Eight weeks into the season, the Seattle Seahawks were displaying a pattern. The up-and-down nature of the team’s play appeared to be closely linked to home field advantage. At Century Link, the Hawks were undefeated, including victories against the Green Bay Packers, a Super Bowl victor two seasons prior, and the New England Patriots, a Super Bowl loser the season prior. At home, rookie quarterback Russell Wilson had six touchdowns to zero interceptions. On the road, it was two touchdowns to seven interceptions, and not all those interceptions were his fault. Several were the result of bobbled catches or receivers who fell on their routes. The team had 23 penalties at home—14 from the Green Bay game—to 28 penalties on the road. Out of four home wins, three were one possession games. Out of three road losses, three were one possession games. This team needed to play better on the road if they wanted to go far, but at least for the immediate future, there was reason to be optimistic. The Hawks three losses were to division teams, meaning the final games would take place in Seattle.
Before the team could hit the “back 9” of the schedule, the Hawks were visitors to a Detroit Lions team sitting at 2-5. This was the perfect opportunity to prove they were as tough on the road as they were at home.
The Zone Read
The Seahawks were Marshawn Lynch’s team, and his running style and mentality were what other offensive players set themselves to copying, but the Lions were a tall order. Built with one of the largest, punishing defensive lines in the NFL—led by 6’4″, 305lb defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the athletically gifted yet hot heated line of scrimmage reassigner, and paired with Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, and a few other big boned boys—the Lions were able to lock in on Lynch, holding him to only 12 carries. Still, Lynch finished with over a hundred yards, due mostly to a shoddy Lions secondary. Their inability to cover the pass and deal with the run on the second level put Detroit in an early hole.
I did not fast forward the run. He’s just that fast.
The Lions were playing with their safeties down, with the furthest away being Ricardo Silva (39) at only ten yards off the line of scrimmage. Tight end Anthony McCoy (85) went in motion to the high side. The adjustment confused Silva and cornerback Chris Houston (24), who were discussing their adjustment at the snap. Caught by surprise, Houston crashed on the play, with Silva crashing behind him, instead of serving as an insurance policy. In what was a curious decision, Houston took on Breno Giacomini (68) straight-up and was instantly overpowered, while Silva’s eyes were so locked in on Lynch, it was almost as if he didn’t see fullback Michael Robinson (26). Linebacker Stephen Tulloch (55) initially took such a hard angle on Lynch that he put himself on a collision course with offensive lineman Paul McQuistan (67). Lynch had the entire defense behind him by the first down marker, exactly where Silva had been standing pre-snap. In what was a rarity, fans got to see Lynch switch on the afterburners, having been gifted a play where he was not escaping early contact.
The 49ers had exposed the Seahawks as a one-dimensional play-action offense, and the Lions had been taking notes. Two Seahawks touchdowns had come on big plays, but otherwise the offense was stuck. Coming out of the half, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell called four passes to two runs to get things going, but it was another dead, low energy drive. On the next drive, Bevell returned to the play-action offense, beginning with a run by Robert Turbin, followed by short passes to Robinson and Turbin, a Sidney Rice end-around, and a Russell Wilson scramble for 9-yards. On the next play, Wilson slung on down the field. It was intercepted.
And that was it. The coaching staff had had enough.
It was time to test the zone-read.
If Russell Wilson was to keep the ball, he needed receivers on the outside to block for him, thus the Seahawks traded their single and two tight end sets for a four wide receiver look. Wilson’s job was to “read” Lions’ defensive end Willie Young (79) before deciding whether to handoff the ball to Lynch or to keep it himself. If Young moved inside, Wilson would tuck the ball and escape to the edge. If Young hesitated, Wilson would complete the handoff to Lynch, allowing Lynch to hit the middle of the field free of Young. At the snap, offensive tackle Giacomini ignored Young all-together, cutting around guard McQuistan to take out any linebackers attempting to close off the middle of the field. Despite not being hit by Giacomini, Young still took a step into the backfield, acting as a pass rusher. By the time he realized it was a run, he could not restart himself in time. Forcing the defender to make a decision was exactly the point and one had to feel somewhat sympathetic for Young. With Lynch and Wilson in the backfield, Young’s only hope was that Wilson would make the wrong read.
