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Seahawks Game Notebook: Seattle drops one to the Cowboys

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Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

After re-watching the Seahawks' loss to the Cowboys last night, I came away with less of a feeling of dread than I figured I would. Instead, I emerged with more of a feeling that Seattle simply lost to a very good team after failing to execute on some crucial plays. Execution -- that's why they play the games, right?

Before I get into the details of what stood out to me, just in a general sense, I thought the Cowboys just played really well, and seem to have put together an equation that will equal consistent production, particularly on offense. They are tough and physical up front, have a bruising, hard-to-bring down running back, and mixed in a few brilliant plays downfield on the arm of a masterful performance by their quarterback. Sound familiar?

Now, despite all that, despite Seattle's play-calling woes and lack of execution, the Seahawks were, gasp, *winning* the football game even as late as the 3:24 mark in the fourth quarter. We're hearing talk about the Cowboys' domination, the Seahawks getting beat at home, losing their identity, getting manhandled up front, but Seattle still came close to gutting out an ugly win against a high-caliber team. Let's not forget this. I'm not saying it's a moral victory, what I'm saying is that this is the NFL. It's hard to win. It's a long season, this ride ain't over.

OFFENSE:

Identity vs. Execution:

Seattle certainly seemed to stray from their identity in this game and it's really a microcosm for the glacial shift away from the heavy-personnel, I-formation, wide-zone-running teams of 2011/2012. Now, we see more shotgun-based, spread offense, inside zone looks more often than not. Has Seattle's identity changed? Yes, but it's been a slow change. And it's not necessarily for the worse.

Why? My opinion: Marshawn Lynch is probably a more effective runner taking the ball in a 'read option' look from Russell Wilson because his vision, bowlegged running style, and power through the hole fit well with how teams defend this look.

I think this read-option look (11 personnel - three wide receivers) with the zone blocking scheme up front really suits Lynch's style and he's managed to create good number of explosive plays out of these sets. He's got elite burst through the first level, always seems to predict where linebackers will fill, and has a great knack for cutting back through the right seams to pick up yardage once past the defensive line. It all fits Lynch's skillset. Seattle's run game really took off when they started using this scheme.

So, I'm not suggesting Seattle go back to running more heavy-set style schemes and pulling a receiver or two off in favor of a tight end or fullback (ie, 22 personnel, 12 personnel). What I am suggesting is that it behooves Seattle to get back to using Marshawn Lynch as the foundation of their offense. The Seahawks know this. They know it. Game situations, game flows, and just probably some bad decisions on play-calls have meant that Seattle's gotten away from this identity at times, but I do not believe this has been intentional or deliberate.

Marshawn Lynch is the engine. Percy Harvin is the NOS booster. Not the other way around.

Now, that said, while Seattle should have no issue getting back to their identity, in theory, their execution of the offense must improve. On Sunday, we saw way too many instances of guys missing key blocks, both inline and on the outside. We saw too many pre-snap penalties. We saw Russell Wilson make some idiotic throws and he was lucky he didn't have two or three picks because of it. Further, we saw too many "drops" of passes that were tough, but catchable.

Run game vs. constraint plays:

Like I said, Marshawn is the engine, Percy is the NOS booster. Constraint plays only work when a team starts cheating on your foundational plays. Right now, teams are cheating on the Percy plays, and the Seahawks aren't taking advantage of this by pounding Lynch up the middle. If you go back and put on the tape, teams are just waiting for the Seahawks to throw a bubble or run an end around, and they're scheming to stop these plays. You can see it pre-snap.

The Percy constraint plays like end-arounds, bubbles, and fly sweeps are perfect for when teams start cheating inside to take away Marshawn Lynch, but as we've seen, Seattle's been trying to go about it the other way. Pete even said post-game that they were trying to 'soften up the middle of the field' by running screens to Harvin early vs. the Cowboys, but the part of the equation they didn't use was actually giving Lynch the ball in the middle of the field. They had four first half drives. Lynch had two carries. To me, this isn't game flow. This is just getting too cute.

Do what Dallas did and pound the rock. If it's not working, pound it some more. That's when Seattle's typically gotten their chunk plays in the run game. You have to wear down the opponent. That's how I see it anyway, but I fully acknowledge that it's a complicated balance.

Deep shots:

The other part of Seattle's identity, outside of the Marshawn Lynch Foundation™, is their deep passing game. This Cowboys game reminded me of the Arizona home loss of last year in that Seattle managed to take a few shots downfield (without getting too desperate about it), but simply did not capitalize enough on those opportunities.

