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Swerving Points, Week 1: Four oft-overlooked Broncos-Seahawks details

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Denver Broncos
so close to greatness
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Broncos 27, Seattle Seahawks 24

This was a game of massive plays and momentum swings. The game kept churning and turning, populated by momentous plays in each quarter. Of course, for Week 1 of 2018, the biggest moments we’re talking about are the non-fumble, the Emmanuel Sanders touchdown rumble, the missed field goals (come on, you had two tries!) and of course the extremely debatable Demaryius Thomas touchdown.

There’s little need to break down the biggest plays, a couple days after they’ve turned to lines in a box score and bad or good memories. They can’t be changed, we know they mattered, and we largely know what went wrong. On the negative side: Bad tackling, bad angles, bad calls, bad execution, bad luck. Sometimes all five at once. On the positive: brilliance by a Seahawk, or two, or three at a time. What we’re used to.

Meanwhile, just below the radar, some of the game’s most important decisions or moments came and went with comparatively little fanfare. Those plays, maybe not the tuning points, but at least the swerving points, if you will, are what this weekly series is about.

Earl’s playing time

When Kam Chancellor held out in 2015, the Seahawks defense suffered. They gave up 61 points in Weeks 1 and 2 combined while Chancellor fruitlessly “negotiated” with the front office; in the five games following his return, they gave up a total of 67 points. His presence mattered, as illustrated most vividly by The Punch, his answer to Earl Thomas’ karate chop exploits.

In a similar, yet far less obvious way, Earl’s delay in reporting to camp cost Seattle. But wait — hold on. How can I bag on Earl’s importance when he yet again made a difference?

How can I complain about the guy who teleported for an interception that led to points? Only because the holdout he (again fruitlessly) insisted on led to partial playing time in Week 1.

Thomas sat out on 10 plays out of 74 logged by the defense. In years past he’s been on the field 99 percent of time when healthy. As Ben Baldwin of The Athletic points out, those 10 Earl-less plays cost the Seahawks dearly.

ET’s presence kept the Broncos in negative points expected; his absence kept them in the positive. The more he plays, the less the bad guys score. Play more, Earl. For all our sakes.

Situational rushing

At first glance, the Seahawks rushing game looks unbalanced, promising, underused, potent or mysterious. It’s all of those, of course, but the thing I want to focus on is exactly when Seattle elected to keep the ball on the ground, and how that impacted success.

The Seahawks’ 15 rushes came on:

  • 1st and 10 nine times: one success
  • 2nd and 10 three times: one success, by Russell Wilson
  • 3rd and 16 once: no successes, for obvious reasons
  • 2nd and less than 10 twice: two successes, one by Chris Carson, one by Rashaad Penny

13 times out of 15, Seattle ran with 10 or more yards to go, in a situation that puts the RB at a disadvantage. It’s hard to make the running game work when all it does is set up second and long, or third and long.

Both times they ran in favorable downs and distances, though, they got the first, or half the yardage necessary. There’s a lesson to be learned there. It’s not quite “never run,” sorry to that crowd, but it’s definitely not “establish the run” either.

Since we’re on Carson, his biggest gain from scrimmage was wiped out on a J.R. Sweezy holding penalty. On the plus side, he qualified for the next Olympics 110 hurdles team.

It’s no surprise that on their 14 rushes, Rashaad Penny and Carson were successful only thrice. Yet, somehow, it gets worse. On Carson’s final “successful” run, midway through the third quarter, cheat code linebacker Von Miller helped himself to the football.

In other words, almost every running back carry (12 out of 14!) on Sunday was a waste of a down or resulted in a turnover. No wonder Seattle went heavy on the pass, with only 15 rushes to 39 dropbacks.

Seeing if Seattle elects to run on more manageable downs in Week 2, making those runs more valuable and less a waste of a snap, is something to watch for.

Tyler Lockett’s punt return decisions

It isn’t Pick-on-Tyler-Lockett week. He got the Seahawks fully back into the game on the second play of the fourth quarter with a 51-yard touchdown catch that might set the tone for a big year. If you want a further breakdown and don’t mind giving the Seattle Times a click, have at it:

It was a typical creative moment from two men who’ve not always been on the same page, or healthy at the same time, since Lockett entered the league three seasons ago.

We’re not here to talk about Lockett’s big play, though. More salient to the final result is how the Seahawks needed Lockett to be a little bit better last Sunday on special teams.

