Super Bowl series 2017: NFC West

Super Bowl series 2017: NFC West

Football is right around the corner and The Game Haus is going to get you ready for the 2017-18 NFL season. The Super Bowl series is going to explain how every team in the NFL can win Super Bowl LII. The Super Bowl series will be divided into eight editions, one for each division. This is the seventh edition, Super Bowl series: NFC West.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks are coming off a 10-5-1 season in which they lost in the playoffs to the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. This franchise has become one of the most consistent in the NFL, making the playoffs for five straight seasons and six of the last seven.

Winning Super Bowl LII is not as daunting of a task as it may be for other teams. There are some issues the Seahawks need to fix though in order to win the Super Bowl.

Seattle is led by its defense and everyone knows it. The Seahawks finished the season giving up just 18.2 points per game, which ranked third in the NFL. They also finished in the top 10 in rush defense (seventh, 92.9 yards per game), pass defense (eighth, 225.8 yards per game) and total defense (fifth, 319.6 yards per game).

Super Bowl series 2017: NFC West

(Photo Credit: https://www.richardsherman25.com)

In the 2017-18 season, Seattle’s defense should be even better. Up front, they drafted defensive tackle Malik McDowell from Michigan State to play along side Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and even Frank Clark. Seattle also has one of the best linebacking corps led by Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. The Seahawks’ front seven will be extremely talented which will allow the Legion of Boom to continue their dominance.

Speaking of the Legion of Boom, the unit will get some much-needed help back at safety. Earl Thomas will be returning from his leg injury and that couldn’t be better news for this secondary. Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor have proven to be great players, but Earl Thomas may just be the heart and soul of this defense.

Before Thomas went down with a broken leg, the Seahawks were only allowing 16.2 points per game. After Thomas went down, that number jumped to 23.3, an entire touchdown more per game. As long as this secondary can remain healthy, it will be safe to assume that Seattle will have a top five defense capable of leading this team to a Super Bowl berth.

The offensive side of the ball is where fans should worry. Getting back to the Super Bowl is going to require going back to their original identity. The Seahawks were known as a defensive team that could run the ball. Last season, that changed dramatically.

Seattle only ran the ball 40.7 percent of the time. They also ranked 20th in rushing attempts per game at 25.2. That number dropped from 2014 when they averaged 31.8 attempts per game, and from 2015 in which they averaged 31.2 attempts per game. Running the ball less resulted in the 21st ranked rushing attack in the NFL at just 103.8 yards per game.

The Seahawks made many moves to address their running game. Seattle’s offensive line was pretty awful last season in both run and pass protection. This led to the signing of Luke Joeckel and the selection of center/guard Ethan Pocic from LSU in the NFL Draft. They also signed running back Eddie Lacy from Green Bay.

The Seahawks hope these additions will bring back the identity that led them to two straight Super Bowl appearances.

If Seattle can become a dominant rushing team again, then they will continue making deep playoff runs. The Seahawks also need to earn home-field advantage. Over the past five seasons, Seattle has gone 39-6 at home, including the playoffs. They must also become more disciplined as a team. Seattle had the seventh most penalties per game at 7.3. As long as Seattle does these things, then the Seahawks can once again become Super Bowl champions.

Arizona Cardinals

Super Bowl series 2017: NFC West

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Arizona Cardinals may be the most overlooked team in the NFL. They did finish second in the NFC West last season at 7-8-1 but missed the playoffs. Carson Palmer looked old, yet the offense was still able to be successful. Defensively, the Cardinals dropped off a bit from previous years. So, what is it going to take to see Arizona win its first Lombardi Trophy?

Answering that question takes us back to the saying that defense wins championships. Carson Palmer can’t lead this team to a Super Bowl at the age of 37, but the defense can. Arizona’s defense is going to hurt from the losses of Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson.

They are hoping that rookies Haason Reddick and Budda Baker can fill these holes, but that will be a tough task. Rookies don’t always make immediate impacts so the Cardinals made moves in free agency to help with these departures as well. Arizona signed Jarvis Jones, Karlos Dansby and Antoine Bethea.

In order to win a Super Bowl, these roster changes must improve on the 22.6 points allowed per game last season. Arizona struggled to stop opponents mostly in the second half of games, allowing the 21st most points per second half at 11.8 per game. Not every area of the Cardinals defense was bad. They only gave up 305.2 total yards per game last season which was second-best in the NFL.