Jermaine Kearse caught a deep bomb down the sideline after running a pick play with Doug Baldwin on Seattle's first drive, and that was just about their only big time downfield play (deep) in the game. (By the way, this pick play is Seattle's absolute 'go-to' on third/fourth and long -- in fact, Seattle ran this play against San Diego in desperation time on fourth and long, and then again vs. Dallas on fourth and long at the end of this game, both were unsuccessful. Might think about adding a few more plays to the ole' repertoire for these situations).

That said, Seattle did take a few shots and came up empty. First example would be on a 1st and 10, the second play of the fourth quarter. Game was tied, and Seattle was looking for a little boost on the offensive side of the ball. We've seen that these explosive plays can create a snowball effect for the offense.

Russ drops back on play-action, and in a smooth motion and with perfect timing, releases a ball downfield to Kearse. I don't know if official scorekeepers will call this a drop, but this is a ball that your starting X receiver should catch.

This is where having no Michael Crabtree/Anquan Boldin, Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald/Michael Floyd, Julio Jones/Roddy White, Kelvin Benjamin, Brandon Marshall/Alshon Jeffery, Jordy Nelson, Marques Colston/Jimmy Graham, Vincent Jackson/Mike Evans comes into play. Those are just NFC teams I mentioned that have true #1 receivers (or two) and/or body-up outside, jump-ball guys. Obviously these types of players are hard to find. But, still. This is a piece that Seattle sorely misses at times.

On Seattle's next drive, with 10:35 remaining and the game tied at 20-20, Luke Willson runs a wheel route down the sideline, goes up and can't come down with the ball. A big-time catch here would have put Seattle on the 5 yard line with a first and goal. They got a field goal out of this possession, which almost feels like a win for Dallas (in the end, it turned out to be).

This is not a ball that Willson "should" catch, but I'd put it into the category of a play that your skill guys need to make if you're hoping to win a close-fought battle with one of the NFL's top teams. I realize he got interfered with, but he got two hands on the football. A catch here would be an enormous play, but it doesn't happen.

Overall, I'd say Pete Carroll and Seattle's fans might want a few more deep shots incorporated into the offense, and we may see that over the next few weeks. I really believe there will be a focus on "getting back to their roots" or whatnot.

Pocket vs. Rollouts:

Russell Wilson got a lot of guff about this game and overall I don't think he played very well. The stats bear that out. His poise was shaky at times, and he almost coughed up the football a couple of times. That said, he did stand in the pocket and make a few throws that are encouraging to me.

First quarter, Wilson floats back in the pocket, moves Dallas' safeties by looking them off to the left, then with timing and excellent velocity, he threads the needle into the endzone. The ball comes in high, and Doug Baldwin can't reel it in. Again, this is not a "drop" and not something he "should' catch, but it would have been a big-time play if he could've reeled it in. Seattle gets a field goal out of the possession instead of a touchdown.

Fast forward to the fourth quarter. Seahawks down 27-24 now, looking to drive the length of the field to take back the lead and win the game. They come to a second and six situation with 2:49 remaining. Again, Wilson's throw isn't perfectly on target, but he leads his receiver away from the coverage in a back-shoulder type of way. Kearse's timing is just off, and it deflects off his fingertips.

Seattle's next two plays are fruitless (in part because of bad throws from Russell Wilson), and they give the ball back to the Cowboys.

Missed opportunities. Poor execution of the called plays.

DEFENSE:

Run defense:

I'll say this about the run defense -- for about 56 minutes, it was pretty good. The Cowboys chewed up a lot of ground on little dumpoffs to their running backs, which is something that Pete Carroll will need to address because it's becoming a pattern, but until the Cowboys' go-ahead drive, the run defense fared okay, relatively speaking.

To the point where Tony Romo made that miraculous third down and 20 conversion, Seattle had held DeMarco Murray to 69 yards on 26 rushes, or 2.6 YPC. If you add in five Joseph Randle rushes for 52 yards (bad), all told the Cowboys had 121 yards on 31 rushes to that point in the game, or 3.9 YPC. Again, not really the full-game "domination" that it seemed -- Seattle had set themselves up to win a tough game against a good opponent. Imagine if the Hawks had forced a punt there and then salted the game away. How different of a conversation is this?

However. We live in reality, of course, and Seattle did not do that.

After that huge, emotion-stoking play by Romo and Williams, the Seahawks simply folded. They gave up 46 yards on the next three plays, all rushes, and Murray was into the endzone. Cowboys land an uppercut. Knockout.

