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Seahawks-Falcons: Final drive was a test of time vs distance

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When Blair Walsh’s field goal attempt fell a yard short Monday night, an interesting final drive ended unhappily; well, for Seattle Seahawks fans at least.

The drive’s degree of difficulty was enhanced by a special teams holding penalty on Josh Forrest, a critical error that pushed the Seahawks back to a starting field position of their own 25, instead of their own 35. (No more penalties were needed, as Seattle had already drawn eight flags for 96 yards. More than enough, if you ask any blue-green fan. But there was apparently a 100-yard quota to fulfill, so ten yards farther back it was.)

Starting from one’s own 25, a nice round 40 yards are necessary to give oneself a shot from 53 yards out. It’s nice to get 44 or more yards if one wants the field goal attempt to be shorter than 50, on a cold, humid night at sea level. Sam’s tweet explains visually why the extra yards can be nice sometimes.

We’ve watched enough football to know that teams will guard the sidelines against a team with no timeouts that has to drive half the field to tie, and all the way down to win. I’m here to surmise that Pete Carroll knew this, that Dan Quinn knew he knew, that Carroll knew Quinn knew Carroll knew, et cetera, and that the entire drive was a cat-and-mouse game that culminated in complete balance, where the decisive kick ends up being a true coin flip. Again, Sam’s tweet.

The drive

1st and 10, SEA 25: With 1:46 left, Russell Wilson hits Jimmy Graham for 11 yards. You can get 44 yards in 11-yard chunks. You don’t need the sideline as an ally if you’re getting 11 yards at a time.

1st and 10, SEA 36: An incompletion to Doug Baldwin stops the clock at 1:17. Incompletions are fine, but without timeouts, you now only have time for a maximum of three more completions in bounds and three more incompletions, including spikes, before you have to kick.

2nd and 10, SEA 36: Atlanta jumps offsides. A gift. The smart play now is to chuck it deep and get into field goal — or TD — range immediately. Long ball falls incomplete, harmless to win probability because you gained five yards and spent only eight seconds. Now 1:09 is left and you’ve got time for five more plays before kicking.

2nd and 5, SEA 41: Incomplete to Graham. Only three seconds elapse. 1:06 and you’re still looking at five more plays before kicking, probably, as long as you don’t waste any.

3rd and 5, SEA 41: With 1:06 remaining, Wilson invests 20 seconds in a scramble past midfield. You needed the first down and the field position. But with Quinn’s defense continually forcing you up the middle, you’re also down to four plays, realistically, as long as the last one stops the clock for your FG try.

1st and 10, ATL 49: Quick to the line, snap at 0:46, and Seattle gains 5 more yards on a short missile to Graham in the middle of the field. You didn’t get out of bounds because Quinn didn’t let you, and the clock is running, so you rush to the line for...

2nd and 5, ATL 44: the error of the evening. Wilson’s dump-off to a heavily covered J.D. McKissic nets a mere two yards and now the clock will tick down to about 10 seconds — unless an injury timeout for Atlanta stops it, which happens! This is a major break that almost turns the game in the Seahawks’ favor. Clock pauses at 0:21, which means instead of one final sideline play and a kick, you can attack the middle of the field, then spike it, and still kick.

3rd and 3, ATL 42: Wilson does exactly that. He connects with Paul Richardson for eight yards, spikes the clock with seven seconds remaining, and presumably wishes he had the McKissic decision back. If it’d been a throwaway, then maybe you’ve still got 10 seconds to play with, and you can run a quick out or a heave near the pylon, but :07 is cutting it too close. Walsh trots out. The rest is the wrong kind of history.

The Seahawks needed 40 yards to give themselves a shot, 44 yards to feel good about the kick. Turns out they got 41 when 42 would have been enough for the ball to hit the crossbar. And go over, because that’s the kind of thing that happens at the south end of CenturyLink Field on Monday nights.

A whole lot of other coaching decisions can be picked apart — as they should be following a sloppy one-possession loss — but the one to exploit the game state, to work the system for just enough yardage, without timeouts, without a single sideline play, is something for whch to actually praise Carroll.

Well. Minus the failure to get the final yard. But before you get too triggered by the lack of one crucial yard, let’s lay a little blame on Wilson and Walsh. Walsh for missing, Wilson for an unproductive completion that consumed time Seattle didn’t have to spare.

One of the things that made the 2012-2014 Seahawks great was their ability to prevent the big play on defense. A big part of the philosophy behind it can summarized thus: if you limit yards after the catch, keep everything in front of you, and force the opponent to build giant drives just to get into scoring position, you give yourself three ways to win the possession on defense:

  1. the drive stalls from a mistake committed by the offense;
  2. the drive stalls in red zone and the offense has to settle for a field goal attempt;
  3. the drive ends with a turnover, yay we have the ball and that is good.

Quinn learned the lesson. Keep everything in front of you, and if at the end of the game, everything in bounds, all while hoping that the offense makes a critical mistake or two. He was vindicated. Walsh missed for mistake 2, but Wilson’s decision to throw to McKissic two yards beyond the line of scrimmage, in a position that would make it hard for him to get out of bounds, with 30 seconds left, and still not in field goal range — it was mistake 1, and it probably cost the Seahawks a few yards and a few seconds. A throwaway would have been preferable.

Instead?