Sometimes you just gotta win games like this. The Seattle Seahawks went down to Dallas for three hours of boffing and emerged victorious, beating a Matt Cassel-led Cowboys team 13-12 in what was basically the remedial version of an NFL game. Don't get me wrong, everyone out there played like they belonged in the NFL, it just looked like they all showed up to the field and randomly chose teams 15 minutes before kickoff.
There was a certain beauty to this one, though. Like I said earlier this year, I believe that in the NFL, everyone is sharing the same 98%. They all have 98% of each other's talent, share 98% of the game's strategy, have 98% of each other's experience. But more often than not, NFL games come down to which team can win that other 2% in the chaos of high-intensity pro football. I bring it up again because I think this game, despite its stilted pace and weird officiating, more clearly demonstrated Seattle's ability to win that 2% than any game since the NFC Championship last year.
A large number of NFL games are decided by seven points or less, especially when the presumably better team is on the road. In cases like that, contests are usually determined by the outcome of just a handful of plays. Consider Russell Wilson's interception. On an innocent swing pass, Greg Hardy eschewed a chop block and tipped Wilson's pass to himself. With only the QB to beat for a touchdown, Hardy (6'5", 280 lbs) began to pick up speed. Undaunted by neither his mistake nor Hardy's size, Wilson (5'11, 206 lbs) took on the massive defensive end and calf-roped him to the ground. That play, which was statistically one of Wilson's worst of the season, may have been the one that won them the game, as Seattle's defense held the Cowboys to a field goal; a four-point swing in what ended up being a one-point game.
There were others, too. In a season in which more often than not, that high-leverage 2% has been won by their opponents, the Seahawks reversed the narrative by playing their best football in the fourth quarter. In the first three quarters, the Cowboys ran 49 plays for 200 yards. In the fourth quarter? Eight plays, 20 yards. The Seahawks had similar production in the first 45 minutes, running 43 plays for 194 yards. But over the final 15 minutes, they sucked the air out of the stadium with a staggering 27 plays and 130 yards.
The small-but-growing sample-size feeding the fourth quarter meltdown narrative has been halted, nay, reversed by Seattle's last two performances. The team that has been superior through three quarters in each of their last nine games has now also been superior in the fourth in two straight. And they've done it, mostly, by playing the kind of defense we've expected from them all along. On today's final Cowboys drive, the Seahawks only rushed three guys three times, and four guys once. The pressure got home every time, forcing Cassel off his spot on all four occasions and hitting him during his throwing motion twice.
In all, they held the Cowboys to 91 net passing yards on 27 dropbacks. Last week, they held the 49ers to 81 net passing yards on 30 dropbacks. Combined, that's 172 on 57 or, to throw that dominance into even starker relief, 3.01 yards per attempt. That is the type of football that has made Seattle's defense arguably the best of all time over the last three years (lowest ever PPG allowed over three year stretch relative to league scoring), the type of football that turned Earl Thomas and a bunch of nobodies into the cult-like Legion of Boom, the type of football that rips pages out of opposing playbooks.
And you can make it about bad quarterbacks if you're still thirsty for reasons to think this defense isn't that good, but when you do, remember that the week before Colin Kaepernick accounted for 81 yards from scrimmage against Seattle he amassed 350. Or if you want to put the onus on Cassel for Seattle's performance today, keep in mind that the Cowboys racked up 460 yards just last week. Yes, they'll have to show they can do it against top tier quarterbacks in order to make a run at another Super Bowl but this team has gelled and the defense looks ready to take on anyone. And believe me, they'll get their chances with Carson Calmer and Ben Roethlisberger greeting them after the bye week.
And while the defense did everything they could to keep Seattle in the game, the Seahawks offense sputtered along like one of those old-timey automobiles that you start with a crank. And yet, they mostly got where they were going, even if they choked out every passerby with toxic fuel exhaust in the process. Sure, the Seahawks only gained 5.3 yards per play but it's the way they gained 'em that was most impressive. Seattle's longest play of the game was just 22 yards but that didn't stop them from racking up 19 first downs.
