Inside The Pylon is pleased to welcome Seahawks Insider Gregg Bell of The News Tribune in Tacoma, WA, who joins us to talk about Super Bowl XLIX. Please enjoy this Q&A with Gregg and the writers, editors, and readers of our site.
Gregg Bell joined The News Tribune in July 2014, having served as director of writing for the University of Washington’s athletic department for four years. He was the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press from 2005-10, covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season and beyond. He’s also been The Sacramento Bee’s beat writer on the Oakland Athletics and Raiders. A native of Steubenville, Ohio, Gregg is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and a 2000 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gbellseattle.
Andy: How do the Seahawks avoid a game like the NFC Championship Game in the Super Bowl? Was something wrong with Russell Wilson during the NFCCG?
Gregg Bell: By establishing the run early with Marshawn Lynch inside, to set up the read-option plays with Wilson and play-action passes that would help mitigate the offensive line’s problems in pass protection. They didn’t get the run going early vs. Green Bay ‒ 120 of Lynch’s 157 yards rushing came after halftime. That forced Wilson to throw more and Seattle to have longer-yardage third downs. The Packers’ pass rush teed off on that ‒ as the Patriots will if it happens again.
Gregg Bell: Norwood, a rookie WR, didn’t get much playing time in the regular season after preseason injuries. Then he was rarely active because of roster numbers on game day. So, now they don’t trust him as much as the more-proven Ricardo Lockette, especially in a playoff game.
John Limberakis: What do you think of the matchup between the Patriots front seven and the Seattle offensive line?
Gregg Bell: Trouble for the Seahawks ‒ if they don’t establish the run first, that is. Having rookie Justin Britt back at right tackle after a knee injury will actually help. His replacement in the NFC title game, Alvin Bailey, got run over at times trying to pass block Green Bay’s Julius Peppers.
Brian Filipiak: Has Britt been as bad in pass protection as ProFootballFocus suggests (their worst-rated right tackle)? His potential replacement, Bailey, has played all over the line this season ‒ does he seem better suited at guard or tackle? And is there really that much of a drop off from Britt?
Gregg Bell: See above. Britt has had a wildly up-and-down season. Some weeks he’s been steady, some games he’s been outstanding (especially in run blocking) ‒ and some games he hasn’t been nearly quick enough to get out to edge pass rushers who’ve sped past him and made Wilson run for his life. But I think Bailey at right tackle for the first time this season ‒ the second-year man started five games at left tackle and guard as an injury fill-in this season ‒ scared the Seahawks. It will be Britt back in there for the Super Bowl.
Gregg Bell: He’s definitely a catch-first, blocking-is-still-a-project end. His speed is like that of some wide receivers, and that’s the reason for some huge gains down the field on runs after catches. He’s been prone to drops, but Wilson keeps throwing to him in key situations. Most safeties and linebackers aren’t fast enough to stay with him consistently.
Chris: How do you expect the New England corners to line up? Revis on Baldwin? Browner on a TE?
Gregg Bell: I see Revis moving all over: onto Baldwin in the slot, onto Kearse outside, blitzing when New England goes nickel. Browner, being more physical, figures to have a big advantage jamming Kearse at the line ‒ Seattle may play Baldwin even more inside than it usually does to try to get him away from Browner. The Patriots’ three- and four-corners or even three-safeties variety in schemes are likely to cause the Seahawks problems. Russell Wilson’s scramble runs may end up being Seattle’s best antidote to that.
Sam: Seattle’s pass defense seems built to dominate the perimeter, taking away deep threats and #1 outside wide receivers and forcing shorter passes to secondary options in the middle of the field, where their tackling and speed limit gains. Meanwhile, the Patriots passing game is built on exploiting the middle with tight ends, slot receivers and pass-catching backs. Will this game be decided over the middle ‒ Gronk/Amendola/Vereen vs. Chancellor/Wagner/Wright ‒ and whom does that matchup favor?
