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Neanderball: The Seahawks failed their final exam against the Cardinals, will you?

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Neanderball for Week 16 against the Arizona Cardinals, covering the second half of the game. Keep focused on what comes next, ladies and gentlemen, because while - unlike the Seattle coaching staff - your livelihoods don’t depend on understanding how Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph beat Brian Schottenheimer, your ability to brag in the comments sure does.

Drive 7, Q3 14:55 (Seahawks 7 Cardinals 17)

1st and 10. DK Metcalf stays true to his brand and outright drops the ball, but I draw this play to your attention as an example of one of the two tactics that seemed to fluster the Cardinals (the other being running backs and tight ends blocking, then leaking out for a short pass): receivers running comeback and curl routes, or in layman’s terms, breaking sharply on their routes and turning back upfield for the ball. Arizona’s emphasis on keeping Seattle receivers “under” them seemed to cause them trouble when a receiver, like Metcalf here, suddenly headed back upfield.

3rd and 10. In a rare error, perhaps related to the confusion caused by the blitz they were running, the Cardinals allow Jacob Hollister to get open in the middle of the field for a big gain. As he is wont to do of late, though, Russell Wilson doesn’t see what the defense is giving him and fixates instead on David Moore in double coverage. Fortunately for the Seahawks, Wilson threads the needle with the ball. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, Chandler Jones - dropping back in coverage - tears the ball loose.

Drive 8, Q3 11:36 (Seahawks 7 Cardinals 20)

1st and 10. Superficially, this play is another frustrating example of the deep passing game once again being atomized. And there’s no question it was - four Seattle receiving options are once again swamped by two deep safeties, three cornerbacks, and two linebackers dropping into coverage, leaving the usual four pass rushers to wreak havoc (I’m calling it the “deny everything” defense). But this provides an opportunity: only four Cards are rushing Wilson, and the running back, Travis Homer, is uncovered when he leaks out of the blocking scheme for the short pass.

Maybe Schotty and Co. saw this but felt they were in too deep a hole to build a game out of short passes, but if so, I disagree. 26 minutes of game clock is plenty of time to assemble a couple of touchdown drives out of a series of short throws, especially when the vulnerability in the coverage means the short throws are going for nine yards a pop. If the devil appeared to Pete Carroll at this very moment in the form of Ken Behring and told him that every run play he called would go for nine yards, the Seahawks would never have called a pass again.

3rd and 5. Another down where it looks like someone slipped Vance Joseph the play a week in advance and then gave him a big wink right before the snap. Instead of the pass defense clinic Arizona puts on, though, let’s focus for a moment on the blocking: on Wilson’s right, Hollister fails to contain linebacker Hasson Reddick, and on Wilson’s left, Chandler Jones is doing unto Jamarco Jones in a manner our own John P. Gilbert explained cerebrally, but that I will illustrate as follows:

This puts immense pressure on the play design to function as intended. Receivers don’t have time to make a second move before Wilson is running for his life, and ever since a Nerdluck snaffled Wilson’s talent, a panicked deep bomb on the scramble is no longer all that likely to succeed even where, as here, Tyler Lockett has a step or two on his defender.

Drive 9, Q3 7:57 (Seahawks 7 Cardinals 20)

3rd and 5. One of the two vulnerabilities in the “deny everything” defensive scheme shows itself again. Watch Lockett and Malik Turner run sharp comeback routes and their defenders momentarily skid out of the play when they try to follow. But Wilson’s already running for his life because Mike Iupati immediately allows defensive tackle Corey Peters through the line unblocked, and it doesn't seem like Wilson ever saw either of them.

Drive 10, Q3 1:08 (Seahawks 7 Cardinals 20)

1st and 10. Still miraculously down only 13 points at the bottom of the third quarter and gifted a short field by the defense, it was absolutely imperative the Hawks score a touchdown here to tighten the game to 20-14. Instead, the Hawks take a three-yard loss that helped convince me Fluker is among the wounded. Defensive tackle Zach Kerr is able to easily push him off balance and bull past him, which in turn causes too much congestion for Hunt to stay with Peters.

2nd and 13. The magic is starting to happen. The orchestral music is rising. Arizona goes back to its “deny everything” pass defense, and like clockwork the running back is wide open for the short pass. Wilson knows it too, hits Homer, and that’s 10 yards. You can make a game plan out of this.

