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Neanderball: Beneath the excitement, a gruesome offensive performance

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

We’re going back to our roots in this installment of Neanderball with a heaping helping of Seattle Seahawks offensive game tape from an all-time brawl against their once and future rivals, the San Francisco 49ers.

By the numbers, the Seahawks have the fourth-best offense in the league and the Niners have the second-best defense, behind only the Patriots. As the Hawks taught the Broncos in 2013, when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, it’s the former that tends to buckle, and unfortunately in 2019 Seattle on the wrong end of that equation.

When starting drives from their own side of the field, the Seahawks offense managed a grand total of one field goal in regulation, adding a second in overtime only after the Niners’ backup kicker shanked a 47-yard attempt that would have won them the game. Both of Seattle’s offensive touchdowns followed turnovers: those 14 points only required Wilson & Co. to drive, respectively, 16 and 24 yards.

While it’s only right to be pleased with the Seahawks’ overall performance in a game we’ll remember fondly ten years from now, I’m sure there’s more than a little alarm at the VMAC right now over the luck and defensive assistance required to overcome a team they’ll be going to war with again in Week 17, and very possibly a third time in the playoffs.

The Upside of Being Down and Out

While we’ll get to the trouble with the Seahawks soon enough, it’s fair to acknowledge that some of difficulties experienced were the result of the immense amount of talent in the 49ers locker-room. This is what the top of San Fran’s D-line rotation looked like:

Nick Bosa - 2019 1st round, 2nd overall.
Solomon Thomas - 2017 1st round, 3rd overall.
DeForest Buckner - 2016 1st round, 7th overall.
Arik Armstead - 2015 1st round, 17th overall.
Dee Ford - 2014 1st round, 23rd overall.

It’s an extreme commitment to the defensive line, backed by the draft capital and oceans of cap space that accompany being somewhere between mediocre and terrible at football for the half-decade from 2014 to 2018.

This deep well of athletic talent up front didn’t just affect the success of the Niners’ pass rush - it changed the dynamics of every play.

Drive 3, 1st and 15 (Q1 11:59)

After a Germain Ifedi false start keeps my season-long irritation with him hot and fresh, we begin again. Defensive end Nick Bosa adds ten years to Duane Brown’s accrued veterancy with an ankle-breaking inside move and forces Russell Wilson to bug out of the pocket. Wilson attempts to make something out of nothing with a dextrous but dangerous underarm flick to Jacob Hollister, and I’m mostly just happy it wasn’t picked.

Drive 4, 1st and 10 (Q2 7:09)

It takes a very strong, very determined man to walk Duane Brown anywhere against his will, and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is that hombre. In a run play designed to go between Brown and Mike Iupati, Buckner can’t move Brown backwards - such things are rarely possible - but he does manage to force him far enough sideways to close the hole Brown was trying ferociously to keep open. Chris Carson bounces it outside for an adequate gain.

Drive 4, 3rd and 1 (Q2 3:52)

Boy, the Seahawks just couldn’t catch a break. Bosa’s so fast in his pursuit of Wilson that he effectively closes the throwing lane to DK Metcalf, who’s streaking uncovered across the middle - watch Wilson’s eyes follow Metcalf and then decide against it. Wilson instead chances a throw to the tightly covered David Moore, allowing middle linebacker Fred Warner to make a play and smack the ball out of the air.

Drive 7, 2nd and 10 (Q3 8:46)

A great block in space by Joey Hunt sprung this play wide open. Arik Armstead’s athleticism crossing the field to chase down Carson - and Armstead’s freakishly long, kraken-esque arms - stops it for only 5 yards.

Drive 12, 2nd and 5 (Q4 3:45)

Defensive end Ronald Blair III runs down and tackles Wilson in space on a designed keeper. This was not as easy as Blair made it look.

Drive 4, 2nd and 1 (Q2 4:36)

The monks of the Greek monastery at Mount Athos live by the axiom that “the wise man accepts, the idiot insists”. The Hawks game plan insisted on attempting to run into the teeth of a merciless run defense, and Schotty adapted by repeatedly calling for multiple double-team blocks on defensive linemen, which I don’t recall ever seeing before this season. This is a good example of the typical consequences: a total of five unblocked San Francisco players smother the play in its cradle.

It’s All About the Ball

San Francisco’s commitment to attacking the football was relentless throughout the game. It’s a defensive style in Pete Carroll’s own grand tradition and it seemed like not a play went by where some jerk in a red jersey wasn't punching at or trying to tear the ball away from a Seattle player. The Niners made an impressive commitment to forcing turnovers, and it worked often.

Many analysts insist that a properly trained ball carrier should never fumble, but I’m beginning to doubt that. It seems like if a defense commits to hacking at the ball consistently enough, sooner or later it pops free.