Gregg Bell: Not sure [if it will be] “decided” there, but it is a large focus of Seattle’s defensive plan. Chancellor is going to get Gronkowski most often, but expect Earl Thomas (a free safety in the truest sense of the word, and a rover usually without specific man assignments) to come down on the TEs right away. The entire key for Seattle is always its front four getting pressure, especially ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril ‒ or, in nickel packages, Bruce Irvin and Avril with Bennett becoming a speed rusher inside. When they often do that, the Seahawks thrive with seven men in coverage and Wagner and Thomas as underneath rovers that are as fast as wide receivers. When Green Bay blocked Seattle’s front four with five and even six in the first half of the NFC title game, Aaron Rodgers had all day to throw and the Seahawks were down 16-0. They eventually had to blitz Wagner and OLB K.J. Wright, which they don’t often do. It was still 19-7 in the fourth, but then the Packers went almost exclusively to the run to shorten the game and milk the clock. It cost them the NFC title.
Steven Carter: What offensive strategies have you seen that successfully pull Wagner and Thomas out of the middle of the field to open it up for deeper crossing routes?
Gregg Bell: Having a consistent commitment to the run early in games. Carolina did it in both meetings this season. Even though the Panthers didn’t gain a ton of yards rushing, they controlled much of those games and made Wagner and Thomas freelance far less than they usually do. Those two are at their best when running without specific gaps or receivers to cover.
Andy: How limited will Thomas be given the dislocated shoulder injury during the NCFCG? Same question for Richard Sherman regarding his left elbow?
Gregg Bell: Sherman did not miss a snap of practice last week, which was surprising since he couldn’t lift his left arm above his hip after the NFC Championship Game. He and Carroll say he won’t be limited. Thomas may not be 100 percent ‒ he sat out the first two practices, the first anyone can remember him missing and Carroll is probably going to limit him in days before the game. But after his injury in the NFC title game, he made a thudding, rearranging tackle of Eddie Lacy, so he’ll play the same way. Put it this way: Paul Allen buying stock in Apple is more likely than Thomas and Sherman not playing in this game and saying afterward they were very limited.
John Limberakis: Will the Patriots have more success with short passes and yards-after-catch because of the injuries to Sherman and Thomas?
Gregg Bell: I think by game time these injuries will be far less an issue than it appeared they would be on Jan. 18. The beauty of two weeks between title games.
Sam: The interior of the Seattle DL is much different than last season, because of offseason losses and in-season injuries. Meanwhile, the Patriots interior OL has been a major source of worry all season and C Bryan Stork seems likely to be at least hobbled in the game, if available at all. How do you evaluate the battle in the trenches?
Gregg Bell: Kevin Williams (12th season, first Super Bowl, five-time All-Pro with Minnesota) has been a revelation subbing for the injured Brandon Mebane. He was supposed to be a situational, 30-snaps-a-game guy. Now he’s the main piece inside. He’s playing a new position for him: nose tackle/three technique. And after getting pushed around in his first game in that role (Kansas City rushed for 190 yards Nov. 16, which was Seattle’s last loss), Williams has been doing what Mebane does: Devouring double teams, clogging the guard-center run lane, and freeing middle linebacker Bobby Wagner from getting blocked. If Williams does that again in this game, Wagner and Chancellor will fly around against the run as they have been, and the defense can focus on Brady and the passing game.
Sam: Seattle’s fantastic run defense seems to be vulnerable to rushes at its right side (offensive left) ‒ which is where the Patriots have found most of their success. How will Seattle’s RDE cope with Nate Solder without Brandon Mebane to provide support?
Gregg Bell: Seattle will move Bennett and Avril around. This is where veteran Tony McDaniel needs to be big on early downs. And it’s where they really miss second-year DT Jordan Hill, who was doing it versus the run and in pass rushing until he got hurt. It’s now former 49er Demarcus Dobbs plus a guy who was parking cars in South Carolina at the start of January as backup run stoppers inside.
