The Seattle Seahawks beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that should have come with a warning from the surgeon general. Seven lead changes, 69 points giggidy, and nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage between the two teams and that somehow doesn't even come close to encapsulating the wildness of this game.
It was like being in one of those vivid dreams that begin crumbling from your consciousness upon waking. Everything was familiar and yet the creeping awareness that not everything was as it should be crawled daintily along the top of your spine like an ethereal spider. In the moments that made up the experience, what transpired seemed real enough. It's only upon lucid, woken examination that what seemed so true moments ago appears ridiculous. The Seahawks allowing 480 passing yards? Has literally never happened before. Doug Baldwin scoring three touchdowns? Same. Russell Wilson throwing for five touchdowns on his birthday? While sick? C'mon. Jimmy Graham blowing out his knee? Jermaine Kearse scoring twice? Four two-point conversion attempts? The Steelers throwing four interceptions? Get outta here.
And yet, here we are. After a second straight victory, the Seahawks have now won four of their last five and find themselves in sixth place in the NFC. It's crazy- for all the angst and frustration, all the dashed hopes and altered expectations, all the shoe-throwing and napalming of comments sections, the Seahawks would be in the playoffs if they started next week. So how did it happen? I don't know, how did humans build a machine that could go into outer space before we had the technology of a calculator watch?
It all started out innocently enough, with the two teams cordially exchanging punts for a while before settling down to the bizarre business at hand. The goofiness started on the first play of the second quarter, with Pittsburgh facing a 4th & 2 on Seattle's 27 yard line. Mike Tomlin, who is for many reasons my favorite non-Seahawks coach in the NFL, brought out the field goal unit. Now, I'm a big proponent of going for it on 4th and short almost always, and the NFL is starting to see coaches trending that way as they begin to be able to quantify the value of field position as it relates to win probability. But no coach is more willing to pull that counter-intuitive trigger than Tomlin and he's not shy about it. In short, as a football fan, I thought going for it was the right call.
Apparently, Tomlin agreed, and while I supported the decision to go for it in principle, I'm not sure having your back up QB audible the place-kicking squad into a multiple-motion shotgun formation is the direction I would've gone. The Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger, DeAngelo Williams, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and, apparently, Markus Wheaton at the ready. Instead, they had Landry Jones waggle right and then attempt a comical jump pass across the field to his eligible left tackle. That malpractice masquerading as a play call was terminated post haste by welcome back Jeremy Lane, who mercifully ended the life of Jones' quacker with an interception. The return was like watching a Blues Brothers car chase, as Lane hopped between the bumbling herd of linemen like a frog on the highway before tackling himself deep in Steelers territory.
That silliness was followed shortly thereafter by a 16-yard TD pass from Wilson to Baldwin that was stiff enough to sell Cialis. It was the second in a string of five consecutive third down completions by Wilson that totaled 85 yards and five first downs. 7-3 Seahawks. It was the first of a thousand touchdowns in this game and the favor was returned by the Steelers on the very next possession, when Martavis Bryant took a reverse at Seattle's 15 and found his angle to the sideline cut off by Earl Thomas. Then, just as Thomas approached him, Bryant somehow teleported around the edge and tiptoed into the endzone for the go-ahead score. 10-7 Steelers.
Not to be outdone on this, the 27th celebration of his birth, Wilson led the Seahawks on an 11-play, 85-yard pilgrimage, a drive that saw three consecutive 3rd & double-digits conversions, two of which came on the broad, handsome shoulders of 18-yard Jimmy Graham receptions. And, like Wilson did 27 years ago, the gestating Seahawks drive crowned with Kevin Smith's first career reception then breached with a 12-yard delivery to Kearse for the go-ahead score. 14-10 Seahawks.
That score left the Steelers just two minutes to answer but it turns out even that was too much time. In a blink, Pittsburgh ripped off eight plays for 80 yards and eight points, with Williams running it in from six yards out and Roethlisberger completing the conversion attempt to some guy that was apparently not Heath Miller. 18-14 Steelers.
The Seahawks would punt on their next three possessions, while the Steelers netted only a modest field goal in the interim. It looked like maybe things would start settling down and it wasn't shaping up well for Seattle. The loss of Will Tukuafu put the run game on ice, as the 'Hawks got away from their under-center offense and went to a whole bunch of empty sets and wide-spread shotgun plays. Thomas Rawls, whose scorched earth policy gained him 41 yards on his four carries, stagnated and the rest of the offense had begun to wither on the vine.
