The Seahawks were in a death spiral heading into this last game against the 49ers. Not only were they struggling to win games, they appeared to be out of touch with each other and the ferocious intensity that has defined their spirit over the past few years. This modest win against a lowly San Francisco team answered few questions, but something happened in this game that might prove meaningful.
San Francisco started by fumbling the ball on their first series, gifting the Seahawks a chance for a quick score. The offense failed to gain a first down, with Russell Wilson throwing well behind an open Jimmy Graham on what would have been a third down conversion. It was just the latest example of the various units on the team failing to work in conjunction with one another to build toward victory. The defense then gave up two long touchdown drives to put the Seahawks down 14-3. It was the perfect example of how the outcome of an NFL game can often be traced to mindset, emotion, and desire as much as talent. Seattle was in a state of mind where they could literally lose to any team in the league. Then, even if for just a few moments, they fought back as a team.
The offense started by putting their first productive drive together. They recorded their first 1st down with 14 minutes and 6 seconds to go in the second quarter on a pass to Jermaine Kearse. Wilson found Paul Richardson a couple of times for nice gains before the drive stalled in the red zone. A field goal made it 14-6. The defense came out and sacked Colin Kaepernick to start the next drive and then stuffed a running play to set up a 3rd and 10. The 49ers managed to burn the Seahawks secondary for a 24 yard gain, and it felt again like the offense and defense could not unite for even a couple of series. Ahtyba Rubin stopped that nonsense. A play later, he ripped the ball from DeJuan Harris’ hands for a fumble that Frank Clark nearly returned for a touchdown.
The Seahawks offense was once again given a golden opportunity in the red zone. This time, they cashed it in with a beautiful throw from Wilson to Luke Willson for a touchdown. Now 14-13, the fight was back for Seattle. The defense allowed one first down and then pushed the 49ers to a 3rd and 7. Jeremy Lane made a beautiful play on the ball to slap it away and force a punt. The 49ers pinned the Seahawks offense deep in their territory at the 9-yard line. The scuffling Seahawks offense managed to go 91 yards in just five plays for a touchdown to put the team on top 19-14.
A blocked extra point put an end to the inter-unit harmony that had turned a 14-3 deficit into a 19-14 lead in just over 11 minutes. The team never recaptured that connectedness the rest of the way as they largely stumbled their way to the finish line, but that does not take away the fact that it made an appearance. A blowout victory would have felt good on many levels, but being pushed and needing to fight back as a team may wind up being more valuable. Those who would belittle the significance of fighting back against a lowly 49ers squad would be wise to remember they were well on their way to losing against that lowly team. This was never a game about which team was better. It was never a game about the second seed in the playoffs. It was an expedition.
Fifty-three players and 27 coaches set out in search of one another. They have been scattered in recent weeks, out of touch. Standing alone, they were like a fence in need of mending. An opponent who ran into resistance in one spot could just take a few steps and find an opening. For those 11 minutes, there was no gap in the fence. The offense worked with the defense. San Francisco had no place to go. Eleven minutes of good football certainly won’t be enough to make a run in the playoffs, but the experience of being pushed and pushing back together is something to build on.
Logic dictates that getting a playoff bye is preferable. Winning two games is easier than winning three. While true, it is apparent this Seahawks team needs more time on the field, not less. This is still the team that beat the Falcons without Kam Chancellor or Frank Clark and eventually without Michael Bennett. This is still a team that beat New England in Foxboro. They are capable of beating anyone in this playoff field, but are in the equivalent of a basketball shooting slump. Nothing feels quite right. As any shooter will tell you, the only way to end a shooting slump is to put up more shots. That means getting back on the field next weekend for this team and trying again to find their rhythm.
Red zone emerges as key
So much has been going wrong, it can feel impossible to make progress on any one thing. If I was talking to Pete this morning, I would point him at one area for both sides of the ball to focus on: red zone efficiency. Take this game as a perfect example.
Seattle finished the game 2-6 in the red zone on offense. Every time your team settles for a field goal in the red zone instead of scoring a touchdown, you are leaving four points on the table. That means the offense left a total of 16 points on the field by struggling in the red zone. Convert just two of those four missed chances, and the team scores 33 points instead of 25 points. Convert them all and you are topping 40 points.
There are many ways an offense can struggle. The most crushing is when they cannot even reach the red zone to create scoring chances. Seattle has actually averaged a healthy 4.2 red zone chances over the last five games, which includes the 38-10 drubbing in Green Bay where they had just one. They have been earning those chances against some pretty good defenses as well. Arizona finished the year second in the league in yards allowed and the Rams finished ninth.
Third down performance is often an early indicator of red zone performance as both situation call for quick decisions and often involve short distances. The Seahawks offense has done remarkably well on third downs in recent weeks. The game against San Francisco broke a string of four straight games where Seattle converted 47% of more of their third down conversions. Before that streak, they had just two such games in their previous eleven.
Red zone performance, however, has been dismal during that time. Seattle is 8 for 21 (38%) in the red zone over their last five games. Any respectable offense needs to be converting at least half of their red zone chances.
It is not just the offense. The Seahawks had the second-best red zone defense in the NFL after the first eight games, holding opponents to 10 touchdowns in 23 red zone chances (44%). They have become one of the league’s worst red zone defenses in the past eight games (70%) , and abysmal in the past four (77%). They gave up three touchdowns in three red zone chances for the 49ers, which means opponents have scored touchdowns on six straight red zone possessions. In fact, other than a hopeless Jared Goff-led Rams team that went 0-3, the Seahawks defense has surrendered 10 touchdowns in 10 red zone possessions. That is…not good.
Just as converting red zone chances can gain your team four points on offense, denying them saves you points on defense. If Seattle had held San Francisco to a field goal on just one of their red zone possessions, the score would have been 25-19. Make it two, and it would have been 25-14. The math is obvious, but that is the point. If the Seahawks improve in no other area other than red zone offense and red zone defense, they will still be a significantly tougher opponent.
Convert 4 of 6 red zone chances on offense yesterday and hold the 49ers to 1 of 3 chances on defense, and the score becomes 33-14. It starts with Wilson on offense and the secondary on defense. It is likely not a coincidence that the worst of the red zone defense has come since Earl Thomas was injured. Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and crew need to get their unit functioning at a higher level in those pivotal moments.
This has been a tough season. It has felt disjointed and perilously close to the edge. Wilson has not looked like himself, but set a franchise record for passing yards. Michael Bennett missed time and finished with just five sacks, but the Seahawks finish with their most sacks (42) since their Super Bowl run (44). They went 3-1 against teams who made the playoffs, and 3-2-1 against division opponents who all finished with more losses than wins. What they have proven is that they can beat any team in the NFL, and they can lose to any team in the NFL. It is an uncomfortable reality for fans to grapple with.
That Seahawks swagger is absent as they stride into the second season. Nobody will fear them. The Seahawks, themselves, will be unsure of the outcome. That does not preclude them from finding themselves and the consistency they need to make a run for glory. It was not that long ago that a 7-9 Seahawks team won their division and defeated the defending Super Bowl champs. That team did not have a Wilson, or Baldwin, or Graham, or Sherman, or Chancellor, or Wagner, or Wright, or Bennett, or Avril, or Clark. Much more has been accomplished with much less.
It is hard to imagine this team catching fire and rolling through the playoffs. It will be a grind. This team is full of grinders. Just a taste of that grit was enough to set aside the 49ers yesterday. They will need to bring a lot more to turn this purgatorial season into something heavenly.