Russ’s Rookie Year,
A Re-Look At The Season The Seahawks Gained A Super Star
Fans scrambled to explain the discouraging, last-second loss against the Arizona Cardinals, and the general consensus about the troubles was poor offensive line play, led by rookie right-guard JR Sweezy, and the questionable play-calling of offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. The Cardinals were frequently gap-stuffing at the line of scrimmage with attacking linebackers, yet Bevell continued to call plays that put running back Marshawn Lynch on a collision course with them. Sloppiness also accounted for the failure. The receiving core dropped two sure touchdowns to win the game, and the team incurred 13 penalties for ninety yards.
The Seahawks’ next opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, had started the season red-hot, laying waste to the reigning Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. In the victory, Tony Romo threw for 307-yards and 3 touchdowns, and running back Demarco Murray gained over 130 ground yards.
It looked to be a major test for the Seahawks, a team seeking legitimacy, and who needed to prove to the league, and themselves, that they were closers.
Special Teams Makes Another Statement
It was one of those picturesque days. The kind where the Pacific Northwest feels like the most beautiful and diverse landscape in America, maybe the world. It looked to be a fantastic day for football, assuming one was not facing the north end zone. During this period of September, the sun typically struck harshly from north-to-south, casting long, pronounced shadows off anything it touched. On the field, the Cowboys discovered that staring into a sunny Seattle day was quite the challenge.
Kicker Steven Hauschka (4) booted the opening kickoff toward the south side of the field, and Cowboys’ running back Felix Jones (28) fielded the kick from the one yard line. Jones positioned himself in behind his blocking, but with Seahawks Byron Maxwell (41) down low, Michael Robinson (26) at the center, and Chris Maragos (42) at the top, his blockers were compressed. Maxwell had backed down Dan Connor (52) and then attracted the attention of Lawrence Vickers (47). Maragos had simply overpowered James Hanna (84), pushing him so far back he hit Jones. This twisted Jones so that his torso was open, which exposed the football. Meanwhile, Robinson, as he ran to Jones, was intercepted by John Phillips (89). Robinson got so low on Phillips that Phillips whiffed on the tackle. Robinson’s helmet sneaked in above Jones’s forearm, popping the ball loose.
The ball darted across the field, jumping irregularly. Earl Thomas (29) got around on it, tracking it, and made an incredible grab to secure the fumble.
On the ensuing drive, the offense used Lynch to power their way to third and goal on the 3 yard line. The potential touchdown pass was batted down. A field goal was the best the team could produce.
The Cowboys first offensive drive was no better. Facing the sun, Tony Romo misfired on a third down pass to Jason Witten. Punter Chris Jones (6) took the field, a long solitary shadow stretching behind him.
The Seahawks were lined up in an overload at the top side, with five rushers. Cowboys Phillip Tanner (34) and Vickers were communicating prior to the snap, pointing to the player they anticipated picking up. At the last second, Doug Baldwin (89) pulled out. This change meant Conner would no longer pick up Baldwin but outside rusher Malcolm Smith (53). Smith took such a wide angle to the punter that Conner had to twist around, almost leaping, to get hands on Smith. This move freed Smith, but not without considerable risk. Smith’s position was so wide that the six feet of Smith, Vickers and outside rusher Jeron Johnson (32) all came to occupy a confined space and could have easily resulted in the three tripping on each other. Instead, Smith’s foot made it through, planting one last time before his extended right arm hit the pigskin. In what constituted the perfect bounce, the blocked football jumped backward after hitting the turf, and on its second rebound, spun straight into the air, right into the waiting arms of Johnson, who ran it in for a touchdown.
