A couple of years ago, I wrote about how the Seattle Seahawks established a new blueprint with the way the clobbered the Dallas Cowboys at home. In that game, they played ferocious defense, challenging every pass route, harrassing the quarterback, and winning the forward push on the line. Today, the Cowboys took that blueprint and whacked the 'Hawks over the head with it like they were so many leg-humping dogs.
Much like last week, this game started out swimmingly for Seattle. On their first drive, they slashed their way down the field, with Russell Wilson completing four of his first six passes for 60 yards, including a gorgeous 53-yard lob to Jermaine Kearse. The drive eventually stalled and Steven Hauschka cleaned it up with a short field goal. On Dallas' first possession, they were forced into a three and out and that's when things got really fun.
Seattle's play call on Dallas' punt was brilliant. Doug Baldwin was lined up over the gunner to the right side of the 'Hawks defense. Just before the snap, he slid inside and blitzed untouched off the edge. His approach was unfettered and he dived precisely over the top of the punter's foot, smothering the ball with his duodenum, allowing Mike Morgan to recover it for the score and a 10-0 Seahawks lead.
At that point, I figured the snowball was rolling as the Seahawks would be able to lean on the Cowboys like a poker player with a huge stack. Instead, Dallas came right back on the strength of a long run by Joseph Randle, which led to a touchdown pass from Tony Romo to Gavin Escobar on third and goal form the one. On the play just before that, a goal line pass was thrown behind Escobar and into the surprised hands of Byron Maxwell, who had nothing but open field between him and a 100-yard interception return. Unfortunately, the ball tumbled out of his hands and the Cowboys made it hurt.
After that, it was as if the Seahawks forgot who they were. Abandoning the run (Marshawn Lynch only had two carries in the first half), Seattle tried to beat the Cowboys through the air. I don't hate that on principle, but it became pretty obvious pretty early that Seattle was not going to be able to protect Wilson long enough to be effective. Russell was hit on five of his first seven dropbacks. He was flushed into a scramble on his next two. The offense looked broken and Seattle never reverted to the style that has made them so effective the last few seasons.
The Seahawks would go the rest of the half without gaining another first down. Meanwhile, the Cowboys began to rip off chunk yardage on the ground. DeMarco Murray looked just as good vs Seattle's #1 rush defense as he has against everyone else. Dallas converted eight of their next nine third downs, taking advantage of a banged up Seahawks defense that saw Byron Maxwell and Bobby Wagner (who later returned) leave with ankle injuries. The Cowboys were so effective in controlling the football that Seattle only ran five plays in the second quarter, two of which were go-nowhere efforts at the end of the half.
And while the Seahawks offense sputtered and sat, the Cowboys put together three consecutive scoring drives of the following soul-stomping compositions:
-9 plays, 80 yards, 4:39, TD
-15 plays, 71 yards, 9:45, FG
-10 plays, 80 yards, 2:48, TD
The second touchdown came on Jason Witten's 900th career reception, a third down dagger to the heart just before the half that punctuated Dallas' domination of the first two quarters. As the teams went into the locker room for halftime, Dallas had 234 yards on 20:09 TOP to Seattle's 83 on 9:51. After adjusting for penalties, the Cowboys had 77.5% of the first half yards from scrimmage.
Seattle tried to get their favorite toy involved, maybe to a fault, as Percy Harvin finished the first half with four touches and negative six yards. I love Harvin as much as anyone besides his mama but it was clear that he wasn't getting the space he needs to do what he does.
In the second half, Seattle got back to business. Or, at least, they appeared to. Lynch rumbled for a four yarder before unleashing a wiggly 32-yard run. It looked as though Seattle remembered who they were but then they trried to pass some more and the drive stalled out. It was then that the special teams again injected some hope into Century Link Field as Dwayne Harris fumbled the punt return and Kevin Pierre-Louis wrestled it away from him. A quick slant to Harvin led to a nine-yard Wilson keeper off of read-option for Seattle's only offensive TD. With the game tied at 17, it began to look as though everything was going to be okay.
On Dallas' ensuing possession, the crowd's effect was tangibly felt for the first time when Dallas botched a snap on a silent count and Jordan Hill recovered it, which lead to another Hauschka field goal and Seattle's first lead since forever, basically. With the Cowboys beginning to falter after consecutive fumbles and four straight failed third down attempts, I began to think that the game would settle into the pattern most of expected all along.
Then Terrance Williams started happening. His 47-yard catch got Dallas into Seattle territory and set up Dan Bailey, the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Bailey calmly drilled a 56-yard field goal that had at least another 10 on it and tied the game up at 20. With both offenses back to life, the teams began trading great plays. On one particular third and long, Wilson found himself flushed left and in all sorts of trouble. Then, as he so often does, he squared his shoulders and launched one towards Baldwin, who dove at the sideline to secure a wonderful first down catch. The play where Russell Wilson runs around like a naked toddler for six seconds and then throws it to Doug Baldwin for a toe-tapping 3rd down conversion has become one of my favorites and I feel like we see one every other week.
