Percy Harvin was supersonic in the summer.
He has become ambushed in autumn.
Finally as healthy as he’d been in a decade following offseason hip surgery, the Seahawks’ game-breaking wide receiver had two catches on bubble screens and a sweep run in the Seahawks’ first eight plays of this season. He finished the opener against Green Bay with seven catches for 59 yards – including a 33-yard reception – and four runs for 41 more yards on offense, plus 60 yards in kickoff returns. The Packers were chasing No. 11 all over CenturyLink Field, and it opened up Marshawn Lynch for 110 yards on 20 rushes in Seattle’s convincing 37-17 win.
Was that really just six weeks ago? Seems like eons.
Since then Harvin has 15 catches over the last four games, none longer than 13 yards. His average of 6.0 yards per reception is tied for 153rd among all 161 NFL wide receivers that have caught at least one ball this season. Among the seven wide receivers in the league that have a lower yardage average per reception than Harvin, no one has more than five catches.
Harvin’s average yards per reception on his 22 catches is less than half that of Robert Turbin. Seattle’s hurry-up offense fill-in has averaged 13 yards per catch out of the backfield.
What’s happened? Well, for one, every other Seahawks opponent saw what Green Bay tried — and has done the opposite.
Harvin says defenses are now coming after him at the snap rather than trying to catch him after it. Expect the St. Louis Rams (1-4) to do the same Sunday when Seattle (3-2) visits the Edward Jones Dome. St. Louis has a defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, renowned for constant attacking.
For sure, Harvin’s seeing different looks now than he did that free-flowing opening night.
“A little bit,” he admitted before Thursday’s practice.
“I won’t get into the game plan,” Harvin said with a smile. “Defenses have been coming up with, you know, just different defenses, making us think a little bit outside the box. Last week, (Dallas cornerback Orlando) Scandrick, he did a great job attacking the block on the bubble. That kind of shut down that play.
“Teams are doing a great job right now. But we’ll keep dialing things up and hopefully we’ll get back on.”
The more aggressive defenses against Harvin have had him sitting out practices on each of the last two Thursdays with a listed thigh injury.
Darrell Bevell has seen just about every way NFL defenses have countered Harvin’s speed in the wide out’s six seasons in the league. The Seahawks’ offensive coordinator was Minnesota’s in 2009-10, calling for most of these same plays for Harvin when Harvin was playing his first NFL seasons for the Vikings.
He averaged 13.2 yards with six touchdown catches and 12.2 yards per catch with five TDs in his first two seasons in Minnesota with Bevell calling the plays.
This season is Seattle’s first with Harvin healthy; he missed all but one regular season game and two playoff ones in 2013, his first after signing a $64.25 million, six-year contract with the Seahawks that is paying him $11 million this year. Bevell has tried to get the ball immediately into Harvin’s hands at the snap outside with what’s become bubble-screen mania.
Those bubbles have burst over the last four games. Bevell said that’s been the fault of his offense more than work of defenses.
“You can go back weeks before and they were great plays,” Bevell said, pointing to ne example of a Russell Wilson throw to Harvin against Dallas that was behind him instead of leading him up field.
“It’s overall execution. There’s not one thing. I can do a better job. I can get us into some better situations. We can run the ball more, like everyone’s asking. I mean all those things. But overall execution is what it comes down to.”
But what if Bevell starts sending Harvin more downfield? STATS, Inc. says Harvin is, on average, catching the ball just 1.1 yards from the line of scrimmage. So really, he’s essentially been a running back when he’s split out.
His one deep ball this season, for 40 yards and a would-be touchdown on a post pattern two games ago at Washington, got negated by James Carpenter’s personal foul. Part of the reason Harvin isn’t running long routes is Wilson has been scrambling for his well-being almost as soon as he has dropped to throw on most pass plays Bevell has called this season. And that’s with receivers running quick routes of 10 yards or fewer.
The Seahawks have 93 pass completions this season. Only 13 of those, 14 percent, have gone for at least 20 yards. Only 0-5 Oakland and 2-3 Miami have fewer such downfield connections.
“Well, we know he’s got speed and we know he can go down the field with speed. He’s got great quickness, so we can use him in that,” Bevell said of Harvin. “The test always is, is to make sure some of those guys get the ball in their hands.”
The play caller then offered a glimpse into his fear of only lining Harvin out wide and repeatedly sending him on deep routes: Teams could then shadow Harvin with a cornerback and a safety to erase him from the play. So Bevell has been moving Harvin around — in motion, behind blockers on screens, even as the tailback — to make it harder for two defenders to track him.
“Sometimes you put a guy just at wide out I’m watching the Rams play Dallas (last month) and there’s two guys standing over the top of Dez (Bryant). They’re just going to take him away,” Bevell said.
“Do we want Percy to get the ball in every way we possibly can? I think it’s obvious, because we’re trying to do things to get him the ball. We’ve run him down the field on the play for the touchdown it got called back. But the same thing with a lot of other guys; with Doug (Baldwin), Jermaine (Kearse), and Luke (Willson) ”
The answer, Bevell says, is to extend more drives with more third-down conversions; Seattle is making good on just 38 percent of its third downs, 23rd-best in the 32-team NFL. Longer drives would allow the Seahawks to establish the run better to set up downfield, play-action throws. Those are the kind with which Wilson excelled last season and last month in the wins over Green Bay and Denver.
Harvin doesn’t see any of this as a huge concern, by the way. More like a minor tweak needed during a long, long regular season of moves and counter-moves.
“It’s nothing major for any of us to be worried about. It’s a little fixture here and there, and we’ll be fine,” Harvin said.
“The last couple weeks what we’ve been wanting to do offensively is keep the defenses on the sideline a lot longer than what they’ve been doing. The offense needs to (stay) on the field on third downs and get into a rhythm.
“It’s been off rhythm.”
So has he.
“We’re 3-2. We’re not all losses right now. We’re still in a great spot right now. We’ve just got some little things to fix here and there. We’re going to be fine. We aren’t going into the meeting room like, ‘Wow! We can’t get it fixed.’
“It’s just little things. Unfortunately in this league, little things make a big difference.”