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Cigar Thoughts, Game 11: Bucs stifle Seahawks, win awkward 14-5 game

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored on their first two drives then held on for the upset

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Some days you just don’t have it. Sometimes, when you don’t have it, you still win. That’s certainly been the case for the Seahawks in a number of games over the past few seasons but wasn’t so this afternoon, as the Bucs scored twice early and muzzled the Seahawks throughout en route to a surprising 14-5 victory over the NFC West leaders.

Let’s address the elephant in the room right off. Well, five elephants. The offensive line was, without question, the biggest liability on the team today. And while that’s the case during most Seahawks games, it was as pronounced this afternoon as ever. The Seahawks OL was a septic leak in the offense’s wellspring, murking up the waters and clouding judgment on the rest of the team’s performance. It will be fashionable to place the blame on Tom Cable, and if I’m being honest, I’m as skeptical of him as anyone, but before you lay the blame at his bulbous feet, consider the following:

That’s a grand total of 47 NFL career starts for the guys tasked with blocking Gerald McCoy and crew all game long. That’s fewer than some starting OLs have just in this season alone. George Fant took the worst of it, a mere feeder fish in the teeth of superior predators, but the biggest inadequacy seemed to be their communication.

And it makes sense- offensive lines take time to learn each other and cooperation is a massive part of a team’s blocking success or lack thereof. Don’t get me wrong, Tampa Bay was winning at the snap far more often than not but there were a number of times where guys just came free, unchecked by any of the five bodyguards tasked with keeping the face of the franchise upright.

The result was one of the worst offensive performances of Pete Carroll’s tenure, and perhaps the worst of Russell Wilson’s. The results were ghastly: the Seahawks gained just 245 yards on 61 plays, including 37 on their first 19 plays in the game’s initial 28 minutes. Wilson was sacked a half-dozen times and was nearly sacked a dozen more. The rushing game was entirely comprised by Wilson fleeing collapsing pockets (his 80 yards rushing accounted for 65% of the team’s total), as Thomas Rawls never had a chance to get going.

Seattle passed for a grand total of 118 yards, the majority of which didn’t come until the fourth quarter. Most of that is because routes rarely had time to develop before Wilson either went down or had to pull off his reads and some of that is because receivers were unable to win early in their routes. And maybe that’s an unfair criticism but there are some games where a few players need to overcome the deficiencies of others and Wilson was rarely able to throw to his first read all game long.

To worsen matters, the Seahawks missed on their first 10 third downs, which kept Jon Ryan busy all day. They did have three promising drives that traversed a good chunk of the field but each one of them ended with a turnover, snuffing out every flame of hope the Seahawks sparked.

The defense was sensational, all things considered. Much was made of Seattle’s defensive injuries and it is difficult to overstate the loss of guys like Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett, and DeShawn Shead, but after getting sliced up on the first two drives, Seattle’s transcendentally talented D shutout the Bucs the rest of the way. So what happened on those first two drives?

Mike Evans happened, if we’re going to be frank. Evans came into this game as the most targeted receiver in the NFL and was converting those targets into production at an incredible level. He is elite talent combined with elite volume and he straight up worked the Seahawks over in the first half. To that point, Jameis Winston was phenomenal on those first two drives, making a number of impressive throws early. Perhaps none more so than his hookup with Evans on 3rd & long on the game’s first possession. Winston fired a pass that soared perfectly over the outstretched arms of Bobby Wagner, who was forced into the unenviable responsibility of covering the 6’5” titan because a beautiful route combo drew the safeties into the second level, requiring Wagner sprint deep into coverage. It was a perfect play in a low-probability down-and-distance but it’s something we’ve seen a lot this season.

On their second third down, Jameis bought time in the backfield until Evans came free over the middle for a short TD pass. On the very next drive, Winston dialed his main man up again down the left sideline. This time, Evans was matched up with Richard Sherman and they each began holding each other as soon as the play started. The refs decided not to call either player for a penalty (which I’m fine with) and Evans was able to release late to cradle the ball in the endzone for his second score in as many drives.

That made the score 14-0 and with Seattle’s offense looking as coordinated as a litter of newborn deer, it looked like that may very well be enough. Now, we’ve though that plenty of times before, only to see the offense wake up and score just enough to win but that familiar late-game momentum never really got going today. After those two drives, the Seahawks pitched a shutout, allowing just 192 yards the rest of the way.

The defense even forced a couple of turnovers, with Steven Terrell recovering a Doug Martin fumble and Kam Chancellor picking off an errant throw in the endzone. Hell they even accounted for all of the points too, basically, as Frank Clark forced a safety by getting held in the endzone and Terrell’s fumble recovery set up Steven Hauschka’s lone field goal.

A bunch of turnovers made an otherwise boring final three quarters more interesting, but the score never changed over the final 35 minutes. Hey, at least Seattle’s streak of not losing by more than 10 survived!

I mean, shit, you guys. There’s just not a ton else to say about this game. The Buccaneers are a pretty good team that’s trending towards being even better. Their offense is clicking like crazy, Evans has elevated himself into the tippy top tier of receiving threats in the league, and given Seattle’s injuries and OL performance, it’s not terribly surprising that the Bucs won today. Feel as bad about this game as you need to but duds like this happen to even the best teams. Maybe it was a trap game, maybe not. Doesn’t really matter.

