After the way the season ended last year, it was my hope that the Seahawks would take it easy on our hearts at the outset of the 2015 campaign. Alas, this game was anything but calm or reassuring for fans of either team, as the win probability tottered back and forth wildly like a weeble wobble attacked by a sugared-up eight year old.
Seattle started the season on offense, debuting a number of new players on that side of the ball. Right off the bat, the 'Hawks started moving the ball against the Rams' vaunted defense, converting a third down and a fourth down while Wilson completed passes to almost everyone in the receiving corps. Unfortunately, the momentum was stopped by a sack (the first of six), a penalty (the first of seven), a stuffed draw play (the first of plenty), and in a blink, a field goal opportunity turned into the first of four punts.
When the Seahawks defense took the field for the first time, they looked, at first blush, as big and as fast and as savage as we had all hoped they would. They quickly snuffed out the Rams' drive and forced them to punt. That's when Seattle opened the birdcage and let preseason wunderkind Tyler Lockett fly. Upon receiving the kick, the Seahawks diminutive rookie spread his hollow-boned wings, his brilliant plumage leaving rainbow colored vapor trails through a maize-and-blue maze of amazed Rams players. 57 yards later, the 'Hawks were dancing in paydirt with their first touchdown of the year. It's time to take the lid off of all expectations for Tyler Lockett, there is no ceiling.
The Rams, to their credit, came right back down the field, leaning on big plays to third string RB Benny Cunningham and yearly tease Jared Cook to scoot the ball the length of the gridiron. The drive culminated with Tavon Austin taking a handoff off the left tackle and sprinting into the endzone to tie the game up. After a Russell Wilson interception on a questionable stop route to Lynch on third down, the Rams scored three more and took a 10-7 lead.
The Seahawks then answered with a stunted two-minute drill down inside the ten to set up a game-tying Steven Hauschka field goal that sent the game to the locker room tied at 10. At this point, there was lots to be frustrated by. The Seahawks offense was averaging less than four yards per play, the defense was giving up chunk yardage regularly, and the special teams were the only unit keeping the 'Hawks in the ball game. Wilson was under constant duress, Marshawn Lynch couldn't get anything going, and prize hog Jimmy Graham had one catch.
In the second half, the game went from uncomfortably weird to downright bizarre. On St. Louis' opening third quarter drive, Nick Foles fumbled an unexpected shotgun snap and Jordan Hill recovered. The Seahawks suddenly remembered how to run an effective read-option offense, leaning heavily on Lynch to get down inside the ten before coming up a yard short on a third down pass to Graham. Hauschka's second field goal put Seattle up 13-10.
The Rams came back with a long drive, something that was a theme all day long and which speaks to the resiliency of Foles and that team as a whole. Toggling between runs and short passes, St Louis set themselves up for a downfield shot, an opportunity Foles took advantage of by hitting Jared Cook on a wheel route underneath a WR go route for the second time in the game. It was the same combination route that Peyton Manning kept hitting to Emmanuel Sanders to power a comeback attempt late in their game against Seattle last season. It appears to be a soft spot in Seattle's cover-3 defense, even when they're at full strength. The drive ended with a one yard touchdown scramble that gave the Rams the lead right back.
After giving up another third down sack, Seattle punted away to Tavon Austin, who followed a wall of blockers 75 yards down the left sideline en route to the Rams' 238th special teams TD against Seattle in the last four years. Special teams success and failure often looks random at first blush but two things made Austin's return possible. First, where Lockett careened haphazardly through the coverage team on his return, Austin's was set up by letting the right side of the Seattle's coverage come free while setting up a swinging gate down the left. Secondly, Austin showed insane stability as he cut the corner around a block and stayed in bounds despite having his ankles clipped 6" from going out of bounds. That house call made the score 24-13 late in the third quarter and it looked like a game might get away from Seattle for the first time in literally four seasons.