The Defense Drops The Hammer
On the Cowboys second drive, their game plan came into focus. They were aware of the Seahawks quickness on defense, and they intended to exploit it. Several times, Tony Romo was able to spin around pass rushers who gave up contain to go for the sack. By doing so, he converted a 3rd and 9 into a 26-yard gain. Later, he escaped in a similar manner and fired downfield, into the sunlight. Witten mishandled the catch. In the running game, the deception was even more pronounced. The Cowboys ran an early end-around to confuse the speedy Seahawks, and then later ran a second end-around, a fake, that froze rookie linebacker Bobby Wagner and opened a throwing lane to wide receiver Dez Bryant. Even though the ball came in perfectly, hitting Bryant on the numbers, Bryant dropped the pass.
The sun was only one of the Cowboys problems.
The Seahawks were in their base defense, specifically the look where Kam Chancellor (31) plays so far up he could easily be mistaken for a linebacker. The Cowboys had three wide receivers on the field with their tight end lined up as a blocker at the bottom side of the formation. Due to this combination, and that Chancellor rarely plays press-coverage, linebacker KJ Wright (50) was on Cowboys wide receiver Austin Miles (19). Essentially, this made Chancellor a linebacker, with little to do but spy on Tony Romo and Felix Jones or cover the underneath zone on the high side. Once Chancellor realized this, he decided he didn’t want to be a linebacker. He wanted to blitz. He was hesitant about it, taking a few steps and stopping. He made a smart move and communicated with Wright, informing him, “Hey, I’m not here any longer.” Chancellor’s pass rushing ability was instantly suspect, as offensive tackle Nate Livings (71) tossed him aside like a rag doll. However, Chancellor’s decision to blitz had an unintended effect that benefited the Seahawks dramatically.
At the snap, Romo looked low, hoping to hit John Phillips (89) on the quick slant. He almost pulled the trigger, too, but stopped himself as defensive-end Chris Clemons (91) did not stay on Jason Witten (82) but handed him off to Leroy Hill (56). This was now a scramble play, with Romo winging it. Romo scanned the field for his favorite bailout target, Witten. He found Witten with a step on Hill. Since Chancellor was not patrolling the zone, Witten appeared to be open. Cornerback Brandon Browner (39) got underneath his coverage assignment and stepped in front of Witten, intercepting Romo’s pass. Browner took off for a thirty-five yard return.
For the rest of the game, the Seahawks secondary, a unit which had only recently been dubbed, “The Legion of Boom,” punished the Cowboys with brutal, legal hits. 6’3″, 230lbs Chancellor beelined it to Miles in the first quarter, standing Miles up and sending him backwards. On the next play, Chancellor targeted Witten, who had come across the middle of the field, nailing him in the center of his back. In the third, Chancellor came flying in like a missile on Bryant, saving a first down. Earl Thomas broke up a for-sure third down conversion by lighting up Bryant, displacing the ball from Bryant’s hands. Before the half, with the Cowboys driving, he did the same to Miles, knocking the ball away.
These hits were child’s play compared to the devastation brought on by Brandon Browner, who lit up Witten so harshly that Witten immediately became weightless, suspended in the air before falling back to the Earth. Two plays later, Browner went straight-up against Bryant, forcing the receiver to step back before he reached inside and pried out the football. Minutes later, Bryant jumped to receive a pass that had gotten away from Romo at release. Browner cut Bryant’s ankles out from under him, sending the receiver tumbling onto his bottom.
Player Profile: Brandon Browner
6’4″, 220lb Brandon Browner was as unlikely an NFL success story as any player in the history of professional sports. From tumbling off draft boards, to season-ending injuries, to playing in the Canadian Football League, Browner endured hardship and setbacks in lieu to signing with the Seattle Seahawks in January of 2011, his second stint in the NFL. For the Seahawks, it was a smart and prudent deal. For next to nothing, the team obtained an oversized defensive back who fulfilled every bit of the enforcer-role they desired.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Browner’s status in the Legion of Boom was not the first time he was considered part of an elite secondary. A multi-sport star in high school, Browner committed to Oregon State University. At OSU, he was part of the best secondary in college football, with all four starters receiving all-league honors for the 2004 season.
