Everyone loves a good game of Jenga. Players pull block after block out of the stack and place them on top of the pile, leaving increasingly precarious holes in the foundation. There are breath-taking moments when the tower remains standing despite seemingly impossible foundational flaws. It teeters. It sways. It somehow withstands. The Seahawks have become Jenga masters. It is not enough to poke out the safe center blocks in the foundation. They go for the most risky edge blocks. If they were in a bar fight, they would forget the whole beating of a man with a hand tied behind their backs, and instead surrender all their limbs and insist on a blindfold before thrashing their enemy. The problem with a Jenga approach to a football season is that the tower always collapses, no matter how talented the player. Seahawks fans and players can be proud of their resolve to come back and win this game, but they have to know that the season is wobbling. Tempt fate too many times, and you will see her claws.
The most Russell Wilson of Russell Wilson plays in this crazy game happened on the penultimate snap of the afternoon. Wilson took the snap and took a couple of steps toward the middle of the field before kneeling to down the ball and setup the game-winning field goal. Except, the refs did not seem to blow the whistle acknowledging he had kneeled. Wilson frantically started pointing at the ground to indicate he was down, and then a Bucs player came beside him and ripped the ball from his hands. The ball bounded away from Wilson, and yet he somehow managed to regain possession before the Bucs player could fall on it. The refs eventually ruled Wilson was down prior to the fumble, but Wilson’s ability to make the winning play, even in the most ridiculous of situations continues to amaze. He has flaws, like any quarterback does, but he is almost always the best player on the field when the game is on the line. Give me that, and a great defense, and we can win a lot of football games.
The defense, however, was not great on Sunday. Mike Glennon looked like Andrew Luck. Mike James looked like Arian Foster. This was the second-straight week that Seahawks opponents were better against the Seahawks than they had all season. Seattle’s defense is where opposing offensive player dreams come to die. Men should exit these games questioning their qualifications to play in this league. Instead, Kellen Clemens, Mike James, Zac Stacy, Mike Glennon all wake up the next morning feeling better about themselves after playing Seattle. James has one more touchdown pass against the Seahawks this year than Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chad Henne, and Clemens combined. He also ran for 150-plus yards, and nearly all of them came right up the gut.
Tampa continued to run the inside trap that caused the Seahawks problems in San Francisco last year, and in St. Louis last week. Lineman were being sealed and linebackers were not getting off blocks. Bobby Wagner finished with 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks, but he was erased for much of the first half. He was a great player for this team last season, but has not been yet this year. This defense is better with K.J. Wright in the middle and Malcolm Smith at the WILL at this point. It may not always be that way, but it is right now. The Seahawks run defense was never better than when Wagner was out. They allowed 48 yards per game on the ground in the two games he missed. They have allowed 135 yards per game rushing in the games he has played. It is never about just one player, even though Wagner stepping back impacts three players, but he needs to be much better the rest of the way.
It is tough to believe that two poor running teams piled up 200 yards rushing by having their talent outperform the Seahawks talent. Scheme has to be a part of this. Something about the way Seattle has their lineman defending the run leaves them open to these sorts of plays. It is easy to point the finger at Tony McDaniel or Brandon Mebane or any other lineman, but this is a coaching problem to solve. Gus Bradley never really got on top of it in the last half of 2012. Dan Quinn needs to do better. Bradley was a secondary coach by nature, as is Pete Carroll, so hopefully Quinn’s background as a line coach will play a role in patching the hole here.
The offensive line played a better game. No sacks, six quarterback hits, nearly six yards per carry against a very talented Bucs defense was a far better showing. We even got our first Alvin Bailey sighting in meaningful game action when he came in just before halftime, and Paul McQuistan shifted to left guard. It also happened to be the Seahawks first touchdown drive of the afternoon. Bailey looked a little lost on a couple of snaps, but made positive contributions. Kudos to the Seahawks coaches for finally getting him in there. They need to increase his snaps because nobody can assume Russell Okung will stay healthy, and Bailey has to be the back-up should another injury occur.
Golden Tate is becoming central to the Seahawk identity. He is a fighter. That punt return might be the best return I have seen from a Seahawk that didn’t result in a touchdown. Tampa assigned Darrelle Revis to him on Sunday, but all signs are pointing to a huge second half of the season for Tate. Watch for it.
Doug Baldwin has taken a page out of Wilson’s book. Told he is too short to play on the edge, Baldwin bounced back from his first drop of the year to make a series of crucial catches, including the game-tying touchdown. Seattle does not win this game without him. He is the best route runner on the team, and it showed Sunday. His stop routes stand out, always finding space for Wilson to throw to. The Seahawks passing game may become more reliable with Baldwin as a starter, assuming the coaches continue to give him the opportunities.
All the focus has been on how the offensive line struggles have endangered Wilson, but the strain on the defense is starting to show. The offense needs to shoulder more of the burden from here on out. Defenses wear down as the season progresses, and offenses are supposed to find their rhythm. The offense earned this win with one of their most efficient games, and could have easily had close to 40 points without the three turnovers. Their 6.8 yards per play was their second-best mark of the year. That leg of the stool must bear more weight from here on out.
Carroll and the coaching staff needs to step up more than possibly any player as this year wears on. Their decisions on which players are getting snaps, when players should return from injury, how to use Marshawn Lynch, how to protect Wilson, and how to shore up the run defense will decide the outcome of more than a game or two. They have been struggling of late, just as the team has. Carroll has stood out from the pack by telling the truth to his staff, and his team, and learning from it. There are truths he may not want to hear exiting these last two games, and his integrity will be tested in acknowledging them and fixing the root causes. The outcomes have been almost perfect so far, but that only makes reinforcing the foundation that much more important. The fall from this height would be all the more painful.