The Morning After: Seahawks Close Out Season, Beat Rams 20-13
There are games to remember, games to forget, and games like this one against the Rams. Ask a Seahawks fan in a few years to rattle off the eleven team victories, and this could very well be the last on the list. It was ugly and frustrating, but it may have been the perfect playoff sendoff. Jeff Fisher did the Seahawks a favor by putting together a playoff-caliber game plan that attacked Seattle weaknesses, and forced the team to raise its level of play. The beauty was in how the coaching staff and the players adjusted and overcame. Playoff football is not about things going right. It is about having the ability to absorb punches, and having the arsenal and leadership to counter-punch effectively. The Rams were the ideal sparring partner. Seattle begins its quest for the title next week knowing they can still take a punch after a month of first quarter knock-outs.
Fisher gets my vote for best coach in the division this year. I did not see the Rams/Cardinals games, but I saw the 49ers games and both Seahawks matches. Fisher was the best coach in each case. Some will point to the fake field goal in the first game as “great coaching.” It was clever, but I was more impressed with the decisions to take multiple field goals over 58 yards, and his defensive game plans that took away what San Francisco and Seattle wanted to do. Fisher maximizes his talent. They are not yet talented enough to win consistently, but they will be a handful for years to come. It is a good thing the Redskins have made those first-round draft picks a little later by making the playoffs this year.
The Rams were able to pressure Seattle, particularly up the middle. They have the personnel to do it. Seahawks fans may not want to hear it, but this was the third-ranked sack team in the NFL coming in, in large part due to an active and powerful defensive line. I saw tweets and texts throughout the game bemoaning J.R. Sweezy struggling in pass protection. He is a lighter guard that is susceptible to bull rushes and is still learning the intricacies of handling stunts and twists. He is also a plus run blocker that effectively cut All-World linebacker Patrick Willis multiple times five yards down-field in last week’s game. John Moffitt is a great guy, but he was getting beat in pass situations and brings a lot less than Sweezy in running situations. The coaching staff clearly is choosing a player who is a plus in one area in the hopes they can coach him up in the other. I’m buying low on Sweezy. I expect he will eventually be a Pro Bowl-caliber guard. Seventh-round defensive tackles do not often start at offensive guard for any teams, let alone playoff teams. His learning curve is incredibly steep, and his trajectory has been pretty darn good. He is smaller than most guards, and will get pushed back this year. I don’t know if there is anything that can really be done about that. He needs a few seasons to bulk up. The team misses James Carpenter, but are lucky to have a player like Sweezy that brings a ton of positives to the running game. Teams with explosive defensive tackles will present problems for Seattle in the playoffs. The coaches know it, and will adjust as best they can. The good news is I’m not sure there are any outside of San Francisco.
St. Louis also has better cornerbacks than almost any other team Seattle will face in the post-season. They wiped Sidney Rice off the map and were in tight coverage on each of Golden Tate’s catches, and Doug Baldwin’s penalty-reversed grab. It gets more physical and the referees call less in the playoffs. This receiving corps has no playoff experience outside of Rice’s one year with Favre. They have faced the Bears, 49ers (twice), Rams (twice), Cardinals (twice), Packers and Cowboys. All of those teams bring physical secondary play, so these guys should be as prepared as possible without experiencing it themselves.
Baldwin continues to emerge as a late-season addition to the attack. The guy is more than a slot receiver. Wes Welker and Danny Amendola don’t make plays 40 yards down-field. They don’t out-jump corners. It is great to see Russell Wilson starting to recognize the talent there, and to see Baldwin look healthy for the first time all season.
Tate had been quiet of late, so it was terrific to see him get his first 100-yard game in typical Tate fashion. The rarely open receiver has earned the trust of his quarterback by regularly winning 50/50 passes, and then getting maximum yards after the catch. The guy runs with passion approaching Marshawn Lynch after he catches a pass. It is great to watch.
Lynch again did his thing with limited mileage. He was under 20 carries for the fifth time in the last six games, and went over 100 yards for the fourth straight game. The last post-season he played in resulted in seismic activity. His encore may be even better.
Wilson is such a unique player. He was struggling in the first half. His throws were often late, and he was again unwilling to use his check-downs. His desire to push the down-field is commendable, but he has to avoid negative plays. Yet, even with those struggles, he was never under a 100 passer rating. All he did was lead his fourth game-winning drive of his sparkling rookie season. Another 90 yards, another Lynch fumble recovered, another win.
It would have been great to see Wilson get the rookie touchdown record, but seeing him make the winning decision instead of the selfish one so perfectly defines who he his, and who he will be. There will be many records in his future, but hopefully more championships.
The defense once again did their job despite almost the complete absence of a pass rush. I may be the guy who complains about the team’s lack of pass rush all the way through a Super Bowl victory. It defies logic, but the results are inarguable. The Rams were 2-11 on 3rd downs, scored just 13 points, and averaged a mere 5.4 yards per play. There were some terrible drops by Rams receivers, but there was also one of the luckiest touchdown catches you will ever see. In the end, there was Richard Sherman collecting his eighth interception to seal the victory. Sherman’s signature play is becoming the baited pick. He intentionally allows the quarterback to see an open receiver, hoping the throw will come, knowing he has the time to close and steal the ball. He has a robber’s guile, and the cocky courage of a fighter pilot. He may be the perfect post-season player.
The linebackers may be playing their best football of the season. K.J. Wright is back to making plays. Bobby Wagner has been steady, and Malcolm Smith is clearly an upgrade. His pass breakup 30 yards down-field exemplified a play that Leroy Hill is simply no longer capable of making. Hill will likely be game-by-game decision based on opponent. The 49ers are among the few teams Hill’s toughness could be needed for.
Marcus Trufant was back, and was abused. He had a great break-up in the endzone, but was many steps behind receivers all day. The coaching staff needs to think long and hard about whether they are better off with the certainty of Trufant getting beaten or the uncertainty of Jeremy Lane or Byron Maxwell in the slot with Brandon Browner coming back. Trufant will always make the decisions he is supposed to within the defensive scheme, but is physically incapable of winning most match-ups. Lane and Maxwell would likely get exposed for mental mistakes more than physical, but they may also make some positive plays Trufant would not. This coaching staff tends to bet on upside. Do not be surprised if Trufant rotates with the young fellas.
The regular season comes to a close now. This group of Seahawks has made more strides than a marathon runner. They have been tested by opponents, by coaches, by their own limitations and insecurities. The next step is testing their mettle in the playoffs. They will attempt to do what no Seahawks team has done since 1983, and win a road playoff game. It is a fitting challenge for a team defined by decisions that have defied convention. This is the team that found a home for a 6’3″ 230 lb safety, the two tallest cornerbacks in NFL history, the short quarterback that nobody wanted, the beast that needed a home. History is made by this team, not restricted by it. We are all witnesses.