Seattle would end up punting it away but they gained significant field position when Dallas went three and out and flubbed a short kick to a fair-catching Bryan Walters. Seattle didn't go far, but it was enough to put Hauschka in position to kick a season-long 48-yard field goal, which he did without trouble. Between him, Jon Ryan, Ricardo Lockette, Percy Harvin, and Jermaine Kearse, the Seahawks are really blessed on special teams.
With Seattle leading for the first time since the early second quarter, they just needed to get a couple of stops. Things looked promising when a couple of Cowboy snafus had them facing a 3rd and 20 from their own 31. As Romo dropped back, the pocket began to collapse around him. Instead of panicking, however, Romo shuffled up in the rapidly enclosing pressure and tossed a prayer towards the right sideline. Terrance Williams alertly broke off his route and sprinted over to make a lunging sideline catch that appeared to defy physics. The refs ruled it a catch and after Pete Carroll challenged the call, replays showed that Williams somehow got toes from both feet down with control of the ball. It's one of the best plays turned in against the Seattle defense in a long time. I will never not be blown away by NFL receivers' ability to drag two feet.
Properly invigorated by Williams' catch, the Cowboys got back to basics, gashing their way through Seattle's front seven, all the way down the field and finishing it off with a 14-yard cutback TD from Murray. With Dallas up by four and just 3:16 left, I hoped that Bevell would be courageous enough to run the ball. That ended up not being the case, as Russell Wilson threw the ball four more times for four more yards. Dallas took over, kicked a field goal, and then Rolando McClain intercepted Wilson's last attempt to seal it away by a 30-23 score.
-Marshawn Lynch gained 61 on 10 carries (6.1 per). The other 38 Seahawks plays totaled 145 yards (3.8 per). How on earth do you only give Lynch 10 carries when the game is going like that?
-All told, 15 designed running plays for the team that came into today leading the NFL in rushing yards per game and yards per carry.
-Once Byron Maxwell got hurt, Richard Sherman switched to the right side for the first time all year and for the first time I can ever remember. He was still excellent, which should* only further quiet the criticism of him for only staying on one side of the field. His coverage is obviously incredible, but he made a number of impressive tackles today too. Such a complete player.
*I say should, but it won't, even though many other elite corners are staying on one side of the field now.
-DeMarco Murray might just be the best running back in the NFL this year. 115 yards on 29 carries. He's 6-6 when it comes to hitting 100 yards and has scored TDs in five of them. He's now the only person besides Jim freaking Brown to start a season with six consecutive 100-yard games. That includes efforts against the 49ers, Rams, Texans, and now the Seahawks. That's four of the best front sevens in the league.
-Percy Harvin finished with -1 yards on 6 touches from scrimmage. He was also tackled inside his own 20 on three straight kick returns. Dallas absolutely smothered him today and while I'm still a huge fan and I don't think there's anything wrong with him, Harvin's gonna have to start producing quickly to justify the amount of attention Darrell Bevell is giving him. Now has just 133 receiving yards on the season, which translates to 26.6 per game.
-Bobby Wagner finished with seven tackles, breaking his 15-game streak of 8+ tackles in a game. Keep in mind he missed about a third of the game.
-Passer Efficiency Differential is now 5-0 in Seahawks games this year, as Tony Romo's 110.2 ran laps around Russell Wilson's 47.6.
-This was arguably Wilson's worst game since early 2012, as he completed just 50% of his 28 passes for a paltry 126 yards (4.5 YPA). He looked rushed, even on the few plays he wasn't. I don't know if he's a a little gun shy or what, but it doesn't seem like he ever a.) steps up in the pocket and b.) gets the ball out in under three seconds (h/t to @b3nshoe). I still think he's one of the best QBs in the game but this team isn't going to repeat unless their pass game settles down. That sounds harsh and while I try not to overreact to recent performance, even the majority of his good games come largely on the back of rollouts and broken plays.
-A lot of folks on TV and Twitter talking about how much better the Cowboys run game was than Seattle's. Both teams averaged the same 4.4 yards per carry, it's just that one team stayed committed to it and the other didn't.
The Seahawks are now 3-2. With the Cardinals beating the Redskins today, Seattle falls into a tie for second with the 49ers, who play the Rams tomorrow night. The Seahawks are still a very good football team but they are not the juggernaut we hoped they would be. This team is extremely talented but not so talented that they can just show up and win. Today is a harsh reminder that even great teams need to play well to win in this league and the Seahawks did not, for the most part, play well.
This was a funny game. Without the special teams wackiness, the Seahawks could have been blown out. Had Maxwell hung onto that interception, this game might have been over as soon as it started.
I know I've been hammering on this for the last 2,000 words but I really hope Seattle gets back to what made their offense so good in the first place: the run game. Running the football effectively does more than just move the football, it changes the structure of the opposing defense. It draws safeties up, it forces linemen to collapse on play action and read-option plays. It creates caution in the pass rush, too, which Wilson would benefit from greatly. This is not a team that's designed to pass twice as often as they run. Hopefully this game serves as a cautionary tale for what can happen when you stray from the blueprint.
Next up are the Rams, in St. Louis. The road to home field advantage in the playoffs now has to go through a few teams and Seattle will have to be much better than they were today in order to grab that #1 seed again this season. The good news is that they have been, and can be again.