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The Little Things, Week 6: How the Seahawks held off the Falcons

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks
view from the back judge
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

We already know how the Seattle Seahawks “interfered” with the Atlanta Falcons plans for victory in Week 6. We already know how Richard Sherman “held” Julio Jones at bay late in the game. We already know the “official” reasons for the outcome.

But let me flag a couple other events along the way. This is “The little things” series where I go back and review every Seahawks to not highlight what you remember, but what you don’t.

first things first: the big things

This Cliff Avril strip-sack ...

... led to this Christine Michael touchdown ...

... Later, this Earl Thomas interception ...

.... led to an infamous sequence of “let em play” ...

Final Score: Seattle 26, Atlanta 24

There are your major plot twists — perhaps your sharpest memories of the game are outlined above. Now usually, this column will isolate three or four littler things that swayed the outcome, under-the-radar type of stuff. For Falcons at Seahawks, no less than a dozen such plays initially made the cut. Trimming them down to “only” six means you can actually get to the end of this post without a lunch break. Here comes the longest “Little Things” of the season — unless the victory in Foxborough outdoes it.

little thing one

circumstances: qtr 2, 4:36 left, 1st and goal from the atl 2

It’s a broken tackle. That's all. One evasive maneuver, executed thousands of times at practice and probably since their youth leagues. One sneaky, slippery sidestep. Isolated, it's one move among thousands made on the field in a single game.

2016 will be remembered for some of the poorest run-blocking turned in by a Pete Carroll-Seahawks team. It was so poor that Seattle decided to stop running.

Last year saw pass attempts outpace rush attempts by 163 plays. In the previous season, the Hawks had passed 11 fewer times than they had rushed.

The Seahawks finished the season ranked 26th in run blocking by the fine folks at FootballOutsiders. It was by far their worst performance of the past five seasons; they were a much more stellar 4th in 2012, 9th in 2013, 4th in 2014, and 4th yet again in 2015.

Seattle placed 25th in Y/C and 19th in rushing touchdowns. Independent of Russell Wilson’s bum leganklekneefootligament, the Hawks were downright poor at the rushing the football.

Therefore, broken tackles were at even more of a premium than in past seasons. One that mattered more than most came from Alex Collins, and it went a little something like this:

This score helped Seattle go three-for-five in the red zone that afternoon, outpacing their annual 48-percent touchdown percentage. (The Seahawks were 25th in the league in red zone TD percentage last year.) If Collins hits the turf in the backfield instead of shifting to his right, there is no guarantee whatsoever that seven points reach the scoreboard. A Seattle fan wouldn't even bank on three for sure. Not last year.

little thing two

circumstances: qtr 2, 2:09 left, 4th and 15, ball on atl 15

I don’t mean to harp on lousy kicks week after week, but the truth is good and bad punts affect field position, indirectly affecting points; good and bad field goals are much more direct about their effect.

Matthew Bosher’s 39-yard mini-punt didn’t even result in a fair catch. Tyler Lockett gets five back on the meh return, but that's already 10-percent of the way to the goal line because of a five-yard penalty on Atlanta.

Dan Quinn would never have gone for it on fourth and long from his own 15 — but a punt that lets your opponent start on your side of the field, you'd like that one back no matter where it started from. The Seahawks expected points for the drive were 2.59 because of field position and they ended up getting three.

little thing three

circumstances: qtr 2, 0:34 left, 2nd and 5, ball on atl 30

There exist obvious penalties with obvious effects. In another Falcons-Seahawks game you might have watched recently, Kevin Pierre-Louis’ line-of-scrimmage foul on a punt/big return flipped the field 86 yards. Wouldn’t you know it, the Hawks then suffered a safety on a preventable miscue. One free kick and one methodical touchdown drive later, the other, sadder game was firmly in Atlanta’s grasp, for good.

