The last time they met, both teams were headed in the right direction. They had young quarterbacks who looked like future stars. They had strong running games. It was natural to assume this playoff game after the 2012 season would be a preview of two teams ready to be NFC powers.
One stayed on that path. The other did not. The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl the following year. The Washington Redskins lost 13 of their 16 games in 2013 and their coach. One quarterback (Russell Wilson) is considered in the top 10 -- top five perhaps -- and the other (Robert Griffin III) has endured two major knee injuries and remains sidelined.
Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Redskins reporter John Keim break down the matchup.
John Keim: All right, Terry, let's start at quarterback. I know you've said Russell Wilson is playing the best of any quarterback in the NFL. So why do you say that? What is he doing that maybe he wasn't capable of last season?
Terry Blount: I've always believed Wilson is a much better player than he's given credit for, being unfairly judged for not having big stats, which won't happen in Seattle's power-running offense. But Wilson is almost flawless in his decision-making under pressure. You just can't fool him by trying to disguise defensive schemes. Specifically, he is getting rid of the ball more quickly than in the past because he recognizes where he needs to go with each throw and who is the open receiver as soon as he makes his drop.
John, quarterback Kirk Cousins had played well before the Giants game, and then the bottom fell out with four interceptions. What happened? Do you think it was just one bad game, or did the Giants expose some flaws that the Seahawks will try to exploit?
Keim: Cousins' flaws have been obvious, and the more the offense struggles, the more he presses and can be forced into mistakes. That wasn't his first bad game as an NFL starter. His four interceptions were a mixed bag of issues: throwing to a rookie receiver well-covered and bypassing better options, staring down a receiver, being fooled by the coverage, and forcing a deep ball to a covered receiver and leaving it too far inside. Even in the second half of the Eagles' game, where he put up big numbers, Cousins pressed. The Redskins hit three big plays in that half to keep them in the game but could not sustain anything because he was too jittery in the pocket, leading to breakdowns in mechanics and rushed decisions. The key is putting him in a situation where he feels he has to make a play. That, combined with a little pressure, has been enough.
Where is the Seahawks offense better, and are the concerns about the offensive line legitimate?
Blount: That ties in to what I was saying. The Seahawks still have issues stopping pass-rushers off the edge, so Wilson's ability to make the right decision quickly helps avoid sacks and allows him to scramble less often. But the O-line, specifically the two tackles, has struggled in pass protection at times. Right tackle Justin Britt is a real talent, but he is still a rookie and will take his lumps. The big surprise is left tackle Russell Okung, who hasn't played up to his normal standards. The three interior guys have played well, especially left guard James Carpenter, who is in the best shape of his career.
Despite the pass-blocking issues, the offense is better for two reasons: Wilson's continuing growth and Percy Harvin's presence. Harvin drives defenses crazy with his ability to do so many things. Using him on the jet sweep has helped running back Marshawn Lynch. Even when Harvin is used as a decoy, the defense still keys on him, which leaves a running lane for Lynch.
Keim: How much room do I have here? The biggest problem areas are turnovers and big plays allowed by the defense. Cousins has a penchant for turning the ball over, with 18 in his 11 games. The only answer right now is he has to learn from those mistakes. The problem is he tends to force passes; sometimes that leads to terrific completions, but he's not accurate enough nor does he have a cannon that can bail him out of bad decisions. Keeping the game in reach is a must for him.
The defensive issues are problematic because they date back several years. This defense always allows big plays, and now there are issues in the back seven that make it more susceptible. Washington has a new inside linebacker in Keenan Robinson, who at times looks really good but is still learning. Inside linebacker Perry Riley has never been that good in zone coverage, and it shows all the time. The team lost cornerback DeAngelo Hall, but even with him it had issues. Now it has a rookie, Bashaud Breeland, taking his place. He's physical and tough, but also a year away from being a quality starter. Washington has had too many communication breakdowns, so that must be fixed. That's a combination of coaching and talent. If there are constant communication issues, something isn't getting through.
The Seattle defense faced Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning in the first three weeks. What have you learned about this group? I know what the numbers say, but is the defense any better or worse than 2013?
Blount: Those are three great quarterbacks, so the stats may be a little skewed, but for now, the defense doesn't have the depth it had a season ago. Three men off the line -- Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald -- and three in the secondary -- Brandon Browner, Walter Thurmond and Chris Maragos -- are gone. That's a ton of experience to replace, and for the most part, the Seahawks are trying to do it with younger players. They also miss nickelback Jeremy Lane, a really underrated player in their secondary who is out until midseason with a groin injury. The starting 11 is still an outstanding group, but the younger backups will need to step up as the season progresses.
Jay Gruden appears to be a much different type of coach than Mike Shanahan was. Is that true? Does Gruden approach the game and coaching differently than Shanahan did?
Keim: Much different. Some of that is based on their personalities; some of it is based on the fact that Gruden is a first-time head coach while Shanahan obviously was not. Gruden is interested only in coaching, not in running the entire organization. But that's also a byproduct of a coach in his first job vs. one who had the résumé Shanahan did when he came to Washington. Though players liked how Shanahan took care of them, they seem to have a better rapport with Gruden. He is not as dictatorial as Shanahan, but he's also not afraid to speak the truth about them -- not harshly, just honestly. Players say there's a difference in the way he criticizes than Shanahan; it doesn't feel personal. They run a similar offense, though Gruden favors the dropback passing game more than Shanahan. But both have strong ties to the West Coast passing system, which has branched off in many directions. Gruden has kept the outside zone run game that worked well under Shanahan, but the pass game has different terminology.