Andy: How does Seattle generate a better pass rush without Mebane or Hill?
Gregg Bell: It’s been Avril, Bennett and Irvin outside with Wagner blitzing more up the middle if the front four haven’t been able to get home. Expect Bennett to play inside even more than he has, with Avril and Irvin at ends.
David R. McCullough: The Seattle defense seemed to regain its fearsome edge when the schedule served up a slew of underperforming offenses and bad quarterbacks. Did they improve *and* benefit from struggling competition, or was one factor larger than the other?
Gregg Bell: It was healing more than improving. The return to health of Wagner (missed five games, broken sesamoid bone in a toe tendon plus a torn foot ligament) and Chancellor (kept playing through hip and groin injuries plus bone spurs in ankles; not right until after they sat him for two games in November) coincided with Seattle facing Ryan Lindley, Drew Stanton, Colin Kaepernick (twice), Mark Sanchez and Shaun Hill. That combination equaled six wins in a row to end the regular season.
Gregg Bell: Not any more than usual. Ryan has mostly been on in directional punting ‒ aside from a mini-slump in late November into December. The coverage teams got markedly better after the injuries subsided and the numbers of starters and usual guys in familiar places on special teams got back to normal. That didn’t happen until late November.
Chuck Zodda: Seattle has had issues with execution in every phase of special teams this year, after being near the top in most phases last year. Is there any reason for the year-to-year shift?
Gregg Bell: It was the injuries. Undrafted free agents and guys off the street were failing in blocking assignments and blowing tackles and alignments on coverage teams for months. Then the regulars got healthier and back on special teams and it improved. But the kickoff returns remain a soup sandwich. Next-to-no blocking, and the Seahawks are on their third kickoff returner ‒ Percy Harvin got traded, rookie WR Paul Richardson tore his ACL, Doug Baldwin did it and went nowhere while also losing a fumble in the NFC title game. A big-time liability there as far as starting field position.
Odds & Ends
Daryl Sng: How do Seattle fans feel about this Super Bowl matchup compared to last year?
Gregg Bell: Some feel suddenly entitled to a second consecutive title, but many realize these are the best days in franchise history and don’t take this run for granted. I don’t sense the concern and animosity directly on Brady like it was on Manning this time last year.
David R. McCullough: Any concerns about focus or complacency in general, given the difficulty of repeating?
Gregg Bell: That’s where Pete Carroll has excelled, constantly coming up with fresh ways to keep this team motivated and challenged. That’s been his biggest accomplishment.
David R. McCullough: How has Dan Quinn dealt with the open secret of his departure? Who is the “next man up”?
Gregg Bell: Quinn’s very smooth with his players, fellow assistants and media. Carroll has prepared him and his other assistants for this since the day each got to Seattle, quizzing them on head-coaching responsibilities and including them in big-picture strategy. Next man as defensive coordinator: I believe it’s more likely to come from outside the franchise than from within.
Andy: Who does Quinn take with him for his new coaching staff?
John Limberakis: I think this has the potential to be an all time great Super Bowl and a classic. What about you?
Gregg Bell: Agreed. This will be a tight, intense game with each secondary laying guys out all over the field. Brady is going make this Seattle’s biggest challenge on defense all season.
Mark Brown: Which under-the-radar Seahawk would be your pick to have the most surprising impact on the game?
Robert Turbin, Lynch’s replacement as scat-like RB on many passing downs and in Seattle’s hurry-up offense, which it may use more in the middle of this game. Turbin is a great receiver and a shifty, up-field runner that could cause problems.
On defense, Wright is going to be asked to do a lot if they bring Irvin down more as DE and move Bennett inside more as I expect. Wright can really run.
Thanks to all who made this Q&A with Gregg Bell happen, most of all Gregg Bell!
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