If Arizona’s defense can turn these small yardage totals into fewer point totals, then they can easily make the playoffs and possibly the Super Bowl. But as is the case for every team, they need some help from their counterpart.

Arizona must balance out their offense. The Cardinals only ran the ball 36.7 percent of the time last season. They have to put the ball in David Johnson’s hands and take it out of Carson Palmer’s in order to make a deep playoff run. 24.9 rushing attempts for 108.2 rushing yards per game will not be enough in the NFL. The best teams in the NFL still run the ball well even though it is a passing league.

Although they pass the ball too frequently, it has led to a lot of points. Arizona averaged the sixth-most points in the NFL at 26.1 per game. The offense has been really good but balance will be the key. If the Cardinals do this and can improve on allowing fewer points per game, then Arizona will be the next Super Bowl champions.

Los Angeles Rams

Super Bowl series 2017: NFC West

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

The Los Angeles Rams are going to need a miracle season to win Super Bowl LII. After going 4-12, there have been many changes within the organization.

Head coach Jeff Fisher was rightfully fired in favor of Sean McVay. McVay has brought in new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and well-known defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. There is optimism in L.A. that a new coaching staff can send this team in the right direction and it all starts with that loaded defense.

Wade Phillips will be taking over a defense that was much better than it looked on paper. The Rams gave up 24.6 points per game, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. Despite giving up so many points, they only gave up an average of 337 yards per game which was ninth-best.

The defense was constantly in tough situations. Los Angeles tied for 26th in the NFL with 1.8 giveaways per game. Despite all this, the Rams defense can become elite.

The reason this defense has a chance to become the best in the NFL is the combination of talent and their new coordinator. The defensive line is headlined by superstar Aaron Donald and defensive end Robert Quinn. Other top defenders on this team include Connor Barwin, Michael Brockers, Alec Ogletree, Mark Barron, Trumaine Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner.

Phillips will transition the Rams to a 3-4 scheme and his track record as a coordinator is impressive. Since 2011, Phillips’ defenses have ranked eighth, 24th and fourth (twice) in points allowed. They have also ranked second, seventh (twice), first and fourth since 2011 in yards. Phillips and the Rams are a match made in heaven that will turn this already talented defense into being Super Bowl elite.

The biggest question mark for the Rams is their offense and how Jared Goff will fair in his first season as full-time starter. Goff looked bad in his minimal action during his rookie campaign. He had a 54.6 completion percentage and threw for 1,089 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions in seven games.

Overall, the Rams ranked in the bottom of almost every offensive category. They ranked 31st in all of the following: points in third quarter (1.6 per game), points in first half (7.8 per game), points in second half (6.2 per game), plays (60 per game), rushing yards (78.2 per game) and passing yards (184.4 per game).

They also ranked 32nd in the following: points (14 per game), second quarter points (3.3 per game), total yards (262.7 per game), yard per play (4.4), third down conversion (31.5 percent) and first downs per game (15).

As you can see, the offense was horrible. The good news is Goff can’t get any worse. Los Angeles also signed center John Sullivan and offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth to help their struggling offensive line. The Rams hope these additions will allow talented running back Todd Gurley to run for more than 3.2 yards per carry like he did last year.

The Rams also did plenty to help their passing game in the offseason. They signed Robert Woods and drafted other receivers in Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds. Los Angeles also drafted tight end Gerald Everett. There is nowhere to go but up and these additions should help improve the Rams’ offense.

It is going to take everything falling into place perfectly for the Rams to bring a Super Bowl victory to L.A. Wade Phillips must turn this defense into an elite defense similar to the ones he had in Houston and Denver. Todd Gurley is going to have to win the rushing title as well. If the Rams do both of these things and Jared Goff begins to show the talent of a number one overall pick, then the Rams can miraculously win Super Bowl LII, just don’t bet on it.

San FRANCISCO 49ers

Super Bowl series 2017: NFC West

(Photo Credit: http://www.49ers.com/)

It was hard trying to find reasons the Rams could win the Super Bowl so finding reasons for the 49ers is like asking a dog to meow, but this is what the Super Bowl series is all about.

San Francisco had a horrible season, finishing 2-14. It was one of the worst seasons in franchise history. This year they will be looking to bounce back under new general manager John Lynch and new head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Finding themselves in the playoffs means fixing the worst rush defense in the NFL. San Fransisco gave up 165.9 rushing yards per game last season. Running backs would see the 49ers on their schedule and smile as if it was Christmas. This caused Lynch to focus hard on the defensive side of the ball this offseason.

