Think about the best football game you ever watched. Most people would describe a back-and-forth affair that featured two teams playing at their best. Giant haymakers would be thrown in one direction, and then returned in the other. Neither team would be in control. Each would be confident in their chances of coming out with the win. Except, only one would. Those games have plays that you remember for a lifetime. Those games usually have their fair share of heart-wrenching plays as well. Games like that spark a love of football in a new fan, and rekindle that love in cynical vets. We curse, we hug, we laugh, we scream during a game like that. And when our team walks off the field with a victory, we get to feel that unique elation that only sports can provide. This was one of those games.
Wilson coming of age
There was no Marshawn Lynch. The running game was just okay. The defense was having trouble slowing down the opposing offense. Even the trademark scrambles were being limited. There was only one way the Seahawks were going to win this game, and that was if Russell Wilson played the best game of his career. He did exactly that.
Sure, he has had higher passer ratings than his gaudy 147.9 (151.4 vs MIN in 2013) and higher QBRs than his 90.3 (had a 94.0 just last week vs SF), but this was a performance like none other. Wilson was not effective because of his ability to run or improvise. This was not a game that made the case for a new type of hybrid quarterback. Wilson destroyed the Steelers defense from the pocket as a passer. He was an assassin with 5 TDs and 0 INTs. His 11.5 yards per attempt was the most by a Seahawks quarterback since Trent Dilfer had 11.6 in 2001 (minimum 20 pass attempts).
Wilson helped the Seahawks convert five 3rd downs of 10+ yards. No other team has done that this season. Seattle had a total of five such plays combined in their previous 10 games. No Seattle team has matched that feat since at least 1994 (stats do not go back farther).
It was fitting that a game that marked a true metamorphosis of Wilson as a player this team can lean on came on his birthday. Wilson signed a very large contract heading into this season. He is being paid like a player who can carry this team even when other phases are not working, but he has been unable to demonstrate an ability to do that before yesterday. A game like this makes that contract seem like a sound investment.
The true measure of greatness is not being great for a moment, but sustaining greatness over time. That will be Wilson’s next test.
Receivers come through, lose Jimmy Graham
Wilson was not the only player who was great on Sunday. Doug Baldwin took full advantage of his quarterback’s elevated performance with a scintillating 6 catch 145 yard 3 TD afternoon. The yards and touchdowns were a career high.
Only one Seahawk player other than Doug Baldwin has had at least 145 yards and 3 TDs in a game. Steve Largent did it twice. Once in 1983 and once in 1987.
Baldwin has always been a player that analysts point out as consistently open and under-targeted, even if he likes to play up that nobody respects him and his receiving mates. The difference of late has been that Wilson is finding him more reliably. That is a good thing for both players.
Wilson has always been overly cautious with the football, and that has sometimes led to hesitation that has doomed passing plays that would have worked if the ball was delivered on time. He is far more likely to let the ball fly when he completely trusts the receiver. Golden Tate may be the only player he ever really had that with, but it appears to be developing with Baldwin who is averaging 113 yards receiving and 17.8 yards per catch over the last three games.
The team suffered a huge loss when Jimmy Graham went down early in the fourth quarter with a season-ending knee injury. He had made some important plays leading up to that point, and it was starting to feel like Darrell Bevell had finally figured out some ways to isolate Graham and give him a chance to make some explosive plays. But before you slide into despair, consider that the Seahawks had four possessions after Graham left the game. They scored three touchdowns and kneeled to end the game.
The Seahawks offense had four possessions after Graham left the game. They scored three touchdowns, including drives of 73 and 80 yards. Their only non-scoring possession was a kneel-down to end the game.
The potential of the Seahawks offense is clearly greater with a talent like Graham available to them, but there is some aspect of simplification and familiarity that returns when there is not this nagging need to funnel the ball in a particular direction. The team has done a better job incorporating Graham into the offense without changing their identity than they did with Percy Harvin, but it has never felt natural.
It will go back to the national discussion of Seattle receivers lacking the playmaking ability to create a potent offense. I happen to like their receiving corps quite a bit even without Graham. Baldwin we know. Jermaine Kearse had the first multiple touchdown game of his career. Tyler Lockett is slowly getting more chances and doing well with them. Paul Richardson will hopefully be returning soon, and do not count out Kevin Smith who made his first catch yesterday.
Shout out to the offensive line
We have just about reached the point where congratulating the offensive line for doing a good job in pass protection is repetitive and unnecessary. They had allowed at least 4 sacks in seven of their first eight games, but have not allowed more than 2 in their past four games. Their sack rate over these past four games is 4.7%, which would rank among the top ten in the NFL if it was sustained over the season.
The Steelers tried a myriad of blitzes, and were among the better pass rushing teams in football coming in. The line and the running backs did an admirable job holding up in the face of that pressure and allowing Wilson to have the game he did.
