Richard Sherman was livid. His defense has just been pierced by a dagger he was certain could have easily been parried. A mistake was made. Perhaps, multiple mistakes had been made. Seattle still led. Their defense had been nearly perfect to that point.It was a smudge on a window overlooking a pristine landscape. Remarkably, the story following the game was about why Sherman was angry and how the team would handle his outburst. The better question is whether coaches and other players share the same standard that Sherman demands. If only every mistake was met with that level of scorn. This Seahawks team made key mistakes in all three facets of the game, and still managed to beat a very good Falcons team. They exit this game still searching for the performance that meets their standard.
An offense ungrounded
This should have been the game where the Seahawks offense moved the ball reliably and scored unmercifully. Instead, they lurched and sputtered throughout the game. Much of the problem could be traced back to a running game that is among the NFL’s worst through five games. Gone are the excuses about Germain Ifedi’s absence or outstanding defensive line competition.
This was a mediocre run defense and an inferior front four. Seattle still bogged down whenever they went to the running game. There is some chicken-and-egg going on as the team is clearly trying to break tendency by passing in many situations where they have run in the past. A running game requires rhythm and commitment just as much as it needs talent and scheme.
Pete Carroll has stressed the need for balance. They have not achieved it. Their championship aspirations depend on addressing the issues keeping them from it.
There is still good news on that front. First, the Seahawks scored three rushing touchdowns yesterday. Their ability to run power plays when they needed it most is not something to dismiss. I particularly liked the new elephant package that adds J’Marcus Webb as a tackle eligible and Joey Hunt at fullback. Hunt looked promising in that role even in just one play. He is quicker than one might expect of a backup center, and looked comfortable moving in space. I can’t help but wonder if they will find more opportunities to deploy him in that role.
The team also employs one Tom Cable. He has always struggled to field good pass protecting lines, but he has reliably fielded great running teams. The problem appears to be largely related to a new and young line that has yet to gel. Defenders are running free into the backfield, blowing up plays before they begin. That is not about talent. It is communication and execution.
Fans waiting for Russell Wilson to return to his normal running self to help should not hold their breath. The addition of Thomas Rawls may help, but counting on his health seems unwise as well. This is going to come down to growing with the players they have.
Pass protection becoming a strength
Seattle ranks 12th in the NFL in sacks allowed per game after allowing a season-low one sack to the Falcons and just five quarterback hits. That same Atlanta defense had 6 sacks and 10 quarterback hits last week against Denver. Vic Beasley Jr. had 3.5 sacks and four QB hits against Russell Okung and that Broncos line. He finished with no sacks and no QB hits against the Seahawks.
There were multiple times where Wilson had a good amount of time to throw the ball. One play, in particular, comes to mind when he was bouncing in the pocket for what must have been five seconds before narrowly missing a wide open receiver in the middle of the field on what was a difficult looping throw over two defenders.
The problem here was more around finding open players. Some of that is receivers winning and gaining separation, and part of it is play-calling. Dan Quinn is a fantastic defensive coach. You can bet he had a great game plan to take away tendencies from Darrell Bevell. There were very few deep throws. My guess is that Quinn was calling plays to force the underneath throw. Seattle can play that game, but are at their best when they stretch defenses down the field.
Step back and see the big picture, though, and you might be surprised. Wilson threw for zero touchdowns. The run game averaged less than three yards per carry. Doug Baldwin has only a few catches. Tyler Lockett was still barely present. And still, the team was a missed 29-yard field goal and a blocked extra point away from scoring 30 points.
This offense can be so much better. They are averaging 30 points per game over their last three contests after averaging just 7.5 in their first two. They must be more consistent to navigate this gauntlet they are in the midst of right now. Do not be surprised if Sherman’s old college brother throws a temper tantrum of his own soon. Expectations must be raised.
Defense nearly has their moment
For 30 minutes, the Falcons were befuddled. Matt Ryan was rattled. Pressure was coming from every direction. Receivers were tasting the inside of their facemasks as Earl Thomas was doing his best Kam Chancellor impression. Atlanta showed just how impressive that first half was by erupting for 21 points in the third quarter through an array of gorgeous throws, clutch catches, clever adjustments, and a few blown coverages.
This is every bit the offense that was advertised coming into the game. They have two great running backs, a Hall of Fame receiver, a Pro Bowl quarterback and a quality offensive line. They put up 372 yards and 23 points against the dynamic Broncos defense last week. Even with the third quarter outburst, the Seahawks held them to 10 fewer yards than the Broncos, and 11 points below their season average.
The run defense is off-the-charts. Atlanta entered the game as the 7th ranked run team, having racked up 122 yards last week in Denver. They finished with 52 yards and 2.7 yards per carry against Seattle. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were almost non-factors on the ground. Scratch that. They were non-factors period.
Coleman and Freeman combined for 286 yards last week. They finished with just 67 yards between them yesterday.
Beyond the great run defense was a relentless pass pressure that had Ryan seeing ghosts and diving to the ground without contact at times. Seattle finished with four sacks and 13 quarterback hits. The vaunted Von Miller-led pass rush had just 2 sacks and 8 hits a week ago.
One of the more encouraging signs was how the team bowed up after they were slapped around in that third quarter. The Falcons three fourth quarter drives:
- 4 plays, 10 yards PUNT
- 3 plays, 14 yards INTERCEPTION
- 4 plays, 0 yards TURNOVER ON DOWNS
That makes two times the Seahawks defense has faced an opponent who had the ball late in the game needing only a field goal to win. Those two offenses combined for seven plays and -17 yards. Clutch.
Many will overlook that fact that they did it without Kam Chancellor or Frank Clark for the whole game, and Michael Bennett for the entire fourth quarter. That is a remarkable accomplishment against a truly special offense.
The switchback to the summit
Any win is a great win in the NFL. A win against a great team is even sweeter. Getting this result on a day when there were crucial mistakes on defense along with missing stars, uneven play on offense with still hobbled stars, and nearly catastrophic errors on special teams is hard to believe.
Had Seattle played to their standard, this game would not have been close. It was 17-3 at halftime, and should have finished somewhere around 31-17 given the normal flow of a game. Games like this are won with hidden moments. Like Wilson pulling aside rookie Ifedi on the final drive when he was about to get into a fight that could have drawn a penalty and pushed the team out of field goal range. The oft-penalized Seahawks had just 3 for 30 yards. One more might have been the difference.
They converted three times in four chances in the red zone. They won the turnover battle by taking the ball twice and giving away none.
This is a team built to play any team, anywhere, in every way. They are not yet ready to tussle with the likes of the Patriots on the road. The scaffolding is there. The blueprint is right. They simply must keep building. Good enough is not great. Sherman sees that. You will know great when you see it, and it is coming.