Expectations ran high among Seattle fans heading into Sunday’s Week 1 matchup against Cincinnati.
Russell Wilson was going to eat up a Bengal defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in nearly every category in 2018 behind an improved and experienced offensive line. The Chris Carson-led running game would dominate and a young, retooled defense would have their way with shiny new toy Jadeveon Clowney wreaking havoc on new coach Zac Taylor’s revamped offense.
Reality set in quickly. Wilson rarely got to set his feet, harassed by a relentless Bengal pass rush. Running lanes were nowhere to be found for Carson or Rashaad Penny, and the defense was on their heels as quarterback Andy Dalton picked them apart with 35 completions in 51 attempts, most of them of the quick-strike variety. The Bengals unexpectedly led 17-14 at halftime.
Of course, Seattle righted the ship in the second half and came away with a 21-20 victory, but the reaction among the capacity crowd at CenturyLink Field was one of relief, not exhilaration.
It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t dynamic, it wasn’t what fans were expecting or hoping for - but it was a win.
It was also a stark reminder of the challenges trying to predict outcomes on opening day. With so many new coaches, players, and schemes on each roster - and so few key players seeing any significant snaps in preseason games - game-planning is a daunting task.
After taking a second look at the tape, things may not be as concerning as they looked, which is why I’m focusing on the bright side in this week’s edition of Closing Thoughts:
Russell Wilson was better than you thought.
Would you believe it if I told you Wilson was only sacked four times? Despite dodging a heavy rush, Wilson exhibited a patience we haven’t always seen over his eight-year career. There were no crazy scrambles or forced throws as he chose to take the “live to play another play” approach. He was accurate when he did get the chance to go downfield, connecting on long throws to D.K. Metcalf and the eventual game-winner to Tyler Lockett at the outset of the fourth quarter. There was nary a single near-interception. Wilson was as efficient as ever, completing 14 of 20 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns. Think Dalton outplayed him? Wilson ended with a passer rating of 134.6 to 106.5 for the veteran Bengals quarterback.
Things weren’t as bad as they initially looked on the offensive line.
The sacks stood out because they came in bunches, with the final two occurring on consecutive plays in the third quarter. Only one was solely the fault of the offensive lineman, with Germain Ifedi getting flat-out beat on an outside rush by Sam Hubbard midway through the third quarter. In the case of all three of the other sacks, the tight ends were tasked with chipping the rusher or picking up a blitzer. In each case, they failed, with Nick Vannett the culprit on two of them, including a failed blitz pickup on the third quarter sack by cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. Another time, it was Carson who whiffed on an inside blitz in pass pro.
The sacks looked bad, but weren’t a case of the Seahawks front line simply being incapable of blocking Cincinnati's rushers. It can be fixed and I suspect it will be.
D.K. Metcalf looks legit.
To me, Metcalf’s most impressive play wasn’t his 42-yard long ball the get the Seahawks into the red zone on their second touchdown drive, or even his jumping catch in traffic on a second-half Wilson scramble. It was actually on what appeared to be a simple slant pass in the first half. Working against Kirkpatrick, Metcalf gained easy separation with a deft shoulder fake outside and a hard foot-plant, hauling in the low Wilson throw for an easy first down. The knock on Metcalf was supposed to be that he was a one-trick pony capable only of outrunning defensive backs on deep balls. He had two receptions on in-breaking routes like this one while racking up more yards than any Seahawk receiver ever has in his rookie debut.
Unsung defensive players stepped up.
With Clowney playing part-time after only one week of practice under his belt, Jarran Reed suspended for the first six games, and Ziggy Ansah resting his surgically-repaired shoulder for one more week, Seattle was a bit undermanned on the defensive front. Just don’t tell Al Woods or Quinton Jefferson that. Woods was a beast against the run and had a fumble recovery, while Jefferson simply played his best game as a Seahawk. Coach Pete Carroll was gushing about the former fifth-round pick after the game.
“He had a great game,” Carroll said of Jefferson. “He had six tackles, he had two tackles for losses, he had two sacks. He had a couple pass defenses, knocked down or whatever. He had a terrific game today. It was definitely the best game he’s had for us. We needed every bit of it.”
Other standouts include cornerback Shaquille Griffin, who appeared to regress last year after a promising rookie campaign in 2017. Griffin had two pass breakups and was solid in his run responsibilities. Brain Mone, the undrafted rookie out of Michigan, saw important snaps and was part of a run defense that held the Bengals rushing attack to just 34 yards, and Rasheem Green made his best play in a Seahawks uniform. The 2018 third round pick out of USC failed to impress in his rookie season, but his pass rush win to get to Dalton and knock the ball out with 14 second left sealed the Seahawks victory.
Two plays made all the difference.
Take away two long pass plays and the Seahawks defensive effort looks much better. Their two touchdowns happened on a well-timed flea flicker and an innocent-looking deep ball with 9 seconds left in the first half that Tedric Thompson played so badly, he should spend all of practice this week running gassers.
“We really blew it on the long one that they get on third and 18 or something like that,” Carroll said. “That’s one. The other was the flea flicker that they got us one, which was a really nicely executed play by them. