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Neanderball: Can Marshawn Lynch save Christmas?

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NFL: DEC 22 Cardinals at Seahawks Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a bleak 27-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals that was, if anything, even more horrible to witness than the score suggests, it began to look like Christmas was cancelled. Everything was bad, and everyone is injured.

On the offense alone, the Seattle Seahawks are missing their starting left tackle, starting center, first and second string tight ends, and first, second, and third string running backs. I also suspect that Seattle’s left guard, right guard, and top wide receiver are playing hurt, and to put a dollop of salt on it all, Josh Gordon - who blew into town off the waiver wire and immediately became our second-best wide receiver - is now indefinitely suspended.

It’s no surprise that in such desperate straits, the fan base has treated this week’s return of Marshawn Lynch much like they might the [editor’s note: censored for holiday-related blasphemy]. But as much as I’m going to savour every second of Lynch in a Seahawks jersey against the San Francisco 49ers, he’s not high-stepping downhill from Mount Crumpit to restore our hopes of a deep playoff run - because it wasn’t losing Carson that cost Seattle the game against a distinctly average Cardinals squad, and it won’t be the guy at running back that decides our fate - and the division championship - this Sunday against San Francisco, either.

The Evergreen Issue

The first half of the problem against Arizona was the pass blocking. This comes as no surprise to anyone who had their eyes on the TV screen instead of buried in their hands, but it was remarkable how often the issues with the pass blocking (not the run blocking, which was quite good) could be traced back to a combination of these three players: Jamarco Jones, Joey Hunt, and D.J. Fluker. And I’m not even upset with any of them.

Jones is a backup guard who was not only playing his first ever NFL snaps at tackle, but was matched up against three-time Pro Bowl, 2017 All-Pro defensive end Chandler Jones - a pass rushing specialist who went into Sunday’s game with 15 sacks (and came out with 19).

Hunt is a backup center who plays with great technique, but just isn’t big enough to consistently block NFL-sized individuals. Everything is fine most of the time, but the game tape is out on him, the defensive line knows they can bully him, and every eight plays or so Hunt simply gets flattened, leaving the Seahawks to hope it’s not on a snap where they were depending on him to hold his block. Since we’re talking about Hunt, I’ll add that if the Hawks can get him cheap, I’d be happy to see him remain with the team, albeit not as a starter: all backups are going to have problems, and “somewhat undersized” is far from the worst possible issue for a center.

Fluker is Seattle’s starting right guard, so he has less of an excuse for his play than the other two, but something about his injury history coming into and during this season, coupled with the way he seems to struggle with both lateral movement, and now, even creating a solid base, has me convinced he’s a lot more hurt than the team is letting on.

The Bulb That Won’t Light On One Side

The second part of the problem against the Cardinals, I’m relieved to say, was Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Relieved, because I’ve been singing his praises and defending his play-calling all season, and I’ve been increasingly worried about appearing to make excuses for him - and even more worried about the possibility that worse than appearing to make excuses, I’ve possibly been blinded by affection to real problems with his work.

Well, now I can put those concerns to rest, because this game was a prime example of Seattle getting out-coached on that side of the ball, and I’m here to bring you the news. While some blame for the near-complete collapse of the passing game goes to Russell Wilson’s accuracy, his receivers’ hands, and to the offensive line, the ease and consistency with which the Cardinals blanketed Seahawks receivers represented a larger problem with the scheme.

Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph knew what Schotty wanted to do - pass deep - and he was ready for it. Russell Wilson is good rain or shine, but he’s slightly weaker against man coverage, and the Cardinals showed him plenty of that, displaying no trouble latching a cornerback to the hip of any receiver the Hawks sent downfield. The Cards also flooded the deep and intermediate passing zones with red jerseys, even at the cost of leaving them vulnerable to short passes. You’ll recall the Rams did the same thing, except with the deep and short zones, leaving the intermediate zone vulnerable - something Wilson was able to exploit.

And this is ultimately why I don’t think Lynch’s return to Seattle is that big a deal from a strategic perspective, unfortunately. The run blocking was fine, the blitz pickups were fine, and fourth-string back Travis Homer had some very solid reps after the rest of his platoon became casualties. What will determine Seattle’s fate against their rivals is whether the offensive line can find some heroism in their souls to overcome the Niners’ objectively superior talent in the trenches, and whether Schotty and his elves can produce more of the mad genius in their workshop this week that I’ve grown so used to seeing earlier this season.

Note: These drive summaries have been lightly abridged to remove plays that aren’t particularly relevant to the narrative I’m selling - mostly runs of varying success.

Drive 1, Q1 12:39 (Seahawks 0 Cardinals 0)

1st and 10

Don't ask me how, but the Cardinals defense read this run a mile away, and the backside chasedown tackle wrecks everything. Watch the confidence that safety Budda Baker and cornerback Byron Murphy, Jr. show in not only diving into the backfield, but running parallel to Wilson instead of attempting a sack: they’re setting up for the handoff to Carson the whole way.

2nd and 12

Fluker is ruined by defensive tackle Caraun Reid and survives only by teaching him the spirit of Christmas by committing a spectacular hold (I refer, of course, to the spirit of Christmas that occurs in the afternoon, when you palm the Baltic Avenue property card and later use it to bankrupt your nephew). A rare bust in the coverage - and Fluker’s hold - allows Jacob Hollister to sneak open for a 20-yard gain.

1st and 10

I expect this play was a designed roll-out pass to DK Metcalf running a low crossing route from left to right, but nobody gave safety Jalen Thompson the memo about Metcalf being an unstoppable physical force. Thompson jams him just as Metcalf goes to make his break, and the three or four steps that the bodycheck cost Metcalf were the difference between him coming open for an 8-yard gain as Wilson’s roll-out completed and Wilson being tackled out of bounds for no gain.