San Francisco added defensive end Elvis Dumervill and linebacker Malcolm Smith in free agency. They also used their first two picks of the draft on defense. The 49ers selected defensive end Soloman Thomas and linebacker Rueben Foster.

The 49ers weren’t just bad against the run, they were just bad all around. San Francisco ranked 32nd in points allowing 30 per game. The bulk of the points came at the end of halves. They allowed 9.5 points per second quarter and 8.2 points per fourth quarter. These numbers will have to come down drastically if the 49ers are to make a run towards the playoffs. Their pass defense was average, giving up 240.5 yards through the air per game, which ranked 14th.

Similar to the Rams offense, the 49ers’ defense can’t get much worse. Improving over time will happen but becoming a top 15 defense is what it will take to get to the Super Bowl.

Offensively, the 49ers did have an identity under Chip Kelly and that was running the ball. Since Chip Kelly is no longer around, it will be interesting to see if Shanahan will continue to build off that foundation. The 49ers averaged 126.4 yards on the ground, which was fourth in the NFL.

Despite running the ball well, the 49ers struggled to open up the passing attack and converting on third down. San Francisco only managed to throw for 181.9 yards per game. They also only converted on third down 35 percent of the time. Struggling in these two areas caused the Niners to average 19.3 points per game.

Adding to their offensive woes, the Niners only managed to convert points in the red zone 68 percent of the time. All of these handicaps must improve in order for the 49ers to win the Super Bowl. That and hoping the rest of the league forfeits their season but hey, this was worth a shot.

 

Thank you for checking out the Super Bowl series: NFC West. Stay tuned the final edition of the Super Bowl series and check out the previous editions of the Super Bowl series here.

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Featured image courtesy of http://www.steelcityunderground.com/2016/09/09/2016-nfl-predictions-nfc-west/

Franchise Analysis – Seattle Seahawks

Since beating the Redskins in 2012, the Seattle Seahawks have been a perennial contender. With Russell Wilson and the legion of boom at the helm, there’s no doubt Seattle will look to compete for another title in 2017. However, this organization is not without flaws. Seattle’s eye-opening loss to Atlanta proves that there is still room to improve. The question is not where do they improve, but how. Between decreasing cap space and glaring positional needs, Pete Carroll and John Schneider have a tough task ahead of them.

2016 Evaluation – offense

It’s clear that Russell Wilson is a great quarterback and who this offense will revolve around moving forward. Wilson ended the 2015 season playing the best football of his career, but that momentum did not carry over to the start of the 2016 season. Overall, the Seahawks finished as tied for 18th in points scored and 12th in yards. Russell Wilson had his second-best statistical season in terms of completion percentage and his best in terms of yards. While his quarterback rating was the lowest yet, Wilson had never thrown more in his NFL career. Not only was Wilson asked to do more in 2016, he was also asked to work with less.

The former college basketball standout George Fant had a rude awakening this year, discovering how hard it is to play tackle in the National Football League (Courtesy of; MyNorthwest.com).

No, I am not referring to his playmakers on the outside or in the backfield. I am talking about the left and right tackle positions. Any marginal Seahawks fan knows that the tackle position was a liability this season. Here is how poor that position played relative to the rest of the league. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Gary Gilliam and George Fant were rated as the 73rd and 80th best tackles among 80 qualified players. The Seattle Seahawks empirically had the worst tackle in the NFL protecting Wilson’s blindside. Both players were also liabilities as run blockers. This impacted the decreased production on the ground more than not having a “premiere” running back. Seattle absolutely must address both tackle positions this offseason if they hope to keep Russell Wilson upright in the immediate future.

Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham are great playmakers. Both players are rated as top 10 players at their position by PFF. The emergence of Paul Richardson as a compliment to Baldwin on the outside is also a good sign moving forward. The Seattle Seahawks will see an increased production from all of their current players is they find a way to upgrade their tackles in the offseason. This idea is simple, but not easy, given the salary cap situation of the team.

2016 Evaluation Defense

Since the Seahawks started their ascension to one of the best franchises in the NFL, they have had a dominant defense. The 2016 season was no different. This defense finished as the third in terms of points and fifth in yards. Their secondary, when healthy, is the best bar none. They have two great linebackers in Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, as well as a premiere defensive lineman in Michael Bennett. Given all of these great defensive assets, there is still room to improve.

Despite his incredible play, Bobby Wagner remains egregiously underrated nationally as a top 10 defensive player (Courtesy of; Bleacher Report).