Lockett got six chances to make a difference on kick returns, fielding two kickoffs and four punts. One kickoff return was a disaster, all of nine yards, forcing the Seahawks to start on their own 16, the victim of hidden yards. The other was fine, good even, a 30-yard scamper.

But on punt returns, Lockett’s decisions were costly. He let the first punt, a returnable one, bounce for another 10 yards in Denver’s favor. On the second he netted nine yards, but on the the third he lost a couple. Finally, a four-yard return on which he did nothing special rounded out his day.

Out of six chances, four results were subpar. The Seahawks don’t need Lockett to be an All-Pro return man, though it’s clear he’s cabaple of performing at that level. They just needed him to be a little bit better Sunday, especially in a game decided by three points. As many games might turn out to be this season.

The decision to kick that ill-fated FG

There’s really not much of a rationale for taking Sebastian Janikowski off the field on 4th and 6, when his field goal try had just been moved up five yards after a practice kick. The odds say he’s going to make a 46-yarder; statistically, it’s not prime go-for-it real estate. The Fourth Down Bot from the New York Times would agree, and even it recommends going for it more often than any coach, besides maybe Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson.

The bot says:

On fourth-and-4, go for it between your 45 and your opponent’s 29.

On fourth-and-5, go for it between midfield and your opponent’s 33.

On fourth-and-6, go for it between your opponent’s 47 and your opponent’s 35.

As the yards-to-go increases, the low risk of succeeding on fourth down makes punting or kicking a field goal a wiser option for most places on the field, except in that nether region where you’re barely out of field-goal range but too close to punt.

With the ball on the 28, a close game almost halfway through, and six yards to go, the field goal looks sensible on a neutral statistical level. However. However, however, however. Given the time left on the clock, the ability of Denver’s offense on Sunday to move the ball, Case Keenum’s carelessness, and Janikowski’s history, the field goal choice presents some problems.

1:56 left means that a succesful field goal gives Denver time to execute a two-minute drill. Going for it and making it ensures the Broncos won’t get a good scoring chance. Of course, going for it and failing gives them pretty decent field position around the 25, but they were going to get that on the kickoff anyway, with virtually the same amount of time.

17 points already put up by the Broncos means a field goal, even if successful, is not the kind of score that will help you keep pace. You don’t know the final margin of victory will be just three points, and you can’t necessarily count on your green defense to be any stouter in the second half.

Keenum had already thrown one interception and just missed gifting another to Seattle. The chances were decent that he’d commit another error, eventually. You can’t assume the Broncos would take advantage of a missed conversion. (As it is, Keenum sure did serve another up, lobbing the ball to Bradley McDougald a minute later.)

Finally, it’s very much worth pointing out that Denver is not Janikowski’s second home — it’s one of his least favorite places to kick. His FG percentage is 72.5 at Mile High, compared with 80.3 for his career. Denver is the away city where he’s missed the most field goals (14), compared to 11 in Kansas City and 11 in San Diego/LA, despite fewer attempts in Denver even.

Denver turns Janikowski into 2017 Blair Walsh. You’d like to think Carroll would know that going in.

(Interjection Because I Can: McDougald is going to make a ton of plays, if he stays healthy. Teams will continue to avoid Thomas because that’s what they do, but that just means more balls in the other safety’s direction. With a few young and turnover-prone quarterbacks on the schedule this year — Mitch Trubisky, Josh Rosen, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Stafford, among others — I wouldnt be surprised to see McDougald lead the team in picks, or even the league. Yes I’m serious.)

To summarize: the decision to kick is supported by success rates on fourth down and six. But since you’re in that area of the field, in that period of the half, where taking a chance doesn’t cost you a ton of field position and allows you maybe to keep the ball until halftime, and doesn’t require you to put trust in an iffy kicker, the decision is a lot more murky. Who knows how the game plays out if Carroll takes a chance similar to Fourth And Seven in the 2013 NFCCG.

Looking ahead to Week 2

Some interesting subplots are developing already.

  • How will the new guys look after a week of trial (Tre-al) by fire?
  • Is Will Dissly for real?
  • Run-pass ratio was not what we were promised in the preseason; what’s up with that?
  • Does Michael Dickson follow up his very nice day with an acceptable, or even excellent, encore?
  • Third downs. Seahawks were 2-12. Will Week 2 prolong or reverse their fortunes?

And hopefully, next week we’re talking about the under-the-radar plays that helped Seattle even its record at 1-1.