I don't get to a lot of Seahawks games. Part of it has to do with the fact that I live up in Bellingham, but most of it has to do with how good the in-home viewing experience has become. The room is warm, the couch is comfy, the beer is five steps away (and free), there's no drive, no parking, no assholes, and I don't get in trouble for not wearing pants. It's easy, enjoyable and cheap.
The creature comforts I've surrounded myself with over the last few years have insulated me, made me content to watch football from inside my cozy little cocoon. They've made it easy to forget what an experience actually being there is, how animalistic and gladiatorial that arena becomes. How you're no longer one dude hangin' brain in his living room, you're a conduit for an energy force so much greater than yourself that it seems to lift you off the ground a little as it courses through your body and out your deliriously screaming mouth. Primal, is how Danny put it to me.
And so, at the behest of my overly generous little brother, I found myself at my first 'Hawks game of the season. I was nervous. In hindsight it seems silly, but before the game I saw legitimate scenarios in which the Saints left Seattle with a win and the inside track to home field advantage in the playoffs. New Orleans is a really good football team with a great players and an excellent coach. I thought they'd be prepared for the noise.
I wasn't prepared for the noise. It's not just the crowd; it's the thumping, almost tribal drumming of Blue Thunder, it's the fireworks, the music. But it's mostly the crowd. At one point, I was standing so close to my bro that our noses were almost touching and I still had to read his lips to figure out what he was saying. I'm told we broke a world record for the loudest crowd ever* but no one took my name down or anything.
*My second world record. The other came in the Kingdome back in some awfully-colored year in the '90s as a member of the planet's largest ever communal Macarena dance, which is apparently something worth tracking.
I've heard them compare the noise to all kinds of things: lawn mowers, airplanes, etc. You know what the world's loudest crowd sounds like? Think about someone you know personally standing two feet away from the side of your head and screaming as loud as he/she can. It's a startling, abrasive, reaction-inducing sound. Got it? Now multiply that by six. It'd be nearly unbearable. Now multiply that by a hundred. You'd begin to go insane. The human brain is not equipped to handle that concentrated of a noise. Now multiply that by a hundred and you've got the atmosphere in which Drew Brees and the Saints had to try and beat the Seahawks tonight.
Seattle started off the game by forcing a three and out and summarily turning the ensuing possession into a Steven Hauschka field goal. Nothing crazy thus far. On the next drive, however Cliff Avril torched Saints' RT Zach Strieff and closed in Bress, swatting his arm from behind as he started his throwing motion. The ball fluttered through the icy rain and into the grizzly paws of Michael Bennett, who followed a delinquently aggressive block from Jeremy Lane into the endzone for the first touchdown of the game.
At that point, it was clear that not even the customized earplugs the Saints had made for this game would be sufficient to block out the ancient and guttural roar emanating like oppressive heat from the breast of the 12th Man. From that point on, the Saints offense folded like a 2-7 off-suit, crumbling beneath a defense that hung on their every motion like blue shackles. Think I'm exaggerating? New Orleans netted 188 yards total, after averaging 415 on the season. They achieved nine first downs despite entering the game averaging over 23 of them a game. Drew Brees turned in the lowest yards per attempt (3.9) of his entire career. Not even Christian Ponder has posted a number that low this year.
And in case, for some reason, you're inclined to blame some of that on the weather, consider that Russell Wilson countered with a 10.3 YPA in this one. The Saints' leading rusher, Pierre Thomas, gained zero yards on four carries. Their leading receiver, Jimmy Graham, finished with just 32 yards on four catches. In fact, Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson had a longer reception (21 yards) than any Saints receiver had all game. To call this game one-sided is to do a disservice to the one side. It was a slaughter.
During the week, I wondered what Seattle would do to try and stop Graham who is, in my opinion, the single most difficult matchup assignment in the NFL. I couldn't see Pete Carroll and Dan Quinn taking away a front seven player for bracket coverage, nor did I anticipate them having someone shadow him. To be honest, I figured they'd just run the same defense we've seen all season, let Jimmy get his when he can, and hope to keep him out of the endzone. What they did was even simpler, and far more amazing: they went man.
It wasn't like they even assigned a guy to him, or even two. They just took turns putting everybody one on one with the greatest receiving threat the tight end position has ever known and they shut him down. Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, KJ Wright, Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, and even Bruce Irvin all lined up on Graham in this game, usually without help over the top. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Whoever they put on him was able to stay with him on nine out of every ten routes he ran. It was mesmerizing.
This bold, seemingly suicidal strategy was made possible by an incredible amount of pressure from the front four. Their impact didn't show up in the box score (one sack, six QB hits) as much as it did on the field, largely because Drew Brees is a savant at avoiding sacks, but believe me, it was there. There's no way in hell Brees turns 38 passes into only 147 yards, even against this secondary, unless he's being forced to throw it either much earlier or much later than he'd like. One of the other cool things about being at the game is that you can see the entire field at once and I can think of at least three occasions in which I saw a Saints receiver break open only to turn back and find that Brees had thrown it away or checked down before the route was even finished.
The Seahawks defense flashed on all three levels. Behind the constant pressure of the down linemen, Wright, Wagner, and Irvin all hounded their assignments, plugging holes in the run game, throwing hands in front of passing lanes, and putting a sting into receivers that came across the middle. On the back end, the secondary were their usual, fabulous selves, refusing to let anyone even sniff the air behind them and charging on every short route like incensed rhinos.
Byron Maxwell was outstanding. I mean, Sherman, Chancellor, and Earl Thomas were too, but we've become a little more accustomed to that. Maxwell was the lynchpin in the wake of the Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner suspensions and, as deep as I knew the 'Hawks to be, I didn't think the team's fourth-string cornerback would be able to handle guys like Graham and Darren Sproles and Marques Colston and Kenny Stills without help. And yet, there he was, on ana island with his man, over and over again. Thomas roamed about behind him, but was rarely shaded Maxwell's way, belying the significant trust Seattle's coaching staff apparently has in him.
