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Neanderball: Who stole the Seahawks’ mojo in the 2nd half against the Falcons?

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

While the Seattle Seahawks played the Atlanta Falcons, I was crammed into an airliner somewhere over the Bering Strait, paying egregious rates for wifi too slow to stream the game, watching squiggly black lines move up and down ESPN’s diagram of a football field instead. It was hard not to notice just how much more digital turf the Falcons’ little black line covered in the second half than ours did, and Twitter provided the color commentary: joyful disbelief during the opening quarters, followed by a creeping, volatile mixture of anxiety and bitterness as our offense stalled and the Falcons picked up momentum.

The “Pete Carroll is going to choke away our lead with conservative play calling” takes were already quietly circulating at halftime, and when the Seahawks opened the 3rd quarter with consecutive three and outs while the Falcons marched down the field on their own possessions with Napoleonic fervor, many fans cranked the volume knob on the anti-Carroll sentiment to 11.

So whose fault was it that a game the Seahawks began by laying down a 24-0 kicking ended in a precarious 27-20 final score? With only three offensive drives in the second half before the clock made an Atlanta comeback all but impossible - drives that ended in a grand total of a single field goal - it didn’t take very many plays to go wrong to make a difference. Only nine, to be precise, and here they are.

Drive 1, Q3 10:49 (Seahawks 24, Falcons 8) - RPP

1st and 15. After a pre-snap penalty by George Fant sets us back five yards, we begin Operation Eliminate Hope with a play you’ll all recognize from last week: both the left tackle and left guard pull to block for a run to the right. You’ll see three Falcons need blocking for the levee to break, and by no mere coincidence three blockers are ready for them in the form of Luke Willson, Mike Iupati, and George Fant.

To understand how such a promising start turned into the loss of a yard, watch #45, Falcons linebacker Deion Jones: he runs past Willson’s blocking attempt without slowing down, which is pretty much par for Willson’s blocking attempts. This forces Fant to block Jones instead of his original target, Falcons safety Ricardo Allen, and Allen makes the tackle.

Side note: while it didn’t kill the play, Germain Ifedi’s blocking was not exactly world class here, either: he gets blown far enough back off the line at the snap to slightly impede Fant as he pulls across the formation, and Ifedi’s defender easily disengaged once the defender saw which way Carson was going.

2nd and 16. I don’t know the odds of acquiring a fresh set of downs when you’ve reached a pit of despair like 2nd and 16, but I can’t imagine they’re great. Russ sees a blitz coming and motions Carson into the backfield to serve as an extra blocker, and the Falcons respond by only rushing three. How cheeky. Ifedi and Fant both manage to get their rushers out of the play by shunting them deep, and although it’s not the prettiest blocking, it was good enough: any time you’ve achieved this picture for your QB, your job is done.

Wilson steps up and to the right, giving him plenty of space, and if he’d taken the time afforded to him to scan the field, he would have seen David Moore open on a crossing route. Instead, Wilson surrenders on the passing play and takes a few yards with his legs. I question the choice on 2nd and 16 to trade a down for 5 yards when there was a chance to be patient and pick up more.

3rd and 11. Four Falcons rush five Seahawks linemen, and three of them get home, one against a double team. To provide some visual reference for just how highly this roasting will rank in the annals of blocking shame, note where Fluker managed to make and hold his block compared to where everybody else ended up:

Drive 2, Q3 2:12 (Seahawks 24, Falcons 8) - RPR

1st and 10. The Seahawks line up in a formation that usually leads to a run: WRs and TEs tightly bracketing the offensive line, and Carson deep in the backfield to pick up speed before taking the handoff. The Falcons agree, and put eight men in the box with another two very close by. If there was ever a defensive front I’d be less eager to call an inside run into, I can’t remember it. Shame on Schotty/Wilson for not audibling to a different play or calling a time out.

Shame also on Ifedi and Jacob Hollister, who make a bad situation fatal by colliding in a slapstick manner I last recall seeing in the opening minutes of Angels in the Outfield. Ifedi’s defender rockets unblocked into Carson to keep the gain minimal. Although it’s hard to tell which of them is responsible, it wouldn't be the first time this season that Ifedi’s blocking attempts have put him somewhere in the backfield that Seattle players in motion have not expected him to be.

2nd and 9. Seattle empties the backfield and Atlanta’s pre-snap response is respectful, leaving only the defensive linemen within four yards of the line of scrimmage. A very notable difference in defensive philosophy to Baltimore’s choice to crowd the line every snap. Wilson takes advantage of the Falcons’ fear and completes a very easy underneath pass to Hollister, but to my eye, his haste causes him to miss Lockett beating his defender on a slant route at the top of your screen for a much bigger gain.

3rd and 3. Schotty tries a little misdirection, splitting four receivers out wide and then handing off to Carson on a run to the right. The backside defensive end, Adrian Clayborn, is left unblocked. The Hawks have done that successfully before, trusting Carson to outrun whatever big galoot is chasing after him - but I’m trying to recall if they’ve ever done it with Carson taking the handoff from shotgun, on the side of Wilson nearest to the galoot in question, from a standing start. The reason I’m racking my memory is that the geometry of this play seems impossible. I don’t see how, considering Clayborn’s location and relative velocity at the time Carson takes the ball from Wilson, Carson ever could have escaped.