On the ensuing drive, a penalty left Seattle facing 2nd & 20 and desperate for points. That's when they finally started clicking. Wilson found Graham over the middle for 19, a play followed up by a 24 yard Lynch run to get into scoring position. A few nifty plays later, Wilson found Graham again on a seven yard out route for his first teeder as a member of the Seahawks. It was the type of play (a quick endzone out route to a superior body/athlete) that has never before been an option in Wilson's career and one that will open up a lot of opportunities for this offense this season. That six-pointer was piggybacked by a Lynch two-pointer and just like that, the Seahawks were within three early in the fourth quarter.
On the very next drive, Benny Cunningham (122 yards on 20 touches) continued to carve up the Seahawks with two huge receptions before being spelled by Isaiah Pead. Pead, the fourth string RB playing only because of injuries to Todd Gurley and Tre Mason, coughed up the ball on a big hit from uber-safety Earl Thomas and Bruce Irvin pounced on it to give Seattle the ball. The fortuitous swing set up a long drive, as the 'Hawks offense began rounding into form. Graham started getting some room, Jermaine Kearse played like a low end WR1, and lanes began to open up for Marshawn as Seattle cruised all the way down to the Rams 17 before settling for a game-tying field goal.
Almost as soon as St Louis got the ball back, Seattle's cascading defensive waterfall fell headfirst on Nick Foles in the form of a Cary Williams blitz. Seattle's newest starting cornerback hit the Rams QB as he set up to throw, jarring the ball loose. Williams, keeping his bearings, easily scooped up the fumble and trotted into the endzone, giving the Seahawks an 18-point burst in the first half of the fourth quarter and, more importantly, a seven point lead.
At that point, it looked like everything was going to come up clover for the Seahawks in their opener. The Rams, however, refused to bend the knee to the reigning NFC West champions. Chunk by chunk, St. Louis continued to move the chains, their backs to the wall against a team that has been historically great on defense. For 59 minutes and seven seconds, there was no real tangible notice of Kam Chancellor's absence. Dion Bailey, for all intents and purposes, did his job admirably. That is until he found himself lined up out wide on backup tight end Lance Kendricks who caught Bailey flat footed on a simple out-and-up route. Bailey scrambled to stay on Kendrick's hip, tangling his feet up in the process. Kendrick's free release made him an easy target for Foles' game-tying touchdown pass and just like that, the game was headed to overtime.
In OT, the Rams won the toss and that's when the game went from bizarre to Twilight Zone. The Seahawks tried to steal a possession with an onside kick, but a clean fair catch call by the Rams hands team thwarted that. Then the flags flew. St. Louis was penalized for calling a fair catch on a kick that had already bounced and it seemed, at least momentarily, that the Seahawks would be spared by one of the NFL's most obscure rules. Upon review, however, it was (correctly) determined that the kick hadn't bounced and Jeff Fisher's squad turned the short field into a three point lead on Greg Zuerlein's second short field goal of the day.
That kick put all the chips on the table and it was time to see if Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense could answer back with a tying or winning drive. Their attempt got off to a promising start with a 20 yard completion to Lynch followed by a tiptoeing sideline grab from Lockett and a third-effort run for first down by Marshawn. Seattle's next three plays would net them nine yards and, just out of Hauschka's range, Seattle went for it on 4th down.
Many will talk about how much the last play of Super Bowl 49 had to do with the Seahawks' final snap call but regardless, they opted to hand it off to Lynch out of the shotgun formation, a play that never stood a chance. Marshawn was stuffed in the backfield and the Rams started their 2015 season with a huge win over one of the NFL's best teams. I try not to second-guess too many play calls because as fans we don't have the same sense of personnel and flow that coaches do, but it's worth noting that Wilson never once kept the ball on a read-option today. That might have been the time.
Some other observations:
-The Seahawks offense struggled for most of the game and here's a big reason why- the Rams played an over-the-top umbrella defense all day, relying on the front four and a smattering of blitzes to keep constant pressure on Wilson. The result was two-fold: 1) with little-to-no pass protection, there is no fear of vertical routes and 2) Wilson either had to throw to his first read (which allowed Rams DBs to break on first look) or leave the pocket. There was just no time to go through his progressions. If you want to harp on Wilson's decision-making/execution in this one, be my guest, but he was throwing to four receivers vs seven defenders all day while being constantly harassed.
