The Morning After: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back in Seahawks 31-25 Victory Over Bills
Sheesh. You think you know somebody. A game that seemed destined to be a slugfest between two dynamic defenses, turned into a shootout between two electric offenses. Russell Wilson led four touchdowns drives in the first half after totalling just three in the previous three games combined. Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy piled up 30 first downs—tied for the most a Seahawks defense has allowed under Pete Carroll—and converted an astounding 71% of their third down chances. Neither offense deserved to lose. This latest chapter of the Seahawks season took the tale in a different direction. Like a great author, some questions were answered just as new ones were raised. There were clear signs of renewal among the injured, and emerging concerns about the defense. The one troubling constant has been the Seahawks inability to run the ball. A number of teams have won Super Bowls with great defense, a great quarterback, and a paltry running game. That is not the Seahawks formula. The second half of this season will be a story about whether the Seahawks can rediscover who they are. They will continue to be untethered and unpredictable until they do.
The splendor of the obvious
Jimmy Graham is good. Doug Baldwin is good. The offense is better when they get the ball. Graham is a tremendous red zone target because he is 6’7″ tall with great hands. Stop me if you have heard, thought, or screamed these things the past month. Sports welcomes second-guessing. Those of us who have watched enough have heard time and again that we just don’t understand the nuances enough to prescribe fixes. Well, this was a case where every armchair quarterback had their day. The Seahawks finally came out with the clear intention to throw the ball to their best players, and it led directly to some of the most thrilling offensive output in recent memory.
Carroll attempted to tie it all back to a decision the team made on the flight home from New Orleans to “turn it loose,” after they had been holding back huge parts of the offense to protect a hobbled Wilson. Uh uh. Not buying it. There is nothing about Wilson’s injury that precluded Darrell Bevell from calling plays that had Baldwin or Graham as primary reads or Wilson from strongly favoring those two in his progressions. There was clearly another conversation that Carroll is choosing to keep to himself thus far, where it was communicated to increase the percentage of throws going to these players and to trust them to make a play even when there was coverage.
Graham was not open on either of his touchdowns. Wilson gave him the chance to make a great play, and Graham seized the opportunity to show his greatness. I cannot stress enough how important it is that Wilson continues to give his guys a chance to make special plays. If there is a wide open player, go ahead and throw to him. When there is any question about where the ball should go, prefer his playmakers. Paul Richardson and Jermaine Kearse both made nice plays against Buffalo, but Wilson cannot allow a defense to dictate who he is going to throw to. That may sound incongruent with good quarterback play. It is not. Getting the ball in the hands of your best players when a defense is doing everything they can to take them away is part of the puzzle that great quarterbacks must solve. Otherwise, it would be like a right-handed basketball player conceding his right hand to a defender forcing him the other way.
What I do buy about Carroll’s New Orleans postgame tale is that the coaches finally agreed to put Wilson in harm’s way again in order to open up the playbook. We saw more deep throws in this game than we have seen in the previous three combined. That resulted in some huge chunk plays. It also resulted in the most sacks (4) that the team has surrendered all season. These sacks were all on the offensive line. There are times when Wilson simply is unwilling to throw the ball away. That was not the case here. Buffalo is the top pass-rushing team in the NFL, and they did a terrific job of creating pressure from all angles of the pocket so there was nowhere for Wilson to go and no time to step into a throw.
All things considered, though, yielding four sacks to the best pass-rushing team in football while piling up 28 points in one half and countless big plays is not a bad result. Consider that seven of the nine Bills opponents have given up three sacks or more.
You could see how much more engaged the receiving corps was right from the start. They were energetic and celebratory, often looking for each other after a play as if to say, “This is who we are!” My only quibble with the way the passing game unfolded was the two targets that Tyler Lockett received. He is too dynamic of a playmaker to be an afterthought. Seattle is much better when he is heavily involved in the game plan.
That should be far easier with a healthier Wilson and the increased attention that Graham and Baldwin will demand.
Bills offense was fantastic
It has been 23 games since a Seahawks opponent has produced the rushing yards (162) that the Bills did on Monday night. It has been 28 games since a team did it in Seattle. What the Bills did was rare and remarkable. They had the Seahawks defense completely off-balance for almost the entire game. There were wide runs with multiple linemen outnumbering the Seahawks defenders. There were option runs with receivers. The quarterback was a threat to go at any time. The running back was about as easy to wrap up as a cold breeze. The feeling as a fan was somewhere between hopeless and bewildered.
A look at the final stat line is always equally as confusing. The Bills averaged just 4.3 yards per carry and McCoy was at just 4.0 yards per rush. When you see that the Bills are averaging a just-plain-nutty 5.3 yards per carry as a team to lead the NFL, and McCoy averaged 5.1 yards per run himself, the Seahawks defensive performance seems almost acceptable. I doubt anyone in the locker room would agree.
McCoy is a pleasure to watch. He does things on the football field that nobody since Barry Sanders could do. He had one jump cut where he must have covered six feet laterally in one step. It looked like a glitch in the Matrix. The Seahawks tackling looked bad at times, but give the Bills credit. Taylor was not far behind McCoy in elusiveness.
The Seahawks finished with five sacks, but could have easily had seven, eight, or nine. Taylor combined a sixth sense for when pressure was arriving with cat-like reflexes to evade trouble. He was more, though, than just a runner or scrambler. He made some gorgeous throws under duress. He had nowhere near the weapons that Wilson did to work with, but made the most of them.