On this attempt, the offense returned to a single tight end. Zach Miller (86) went in motion from the high side of the formation to the low, where he covered up defensive end Young. At the snap, Miller did not so much “block” Young as he simply encouraged Young to follow the offensive line. By selling the handoff to Young, in conjunction with Sidney Rice (18) running ten yards down field, Wilson escaped to a section of unoccupied field. Miller did not stay on Young, allowing Young to go underneath him and opening up a short throw for Wilson. Wilson chose the more aggressive option, Rice. The Lions’ secondary was so transfixed on Wilson they had not noticed Rice running an out to the sideline.
It was only two plays, but the test was a success.
For an inexperienced offense, the zone read was relatively simple to perform. The offensive line did what they were scripted to do, no matter Wilson’s decision. For a subpar receiving core, the system required more blocking than pristine route running. And, of course, it was a system that gave Lynch handoffs with one fewer defensive lineman grabbing at him, and the team had just seen a 77-yard example of what Lynch might be if that happened more often. It felt like the solution to the problem, but Bevell did not fully commit to the system and returned to the base offense.
Want To Know How Respected And Powerful Lynch Is?
Tackling Lynch was such a task that, for Lions defensive back Delmas, it merited an extended dance. Two plays later, Delmas was so confident he decided to do the same thing to Lynch. He spent the rest of the game on the training table.
The Defense Was In A Funk
After starting the year gangbusters, the Seahawks D had had three questionable performances. Against the New England Patriots, Tom Brady threw for 395 yards and two touchdowns. Against the San Francisco 49ers, Frank Gore had 182 all-purpose yards. Against the Lions, quarterback Matthew Stafford went 39/49 for 352 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Gore explosion may have been a one-off, but these massive passing stats were no fluke. The Seahawks base defense, with Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, was menacing and ruthless, one of the best in the league. The Seahawks nickel defense—filled by either veteran Marcus Trufant or Jeron Johnson—was below average. When the Patriots and the Lions gave up on overwhelming the Seahawks interior defense in favor of additional receivers, sustained drives followed and points were put up on the scoreboard.
The defense needed help to stop the bleeding. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley dialed up some blitzes to counter Stafford’s quick release.
The defense began in their traditional nickel, but switched into a single-high look with Kam Chancellor (31) deep instead of Earl Thomas (29). (If you’re wondering why Chancellor rarely blitzes, read this). Thomas crossed over to the bottom of the formation, ready to rush on the coattails of Chris Clemons (91). At the snap, Thomas ran unobstructed to Stafford (9) and interrupted Stafford’s timing, which was all that prevented the completion. Nickleback Trufant (23) was playing off the line of scrimmage with Richard Sherman initially played on it, but things got weird when Sherman dropped back. As a general principle, when two corners were squeezed together by wide receivers, they should avoid sharing the same plain, as it made it easier for offenses to run a “rub” or “pick” on a defender. When Stafford saw Sherman and Trufant on the same plain, he knew receiver Johnson (81) would remove both from the underneath route, freeing receiver Ryan Broyles (84).
That had to feel good.
After finding success with a run-stuffing, hyper-aggressive defense, the NFL had countered with a spread-out, four or five receiver look that forced a third cornerback onto the field and frequently put linebacker KJ Wright into coverage, which was not the strongest aspect of his game. Suddenly, the Seahawks were failing in man coverage, and if they switched out of man and into a zone, no matter how close to the snap they timed it, quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford recognized it and countered. On the offensive side of the ball, the unit appeared dejected and to be having little fun. And they were missing out on key opportunities. In this game, the offense received the ball with forty-seven seconds remaining in the half. The plan was to try a few garbage plays for rookie Robert Turbin, but Turbin turned in two gems. Offensive coordinator Bevell fed Wilson the next play quickly, but even with three time-outs, no one called timeout, allowing 25 seconds to run off the clock. By the time they were at 12 seconds, they only had one time out and an inability to attack the middle of the field, despite it being first down. The drive stalled and left kicker Steven Hauschka to attempt a 61-yard field goal, which he missed.
The Seahawks needed some answers and needed them fast as their winning formula was being picked apart by opportunistic opponents. Now at 4-4 after losing 28-24 to the Lions, the magnitude of the Patriots victory felt like the achievement of the different team. This team was struggling, and was slowly watching a promising season slip away.
It was difficult to know what the second half of the season would hold.