Side note: while “who is Adrian Clayborn” is probably a good-enough Jeopardy answer for why this play failed, it’s worth noting that the other Falcons defender in on the tackle was outside linebacker Vic Beasley, who was left unblocked after Ifedi showed visible confusion and indecision about which defender was his responsibility, and in the end blocked nobody.

Drive 3, Q4 8:36 (Seahawks 24, Falcons 11) - PPP

Instead of charting the whole drive, I’m just going to focus on the final sequence that led to its collapse.

The ball is on the Falcons 37-yard line and hope is rising that the Seahawks will finally do what the fans have been screaming at them to do since halftime and step on the Falcons’ necks for good. A touchdown this drive would make an Atlanta comeback effectively impossible instead of merely unlikely.

1st and 10. The Seahawks send five receivers downfield and leave only the five offensive linemen in to block. The Falcons rush four, and Vic Beasley’s move on Ifedi is effective enough to startle Wilson into stepping up in the pocket, directly into defensive tackle Tyeler Davison. Ugh. Not Wilson’s most aware/athletic scramble.

2nd and 12. The Falcons are now confident that they can get pressure only sending four, and when Wilson drops back to pass, they’re proven right. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett smokes our backup center, Joey Hunt, and Wilson is once more flushed from the pocket like a prize deer on the first day of hunting season, right into the sights of the rest of the Falcons defensive line.

3rd and 11. Never say Schotty can’t learn. He leaves seven blockers to make a castle for Wilson, trusting that one of the three receivers streaking downfield will beat the coverage. Defensive end Takkarist McKinley makes the castle look like a pillow fort by immediately beating Ifedi to the inside. Russ escapes with the crown jewels and rolls right to buy time before finding a miraculously open Lockett for a first down. When the yellow laundry flies and Lockett gets the finger for offensive passive interference, the mundane origins of the miracle are made clear.

At this point, backed up to 3rd and 21 and on the edge of field goal range, Schotty makes the wise call to pick up about 15 yards underneath and set up a 54-yard field goal, rather than test the Falcons defensive backs who are loitering around the first down marker, hoping Seattle will risk the interception.

And just like that, there were six minutes left in fourth quarter and the score was 27-11 instead of 38-6 or whatever your daydream of a blowout looked like at the half. The anxiety and bitterness about letting the suddenly determined Falcons back into the game had reached a fever pitch, only very slightly abated by how grim the clock situation was for Atlanta.

The Villains

So who’s at fault? Who do we string up for the Seahawks’ inability to beat a bad team by more than seven points?

Well, Fant lined up improperly pre-snap, Willson, Ifedi, and Hunt all missed blocks, Russ often settled for short gains instead of risking longer shots, our whole O-line (minus Fluker) was creamed on a 3rd and long, one of Schotty’s play designs turned out to be a dud, and our usually elusive quarterback reached into his top hat for some scramble magic and couldn’t find a rabbit.

We have our answer somewhere in that list, but it’s not a very satisfying conclusion to an analysis, is it? Too much of a grab-bag of seemingly one-off problems, too heterogenous: the data on the graph forms no obvious trend line, the chemicals in the beaker don’t turn bright blue, there’s no “eureka!” moment. There certainly isn't a trend of conservative play-calling: plenty of those plays had receivers schemed to come open for chunk yardage if both the blocking and Russell Wilson’s nerve held.

There’s no one on whom to satisfactorily dump all the blame.

Which is really where the “Pete Carroll is a dinosaur who nearly squandered our lead” narrative comes from, I think. It’s much easier emotionally to find one person and convince ourselves that they’re the reason for everything going wrong. It’s even better if that scapegoat is on the coaching staff: players blowing it, especially multiple players, is not nearly as satisfying because it’s difficult to upgrade the roster, whereas it’s very easy to imagine that if the coach had just called a different play, everything would have worked out fine.

The more time we spend buried in x’s and o’s and analytics, the more tempting it becomes to convince ourselves that football is a chess match where victory can always be achieved if only we instruct the pieces wearing College Navy and Action Green to make the right moves. I think the reality is that while strategy is critical, football is also eleven men going out to do battle, and the results of that personal physical conflict, especially over a sample size as small and fragile as a three-down play sequence, can sometimes go very awry.

Honor the Falcons for going down swinging, honor the Seahawks for doing enough to fend off a desperate, determined underdog, and leave the anti-Carroll sentiment, sometimes very much deserved, for another day. Instead, put on your war paint and get ready for the next eight games: we’re up against the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the league, including two games against the 49ers, who are swiftly becoming Super Bowl favorites.

We’re going to find out who the 2019 Seahawks are soon enough, and it won’t be by parsing their margin of victory against the Atlanta Falcons.