As you all know, I've been a pretty staunch defender of Darrell Bevell and I still believe that my stance is well supported. Evaluating the worthiness of coordinators on a play-by-play or even game-by-game basis is foolhardy and the overall sample size overwhelmingly supports the job Bevell has done. THAT SAID, I was extremely frustrated by the formations he had run out there to this point of the game. Seattle didn't even pretend to pass off of play-action, instead choosing to telegraph their intentions with each formation. The result was what you'd expect and I was getting restless. It was then, however, that we started to see the offense blossom.
*Seattle's offense has finished in the top 7 of the NFL in DVOA each of the last three years and, despite horrific OL play, are ranked 9th again this year
And for those that say Seattle's offense is just being bailed out by the quality of their running backs and Wilson's incorrigible improv, the next 20 minutes did much to dispel that. Russ and Co began humming along on a wavelength we'd yet to see this season. It wasn't schoolyard football or incredible individual efforts overcoming bad play calling, it was aggressive surgical precision and the results were astounding.
Oddly enough, the fulcrum upon which the game tipped from simply strange to completely weird was defensive tackle Aytah Rubin, who sniffed out a screen pass and pawed it with one swipe like a bear going salmon fishing. That oddity was immediately followed by Jimmy Graham's best catch of the season on a contested jump ball at the two, which was immediately followed by Rawls' only touchdown, which was immediately followed by a blocked extra point, which was immediately followed by me taking a walk around the block and definitely not peeing in my neighbor's hedge. 21-20 Steelers.
A couple of drives later, Roethlisberger dialed up a go route to the previously smothered Antonio Brown, except that Richard Sherman may or may not have knocked Brown down en route, leaving Sherman as the lone potential recipient of the pass. The contact was ruled incidental, and the best cornerback in the game finally had his first interception of the season. Think I'm overstating that because I'm a Seahawks fan? Consider this: after setting an NFL record for most interceptions in the first four years of a career, Sherman has been avoided like a dark hallway after watching a horror film. But he only stays on one side of the field. Well, he followed AJ Green around in Week 5 and shut him down. But that's just one game. Then he did the same thing to Dez Bryant. But that was only against Matt Cassel.
Look, if you had one arrow left in the Richard-Sherman-is-overrated quiver, it was Antonio Brown. Coming into this game, the average Antonio Brown target netted an insane 9.9 yards (1,141 yards on 115 targets), a number depressed considerably by Roethlisberger's four-game absence. Sherman spent at least half of the game following Brown in this one- left side, right side, slot, motion- didn't matter. Eight of Brown's 12 targets came with Sherman guarding him and in those eight chances, Brown managed just three catches for 22 yards (and that's not even counting the interception Sherman got while covering Brown on a two-point conversion). Considering Brown's insanely precise routes, dependable hands, and extra-terrestrial connection with Roethlisberger, there is now nothing left to throw at Sherman but a tantrum.
Anyhow, that interception by Sherman led to another TD pass from Wilson to Kearse but not before disaster struck. On a deep fade route, Graham lunged for the ball in the back corner of the endzone, coming down awkwardly and blowing out his knee. Man, just as he was hitting his stride, too. Nonetheless, the 'Hawks pushed on and eventually got that go-ahead TD. Naturally, they went for two and tried a quick fade that worked as well as every other goal line fade Seattle has tried the last two seasons. 26-21 Seahawks. By this time, we had entered the fourth quarter and Seattle's first lead since the first half had a short life. With Antonio Brown locked up, Roethlisberger turned his high-powered laser on Markus Wheaton, giving him an incredible 13 targets.
On the third play of the drive, the two hooked up for a 69 giggidy yard touchdown pass that blew the top off of the Seahawks' secondary. The throw itself was sensational, as Roethlisberger limped to his right before flicking it nearly 50 yards back down the center of the field to hit his speedster in stride. All told Will Wheaton's cousin would finish with nine catches for 201 yards. 27-26 Steelers.
At this point, I began to wonder how many times this Seahawks offense could answer the bell, especially with Graham out. No worries, though, 'cuz apparently Baldwin's got this. After three first downs in four plays, Seattle's offense was officially cruising and that's when Wilson found his main man again. Baldwin's second touchdown was a 30-yard beauty and set up another unsuccessful two-point attempt because why get two when you can have zero instead? 32-27 Seahawks.
Pittsburgh's next drive had all the dreadful makings of so many others like it in the fourth quarter this season. After seemingly stopping the Steelers, Pittsburgh's possession was bailed out when Michael Bennett helmeted Roethlisberger on a third down incompletion. That penalty was followed by a series of disheartening first downs before the Steelers found themselves facing third and goal from Seattle's 10. When Pittsburgh's giant, nimble oaf of a QB took the snap, he found to his chagrin that no one was open. Instead of taking his chances with a throw, Roethlisberger tucked the ball under his cavernous armpit and trundled forward with only Bobby Wagner between him and glory.