-The Rams' D-line is out-of-this-world athletic. Steepest possible learning curve for this Seahawks OL.
-Even so, Wilson completed 78% of his passes for 251 yards and I'm just not sure what else can reasonably be expected under the circumstances. His O-line was as overmatched as they'll be all season and he still moved the chains on a number of occasions when the team needed him to. I'm not worried about Seattle's QB.
-Russell Wilson has had the most successful first three years in NFL quarterbacking history without Jimmy Graham or Tyler Lockett. There are big things ahead.
-Marshawn Lynch got off to the aforementioned slow start, but finished with 104 total yards on 23 touches and a huge percentage of those came after contact. There is just no strategic substitute for a human/rhinoceros hybrid at running back and Seahawks fans should consider themselves blessed for every day they wake up with Lynch as their starter.
-Tyler Lockett is the truth. Use whatever hyperbole you want. This offense may not turn him into a 100-yard receiving threat but mark my words when I say that he will develop into one of the most dangerous per-touch threats in the league before he's done.
-Jimmy Graham spent most of the day being used like he was Cooper Helfet, with Seattle relying on waggles and misdirection to get him the ball. Then, finally, they remembered that he's a genetically superior ubermensch and started using him accordingly, challenging him even when he was covered and he rewarded them with six catches for 51 yards and a TD on eight targets.
-Jermaine Kearse entered this season needing to prove he was something other than an average-sized receiver with inconsistent hands and poor blocking. He acquit himself beautifully in the 2015 opener, turning his team-high 10 targets into a team-high eight catches for a team-high 76 yards. He got himself open, which is something he's struggled to do in the past and caught everything he got his hands on, which he has really struggled with. A very encouraging game.
-The Seahawks have really struggled on third down in the Russell Wilson era, consistently ranking in the lower half of the league. Today, they looked better but not great, converting eight of their 19 chances. The Rams, for their part, were a back-breaking 6-11.
-The defense was spotty today which, in my mind, is more disconcerting than the offensive ups and downs. The D is the skeletal structure of Seattle's success and their spine was watching from home. Earl Thomas was his usual all-encompassing self, leading the team with nine tackles and forcing that huge fumble. Bobby Wagner showed terrific sideline-to-sideline ability in notching seven tackles of his own. Michael Bennett was everything he's always been, alternating explosive penetration with offsides penalties. It is his cost of doing business and I'm fine with it.
-For some reason, Cary Williams has become a divisive player among Seahawks fans without even playing a down. Personally I think it's weird and stupid and I thought he was excellent today. I'm sure he allowed a completion or two but I don't remember seeing it and he made, literally, the most of his blitzing opportunity while also showing good assignment correctness on run plays and a willingness to tackle. I'm content with him as the CB2 until it's proven otherwise.
Look, the result of this game sucked and I'm not here to talk anyone out of being bummed about it. I will, however, caution against reading into the outcome too much. The Seahawks have been really, really good since the 2012 season and even so, they're 1-3 at St. Louis. If losing on the road to one of the best front sevens in the NFL in the season opener, while debuting a brand new O-line and missing the captain of the locker room makes you think this team is in trouble, I'd like to kindly direct you to the apocalyptic response Seahawks fans had to Seattle's loss to the Rams last year. At that point, the defending Super Bowl champs were 3-3 and searching for their identity. They won 11 of their next 12 and came within a yard of repeating as champs.
There's also this- in the past three seasons of being an excellent football team, the Seahawks have been ~20th in points per game during the first two months of the season. After that, they're 4th. Every season the Seahawks come out with a new mish-mash of offensive linemen and struggle to establish their will. And every season they figure it out and start body-bagging teams down the stretch.
This loss hurts but I encourage everyone to remember that the Seahawks are only one game out of first place with 15 games to go.
Onward, upward; I'll see you next week.
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The cigar du jour is one of the better scotch companions I've had, the Blue Royal from Augusto Reyes. As always, I suggest picking them up from Famous Smoke for the best price.