The Morning After: Seahawks Take First Step Towards Special Postseason, Suffocate Lions 26-6
There are two-and-a-half million parts in NASA Space Shuttle. They all must work in unison to escape Earth’s gravity, complete the mission, and return home safely. One serious flaw in just one of those two-and-a-half million parts can be fatal. This Seahawks team has visited space regularly over the past five years. They have spent considerable time high above the rest of the NFL world, operating at a level others could not reach. They know what it takes to succeed in their mission. Their flight plan has always included punishing defense, clutch passing, a physical running game, and an indomitable belief in their teammates and in the outcome. There were numerous times this season when liftoff appeared imminent. The countdown had begun, only to see launch scuttled by a faulty part or two. This game against the Detroit Lions was the latest systems check. Punishing defense? Go for launch. Clutch passing? Go for launch. Physical running game? Go for launch. Belief in one another? Go for launch. 5…4…3…2…1…we have liftoff. Your Seahawks are now hurtling toward a familiar altitude, fighting the gravity of naysayers and disbelief, and needing their parts to hold together. Their mission is not yet complete, but all systems are green.
Seahawks do it their way
There will be those who look at this game and try to tell you little was proven. It was against the Detroit Lions. The score was just 10-3 at half and 13-3 after three quarters. That perspective lacks insight into what Seahawks football looks like when it is right and just how tough it is to win in the playoffs. The 2005 Super Bowl team had to scratch and claw to get past what was a clearly inferior Washington Redskins squad. The 2012 Seahawks had to do the same thing against another flawed Redskins team. The 2013 championship team won just one playoff game by more than 8 points. This 20 point margin of victory represents the second-highest in the Pete Carroll era, behind only the 43-8 thumping of the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.
The final score was the least impressive and important part of this game. What should have Seahawks fans excited and proud was how complete and consistent the performance was. The defense faced off against the 8th-ranked third down offense and 1st-ranked time of possession offense who averaged over three minutes per drive on the year, and held them to 2/11 (18%) on third down and allowed just three drives over three minutes. Detroit’s ball control offense has kept them in nearly every game this season. Just once before playing the Seahawks had they failed to be within a single score of their opponent in the fourth quarter, and they had lost only two games by more than 10 points.
The Seahawks offense was steady throughout, led by their lightning rod of an offensive line. That group had no false starts and no holding penalties for only the second time this season. In fact, the whole offense had just one penalty (illegal shift) all night. They played with discipline, which allowed them to play with toughness and grit. Thomas Rawls deservedly will get a lot of attention for his franchise record-setting rushing performance, but the play of the line in front of him may well have been the biggest story.
It is hard for offensive linemen to qualify for highlight reels, but that group was blowing Lions defenders off the ball and creating beautiful running lanes. The pass blocking was not perfect, but was better than the three Lions sacks would indicate. Russell Wilson failed to get rid of the ball on at least two of them, and he admitted as much afterwards. The play of the line combined with Rawls to give the team confidence on short yardage situations in a way that has been missing all year.
The Seahawks faced five 3rd and 1 or 4th and 1 plays against Detroit. They ran the ball on four of those five plays and converted the first down 80% of the time. They had 27 such plays during the regular season and ranked 22nd in the NFL in converting them (63%) while choosing to pass 11 times. The Seahawks had 9 rushing first downs overall, which was their second-highest total of the season.
Darrell Bevell has struggled to adjust to the game and his offense this year. Some of that is surely due to the players lack of execution, but some of it was also an odd reluctance to build on what was working. Seattle had six games this year where they averaged over four yards per carry. In five of those games, the team chose to attempt more passes than rushes. The first two drives felt like Bevell was once again being bull-headed about leaning on the passing game when the running game was working. To his credit, he adjusted in a big way. The next drive featured 11 runs out of 14 plays including nine straight runs to start it off.
The next drive featured three more rushes (out of seven plays) for 32 yards. It was not flashy. It was workmanlike and supremely confident. There is nothing quite like the feeling of imposing your will on an opponent via the ground game. That element of toughness has been missing for much of the year, and the Seahawks identity has been muddled as a result. Saturday felt like seeing an old friend who had been gone for some time.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the game was how consistent the level of play was throughout. There were no major lapses outside of another missed extra point. Tackling was terrific. Coverage was sticky. Penalties were sparse. The offense scored on five of their final six possessions, excluding kneel downs at the end of each half. The Lions never got past the Seattle 33-yard line on their way to two field goals in ten possessions. It was a promising display of Seahawks football.
