2015 Seahawks Re-Watch, Divisional Playoff: Just The Beginning
At 15-1, the Carolina Panthers had had the best regular season in the league, an achievement many attributed to their talented quarterback, Cam Newton. By elevating the play of a team full of veteran journeymen, Newton had overcome the losses of franchise leading rusher DeAngelo Williams and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Newton had built his brand of quarterbacking in much the same way Russell Wilson had. Both were strong pocket passers, but also brought athleticism and playmaking. While Wilson had ended the year the hottest QB in the NFL, Newton had been full throttle from the start and was elected the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
Like the wildcard round, the divisional playoff was a regular season rematch. During week 6, the Panthers had staged an improbable comeback at Century Link. This game would be at Bank of America Stadium in North Carolina, which was a long road trip in a series of long road trips for the Seahawks; meanwhile, the Panthers had had no reason to leave Charlotte since December 27th. The Panthers were going to be fresh and explosive and clearly expected to come out shooting. By the half, Seattle was down 31-0.
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With nothing to lose, and no reason to feign modesty, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell transformed his NFL offense into as close an interpretation of a Madden video game offense as real football gets. Operating out of the shotgun for 38 of 39 second-half plays, the offense put up a slew of highlights, scoring several touchdowns.
The first TD pass was to Jermaine Kearse. Kearse was lined up at the sideline and was smothered by coverage when he crossed into the end zone. In fact, cornerback Robert McClain had Kearse so squashed that Kearse had to put his arms on either side of McClain, almost in an embrace, so that he could reach for the ball. He two handed the grab, toe tapping his way to a reception. Minutes later, Bevell dialed up a play whose formation left Tyler Lockett alone outside. In a risky yet designed blitz, cornerback Josh Norman made a beeline for Wilson and did not so much as jam or bump or chip Lockett at the snap. Safety Kurt Coleman took one step toward Lockett and it was the last that mattered. Coleman’s twelve yard cushion was negated, and he was several steps behind Lockett when the rookie made a beautiful, forward sliding grab.
The play of the afternoon belonged to Russell Wilson.
In the middle of the fourth, at the Panthers three yard line, Wilson accepted the snap and immediately eyed Doug Baldwin and Kearse. The coverage was too tight to dare a throw. Progressing left, Wilson was met by pass rusher Jared Allen. For most quarterbacks, their gut reaction would be to throw the ball away, but Wilson’s football genetics were to escape and extend. Allen stuck to Wilson, in Wilson’s face for Wilson’s two spins. Wilson was at the 22 yard line when he heaved for the end zone. Throwing off his back foot, with his throwing motion compressed, the pass was high and lazy, yet it was not wild or wobbly. In actuality, it was an incredible touch-throw, and it sailed above the fingertips of Norman, into the Kearse’s hands.
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On the third touchdown drive, Lockett put together a sensation reception. Charging toward the sideline, he established possession just as the tips of his cleats kicked up mere specs of dirt. A challenge overturned the on-field call of incomplete, but this successful improvisation hid a buried theme.
Defensive end Jared Allen was set to be blocked by offensive lineman Alvin Bailey while interior defensive lineman Kyle Love was set to be blocked by offensive lineman Justin Britt. Allen lined up over Bailey’s shoulder, but later took himself to an outside stance, casually referred to as a “wide nine” technique. While Allen did so, linebacker Thomas Davis threatened a standing blitz. The purpose of all this pre-snap movement was to illicit Britt into switching assignments to pick up Davis, meaning Bailey would switch to take on Love, thereby freeing Allen, a sack specialist. At the snap, Davis dropped back, essentially bluffing, leaving Britt with no one to block and Bailey being unable to handle Love and then tend to Allen.
It was not the only breakdown.
Wilson’s two first-half interceptions happened when the Panthers were able to get pressure by using only four pass rushers. Lockett’s sliding touchdown grab almost never was, as Norman toasted Christine Michael’s blitz pick up. And in the above example, a five person offensive line was so confused by the Panthers trickery that they allowed a free edge rusher, when only four defensive linemen had rushed in total. While Seattle’s position players were out-wowing the Panthers, the meat and potatoes guys were being terrorized by the bevy of pass rushers, blitz packages and dummy looks the Panthers were using.