Less dramatically here, a holding call wipes out a 22-yard Matt Ryan-Julio Jones connection. It would have given the Falcons a first and ten in Seattle territory with 30 seconds left and an avenue to scoring three more points right before halftime.

You don’t need a moving picture. You need to see the effect this play had on expected points. Yeah, we’re back to talking about EPA. Atlanta’s drive was sitting at 0.74 EPA before the penalty and would’ve been almost 2.00 had the play stood. Instead, the EPA dropped to -0.61. So about a two-and-a-half-point penalty.

What was the final margin of victory again?

little thing four

circumstances: qtr 4, first sea drive, goal to go

Jermaine Kearse and red zone targets is a subject often broached throughout 2016. (You don’t say!) On 3rd-and-goal in the early part of the fourth quarter, he’s the intended receiver, and he drops it. But Kearse was likely to be stopped short of the goal line at the time anyway. The preceding play is really what dooms this drive to end in a field goal.

On second down, C.J. Spiller makes a sloppy cut, and compounds it by dropping the ball that was in his hands. Sure, he’s only getting five yards on this play. Tops. Maybe six if he breaks the first tackle.

But because he flubs it, Atlanta’s defensive backs get to retreat and crowd the end zone on third down, resulting in blanketed receivers and the useless pass play to Kearse.

little thing five

circumstance: qtr 4, 9:28 left, 3rd and 5 from the atl 43

Cassius Marsh sack alert. It’s another EPA monster. And a measure of some redemption for Marsh, who’d had third-down sacks wiped out for ticky-tack penalties once vs. the Rams and once earlier that very day.

It is not pretty, but it is well-timed, and it stops a crucial drive before it has a chance to become dangerous.

It represents a 2.26-point EPA swing and boosted Seattle’s win percentage 8.7 points, which is significant, in case you’re wondering.

Remember: the Hawks trailed 24-17 at the time.

little thing six

circumstance: qtr 4, final drive

Ryan, the MVP of the National Football League, finished the season with some impressive numbers. He led the league in a few important categories:

  • Passer rating, 117.1
  • Yards/attempt, 9.3
  • TD percentage, 7.1
  • QBR, 83.3
  • ANY/A, 9.03

All while compiling a 69.9 completion percentage, which is pretty nice I guess.

In the third quarter of Week 6, Ryan threw for 220 yards and three touchdowns. In the third quarter alone. Against the Legion of Boom, playing from behind, in Seattle. In the third quarter he did that.

Yet on the play pictured below, one period later, he was no match for Earl Thomas, cooker of pressure.

(Side note! Two plays later, DeShawn Shead would turn in an effort that would top our “little things” list any other week — an athletic pass deflection on third down. Yeah, the next-to-last offensive snap for the Falcons. Shead’s clutch contributions should not be forgotten. No doubt they’ll make an appearance here before long.)

Watch again as Earl waits back to prevent the big play over the top, diagnoses the effectiveness of the pass rush, then roadrunners his way into Ryan’s grill to force a low-percentage toss toward Mohamed Sanu. It might as well have been a throwaway, for where it landed beyond the sideline.

It’s one play. But for those six seconds, Earl Thomas was better than MVP Matt Ryan. Please come back at full strength, Earl. It just isn’t the same without you.

Even though all everyone wanted to mention postgame is the ill-begotten downfield heave to Julio, we are bound by reason and clear thinking to acknowledge that a ton more went into the final result. Some stuff I didn’t even mention because you have to do triage on a game like this. I could’ve mentioned:

  • how important it was that Alex Collins was active in the first place;
  • how important it was for the Hawks to hold the Falcons to 88 yards of offense in the first half. Otherwise the game could’ve looked a lot more like their January meeting;
  • how important it was that Atlanta established a decent running game in the first two drives of the third quarter.

Week 6’s victory was perhaps the richest game of the season. Hope you enjoyed re-living it. Though the Cardinals and Saints are up next; surely there will be no shortage of material there either.