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Neanderball, Week 7: Seahawks take on the Ravens (1st Quarter)

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning everyone, and welcome back to Week 7 of Neanderball, where I will entertain you by explaining in excruciating detail how the offense of your beloved Seattle Seahawks dropped a critical home game to the Baltimore Ravens. To help you follow along as you read this dismal account of a failed enterprise, my drive descriptions are now accompanied by slow-motion video evidence of Seahawks negligence and malaise. Pro sports, right? Truly the most emotionally rewarding form of leisure activity.

This article covers the drives in the first quarter, and other articles will follow in its wake to round out the remainder of the game. When all four pieces of the Amulet of Misery are assembled, I’ll add a capstone column to tie this heartbreak up with some fortune-cookie wisdom, then reorient my short emotional attention span toward the Atlanta Falcons, who I think we could conceivably beat. Possibly even by more than three points.

The Ps and Rs in the drive headings indicate sequences of runs and passes, with commas denoting first downs. Plays in brackets were called back due to penalties, and quarterback scrambles are counted as passing plays. Per usual, I’m happy to answer any question about terminology in the comments, no matter how basic.

Drive 1, Q1 10:19 (Seahawks 0, Ravens 3) - RPP

1st and 10. The Seahawks come out of the gate with three receivers split wide and Luke Willson lined up next to Germain Ifedi, presaging an afternoon of heavy passing - but not this down. It’s an outside handoff to Chris Carson and not one, but two linemen pull to give hapless tacklers the surprise of their life. Mike Iupati and George Fant are a locomotive bearing down on the right edge, Carson is the train’s hazardous payload, and all Jamarco Jones/Ifedi/Willson need to do is keep their defenders from penetrating the line of scrimmage and dynamiting the railroad track.

Willson fires out and blocks the nearest linebacker and Iupati blows up the defensive end, leaving Jones/Ifedi to double-team the defensive tackle and send Fant and Carson chugging into the second level with a full head of steam. It will come as sorrowful tidings to Jamarco Jones fans (guilty) that Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams swats Jones aside like Williams is a movie star and Jones is a stuntman paid to make him look good. A-lister Brandon Williams then single-handedly stiff-arms Ifedi out of his way, which obviously wouldn’t be possible in real life because Ifedi weighs 325 pounds. Honestly, the things Hollywood expects us to believe.

The train wobbles on the track as it works its way around this commotion in the backfield, losing that critical extra bit of momentum that sends runs to heaven. Williams completes an Oscar-worthy performance by spinning in place to track Carson, and then lunging several yards to bring him down as he’s momentarily tied up downfield by Earl Thomas. Welcome back, Earl Thomas.

2nd and 3. Seattle puts four receivers out wide and leaves Carson in the backfield. The Ravens respond by crowding the line of scrimmage with six defenders, with more creeping closer as the snap approaches. If the lupine body language of the defenders leaning toward the line, licking their chops wasn’t enough to alert Russell Wilson to the pending blitz, I’m pretty sure I heard one of the Ravens DBs start howling at the moon. The Ravens send five, but our entire line wins their one on one matchups.

What happens next is a story that can be told two different ways, kind of like a Kurosawa movie. In the first version, the play is a designed pass to Carson in the flats, which the Ravens sniff out so expertly that two of them - linebacker L.J. Fort and cornerback Marlon Humphrey - are on top of Carson the moment he catches the ball for a guaranteed 6-yard loss. If that’s the case, it was a stupid play call and I don’t see how it ever could have worked. Fire Schotty.

In the second version, notice that Fort, one of the two linebackers who set up on the line of scrimmage, is responsible for Carson and breaks on him after the snap as Carson swings out wide for the lateral pass. Notice Jaron Brown, covered (but not that tightly) by Humphrey, begin to run a shallow crossing route from left to right, into the wide-open center gap in the defense left by Fort breaking on Carson - but slip and fall as he comes out of his break (at which moment Humphrey dismisses Brown and also breaks on Carson).

Wilson’s eyes pass directly through Brown as he slips before turning to Carson, and I suspect that the first read on the play design was the crosser to Brown, which likely would have been good for a first down. However, Carson was probably written into the play design as a checkdown: if Fort had stayed in the center gap and eliminated Brown’s route, presumably Carson would have had a reasonably good shot at the first down. Fort and Humphrey both covering Brown’s crosser would have meant nobody was covering Carson, and the pass to Carson would have set up a footrace to the first down marker that he stood an excellent chance of winning. In this version of the story, instead of robotically defaulting to the checkdown when Brown slipped, Wilson should have recognized that the logic behind the checkdown was no longer valid and either thrown the ball away or scrambled behind the decent protection he’d been afforded to create a new play.