As frustrating as the run defense was, the secondary play was easily the more troubling aspect of the Seahawks performance. Each player took turns giving up a gut-punching big play on third down to keep a Bills drive alive. The script was pretty simple heading in: survive the run, get off the field on third down. Buffalo entered the game 26th in the NFL in third down conversion rate. They were missing receivers. The Seahawks secondary has been terrific.
None of that appeared true on Monday night. It is one thing to convert 3rd and 1 when your team averaged over five yard per carry on the year. The killers in this game were the 3rd and 11 conversions or the 3rd and 21, or even the 3rd and 5 or 6 that happened throughout. It turned what had been an explainable two-week anomaly in the Seahawks third down defense into a troubling three-week trend.
The Seahawks led the NFL in third down defense through the first five weeks, allowing just 30.3% of attempts to be converted. That included a 3 for 11 performance by the best offense in the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons. Arizona, New Orleans and Buffalo combined to convert 58.9% of their third down chances.
The failures against the Cardinals and Saints were largely in 3rd and short with great veteran quarterbacks at the helm. Those will always be tough situations. Taylor is not a great third down quarterback, and was able to convert in third and long. If there is any silver lining here, it is that the problem will have the undivided attention of Carroll and the defense. There is also new hope that Kam Chancellor is finally coming back.
His absence may be looming larger than we realize. Opponents have run the ball an average of 36.7 times the past three games. They seem emboldened by having the smaller Kelcie McCray on the field and may also be looking to exploit the inexperience Brock Coyle at SAM linebacker. Chancellor can make a big difference in defending the run, and his familiarity with the system should help on third down as well.
A few individual performances of note
Damontre Moore was a new addition to the team this week, and had a mostly impressive night. He led the team with two tackles for loss, and thoroughly confused the scoreboard operator by wearing #97, leading to the big screen flashing Jordan Hill’s name and face after one of Moore’s big plays.
Cliff Avril is playing on a whole other level right now. He has 9.0 sacks. That’s already tied for the most he has had in a Seahawks uniform. His career high is 11.0 sacks with Detroit. That certainly looks in danger of being reset this year. The combination of Avril and Frank Clark, who recorded another sack to bring his total to 6.5, is a sight to behold. When Michael Bennett returns refreshed in a few weeks, watch out.
Bobby Wagner had a career-high 16 tackles and is second in the NFL that category. He is first in tackles per game (Zack Brown has one more tackle on the year, but has played one more game). I continue to think he is deserving of some defensive player of the year buzz. He is averaging over 13 tackles per game over his last five, and is starting to enter Luke Kuechly territory. He also added three more quarterback hits and a share of a sack.
Special teams has a (mostly) nice night
It did not start out great when the Bills tore through the line to block a punt and set up a quick touchdown. The Seahawks special teams looked pretty darn good the rest of the way. Buffalo got absolutely nothing out of their return game. Lockett nearly took his first kick return back for a touchdown. That led to the Bills employing a series of pooch kicks the rest of the way that gave Seattle excellent field position. Lockett also had a terrific punt return that set up another touchdown. Jon Ryan picked a great time to rediscover his big leg with a 62-yard punt that made the Bills travel a healthy distance for their final scoring chance.
The coverage units and return teams are starting to get some mojo. They were largely a non-factor for much of the season, but the health of Lockett and the introduction of players like Neiko Thorpe and Tyvis Powell into the coverage teams are turning this group into a strength that should bear fruit the rest of the way.
Seahawks running game stands still
That was the worst display of rushing offense I have seen from a Seahawks team in years. Christine Michael looked meek in hitting the line, and has to have lost his job after a 1 yard in 5 carries performance. The offensive line was atrocious, leaving no room for backs to run. There have been signs of life in every game this year when it came to running the football, but this was a flatline. No pulse. No hope of success.
I said earlier in the year that if the run game was the only thing the Seahawks needed to improve, we were in great shape. To some extent, that is still true. Tom Cable is among the best in football at teaching and implementing a run offense. What happened on Monday against a Bills defense that entered the game with a middling ranking in stopping the run and was missing two of their starting defensive linemen throws it all into question.
I would still put my money on Cable finding a way to get a passable run game in place by season’s end, but I no longer consider it a given. This may become the 2007 season when Mike Holmgren famously said publicly that they were done running the football and proceeded to unleash Matt Hasselbeck in what became his most prolific season as a pro. The Seahawks can win a lot of games with a healthy Wilson passing and the defense playing the way they have for seven of the first eight games. Their chances of winning a Super Bowl diminish greatly if they remain this unbalanced on offense.
Pretty perch despite it all
Wilson has been a shadow of himself. Lockett has been, too. Chancellor has missed four of the eight games. Bennett has missed the last two. Mike Morgan was lost early. Germain Ifedi missed the first three games. Bradley Sowell has missed the last two. Luke Willson has been out for a while. Thomas Rawls has played roughly 1.5 games. All that and Seattle is in the midst of arguably the toughest stretch of six games any team will play all season. It has been anything but easy so far.
Yet, here the Seahawks stand. They are 5-2-1, in control of their division and the second seed in the NFC. Only the 2013 squad had a better record than these Seahawks over the first eight games since Wilson entered the league.
They face what would seem to be an impossible task next week of facing a Patriots team on the road who is coming off a bye when Seattle will be playing on a short week. New England is unquestionably the best team in the NFL through eight games. They do just about everything well. Seattle enters the game still battered, and a work-in-progress on offense. It has all the makings of a game where the Seahawks could lose by more than 10 points for the first time in 81 games and over five years. That would be the predictable outcome. Seattle, though, rarely walks the path well-traveled.