Wagner did his part, clubbing Roethlisberger to the turf with a sensational open-field tackle that actually knocked the ball loose before Roethlisberger recovered. Now, remember what I said about Tomlin earlier? Yeah, so, it looked for all the world like Pittsburgh would line up and go for it, as there were now less than four minutes left in the game and they were still down by five. I mean, even if you don't get it, the Seahawks start inside their own five. And besides, the Steelers are one of the best short yardage teams the NFL has ever seen so there was a good chance they'd convert anyway.
All of that is why I was baffled and overjoyed that Tomlin sent out the field goal unit to cut the lead to two. It was just the latest in a long line of weirdness and gave Seattle the ball back with the lead and just three minutes to run off the clock. One first down, maybe two, was all Seattle needed to put this one to bed but unfortunately, the drive started out like too many others this season. An illegal formation penalty was declined but only because doing so stopped the clock. That goof was followed by Rawls straight up dropping a handoff on the next play. Now, with the Seahawks facing an ugly third and long, Wilson dropped back and threw the ball with the conviction of a martyr. His short-range missile not only hit Baldwin in the hands on a short crossing route, it did so without his receiver breaking stride.
That slight difference, that two inches between a normal completion that might be a first down and what it actually became, was all the difference in the world. The sprinting Baldwin turned the corner sharply enough to draw blood and sprinted down the right side until he was swallowed by the endzone 80 yards later. It was Seattle's longest play from scrimmage all season and maybe the most important one too. At that point, all that was left was for Kam Chancellor to pick off Landry Jones after he subbed in for a banged up Roethlisberger. 39-30 Seahawks, and all was finally still.
All told, the Seahawks gained 224 yards and scored 25 points on 18 plays in 16 minutes after falling behind 21-14. They'd finish with 436 yards one week after tallying 503. Over the last two games, the Seahawks offense is averaging 177 rushing yards, 295 passing yards, and 34 points. Eerily reminiscent of the late-season offensive surges we've seen from Bevell's offenses each of the last three seasons.
There was so much else that happened along the way, I'm sure I can't cover all of it. Among the "other stuff":
~I didn't even mention the huge calls that were overturned in Seattle's favor by replay. With Seattle trailing 21-14 and in the midst of a three-drive dry spell, Jermaine Kearse had the ball knocked out of his grip while fighting for a first down. It was quickly pounced on by the Steelers, but super ultrasonic slow motion high definition thermodynamic replay revealed that the ball played "just the tip" with the sideline prior to recovery, giving it back to Seattle. The second was a huge 30-yard completion to Wheaton that was overturned when the review showed that one of his hands briefly detached from the ball in between his first and second step and no one knows what a catch is anymore anyway so I'm glad the Seahawks won the coin flip this time.
~Russell Wilson has just played, arguably, the best two-game stretch of his career. After dissecting the 49ers to the tune of a 24-29, 266 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT performance, Wilson came right back with 21-30, 345, 5 TDs, 0 INTs. That means that in the last eight days, Wilson has completed 45 of 59 passes (76.3%) for 605 yards (10.3 Y/A), 8 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. That's a combined passer rating of 141. Pick a superlative.
~DeShawn Shead took over at "other corner" for Cary Williams and was pretty damn good, all things considered. Wheaton got him a few times but Wheaton got everybody not named Sherman today. Shead has been pretty bad in coverage so far this season but it sounds like he won the job from Williams in practice and earned himself another start next week with his performance today. I like Cary Williams but am totally okay with the switch. Ultimately, it comes down to production and while Williams has been close all year, he just didn't make enough plays.
~After generating almost no pressure on the Steelers pass game in the first half, Seattle switched up where they aligned their DLs and LEOs, getting the edge with consistency and rattling Roethlisberger off his spot. Two second half sacks but a bunch of valuable pressures.
~It was weird not having faith in this defense to protect the lead.
This win, combined with the Falcons' loss to the Vikings, propelled the Seahawks into the playoff picture at 6-5. Up next is a trip to Minnesota to pay our respects to the surprisingly 8-3 Vikes and the result of that game will tell us a lot about Seattle's prospects moving forward. Still, for as hard and irritating as this season has been, the Seahawks have won four of their last five games and are starting to follow the same back-half-of-the-schedule trend that we've become accustomed to seeing. I still don't know what to make of this team, and I'm not sure they do either, but today they won a game that means a lot and that's a good thing.
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The cigar of the day was a Limited Edition Nat Sherman, a gorgeous and borderline intoxicating smoke whose indulgence only added to the sensory overload of the day. They can be had at a great price at www.Famous-Smoke.com and you guys can now receive 15% off orders of $75 or more when you checkout using promo code FIELDGULLS, so be sure to take advantage of it. Cheers!