There are many tenets of Pete Carroll's football philosophy but one of the major ones is the emphasis on muting the cacophony of chaos that is NFL football. That's the reason his teams have always been built around the running game and pass defense. Successfully running the football while forcing the other team to keep it on the ground as well shortens a game considerably while reducing much of the wackiness that accompanies high-volume passing (see today's Giants vs Saints game). Carroll believes firmly that his team is more talented than his opponent's and reducing the types of plays that lead to outlying outcomes, he puts more emphasis on talent vs. talent.
Most NFL games see 25-28 drives; this one had 19, not counting the last-second kneeldown. It puts more pressure on both teams to make difference-making plays, as each play in a shorter game carries a higher leverage than those in high-volume contests. It's also a main reason that passing yardage has a very low correlation to winning, relatively speaking. Granted, only one of Seattle's drives ended in a touchdown and finishing possessions with teeders is a glaring weakness in need of addressing but down the stretch, the effect of running head-first into the gut of the defense all game long took its toll.
You all saw it in their final two drives. Consistent push from the offensive line. Zero sacks all game. Receivers winning their battles inside of five yards. Wilson's tireless legs pinwheeling Cowboys defenders into a state of fatigue with scramble after scramble. And while they never broke "the big one," they got lots and lots of just-enough ones to keep the ball out the Cowboys' hands for almost the entire final third of the contest. Truly, the Seahawks ran 75% of the game's offensive plays in the game's final twenty minutes.
The box scores in games like these won't sparkle. The Seahawks aren't going to garner any Player of the Week honors when they muddy games up like they did today. But what they did is what we used to see from them all the time. Fighting in the pit as opposed to the meadow, drawing their opponent down into the muck and trading teeth and claws in close quarters until one of them emerges from the depth victorious. Everyone can win when everything is clicking. Not everyone can win like that.
And yes, YES, the officials played far too big of a role in this one. There were missed calls all over the place and the refs officiated like they overslept for a final exam and were winging it from memory. A couple of huge ones went in Seattle's favor. A couple of them didn't. I'm sure the comments section will parse the particulars.
Some other notes:
~Jimmy Graham looked positively Jimmy Grahamy today, garnering a team-high 10 targets, 33% of Wilson's total. For all of the annoying-ass impatience and handwringing about Seattle not knowing how to use him, Graham has found himself with 38 catches for 450 yards on 54 targets. Here's how that stacks up to his performance in New Orleans last season:
Jimmy Graham, 2014: 85 catches on 124 targets (68.5%) for 885 yards (7.1 yards/target)
Jimmy Graham, 2015 (pace): 76 catches on 108 targets (70.4%) for 900 yards (8.3 yards/target)
They're figuring it out. Wilson is trusting him in tight coverage. They are drawing up plays specifically to exploit his matchups. The volume numbers he put up as a Saint will never be matched here, but his production per opportunity is just fine. Just gotta get him some more TDs.
~The offensive line played really well, I thought. There was still pressure on Wilson but considering that Alvin Bailey was playing the role of Russell Okung and Greg Hardy was playing the role of Greg Hardy, zero sacks is pretty A-OK. I also thought they blocked well in the run game but there were almost no broken tackles by Seahawks RBs in the second level, which was, I think, the biggest culprit in their 3.6 YPC. Hey, the Cowboys tackled well.
~The Seahawks also tackled very well, I thought, especially on third downs. Great to see.
~Richard Sherman was unbelievably good today. Trailed Dez all over the field, allowed one short catch. Did it to Torrey Smith last week and allowed zero. Did it to AJ Green a few weeks ago and held him to two catches. There's just no more knocks you can put on the guy. He is establishing himself as one of the truly great cornerbacks of all time. Not bad for an unused college wideout.
~When the Seahawks were down by two and had to go almost the full length of the field late in the fourth quarter, they answered with a 17-play game-winning drive.
~Ricardo Lockette didn't die when this happened. While he was laying there, not moving and, for all we could tell, not breathing, I looked down to see my hands shaking. I actually wept when he finally threw up the LOB while being carted off the field and I honestly didn't care about the game for at least another hour. Fuck football sometimes, you guys.
Okay but also, not fuck football. The Seahawks are 4-4 heading into their bye week. They trail the first-place Arizona Cardinals by two games and have two games left against them. Paul Richardson and Jeremy Lane should be back in a fortnight to face those very same Cardinals at Century Link. For all of the garbage and drama and frustration of the last two (nine, really) months, the Seattle Seahawks still control their own destiny for the NFC West and from there, all bets are off.