1st and 10.

Jamarco is struggling hard against Chandler Jones on this play, but also notice how tightly all of Wilson’s receiving options are covered.

Note especially how Murphy is so confident that he knows where David Moore is going on his left sideline route that he temporarily turns his back on him. Wilson’s inaccurate pass ices the play, but it was well-defended.

Drive 2, Q1 8:33 (Seahawks 7 Cardinals 7)

2nd and 8.

This play is another rare error by the Cardinals defense. From what I can tell they defend more poorly in zone coverage, which they're playing on this snap. Here, cornerback Patrick Peterson is playing too deep to be of any help covering the short route run by Hollister at the bottom of the screen.

1st and 15.

Poor Joey Hunt gets his chestnuts roasted over an open fire by defensive tackle Corey Peters, but Chris Carson saves the day by cutting back and shrugging off an arm tackle to pick up 5 yards.

2nd and 10.

This play was a smashing success for Seattle, and it also laid bare Vance Joseph’s game plan: watch the entire Arizona back seven bail deep into coverage at the snap. When Wilson makes his throw, everyone not rushing the passer is ten or more yards downfield...except Carson, who the Cardinals forgot to pick up. Joseph’s determination to keep his defense on top of everything in overwhelming numbers is as obvious as if lit by the luminescent nose of a socially isolated arctic ungulate, and it takes Schotty far too long to figure out the weakness in that scheme, which is (i) running backs leaking out of the backfield and (ii) Seattle receivers cutting off their routes unexpectedly short.

1st and 10.

Jamarco and Joey are both shamed on this running play. Per usual, Hunt’s failure draws more attention because it’s more visually spectacular, but they’re both at fault for the Arizona defenders who come free to drop Carson for no gain.

A gross miss by Wilson on a short pass to Hollister ends the drive.

Drive 3, Q1 00:19 (Seahawks 7 Cardinals 7)

1st and 10.

Either Budda Baker had some very good luck on a safety blitz that happened to coincide in time and space with a C.J. Prosise run, or he read this play perfectly. Considering how often the Cardinals seemed to have Schotty’s number during the rest of the game, I’m unwilling to write it off as pure coincidence.

2nd and 11.

This is a dangerous throw by Wilson to Lockett: not the sort of thing we normally see from him, and I question whether the thorough pass coverage by Arizona was starting to frustrate him. Note also that had Wilson waited for a better option, Prosise leaked out of the backfield totally uncovered, just as we’ve previously seen. There’s a hole in every defensive scheme, but finding it in real time is admittedly much more of a challenge.

3rd and 11.

Many people, myself included, came down hard on Wilson for fleeing what looked like a perfectly good pocket, leading directly to a drive-ending sack. On review, I blame him a lot less. Fluker had just been turned inside out on a stunt by Cassius Marsh and Corey Peters. It was obvious to Wilson (but not to us) that Fluker was combat ineffective and Peters was milliseconds from leaving Wilson with some new grass stains.

Nor did the play call give Wilson any reason to hang in the pocket and throw a pass, either. On a play that needed to pick up 11 yards, two receivers were left marooned in the flats, motionless, and the other three ran extremely boring routes to the first-down marker that the defensive backs didn’t seem to have any difficulty covering. This was not Schotty’s finest hour.

Drive 4, Q2 12:06 (Seahawks 7 Cardinals 7)

1st and 10.

It’s a six-man blitz and Wilson barely manages to throw it away before (Chandler) Jones blows up (Jamarco) Jones. There should have been somebody relatively open downfield with that many rushers, but the Cardinals’ man coverage was pristine.

2nd and 10.

For the fourth play in a row, there’s nobody at all open downfield, and the man coverage is so tight, so fluidly do the cornerbacks move with their chosen receivers, that I have to wonder how predictable Seattle’s route tree has become - especially perhaps to a division opponent that’s had the time and motivation to make a close study of how Schotty’s intricate little murderbot functions.

3rd and 15.

The problem children return: first Cassius Marsh beats Fluker with an outside move to ruffle Wilson’s feathers, and then Chandler Jones finishes the job by wrestling free of Jamarco to complete the sack.

Drive 5, Q2 9:12 (Seahawks 7 Cardinals 7)

3rd and 1.

I recall Twitter collectively shrieking at this point that only an idiot and a fool and a lout would hand the ball to a wrought-crystal figurine like Prosise on a bruising short-yardage carry, but it wasn’t his fault. For one thing, the hip injury that ended Carson’s season later this game may have already been starting to bother him - and for another, Prosise is the season record holder for plays where everything is on fire before he even touches the ball. Really, just the worst luck. Defensive tackle Zach Kerr dekes past Fluker like he’s running a pylon drill and wraps up Prosise, in turn stuck in a traffic jam behind Joey Hunt, who even in victory this game (he’d just pancaked Corey Peters) manages to make things worse.

Drive 6, Q2 4:11 (Seahawks 7 Cardinals 14)

1st and 10.

Is this possibly the worst Russell Wilson scramble of all time? Yes. Was it necessary because yet again, Arizona made covering DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett look like child’s play? Also yes.

3rd and 2.

I kept watching this play. Over and over. I couldn’t figure out my compulsion at first (it’s not that complicated: Hollister motions to the left, and then Wilson throws him the ball), and then I realized why. I can’t decide whether it’s a straightforward play that should have worked but for the elite closing speed of safety Jalen Thompson, or an overly simplistic play that was so obvious that it left itself vulnerable to the elite closing speed of safety Jalen Thompson. Credit to the defense or more blame to heap on Schotty?

That’s the problem with trying to build a narrative. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re uncovering the truth or inventing a truth of your own.

That’s the end of the first half game tape. Merry Christmas to all!