The biggest drop off in a relevant statistic for the Seahawks was their third down defense. In 2015, opposing offenses converted only 34.4 percent of their third downs. In 2016, the Seahawks only stopped their opponents on 38.7 percent of their third downs. That may not seem like much, but small percentages in this statistic matter. For example, there’s only a 3.5 percent difference between the first and 10th ranked third down defense and a 7.5 percent difference between the 15th and 32nd ranked third down defense.

The 4.3 percent difference from year to year leads to extended drives by the opposition and more points. That difference in production could have been the difference between winning another game and potentially getting a first round bye and a home divisional playoff game.

Of course, injuries played a role in this decline. Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, and Michael Bennett all missed at least four games at some point during the season. With the emerging information about Richard Sherman’s injury, it’s fair to say that he was impacted significantly throughout the season. It’s absolutely logical that this portion of the Seattle defense will improve next season as their key players return to full health.

Divisional Analysis

The Seattle Seahawks have been the class of the NFC West for the past five years; every divisional rival is building their team to beat the Seahawks. So what does Seattle need to do? They need to continue refining and reinforcing what got them to this point: a productive running game and a dominant defense.

Given the greatness of Russell Wilson, they won’t ever have an offense that goes through a running back, like Marshawn Lynch. But they need to be able to control the line of scrimmage in order to stay atop this division. When you have to face the Cardinals and Rams front seven twice a year, you need a physical offensive line and running game. We’ve already talked about their deficiency at both tackle positions.

With the 26th overall pick, Seattle has an opportunity to address this need. It is likely that Cam Robinson will be off the board by the time Seattle is on the clock. Other viable players at that position include Ryan Ramczyk from Wisconsin and Mike McGlinchey from Notre Dame. At this point, those are the only two players outside of Robinson that could warrant a first-round selection.

Injuries are never expected, but always occur. While you can’t predict being without your best defensive players for multiple games, you can do your best to prepare for that scenario. Seattle needs to add depth to their defensive line and secondary. Michael Bennett is unique because of his ability to play every defensive line position at a high level. Carroll Phillips from Illinois could be that player in the third or fourth round to add depth to an already physically gifted front four. While he has off-field issues, his talent could outweigh those issues if he remains a day two prospect.

Seattle could also go the route of drafting a long, athletic corner to bolster their secondary. This could come in the form of Des Lawrence from North Carolina, who has the size and would fit well in their cover 3 defense. However, his man to man skills are not NFL ready. If they decide to add depth, they will be using day two and three selections to do so.

Post Season Prospects

This section is meant to show non-playoff teams where and by how much they need to improve to be a playoff team. Clearly, Seattle was a playoff team, so I will use them as a means to back up why I use these metrics to determine post season probability.

Metrics like points scored and time of possession are straightforward. However, stats like yards per attempt and third down conversion give more insight about the team. Yards per attempt is one of the best stats to differentiate between quarterbacks. A high yards per attempt means a quarterback is consciously trying to throw the ball downfield as opposed to constantly checking down. Thus, this is the difference between a Russell Wilson and an Alex Smith and why one has had more post season success.

Wilson is always looking to make a play downfield as opposed to dumping the ball off after three seconds. Alex Smith missed a wide open Tyreek Hill twice during their playoff game because he doesn’t try to attack defenses deep. Being in the top ten in yards per attempt is a good sign for any offense. There are of course areas in which this offense can improve. The biggest theme of this entire analysis is that if the Seahawks had just average tackle play, they might still be playing. Being in the bottom third of the league in sacks allowed is the direct result of such poor tackle play.

From a defensive perspective, this team just needs to stay healthy. We outlined their decrease in third down efficiency, but it’s not because they aren’t getting to the quarterback. This means that problem is in the secondary and with so many injuries, it was bound to impact their play. I firmly believe that is also why the turnover numbers are low for this unit. Health permitting, the 2017 Seahawks will be better on third down as well as accumulating turnovers.

Predictions

Pete Carroll and John Schneider need to have an excellent off season in order to overcome this teams sanctions and salary cap situation (Courtesy of; The Seattle Times).