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The Panthers first play called for fullback Mike Tolbert to initially sell a run up the middle and then, at the last moment, move across the offensive line, cloaking himself behind a mess of big bodies. He emerged at the edge, blindsiding KJ Wright and springing running back Jonathan Stewart. Richard Sherman hunted Stewart down, grabbing at Stewart’s collar to pull himself in but not to pull Stewart down. This display of tackling IQ saved the touchdown and saved a horse-collar penalty. Getting a big run in on the Seahawks defense was rare, and the defense was keen to punish the Panthers for doing so. On the next play, running back Cameron Artis-Payne ran up the gut. Michael Bennett’s outstretched arm robbed Artis-Payne of the ball. Bouncing forward, the fumble was recovered by Tolbert.
If poor turnover luck felt familiar, it was because 3 of the last 4 fumbles the defense had forced were forward fumbles and were recovered by the offense. Since week 11, the defense had forced nine fumbles, but they had recovered only one. The big plays had been there, but the bounces had not, and opponents were getting additional opportunities to score.
Knowing only a big-time performance could save their NFC Championship ambitions, the defense surrendered only 33 yards on 15 second-half carries, including two tackles for a loss. They came up big on 3rd down. Rookie defensive lineman Frank Clark was able to take advantage of the Legion of Boom’s tight coverage to wrap up quarterback Cam Newton, ending a drive. On another, Bennett generated enough separation to deflect a pass. Later, Newton executed a designed run but was instead run over by Wright and Bruce Irwin. Holding the Panthers to a second half shutout, the defense got the offense back on the field, but 31 points was a lot to ask from two-quarters, and so the comeback was thwarted, with the final score being 24-31.
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Any season that ended without a Super Bowl victory was a season that ended on a sour note, and so was the end of the 2015 Seahawks. A slow start put the team in the hole at 2-4, and the loss of Marshawn Lynch put the offense in SOS mode. Bevell changed philosophies midseason, coaching his unit into a pass-first offense. For the defense, the underperformance at the second corner position was a yearlong struggle. Defensive coordinator Kris Richard moved on from cornerback Cary Williams and found stability in a combo unit of Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead. These mid-season adjustments put the Hawks on a winning streak, resulting in a double-digit win total for the fourth consecutive year.
If there was any consolation to be had, it was the emergence of Russell Wilson as the predominant young quarterback in the NFL. Having lived up to his new contract, Wilson played at an elite level, whether it was using his hands or his feet. His leadership was flawless, and his work ethic and passion had focused the Carroll-era into the winningest stretch of Seahawks football. Seasons came, seasons past—but a mid-to-late round quarterback who led a team to the post-season in his first four years, including winning a Super Bowl, was a level of immediate greatness only two others franchises had been fortunate to befall. The 49ers got Joe Montana. The Patriots got Tom Brady. The Seahawks got Russell Wilson.
2016, be forewarned.
Thanks for taking the time to read these articles, whether it was only one or all eighteen, whether you loved them or hated them. 18to40 will be here for all of the 2016 season. Go Hawks!
The rest of the posts in the Re-Watch series.
Week 1, The Rams…Again | Week 2, The Pack Attack | Week 3, The Good News Bears? | Week 4, Kam’s Big Comeback | Week 5, The Cincinnati Heartbreaker | Week 6, Lockette’s Great Grab | Week 7, Karper-can’t | Week 8, Sherman Shines | Week 10, The Tales of Two Halves | Week 11, My Name is Thomas Rawls. | Week 12, The Youth Movement | Week 13, A Complete Win | Week 14, Baldwin Blows Up | Week 15, Wilson Makes History | Week 16, One Of Those Days | Week 17, Lockett Goes Light Speed | Wild Card Playoff, Little to the Left