Before you kill the defense…
This will not be a popular opinion, but I stand by it. The defense looked better yesterday. How is that possible when they allow 538 yards, 30 points, and the opposing quarterback throws for the most yards ever against a Seahawks defense? There is little statistical evidence to support my assertion. It was a lot of intangible elements that added up to what I believe will be a more consistent and better defense the rest of the season.
Any analysis of the defense yesterday has to start with the Steeler offense. They are one of the best in the NFL, and they played their best football yesterday. Ben Roethlisberger was played at a Hall of Fame level. He avoided pressure and dropped dimes all over the field. Every flaw in the Seahawks coverage was found and exploited. Watching a game on TV robs you of the full field view. Many fans would be surprised how often there have been wide open opposing players against the celebrated Seahawks defenses from the past few years that were simply not seen or missed by the quarterback. Roethlisberger saw all and walked the ball to his receivers hands time after time.
His receivers made great plays on the ball. They were fast, athletic, and strong to the ball. DeShawn Shead, in his first start at corner, was a perfect microcosm for the defense overall. He gave up some plays, but he also prevented some.
DeShawn Shead had 4 passes defensed in his first start yesterday at corner. Cary Williams has 4 passes defensed all year.
He was never more than a step or two from his receiver and showed grit knocking some passes away. It is not fair to expect Shead to be a lockdown corner. Just being assignment-correct and making a few plays on the ball would make him a significant upgrade over Cary Williams.
The defense also made a number of key plays that figured greatly into the outcome. They had three interceptions (a fourth was a special teams play), two red zone stops, and a bruising hit on Roethlisberger that knocked him out of the game.
As sparkling as Roethlisberger’s yardage total was, he finished with one passing touchdown, two interceptions and an 82.1 passer rating, his second lowest of the season.
The two glaring problems with the performance of the Seahawks defense yesterday was giving up big plays and missing tackles. For the first time this season, a majority of those big plays were at least as much because of the quality of the opposing offensive players as they were about mistakes in coverage. Markus Wheaton is fast. He outran Jeremy Lane. That was not an assignment mistake. Martavis Bryant went up and snagged a big pass in tight coverage. Give him credit.
There are not many teams capable of making those plays. Seattle has made life easier on teams this year by simply blowing coverages. That appeared to happen a lot less yesterday.
The missed tackles is something that deserves attention. Earl Thomas blew at least three key tackles. Kam Chancellor has been missing tackles all year. Lane missed a key tackle late. Do not be surprised to hear Pete Carroll talk about that as a major point of emphasis for the defense this week. They have to clean that up.
A lot of times, the fix for tackling issues comes with effort from the surrounding team rallying to the ball. Too often, there is just one guy there when the calling card of this defense has been to fly to the ball as a group to support one another. It is just a hunch, but seeing the offense come through the way they did may be just what the defense needs to raise their level of effort and play. It can be exhausting feeling like the entire game is on your shoulders week after week. Each unit feeds off the other. For once, the offense could spark the defense.
High five for Mike Tomlin
Steelers fans have to be livid today. Their coach decides to go for a fake field goal on 4th and 2 instead of letting Roethlisberger and crew go for it. Not only that, but they make the fake obvious by converting to an offensive formation before the snap. Then they throw the ball to an offensive tackle. That was just a horrible series of decisions.
As bad as that was, it was even more bizarre that Tomlin decided to kick a field goal on the 3 yard line with three minutes left in the game, down by five points. The Seahawks had 32 points already, and had scored touchdowns on their last two possessions. I couldn’t believe it. We were all looking at each other in the stands scratching our heads, waiting for another fake or a timeout or something. Super weird. Super awesome for the Seahawks.
Seattle beat a winning team for the first time this year. They beat an elite quarterback. They held a fourth quarter lead against a great offense. They won with their worst rushing total of the season. They won with their worst opposing offense yardage total of the year. They won when allowing 30+ points for the first time since 2006. They won.
This offense is now averaging 429 yards and 33.3 points per game over their last three. This defense has 3+ takeaways in two of their last three games after doing it only once in their first eight games. There are no prizes for a 6-5 record, but it is okay to take some joy in seeing the team show signs of development.
It was not as important as a Super Bowl win, but it was important. This team cannot be expected to be the 2013 team, or even the 2014 team. They are growing into something different, and part of the thrill is finding out what that new team is capable of. None of us knew if they could beat a team like Pittsburgh before yesterday. We may have hoped or thought they could, but knowing comes from doing.
This upcoming game against Minnesota represents a terrific opportunity to breathe meaning into this season beyond player development. It will be a road game in a hostile environment against an 8-3 football team that has a Hall of Fame running back and solid defense. Seattle earned the right to make that game meaningful by the way they played against Pittsburgh. There is trust and belief growing in that locker room. The Vikings think they know who they are hosting. They can’t know. This is a new species of Seahawk that is only just now being discovered. Nobody can know how they will strike.