Now I see why. No one could get free. The small guys couldn't wiggle past him, the fast guys couldn't run past him, and the big guys couldn't get position on him. It was clinical. I've had my concerns with Maxwell this season but good heavens do they seem silly now. I know it's just one game but I feel a whole lot better about the right side of the Seahawks secondary than I did a few days ago.
Jeez, here I am 1,400 words into this thing and I haven't even gotten to the offense yet. Well, they were awesome. Specifically, Russell Wilson was awesome. Coming off of his highest career passer efficiency rating (151 vs Minnesota), Wilson kept the vibes vibin' with a silky 139.6. He hit nine different receivers, three of them for TDs, and added 47 yards rushing on eight carries to his 310 passing on 30 attempts.
Wilson's bloated box score came in response to the Saints' clear preference for stopping Marshawn Lynch. Maybe it was too many BeastQuake highlights this week but Rob Ryan's guys didn't want to let Lynch get started. They collapsed on him on nearly every read-option Seattle ran which, after a couple of stuffs, made Wilson's decisions to keep it pretty easy. Lynch finished with just 45 yards on 16 carries (plus 12 yards on three receptions), but on this night he didn't need to do the heavy lifting.
In the pocket, out of the pocket, on designed waggles or broken plays, Wilson, who speaks with pride about the purposefulness of his footwork, was able to set his body and hit his receivers in stride with regularity. It's one thing to hit an open receiver, but it's another thing entirely to hit him in the hands without him having to slow down one iota. It's the difference between a simple completion and an explosive one. Aaron Rodgers is the best I've ever seen at it but the throws Wilson was making were every bit as impressive. I'm talking Robin-Hood-splitting-the-arrow type shit.
Three throws in particular stand out (and you'll forgive me if I screw up some of the details as being at the game doesn't afford me the luxury of DVR): a 50-something yarder to Doug Baldwin when a defensive shift left a safety one-on-one with him. Baldwin angled inside at the start before "hooking" his outside hip on the safety's inside hip (if he's even, he's leavin') and weaving back out towards the seam with the safety now reaching for his back pocket. At that point, Baldwin only had a step on the defender, enough to beat him in a foot race but trouble if he has to wait even a blink. Instead of feathering in a pass in hopes of ensuring the completion, Wilson fired the ball with conviction, like Achilles throwing his spear, hitting Baldwin in the hands about 30 yards downfield and allowing him to scamper for an extra 20.
Another standout pass was one to a breaking Zach Miller on a 15-yard in route. Lots of QBs throw that ball low to reduce the risk of the pass being broken up, content to take the completion and the first down. Russell, however, put it right in Miller's gut, giving his tight end the opportunity to turn upfield for extra yardage. Unfortunately for Seattle, Miller runs like he left the parking brake on and was dragged down before he could reach the endzone (which he did two plays later anyway) but still, Wilson's accuracy turned 15 yards into 60.
The other one that stood out to me was on a deep sideline/fade route to Ricardo Lockette, in which coverage was actually pretty good. In this case, the window was much smaller than on the first two passes I mentioned. Not only was the defender running step for step with Lockette, he was between the QB and the receiver, effectively erasing 90+% of Lockette's available surface area. This isn't even mentioning the safety closing in hard from the side. All in all, Wilson was left with a teacup-sized moving target nearly 40 yards from where he stood and he dimed it.
Those throws are the difference between good games and great games. Over a career, they're the difference between good QBs and legends. They don't just take an inhuman level of accuracy, they require a nearly delusional sense of self belief to even attempt. Those throws are not for the faint of heart; they are high-risk, high-reward plays that are easy to avoid in favor of check-downs or low-voltage lobs. Brees, Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning aren't future Hall of Famers because they spent their entire careers throwing to open receivers, nahmsayin'?
Some other stuff:
*The Seahawks clinched a playoff berth with this victory. With a win against the 49ers in San Francisco next week, they would clinch the NFC West title. If they win next week and the Carolina Panthers beat the Saints, Seattle will have all but locked up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Could cause some controversy over how much to play the starters down the stretch, but that's a bridge they'll happily cross if and when they get to it.
*Total Yards -- 188 (NO to 429 (SEA)
*First Downs -- 9 (NO) to 20 (SEA)
*Seattle went 7-14 on third downs. That number just keeps getting better. The Saints, for their part, went 6-15.
*Zach Miller led the team in catches (5), yards (86), and targets (8). I think that had more to do with how you exploit Ryan's myriad blitz scheme than it is an indicator of things to come. Still, it's nice to see your big-money TE be used as something other than a run blocker.
*The Seahawks averaged over six yards per play again (6.2). They lead the NFL in yards per play over the last month and are now second in the NFL in scoring at 28 PPG. They also lead the NFL in explosive play differential and will undoubtedly be a top-five DVOA offense by tomorrow. I think Darrell Bevell's job is safe.
*Seattle's defense is allowing the second-lowest yards per play in the NFL (4.5) and have allowed the fewest explosve plays in the league. They have the #1 rated defense by DVOA.
*Seattle also has the #1 rated special teams units by DVOA. What a fun bunch.
*Golden Tate returned five punts in this game for a total of 17 squirrely yards. On one occasion, he caught a punt over his shoulder while sprinting towards the front corner of his own goalline with two gunners bearing down on him. Golden Tate will watch you shoot his dog before he calls a fair catch.
*Those 17 punt return yards are still more than Jon Ryan has allowed on his punts (15). For the season. I also saw Jon Ryan throw a football 65 yards during warmups. I have nothing further to add.