After posting a lackluster at the NFL combine, Browner fell off draft boards and was eventually signed by the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent. Prior to the 2005 season, Browner was placed on injured reserve after breaking his arm. With no interest from NFL teams, Browner signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League and was a star player. His best year was the 2008 season, in which his team won the Grey Cup. He had sixty-one tackles, three interceptions, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, eight passes defended, and one sack. After signing with the Seahawks, Browner played five additional seasons, winning two Super Bowls. On January 15th, 2017, Browner tweeted his retirement from football.
Browner set a Seahawks record in 2011 for the longest interception return for a touchdown, 94-yards.
Browner has a son, Matthew, with his former girlfriend, Diana.
After sniffing out the screen pass, the 5’10”, 202lb Earl Thomas survived a block by 6’4″, 320lb Nate Livings and then crawled—crawled—along the field, preventing DeMarco Murray (29) from reaching the edge and running down the sideline. Murray cut in and into the arms of defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (69).
How Did The Offense Do?
It was looking like the Cardinals game.
Special teams had set up easy scoring opportunities. The defense was feisty and producing turnovers. The offense was getting three and outs and committing multiple penalties per drive. Even their best drive had faced the challenge of a personal foul, a false start and a delay of game.
With seven and a half minutes left in the third quarter, the score was 13-7, the offense having only generated six of those points. Against the Cardinals, the Seahawks had a score of 13-10 with seven and a half minutes remaining. The offense was simply unable to convert scoring opportunities, and it seemed like they were fading fast. But then the soul of the offense found a tiny crease.
With three wide outs, no inside receiver, and a fullback in the backfield, this was an interesting look that made it hard to determine if this play was a pass or a run. The defense believed this down was a throwing down, however, as they went for a blitz. Linebackers Victor Butler (57) and Bruce Carter (54) approached the line of scrimmage. At the last second, cornerback Gerald Sensabaugh (43) joined. At the snap, the Cowboys were completely exposed. Not only was the play not a pass, Lynch received the ball and cut away from the rushers.
Initially, things looked tough for Lynch. Linebacker Sean Lee (50) read the play well, and he made good headway to Lynch before running into the fullback Coleman. Lynch was forced to squeeze through right tackle Breno Giacomini (68) and right guard John Moffitt (74). Because of how the Cowboys played this down, Lynch was beyond the defensive line and the linebackers by the time he was sprung. He cut up and inside, where he found Baldwin—who was free since Sensabaugh had blitzed—blocking safety Danny McCray (40). Wide receiver Sidney Rice (18) blocked cornerback Morris Claiborne (24). Once again, Lynch squeezed through a tight space, bursting out into the open field. He put the stiff-arm on McCray, moving forward until he was tackled from behind by Sensabaugh, who had chased Lynch from the Seahawks’ backfield and may have saved a touchdown.
Plays later, the offense lined up with three tight ends to the low side of the field. Inside-to-out was Zach Miller (86), Anthony McCoy (85), and Evan Moore (82). With so many potential assignments, defensive end Anthony Spencer (93) was uncertain whom to attack and his passivity cost him. Both Miller and McCoy got off the line without being touched. This was vital because this play involved a timing route. Wilson looked off the deep safety, came back and put in a beautiful touch pass for the second touchdown of his short career.
In the fourth quarter, Lynch continued to drive the Hawks forward. He put up 11 rushes for 38 yards and a touchdown. The final was 27-7. In the end, the Seahawks were simply too mean for the Cowboys. Whether it was the Legion of Boom, Marshawn Lynch, or even KJ Wright—who had his own eye-popping hit and tackle on Felix Jones—the Seahawks were possibly the most physical team in football, but it was not just their physicality. It was their explosiveness. It was the intellect they brought to the game. These Seahawks clearly believed in two things: smart football and team football. So many of the big plays defining the season were a mix of xs and os and players who were fighting to create as many opportunities for their teammates as they were themselves.
With the Cowboys dispatched, the Green Bay Packers were headed to Seattle, and they were bringing quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP. The Legion of Boom was good, perhaps great, but they weren’t on Rodgers level.