson become Seattle’s No. 3 option at receiver since Percy Harvin was traded, he also has shown a lot of promise as a kick returner. Look for fellow rookie receiver Kevin Norwood to also take on a bigger role in the second half of the season.

Pleasant surprise

The guard play. Last season, the Seahawks’ offensive line was in good shape at tackle and center — at least when everyone was healthy — but the guard play was a question mark. This season, without making any changes, guard might be Seattle’s most improved position. J.R. Sweezy, now in his third year, has taken yet another step forward in his unusual move from defensive tackle to guard, a position he hadn’t played before joining the Seahawks. James Carpenter, who has been limited both by injuries and conditioning issues — and those two things were very much related — looks like a new man this season, both in his play and his diminished waistline.

Best play

Bruce Irvin’s pick-6. Few players in the NFL, let alone on Seattle’s roster, have the athletic ability to do what Irvin did in Sunday’s game against Oakland. Not only did Irvin drop into coverage in just the right position, he then leapt into the air, tipped Derek Carr’s pass, located the ball, then had the speed to return it for a touchdown.

And that spectacular play brings us to …

Player on the verge of a breakout

Bruce Irvin. Irvin hasn’t been bad, by any means, but because he was a surprise first-round pick, and because he hasn’t consistently put up big stats, plenty have questioned Seattle’s decision to make him the No. 15 pick in the 2012 draft. But while Irvin was solid, if not spectacular in his move from defensive end to strongside linebacker last season, it appears that in the past few games the Seahawks have found the perfect mix for Irvin as both a linebacker and a pass-rusher. From his two sacks late in the Carolina game to his strong play in run defense to his spectacular pick-6, Irvin is showing up more and more for Seattle’s defense. Given his athletic ability, there’s no reason to think that this growth won’t continue.

Best play against the Seahawks

Third-and-20. You don’t even need to be told the opponent or who was involved in the play to know what “third-and-20” is referencing do you? Well just in case you want to relive one of the defining plays of the first half, the Seahawks were clinging to a three-point, fourth quarter lead against the Dallas Cowboys, and had they only made a stop on third-and-20, they have gotten the ball back with a chance to run out the clock. Instead, Tony Romo somehow eluded pressure from Bruce Irvin, who actually got a hand on the quarterback two different times, then threw up a prayer down the right sideline, and Terrance Williams made a spectacular toe-dragging catch on the sideline to keep alive the go-ahead scoring drive.

Biggest disappointment

The Percy Harvin fiasco. Whatever led the Seahawks to their decision to trade Harvin — whether it was fighting with teammates, or a feud with Wilson, or his refusal to go into the Dallas game in the fourth quarter — the fact remains that things got bad enough for the Seahawks to decide to trade one of the league’s most talented players for next to nothing in return. Maybe the end result this season will be a case of addition by subtraction, but it’s impossible to deny that Seattle’s offense lost a very explosive weapon last month.

First half’s defining moment

Stephen Schilling, a hobbled stabilizing force. After James Carpenter left Sunday’s game with an ankle injury, Seattle’s line featured an undrafted left tackle (Alvin Bailey), and undrafted rookie left guard who had actually never played guard (tight-end-turned-tackle Garry Gilliam) and an undrafted center who was Seattle’s third option at that position (Patrick Lewis). Worried that the line was just too young and inexperienced after Carpenter left the game, the Seahawks replaced Lewis with Schilling, a player they had hoped to not use because of a knee injury suffered in practice that week. Schilling, mind you, is in his first year with the Seahawks and had started all of two games in his career before this season, both at guard. Yet, as bad as things were going for Seattle’s line, the Seahawks felt like they had to force him into action despite an injury.

Biggest concern for the second half

Depth, especially on defense. The Seahawks have without a doubt dealt with more injuries this season than they did a year ago, but that problem has been compounded by the loss of several key players. Cornerback injuries have been more pronounced without Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond. The defensive line misses Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald. And especially in light of the Harvin trade, the loss of Golden Tate is significant. The Seahawks are getting a lot of injured players back, but it would be foolish to assume they’re done sustaining injuries this season. As the first eight games have shown, when the depth is tested this roster is not quite as strong as it was a year ago.

Biggest reason for optimism in the second half

The defense looks like it might have turned a corner. The Seahawks won a Super Bowl last season in large part because of a historically-great defense. However, early in the 2014 season, the defense appeared to feeling the effects of both injuries and offseason departures that included three key defensive linemen and two cornerbacks. In the past three games, however, the Seahawks have held opponents to 275, 266, and 226 yards, and after forcing just five turnovers through six games, Seattle has forced five in its past two games.

“The defense has really played well the last few weeks,” Carroll said. “… It’s really exciting to see that and turn at the half. We wanted to see if we could make a little move here and it feels like we have.”

Herald Columnist John Boyle:

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