Weapon H: Seattle To Unleash Harvin
By Corbin Smith
Sitting pretty with a 6-1 record and in prime position to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Seahawks could easily be satisfied and become complacent.
Not this team. No, a fast start won't keep Seattle from staying grounded, and the Seahawks have been far from perfect to this point. Coach Pete Carroll and his players understand that mediocre red-zone output, special teams miscues and pass-protection issues remain problematic areas as the season progresses, and this squad expected to win a majority of its regular-season games. Anything less than matching last year's 11 wins would have been a disappointment.
The Seahawks have managed to overcome several key injuries on the way to the best start in franchise history, with explosive receiver Percy Harvin being the most notable absence. Unlike other teams that have suffered through season-ending casualties, many of Seattle's biggest injuries came during training camp or during the early stages of the season, providing an opportunity to bring them back healthy for a late-season championship push. Harvin and left tackle Russell Okung both suffered significant injuries, but Seattle benefited greatly from Harvin injuring his hip in late July rather than during the season. The team was able to place him on the Physically-Unable-to-Perform (PUP) list and avoided using the "injured reserve with designation to return tag," which each team can use on one player during the season. With Harvin on the PUP list, the team had flexibility and when Okung suffered a torn ligament in his foot, the Seahawks opted to use the IR designation to return tag on him.
As Seattle begins to focus on preparing for the Rams on Monday night, the team will finally have a chance to see Harvin back in action, and Okung appears to be on schedule for a return sometime next month. Harvin, 25, came to the Seahawks via trade with the Vikings. He was expected to provide big plays from the outside for a receiving corps that lacked a deep threat. Hip surgery prior to training camp put his season in jeopardy, but he's recovered quicker than anticipated.
Seattle has a lot of talent on offense, but the team doesn't really have a "home run" threat, and Harvin would fit the bill. The organization won't rush him back and, even though Harvin has expressed interest in playing against the Rams, don't expect that to happen. The Seahawks should be able to take care of the injury-depleted Rams without risking further injury to the team's prized offseason addition, and he most likely will need more than a few practices to be ready for game action. It'd be more logical for the coaching staff to work him back slowly and aim for his return the following week against the Buccaneers. If he starts practicing this week, Seattle will have to make him active before Week 10, or they would have to place him on injured reserve.
As Harvin works his way back into game shape, the Seahawks will have to figure out how to best utilize his abilities within the offense. Carroll has already hinted that the coaching staff has some special packages it will install on offense to maximize Harvin's versatility, but with Harvin missing all of training camp, it could take an adjustment period before he becomes fully acclimated. He hasn't had a chance to practice with the team, so neither the player nor coaches have had a chance to work with one another, which provides another reason why Seattle should be cautious when deciding when to activate him.
Nobody knows exactly when the Seahawks will bust out the team's newest weapon. When he does return, Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell will have a lot more options on offense. Looking back at his time as a Viking, here are some areas where Seattle should be expected to make the greatest use of Harvin:
1. An already dangerous read-option game has a new toy.
Harvin enjoyed his greatest success in Minnesota when the team moved him all over the field. At the University of Florida, Urban Meyer loved to exploit mismatches by putting Harvin in the backfield as a running back, as well as using him in the slot as a receiver. Not many NFL receivers have the skills to excel running the football, but Harvin has the speed and elusiveness to evade tacklers and break big runs in open space. He also forces defenses to play close attention to him as a receiver out of the backfield, diverting attention away from other players on the outside.
During his four seasons with Minnesota, Harvin averaged 6.4 yards per carry as a runner and rushed for four touchdowns. With Adrian Peterson serving as the team's primary ball-carrier, he didn't run the ball often but he gave opponents fits when he had the opportunity. In Seattle, Harvin won't be expected to carry a large workload with Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, but he could see extended action in shotgun sets next to Russell Wilson and force defenses to focus heavily on stopping the read-option. The combination of Wilson and Lynch has continued to find success in the option game, and adding the speedy Harvin to the mix would only make defending it that much tougher. Carroll also would have the chance to run split-back formations with Harvin and Lynch both in the backfield at the same time.
2. Defending Seattle's screen game will be a major challenge.
The NFL is full of outstanding athletes, but very few possess the speed and quickness that Harvin brings to the table. The Seahawks have enjoyed moderate success throwing bubble screens to Golden Tate in the past, but Tate doesn't have the burst that Harvin does. There's maybe a handful of players in the league who have the ability to make a guy miss and then take it to the house, and Harvin excels in both areas. The Seahawks will want to create situations where he can find open space and use his athletic ability to create big plays — and making use of the screen game will provide the best chance for him to do that.
As a member of the Vikings, more than half of his receptions came behind the line of scrimmage last season, as Minnesota loved to get the ball quickly into his hands and allow him to make plays. He caught 32 passes behind the line, racking up 275 yards and nearly nine yards per reception. Throughout his career, he's been most dangerous in those situations, and Bevell will look to dial up plenty of plays where Wilson can quickly get him the football. If defenses focus on trying to cut him off near the line of scrimmage, Seattle will have plenty of chances to throw the ball downfield to other receivers, with Harvin serving as a high-priced decoy.
3. The Seahawks will receive a major boost on special teams.
Given Harvin's lengthy injury history, Carroll and his staff may try to resist the urge of using him as a kick-return specialist. But, based on his prior production in that role, the team would be smart to keep him back there. His durability will remain a question mark moving forward and keeping him fresh for offensive plays makes some sense, but eventually Seattle will have to pencil him in as the main returner. Jermaine Kearse has done an adequate job as a return man, and had a touchdown in the preseason, but he lacks the explosiveness to be a consistent threat taking kick-offs back for scores. Aside from Tate excelling on punt returns, Seattle hasn't had as much success in the return game after letting Leon Washington go in the offseason.
Harvin has the talent to impact outcomes on special teams, much like Washington did during his time with the Seahawks, and Carroll's team would benefit greatly from his presence in the return game. Not only would his presence allow for better starting field position, but he would have much greater potential than anyone else on the roster to instantly put points on the board. He set a franchise record by taking five kick-offs back for touchdowns while in Minnesota.
4. He will be a much more lethal deep threat than at any point of his career.
Harvin has made plenty of headlines in the past for openly showing frustration with the Vikings as an organization, but much of his unhappiness stemmed from poor quarterback play. Aside from playing one full season with Brett Favre, he's been stuck catching balls from a declining Donovan McNabb, an underwhelming Joe Webb and a highly-overrated Christian Ponder. Harvin, who had 62 receptions in just nine games last year, has been highly productive despite playing with below-average talent at the quarterback position. Now he will have a chance to play with Wilson, a budding superstar who has the arm strength and accuracy to launch the football downfield.
As stated earlier, Seattle would be wise to move Harvin all over the field as both a runner and a receiver, but his greatest value to the team could be his ability to sprint past coverage and stretch out opposing defenses. He rarely had the opportunity to take advantage of his athletic ability away from short and mid-level passes with Minnesota. In Seattle's offense, Bevell will look to be aggressive, and allow Harvin to try and burn corners and safeties for big plays while opening up space for other receivers. At times this year, the Seahawks' passing game has had difficulties because nobody else in the receiving corps has the tools to be a deep threat. With Harvin in the lineup, defenses will have to make adjustments to compensate for his elite athleticism and Wilson should have an easier time targeting Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin and Tate on the outside. Wilson will also be able to unload the football more quickly, making up for poor pass protection and limiting quarterback hits.