Detroit defense was representative of the other NFC opponents
Detroit was the perfect sparring partner. Their defense is not great, but neither are the defenses of every NFC team outside of New York and Seattle. People will spout off about Vic Beasley Jr.’s 15.5 sacks, but fail to recognize the total lack of pass-rushing on the rest of that Atlanta team. They will also forget that while the Lions were the 23rd-rated run defense by Football Outsider’s DVOA statistic, the Falcons were 29th. Still not convinced? Look at the yards per drive rankings for Green Bay, Dallas, and Atlanta defenses compared to Detroit this year:
Dallas – 23rd
Atlanta – 26th
Green Bay – 28th
Detroit – 30th
Points per opponent possession is similar:
Dallas – 13th
Detroit – 26th
Atlanta – 27th
Green Bay – 28th
New York is far better at 5th and 2nd, respectively, but tell me who would pick the Giants to come into Seattle and win with that offense. The Lions were relatively healthy on defense, with Ezekial Ansah just now rounding into form. He finished with two sacks and beat George Fant a few times, but only one was really unavoidable.
The 387 yards piled up by the offense felt like a lot, but you might be surprised to learn that the Seahawks are now averaging 383 yards of offense over their past nine games. The New England Patriots, by comparison, averaged 386 on the year. That includes the only two games where C.J. Prosise started, when Seattle put up an average of 28.5 points and 429.5 yards against the 1st-ranked scoring defense in New England and the 12th-ranked scoring defense in Philly. Word is Prosise is likely to be back next week.
We are well-versed on the concept of rose-colored glasses. The disappointing outcome of the final six games of the year is having a bit of the opposite effect. There is a light bulb flickering on and off with this young Seahawks line and the offense that relies on it. Our gaze has been fixed on the moments when the light went out. If you look when the light was on, it was shining pretty darn brightly.
The Seahawks averaged 29 points and 409 yards of offense over the second half of the season if you remove the Tampa Bay and Green Bay games. Half of those six games came against Top 15 scoring defenses and four of the six came against Top 13 total defenses (yards per game).
None of this guarantees the light will now stay on, but it does indicate this offense is far from toothless, even against the best defenses the league has to offer.
Russell in his element
We all fell in love with watching Wilson fling the ball around with ruthless efficiency to end last year. He was playing the position as well as anyone in the game had ever played it, at least statistically speaking. It is not hard to understand why the team felt some mix of confidence and obligation to lean on him more this year. The result, however, was an awkward identity that actually worked against Wilson.
He is at his best when there is a commitment to the running game that allows him to utilize play-action and take deep shots down the field. This game required him to deliver in the clutch. He was the right hook that was set up by the running game as the jab. He is perfectly suited to that sort of dynamic.
That helped lead the team to a season-high nine third down conversions and break out of a dismal streak of red zone ineptitude. The Seahawks finished 9-16 (56%) on third down and are now 40-86 (46.5%) over their last six games. They have been 47% or better in five of those six games.
The red zone had been holding them back, with only 9 touchdowns in their last 24 red zone trips (37.5%). They finished with 3 touchdowns in 4 attempts against Detroit and could have had a fourth had Wilson either made a better throw to Tanner McEvoy or run for the first down.
Red zone offense often follows third down offense. Both require a similar level of timing and execution. Third downs can be easier as there is usually more room to work with and more plays at their disposal. The improved third down performance of late may have been a leading indicator of a red zone offense that can now step forward. Putting Wilson in a position to be smart, efficient, and clutch is when this team is at its most dangerous.
Defense on point
It would be easy to overlook the Seahawks defensive performance with the running game exploding on offense and the narrative that Matthew Stafford was less-than-his-best due to injury. Seattle’s defense put together one of their most complete games of the season. Every level did their part.
The run defense continues to be the best-kept secret in these playoffs. The linebackers were everywhere, and the secondary was on point throughout. I would have liked to have seen more pass pressure early on, but even that showed up at the most important times to end Lions drives and close out the game.
DeShawn Shead had a marvelous game. He was targeted 8 times. Three times, he knocked the ball away. The ball fell incomplete the other five times. Richard Sherman was targeted just once all night and deflected the pass effortlessly. Kam Chancellor was shadowing the tight ends flawlessly.
I cannot remember a missed tackle on the night. Yes, the team misses Earl Thomas. They also are fully capable of being the best defense in this playoff field without him.
On to Atlanta
The Seahawks are now in flight. Those who watched the game can feel it. As with any launch, millions of things could still go wrong, but we watch because millions of things can also go right and result in something special. What we saw last night was just the latest example of the otherworldly resiliency this team possesses. They were likely going to beat the Lions one way or another. The one way they chose to beat them was the best possible way. It reignited the torch that has guided them to championships in the past, and can do so again. We cannot know for sure what is around the corner, but whatever we find will be faced with a far more menacing foe. Seahawks football is back. Enjoy the ride.