3rd and 3. I hate everything about this play call. It’s a nine-man box. Why would you run into a nine-man box? This is for the whole game, considering the importance of a touchdown to tighten up the score, and you’re going to trust your fourth-string running back over your $35 million quarterback? And when two linebackers and a safety all point to the left pre-snap on your intended run to the left, is it perhaps a good idea to call a timeout? The crowd booed and I would have, too.

As a question of pure numbers, this play is over before it begins. A heartbeat after the snap, to the left of Joey Hunt and the defender he’s blocking there are four defenders and only three blockers, meaning even if everything goes right, Travis Homer is going to have to truck someone or make them miss. I’ve heard it said that soldiers getting medals for heroism is a sign that something went wrong at headquarters, and whether or not it’s true of the battlefield, it’s certainly true of the football field: a running back needing to beat a defender to make a run play work is a sign of a badly designed (or called) run play.

Jamarco “seals off” Chandler Jones to the outside, who I expect was quite happy to be pushed in that direction to allow him to set the edge and keep the run inside. Metcalf makes his downfield block on cornerback Patrick Peterson (polite applause, please), and fate intervenes by momentarily tangling up linebacker Joe Walker in that interaction, too. If Iupati makes his block on linebacker Jordan Hicks, this play has a real shot at glory.

But Iupati makes no such block. He first chips defensive tackle Caraun Reid to help Hunt (illustrating a hidden cost of Hunt needing to be helped), and is correspondingly a tad late to get to Hicks - but it was still possible to hit that block, and I’m not willing to let Iupati entirely off the hook for what sure looks to me like a whiff.

Hicks drills Homer in the backfield, a violin string snaps in the orchestra pit, the inspirational theme music dies, and the game, while not officially over, has reached that point in the nature documentary where it’s becoming depressingly clear the antelope isn’t going to outrun the lions.

Drive 11, Q4 12:04 (Seahawks 10 Cardinals 20)

This is it: the last drive where I can bring myself to imagine that a Seahawks victory is still in the cards. The boys in blue are only down 10 points thanks to a supreme defensive effort.

In a fascinating coincidence, we’re treated to a series of seven plays that serve as a microcosm for the whole game. You could watch these seven plays alone and understand everything you needed to about what happened last Sunday afternoon.

In many ways, it was a test for the Seahawks to see if they’d learned anything from the previous 48 minutes. But let’s focus instead on whether you, dear reader, have learned anything. I’m running a pop quiz. I’m going to tell you what happened on each play, and then ask you to guess at some outcomes. Good luck! Let me know how you did in the comments.

Play 1. Lockett suddenly breaks off his route and turns back upfield for the ball.

  1. Does Lockett’s defender stay tight in coverage on Lockett?
  2. Does Lockett catch the ball?

Play 2. The Cards run their “deny everything” pass defense scheme. Russ has a choice of passing to Lockett downfield or Homer in the flats.

  1. Is Lockett covered?
  2. Is Homer covered?
  3. The ball is thrown to Lockett. Does he catch it?

Play 3. Russ drops back to throw. Five linemen are left to block four rushers. Two rushers beat their blocks and put immediate interior pressure on Russ, forcing the checkdown throw.

  1. Which two linemen failed to hold their blocks? One point for each correct answer.

Play 4. Arizona runs their “deny everything” pass defense scheme. Less than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, tight end Jacob Hollister stops running downfield and turns sharply to the right.

  1. How many Cardinals defenders rush the quarterback?
  2. When Wilson passes, how many defenders (not counting rushers) are within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage?
  3. Does Hollister catch the ball?

Play 5. Wilson drops back to pass. Arizona blitzes five.

  1. Hollister runs a short route out into the flats. Is he open?
  2. Does Wilson look for the short pass or the long pass?
  3. Is the pass caught?

Play 6. Wilson drops back to pass. Arizona blitzes six.

  1. Hollister takes three steps, then spins in place and looks for the ball. Is he open?
  2. Turner shuffles his feet at the snap, then takes two steps downfield and turns to look for the ball. Is he open?
  3. Lockett runs a short out route. Is he open?

Play 7. Wilson drops back to pass. Arizona blitzes six.

  1. Hollister runs a short route out into the flats. Is he open?
  2. Does Wilson look for the short pass or the long pass?
  3. Is the pass caught?

Answer Key (Perfect score: 19)

1(1): No
1(2): Yes

2(1): Yes
2(2): No
2(3): No

3(1): Fluker and Hunt (1 point for each correct guess)

4(1): Four
4(2): Zero
4(3): Yes

5(1): Yes
5(2): Long
5(3): No

6(1): Yes
6(2): Yes
6(3): Yes

7(1): Yes
7(2): Long
7(3): No