As I eluded to earlier, the Seattle Seahawks have a unique challenge facing their franchise this offseason. The salary of Russell Wilson and their elite defensive players has left this team strapped for cap space. The Seahawks have just over $4.8 million in cap space. This is not enough to sign substantial free agents to upgrade their tackle positions. They have 14 players who become free agents this year, but none of them will create significant cap space if let go.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a big issue, but with the emerging story concerning Seattle’s second-round draft pick, it becomes a pressing one. Yes, they have found good players in the late rounds of the draft. However, no franchise can depend on striking gold with a day three pick. Given their salary cap and draft situation, I don’t see this team being able to get all the adequate help they need. With that being said, I believe the Seattle Seahawks will finish 9-7 behind the Cardinals, but will make the playoffs as a wild card team.

 

 

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Keys to the NFL Divisional Playoffs

NFL fans and media rarely agree on much. However, I think we can all agree that Wild Card weekend did not produce much excitement or competitive football. While it is a little early in the week to pick the divisional playoff matchups, here is a key to each.

 

Seahawks at Falcons- Are the Falcons ready for the big time?

Seattle should have zero concerns about being ready for a game like this. They have played in dozens of them over the last handful of years. Like always, the defense will limit scoring opportunities and the Seahawks will ask Russell Wilson to make a few key throws to get the win.

Atlanta is a different story. Despite Matt Ryan having an MVP worthy season, the Falcons have flown mostly under the radar and have not been placed in the glamorous national TV windows very often. A scenario where Atlanta’s offense simply scores too much for Seattle to keep up is conceivable. However, a scenario where Atlanta folds under newfound spotlight is just as conceivable. With Earl Thomas out, Seattle’s defense is a tad more vulnerable. Given what the Falcons are capable of on offense and their much improved defense, it is now or never for Atlanta.

Texans at Patriots – Houston needs some kind of early break

The Texans are 15.5 point underdogs for a reason. New England shut them out early in the year with a third-string quarterback. Fast forward a few months and now Tom Brady is back in the fold for New England. As ominous as that may sound for Houston, anything is possible. If that was not the case, games like this would never be played.

There are a few things that work in Houston’s favor. First, the coaching staff has numerous ties to New England. There isn’t much the Patriots can do that would surprise the AFC South champs. Also, much-maligned quarterback Brock Osweiler had the best game of his young career last year in Denver against the Patriots defense.

The Texans are here because of its defense. As atrocious as the quarterback play has been, the top-ranked defense has been that good. It will be up to that unit to force a turnover that leads to easy points early in the game and give the massive underdogs some belief. A big play on special teams would also serve the same purpose. Houston cannot fall in a big hole early if they want any chance at all.

Steelers at Chiefs – Steelers pass protection

No matter how good he is at sandbagging his injuries, there is no way Ben Roethlisberger goes from a walking boot to fully healthy in a week. Thus, those trademark Roethlisberger scrambles under pressure to extend plays are likely off the table. It is up to Pittsburgh’s offensive line to keep Kansas City’s pass rushers away from their franchise quarterback.

Photo Courtesy of steelersdepot.com

This will not be an easy task. The Chiefs have three or four guys that are capable of chasing down any quarterback in this league. Their defense is led by a healthy Justin Houston. Le’Veon Bell will not run wild against the Chiefs like he did against Miami last week, but he will need to run well enough to take some heat off of the offensive line as well. Looking back on it, Pittsburgh’s 43-14 early-season blowout of Kansas City is one of the true oddities of the NFL season. This game will be a lot closer one way or the other.

 

 

Packers at Cowboys – Green Bay’s third-down defense

This may be the toughest game of the weekend to call, but it is the easiest to size up. The only way anyone is going to stop Aaron Rodgers and the Packers right now is by keeping their offense on the sideline. Dallas has been near the top of the league in time of possession and third-down conversions all year long.

Photo Courtesy of thelandryhat.com

The Packers defense has struggled to get off the field on third down, raking just 22nd in that category. Dallas will dance with what brought them here. They need to stay in manageable down and distance scenarios with a heavy dose of Ezekiel Elliott. It is up to Clay Matthews and company to ensure that Rodgers gets enough opportunities to work his magic. Here is to hoping at least one of these games is half as good as Monday’s national championship game I fell asleep during.

 

 

 

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NFC West Preview

(Photo Credit: http://calvinayre.com/2014/08/13/sports/nfl-nfc-west-preview/)

Training camps are very near and I think now is a good time to start previewing the upcoming seasons for all teams in the NFL. How will they finish? What are some of the biggest games they will play? Why will they succeed or why will they fail? The first division I will preview is the NFC West. This division has been a strong division for the last few years. Ever since the Seahawks won the division with a 7-9 record the division has become one of the most competitive and toughest divisions to win. I believe this year will be no different.

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