Now, obviously, you have to play a full 60 minutes. I am not discounting those crucial late game plays whatsoever. Those were huge, game-changing plays by the Cowboys and the Seahawks didn't stop them when they needed to the most. I'm not saying the run defense is not culpable, because at the end of the day they surrendered those big plays and ultimately allowed the Cowboys to take the lead for good.

For me, though, it's less of a deep seated, foundational or schematic issue that was the reason the Seahawks lost. It was much more of an execution issue. A fundamentals issue. Much like the offense, the defense failed to execute how they normally have over the past two seasons, and the Cowboys landed a the knockout punch. So, in my view, Seattle went into the 11th round, it wasn't pretty but they were still in the fight, they landed a few nice jabs of their own, and actually led very late into the bout. Just when you thought they'd outlast the Cowboys, they dropped their gloves at a key time, and were dealt a knockout punch. Pure and simple.

Pressure vs. Sacks:

There is a lot of talk about the Seahawks' lack of a pass rush. While I acknowledge that the sack totals are down a lot and this is a major concern, it's been my observation based on tape that the pressure has still been pretty good from Seattle's defensive line.

Per PFF's grading, Seattle is currently 11th in the NFL in pass rush, overall (they finished first by ten miles last year in this department). Michael Bennett is currently 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends with a +9.5 grade, behind only Cam Wake, so what he's been doing has looked good to their grading system. Per their tracking, he's accumulated 14 quarterback hurries (6th among 4-3 DEs), 8 quarterback hits (1st in the NFL at his position), but only two sacks (T-15th).

Bennett's cohort, Cliff Avril, is currently 11th among 4-3 DEs with a +3.4 grade. He has 17 quarterback hurries (1st in the NFL among 4-3 DEs), two quarterback hits (17th), but again, only one sack (T-26th).

So, together, Bennett and Avril have created a shit-ton of pressures and hurries, but have yet to produce a lot of sacks.

Part of the reason for this is that Seattle has faced the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, and Tony Romo (and *coughkirkcousinscough*). That said, Seattle sacked/pressured the shit out of some good quarterbacks last year so the ultimate hope is that they'll start getting home at a greater rate. This will create a snowball effect, helping to create turnovers for the secondary, which in turn will help Seattle kick people's asses at a better rate. That's the hope.

Here's two examples to illustrate my point:

Against Washington, two non-sacks almost create two turnovers for Seattle. Convert these two? We're talking blowout of huge proportions, likely.

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I use these because I had these gifs handy, but you get the point. Overall, to my eye, the pass rush has been good at generating pressure and moving the QB, but they haven't finished and they've played QBs that are very, very good against pressure. Tony Romo spun away from Bruce Irvin, twice, to make that 3rd-and-20 game-changing play, and this was the difference in the game. Seattle has to finish, period. Will they? I mean, I think so. They have the talent to. Based on how they played last year, you have to expect they'll start to... but there's no guarantee.

Sherman vs. Dez

I just wanted to include a little note about this -- the Dez Bryant and Richard Sherman battle in this game was pretty epic. It might warrant its own separate post. Both Sherman and Dez landed punches (I'm running with the boxing metaphors today), and overall it was just a lot of fun to see two elite players go at each other. The injuries to Seattle's defensive backs group created a situation where Sherman followed Bryant around all over the field.

Banged up:

Speaking of those injuries, it's something that has to be mentioned. During Seattle's late-game collapse, the defense was playing Marcus Burley -- a journeyman corner they traded a sixth rounder for in the preseason -- on the outside, and they had Steven Terrell -- a UDFA that was signed from the practice squad on Saturday -- on the inside.

Every team has injuries that they have to account for, but Seattle was down Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane, Tharold Simin at corner, and at safety, they had half of a Kam Chancellor and half of a Bobby Wagner at linebacker. All this on a crucial drive late in the game. You simply cannot expect that they'll be as effective as we're used to when this is the case. Sorry. Not an excuse, every team has injuries and has to deal with them on their own, but if you're looking for a reason things fell apart there, it's reasonable to assume this made a big impact.

Expectations:

Just one quick note about ugly wins vs. ugly losses: they're both ugly. One just feels worse than the other.

Seattle won ugly a few times last year -- at Carolina, at Houston, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, at the Rams -- but there's this perception that The Mighty Seahawks, the team that blew out the Broncos in the Super Bowl last year, should be winning by double-digits each week, embarrassing everyone and leaving a path of destruction in their wake. Well, that wasn't the case last year, at all, and frankly, last year's team might've been better and deeper. I think a shifting of expectations may be in order for many fans (not all, of course).

This season will be tough. It will be a very hard road to get back to not only the playoffs, but the Super Bowl. Step back away from the ledge. It's a long-ass season.