On 15 Seahawks offensive drives, the Niners forced five fumbles (two on the same play) and recovered three of them. That’s not individual heroism or failure, that’s well-drilled defensive technique executed by determined players. Add to that a beautifully athletic interception by outside linebacker Dre Greenlaw, and nearly a third of Seattle’s chances ended in the worst possible way.

Drive 6, 2nd and 8 (Q3 12:09)

Sometimes all the planning in the world can’t account for rotten luck. The Seahawks, lined up in a passing formation, happen to run a draw to the right on the same play 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh calls a cornerback blitz off the right edge. K’Waun Williams unwittingly charges forward directly along the path intended for Rashaad Penny, who’s forced to cut back into traffic and fumbles.

Drive 5, 1st and 10 (Q2 1:12)

A play design proves itself, but slips on a banana peel and ends up in traction. Every Niner on the field bites on a misdirection run to the right, setting Metcalf up perfectly for a short toss to the left. Nobody noticed Duane Brown release downfield instead of blocking, which is like not noticing an iceberg drift into a shipping lane - and with similar consequences. Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley is instantly capsized, and it’s up to Greenlaw and strong safety Jaquiski Tartt to save the day. Tartt manages this by ripping the ball from Metcalf’s steam-shovel hands, leaving the Seahawks with zero points on five drives.

The Second Part of the Job Description

Ask anybody who’s watched more than a few minutes of football what the wide receiver’s purpose on the field is, and they’ll give you a funny look and tell you it’s to catch passes. That’s not their only role, though, as much as even the receivers themselves would often be happy to believe it is.

Whenever the ball isn’t coming their way, wide receivers become blockers, just like the other players who aren’t either the thrower or the throwee. Since almost all running plays start from formations with multiple WRs on the field, a little-mentioned part of a receiver’s skill set is keeping defenders (primarily DBs, being closest on the field and close in physique) from tackling the ball carrier.

That said, wide receiver is not a position that typically attracts players who enjoy - or are naturally adept at - physically dominating another human being. On the prototypical small-school football team with more roster space than talent, the tuba players are sent to the O-line, and the pretty boys who like the uniforms but don’t actually want to hit anybody end up in the receiving corps.

While the kind of athlete who makes it to the NFL at receiver is physically capable of roughing somebody up, the personality of the position still tends toward showboats who are in it to look good catching a pass, not pancake a safety. This is exacerbated by the fact that no wide receiver makes it to the league because a scout praised their blocking: it’s considered an ancillary skill to the catching of those glorious passes.

The result is that even highly-paid, extremely talented NFL wide receivers (maybe especially the well-paid ones) often treat blocking as a banal and unpleasant chore, and NFL coaches will tolerate uninspired blocking if it’s offset by brilliant pass-catching.

All of which is to say that I can’t be absolutely sure whether the issue is with motivating Seahawks receivers to make their blocks or teaching them how to block better, but nobody in the NFL looks less eager to get in front of their defenders and stay there than Seattle wideouts. The issue is very real, it’s been there since the start of the season, and receivers coach Nate Carroll needs to get on it.

Drive 1, 1st and 10 (Q1 8:19)

Seattle motions Lockett across the formation at a dead run pre-snap to cause the Niners anxiety about a jet sweep, but nobody in their front seven bites very hard on it. When Carson takes the handoff into the gap between Fluker and Ifedi, he receives great blocking from everybody but Joey Hunt and David Moore. Hunt wrangles his man sufficiently that defensive tackle D.J. Jones can only attempt an arm tackle, but that’s a currency that spends about as well with a running back like Carson as the Weimar reichsmark or Zimbabwean dollar. The real problem is David Moore, who makes only a limp effort at blocking cornerback K’Waun Williams.

Drive 4, 2nd and 6 (Q2 6:29)

This column does love slinging blame, but it’s also a place to acknowledge subtle acts of greatness, no matter which logo the player is wearing. It’s for players like outside linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who took two steps to the right while everyone else stepped left. The Seahawks line up with two receivers and a tight end to the left, Carson in the backfield, and Metcalf split out wide to the right. Everyone bites on the Carson run fake to the left but Greenlaw, who took those two steps before Wilson had even handed the ball to Lockett for a counter run to the right.

As a result, Greenlaw meets Ifedi’s outside hip instead of his inside hip and sheds him like a winter coat. Hollister, who pulled with Lockett, is forced to block Greenlaw, and Richard Sherman is left free to tackle Lockett for a short gain, because while Metcalf at least blocked like he wanted to be there, Sherman was able to judo throw him and disengage.

Plays like this happened so often this game that I’m giving them the montage treatment. There’s no one receiver who’s the issue: it’s a problem across the position group, and it’s costing us yards, first downs, and in its own quiet way, whole drives.