Instead it’s 3rd and 9 instead of 3rd and 3, and the Ravens festoon the line of scrimmage with defenders, nine of them. Seattle is in an obvious passing formation with four receivers again split wide and Carson next to Wilson in the shotgun. The Ravens run a delayed blitz, initially sending four and then after a split-second elapsed, adding a fifth. Carson calmly picks up the blitzer and the other linemen give Wilson a textbook pocket. DK Metcalf runs a sideline route just past the sticks and (if I’m being honest) appears to commit something very close to offensive pass interference to shake Ravens cornerback Anthony Averett. Wilson sends him a perfectly catchable ball and Metcalf, that ingrate, repays him by letting said ball bounce off his manly chest. Punt.

Drive 2, Q1 5:46 (Seahawks 0, Ravens 3) - RRR, RPP, PR, RPP

1st and 10. Seattle’s attempt to redeem the opening three and out begins with what I think of as Seattle’s “base” look - three receivers split wide, Willson on Ifedi’s hip, and Carson next to Wilson in the shotgun. The Ravens respond by once again turning the line of scrimmage into the Maginot Line, with seven defenders strung directly upon it and a total of ten within 5 yards of it. Personally, I’m interpreting this defensive theme by the Ravens as a statement that come what may, the Seahawks will not be running them over. If you want to beat us, is the message, tell your MVP quarterback to throw it in the rain or get ready for a lot of two-yard runs and some very muddy uniforms.

The Ravens send five, but it’s a zone run to the right, which means the left defensive end is completely ignored, and all six Seahawks blockers hit one of the four Ravens in their way.

The following profound insight comes not from me, but from the announcing team of Dick Stockton, Mark Schlereth, and Ronde Barber: zone runs where you can’t move the defensive tackles are dead on arrival, and the Ravens’ tackles are granite slabs. I’m talking the platonic ideal of a boulder. Sisyphus was probably responsible for rolling one of their cousins up a hill.

Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce does his best impression of an immovable object, Britt struggles against him with about as much as luck as you’d have kicking your way through a Jersey barrier, and Carson is swallowed up by an unforgiving sea of Ravens. Also of note, Jamarco Jones appears to once again lay a less than ideal block. I don’t think this play had much of a life expectancy even if Britt had completed one of the twelve labours of Hercules and pancaked Pierce.

2nd and 9. The Seahawks line up with three receivers split wide but with Carson and our fullback Nick Bellore in the backfield, which is like walking into the local diner with a mob enforcer at your back and pleasantly remarking to the proprietor what a nice place he has, here. The Ravens line up in a conservative 4-3 look to respect the possible pass (perhaps a subtle benefit of having an elite QB), leaving only four defenders to beat before Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale coughs up the protection money: the middle and left linebackers, and the left defensive tackle and defensive end.

Jones helps Britt by chipping the defensive tackle before stoning the middle linebacker. Bellore hammers the left linebacker (who in this extended metaphor is, I suppose, the jukebox), and Ifedi lays exactly the kind of awkward, greasy block on the defensive end that would probably turn into a holding call if the play went in an unexpected direction (hint hint, your humble narrator shouted). Carson gleefully barrels out the other side of the chaos and into a welcoming committee of six Ravens for a nice gain.

3rd and 1. The Seahawks line up Carson to the right of Russ, Willson next to Ifedi, and motion Tyler Lockett in next to Willson pre-snap. The Ravens have plenty of bodies in place to stop the telegraphed short-yardage run to the heavily reinforced right, but the quiet cunning of this play is that it’s not intended to go to the right at all. It’s meant to go between Justin Britt and Mike Iupati, the latter of whom blasts his defender off the line. For a brief moment, you can see a hole forming that you could have driven an ice cream truck through, assuming it’s properly licensed with the appropriate municipal authorities. The Ravens impound the ice cream truck and revoke its registration, jolly tune never to be heard, via nine-year veteran outside linebacker Pernell McPhee. Setting up in the gap between Britt and Jones, McPhee lays an aggressive swim move on the two, overwhelming Jones (who had primary responsibility) and knifing forward and to the left to make the Britt/Iupati gap effectively impassable. This play was only salvaged because Seattle rostered a running back capable of making a cut so sudden it would do a jackrabbit proud. His name is Chris Carson, and it’s not too early to start seriously discussing his Pro Bowl candidacy.

1st and 10. Thoroughly chastened, the Ravens put nine men in the box. The Seahawks appear to attempt some sort of pre-snap trickery that fizzled out, leaving Russ to check into a run by Carson directly into the aforementioned box. Unlike the previous play, there was no subtle brilliance apparent, just an attempt to simulate a multi-car pileup on the Interstate. Well, team, mission accomplished. I can almost smell the motor oil.

2nd and 11. The Seahawks keep six back to protect against a four-man rush, so the blocking was more or less fine. Willson is left one on one with McPhee, who I didn’t know anything about before this game, but with whose skill set I’m rapidly becoming acquainted. McPhee eventually managed to get pressure on Russ, but according to my stopwatch, Wilson had exactly four seconds before McPhee forced him off his spot. That’s about as good as it gets in the National Football League, and Wilson had a sea of grass to run around in afterward to extend the play. Maybe the coverage downfield was just that good - the All-22 footage released later this week will tell the tale - but for my money, Wilson did not look sharp on this play at all. He certainly missed Carson leaking out uncovered at the bottom of your screen. I’d peg this, along with the checkdown to Carson on the first drive, as the first indications that Our Lord and Saviour was having a bad hair day.