Some other observations:

-Russell Wilson was very inaccurate today. As offline with his throws as in any game I can remember. Was some of it because he was constantly harassed? Yeah, of course. But he had a LOT more bad throws today than even in previous games where he’s been under undue pressure all day. One of the aspects of Wilson’s game that keeps his passer rating so high is that he misses small. He completes a high percentage of his passes not because he’s pinpoint with every throw, but because when he does miss, it’s usually by a very small margin. Not the case today, as his rifle’s calibration was off throughout the contest. It’s easy to say that his wretched line of 52% completions, 4.6 yards per attempt, zero touchdowns, and two interceptions was due to his OL’s lack of protection, but that would be too dismissive of his inaccuracies.

This is not a condemnation of Russell Wilson the player, this is a judgment of his singular performance this afternoon, which was bad. Wilson is still one of the best football players on the planet and even a five-pick shutout wouldn’t do anything to change that. But he was not great today and he needed to be if the team was gonna have a chance. The caveat to this criticism is that his running was the single biggest weapon this offense had today. His eight carries netted 80 yards and was just about the only way Seattle moved the chains all day. I’m not worried about him.

-I was real excited for Thomas Rawls today and am supremely bummed that he never had a chance to get going. I don’t know if he was rusty, sore, bad, or just never had much to work with, but 38 total yards on 12 touches is a big fat nothin’. Like Wilson, this doesn’t change my overall assessment of Rawls as a player, just a disappointing output.

-Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham continue to be very good. Graham’s fumble aside (which yes, is a big deal), they were the only real options in the passing game. Graham was targeted seven times, converting six of them into catches for 67 yards. Baldwin was thrown to eight times, catching seven of them, albeit for a meager 34 yards. It would be awesome to see a third reliable receiver emerge from this offense but until that happens, these two oddly-proportioned oxen will continue to shoulder the brunt of the passing game’s weight.

-On the other side of the spectrum were Jermaine Kearse and Tyler Lockett. We’ll get to Kearse in a moment but Lockett’s inability to re-emerge this season has been an under-discussed subplot this season. Lockett hasn’t had the chance to do much in the return game and is catching just 53% of his passes after snagging 75% of them last year. I’m sure his injury has something to do with that but at some point he needs to become the weapon he was last year. I’m confident it will happen at some point but it’s a little disconcerting to be entering December with him averaging 7.5 yards per target after notching a 9.8 mark as a rookie.

Which brings us to Jermaine. Signed to a four-year extension to be Seattle’s #2 WR and frankly, he’s done nothing to validate that contract thus far. He was targeted five times today, catching one of them for 18 yards. This is one week after turning six targets into just 29 yards and two weeks after converting seven targets into 26. All told, Kearse has been thrown to 18 times over the last three games, third-highest on the team, and the return on those investments has been five catches for 73 yards.

On the season, Kearse has 29 catches for 354 yards on 56 targets. Ugh. He did get called for another offensive pass interference today, which is hilarious. He’s been legitimately innocent on all but one of the OPIs called against him and today was no different, as he was flagged despite Baldwin being the criminal on the play. The penalty was declined, but it’s nothing short of incredible that he’s drawn five OPI flags this season when there are 30 teams that have been called for fewer than four in 2016.

-Frank Clark was good today. No sacks, but he should get credit for one on the safety. On that play, backup tight end Luke Stocker was tasked with blocking the wild dog which, good luck buddy. Clark beat him around the edge, forcing Stocker to pull him down in the endzone to avoid getting Winston killed. A review clearly showed that the hold took place in the paint and Seattle was awarded two points. He also had a couple of great plays in short yardage situations, including blowing up Martin on a 3rd & 2 run play.

-Steven Terrell was good too, far as I could tell. Sounds like Kam took over some free safety duties (which, how good is he? Honestly) but I never saw Terrell out of position and he was around the ball all day. He had five tackles, broke up a pass, and recovered the fumble. It’s not news to say he isn’t Earl Thomas but no one born under a yellow sun ever could be.

-The Seahawks came into this game leading the NFL in sacks, but failed to record one today. Only the second time that’s happened. Hurry back, Michael Bennett.

The Seahawks lost today, which sucks. This weekend’s outcomes just about completely eliminate Seattle’s chances of catching Dallas for home field advantage and brings Atlanta within half a game of catching the ‘Hawks for the #2 seed. The good news is that the rest of the NFC West lost as well, which actually further increases Seattle’s chances of locking up the division.

An NFL season means changing your opinion on how good your favorite team is six or seven times over the course of the year. Two weeks ago they were a consensus top two team in the NFL. Same with last week. If losing a road game without five starters and featuring a historically inexperienced offensive line makes you think the Seahawks aren’t good anymore, go right ahead.

I would, however, like to remind you that the 2013 Seahawks played about five games like this and I’d also like to point out that the Seahawks team that took the field today isn’t likely to look like the team that takes the field in the playoffs. We are still talking about the top scoring defense in the NFL (yes, still), and an elite quarterback. Is the OL worrisome? Hell yes, but it was three years ago too, when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. In fact, that year Wilson was sacked on a league-high (and career-high) 9.8% of his dropbacks. This team has weathered games like this every season since they’ve been good. They also just beat the Bills, Patriots, and Eagles (who have a combined Win% of .690 in their other games) in a 13-day period.

It stings when a game like this is the most recent performance but I’m of the opinion that today’s performance is the outlier, not the three game stretch of terrific football they played coming in. History suggests the team will flush this performance and return to playing well soon. Losses suck. I guess we’re lucky that we have to deal with fewer of them than just about any other fan base in the league. Next up are the Panthers in Seattle. Onward, upward.

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