Chris Carson is Definitely Not Going to Hawaii Orlando

At least, not for the Pro Bowl, not this year. I was completely smitten with his play earlier in the season, and thought if it stayed strong he might be in contention. Well, it hasn’t. The running itself remains...fine...but the fumbles have continued, and now the “little things” that set an elite running back apart have started to suffer, too: missed blitz pickups, dropped passes, the works.

None of this is to suggest that Carson is a bad running back. Over The Cap estimates he provides a 2019 value to the Seahawks of approximately $10.1m (against an actual salary of $661,285). It’s just time to pump the brakes on the belief that Carson is currently elite. Dude is going through a bit of a slump, and I hope he pulls it together.

I won’t go through every time Seattle’s starting running back dropped the ball, sometimes literally, but this one piece of footage should give you some idea of what the rest of the pig looked like. Yes, that catastrophic play that kept the Niners in the game was Carson’s fault.

Drive 10, 2nd and 7 (Q3 12:12)

DK Metcalf is a Masterpiece in Progress

He’s David, half-chipped out of the marble. He’s a super soldier half-grown in the vat, a red-hot katana only part way through the folding process. When we catch glimpses of what DK Metcalf will one day become, it’s intoxicating, like watching teenage LeBron’s first dunk.

But he’s not a finished product yet, and against the 49ers, Metcalf often showed the cracks in his developing game. He’s doing an extraordinary job for a rookie, but in the meantime that leaves us entrusting extremely high-leverage plays to a guy who’s still in the process of figuring it all out.

Drive 2, 3rd and 6 (Q1 00:45)

It’s a deep shot down the left sideline and the play design achieves what’s intended: a one on one matchup between the Seahawks’ budding Pro Bowl outside threat and 2018 UDFA Emmanuel Moseley, who is 5’11 and San Francisco’s third-best cornerback. Moseley runs a better route and boxes out Metcalf, anticipating the pass placement and keeping himself between Metcalf and the ball. A good reminder that Herculean size isn’t everything in the eternal battle between receivers and cornerbacks.

Drive 3, 1st and 10 (Q2 13:27)

Football is sometimes savagery and sometimes Shakespeare. On this play, it’s one of the Bard’s comedies. As high as middle linebacker Fred Warner’s football IQ might be, he’s not impossible to fool: with fullback Nick Bellore and Carson stacked in the backfield, Warner reads a run to the right and tells everyone so. Metcalf takes off on a short crossing route to the left at high speed and Sherman doesn’t follow him, since it’s zone coverage and Sherman’s responsible for his part of the field, not Metcalf specifically. But thanks to Warner, everybody else nearby has bit on the run fake and nobody has Metcalf. Sherman sees this and now he’s screaming and frantically gesticulating at Warner, who turns his head just in time to watch Metcalf blow by him...but Metcalf doesn’t turn upfield for the easy first down, and instead runs sideways into K’Waun Williams.

Drive 11, 3rd and 3 (Q4 10:33)

Drive 14, 3rd and 2 (OT 2:00)

Brian Schottenheimer continues his tour de force

I don’t know if I can recall any other football mind as maligned as Brian Schottenheimer was who has blossomed in new conditions to the same degree. I love watching Schotty work, and we should all appreciate it while we can. After the grim reaper comes for 2019’s batch of woeful head coaches, I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if Schotty’s name is thrown around as a candidate for the Falcons job.

Since we watched the Niners’ secondary at work in a previous Neanderball, this is a perfect opportunity to take note of how Schotty, looking at the same tape, attacked those same tendencies I praised. You’ll recall that the Niners made extensive use of a coverage technique that I referred to as “giving the receivers a cushion”: starting 5-10 yards away from the receiver at the snap, depending on the cornerback’s estimate of the speed of the receiver and the depth of the route, and gradually matching speed and direction over the course of the play.

Now watch Schotty take advantage with a series of play calls in which Seahawks receivers break off their routes earlier than anticipated, leaving the DB out of position to break up the pass.

A Note about Joey Hunt

You all might recall a Neanderball column I wrote two weeks ago about Joey Hunt, in which I predicted that the Seahawks could win games starting him at center and that he would not end up in Mookie’s Winners and Losers column. Well, at least part of that prediction has not come to pass.

Seattle is 2-0 but Joey Hunt was a capital-L loser because of this play, in which D.J. Jones absolutely flattened him en route to sacking Russell Wilson. The last time I saw a takedown this casually devastating, I was a boy who’d thrown a tennis ball for my hyperactive golden retriever, and a frail old lady with a walker tottered into the fast track between Fido and the fuzzy green focus of his world.

I made my Hunt prediction after watching his first start against the Falcons, and intended to write a follow-up column on the results after three games, which will accrue after the contest against the Eagles tomorrow. So for those who wonder where I am when the bill for my predictions comes due, I promise you I’ll be there to pay it - one way or the other - next week.