3rd and 11. But, bedhead notwithstanding, Wilson is still divine. The Ravens show blitz but only bring four. On the one hand, it led to a mere three receivers releasing to run routes, with every other player kept in to build Wilson a wall of blockers. Seven defenders on three receivers is a pretty good outcome for the Ravens. On the other hand, you don’t give Wilson time. That’s surely rule number one, and Wilson had all the time in the world. If there’s a rule number two to surviving the Russpocalypse, it would be not to leave DK Metcalf one on one with your sixth-best cornerback on a go route down the left sideline. If there’s a third rule, it’s to not break the first two rules at the same time. The Ravens, needless to say, were promptly devoured.

1st and 10. The call is play action, and thank God, because Ravens tackle Brandon Williams is back in the director’s chair, this time to re-cut an ending to the Temple of Doom where Jamarco “Indiana” Jones stumbles while fleeing the boulder. Both Jones and Penny, who also had the misfortune to be in that human avalanche’s path of travel, are obliterated by Williams. Fortunately, Jacob Hollister releases from his block to give Wilson the checkdown before any further lives are lost, and the deep routes that Wilson was initially looking for are sufficiently successful at drawing defensive attention that Hollister has plenty of space to run.

2nd and 1. I learned this week that 2nd and 1 is the absolutely perfect down and distance for an offense to achieve. The pocket aces, if you will, of football scenarios. The odds of converting 3rd and 1 are tremendously good, freeing up the offense to try just about whatever ambitious, world-conquering Pinky and the Brain scheme they want on 2nd down. Faced with such a wealth of opportunity, picking up only a single yard, even if it means successfully acquiring a fresh set of downs, is such a dismal performance that advanced analytics like EPA actually give that outcome a slightly negative rating.

So, those of you who still fear that Schotty is a medieval relic should be heartened to see that Seattle comes out on 2nd and 1 with four receivers split wide of the formation, and Carson in to block. Those of you who still fear that Schotty is a medieval relic will be utterly demoralized that Schotty chooses to run a draw from that formation, faking the pass and handing the ball off to Carson.

Those of you who think that Schotty is slightly more on the ball than the world gives him credit for will observe that when Wilson motions Carson from behind him to beside him pre-snap (going from the best position to get a running start for a handoff to the best position to pick up a blitzer on a passing play), two Ravens defensive backs immediately start back-pedalling in anticipation of a pass, leaving neither of them close enough to prevent the first down when Carson hits the clean hole created by our O-line. Carson picks up 5 yards, and finishes the play by putting Earl Thomas directly on his motherf[censored, this is a family-friendly publication]. Point being, as previously mentioned, welcome back to Seattle, Earl.

1st and 10. I’ve heard it said that a fake handoff is pretty good if you fool the opposing defense, real good if you fool the fans in the stands, and sensational if you fool the cameraman. Here, as you can tell from a hasty, chagrined re-centering from Chris Carson to Russell Wilson, the fake was sensational.

2nd and 3 and getting delightfully close to the goal line. Brandon Williams distinctly resembles the Kool-Aid Man bursting through a brick wall as he splits a Justin Britt/Mike Iupati double team, except in this nightmare world the lovable baritone mascot in question brings not refreshment but pain.

Fortunately for the Seahawks who might otherwise be drinking deeply of that cup, this play has more misdirection built into it than a subprime auto loan contract. There’s a fake run to Carson to the left, a fake lateral throw to Lockett to the right, and Metcalf is running a deep crosser left to right into the end zone that carries about as much defensive attention as a low-flying Soviet cruise missile over Baltimore would. By the time the ball goes out to Jaron Brown, who’s running a deliberately delayed route into the left-most quarter of the end zone, all the suckers Ravens defensive backs have already been accounted for. Everything has been accounted for, really, except Jaron Brown having trash can lids for hands.

3rd and 3. The Ravens rush four, and Jamarco Jones is left without an immediate assignment. In his zeal to be helpful, he commits what I’m fairly certain was a blatant and unnecessary block in the back on a defender who was no danger to Wilson, while failing to notice defensive tackle Michael Pierce, who is sized for love and handing out free hugs, slip Britt with a remarkably shifty swim move and run toward Wilson, I’m sure politely asking if he’d like a hug, too. Wilson does not want a hug, and throws the ball away to avoid receiving one. He throws the ball away so well that Lockett is able to make a play on it, right in the face of a dumbstruck cornerback, Marlon Humphrey, who was standing there with a posture that said, “I’m sure proud we held the Seahawks to a field goal.” Touchdown.

That brings us to the end of the drive, and the end of the quarter. See you all soon for the second installment of this week’s Neanderball.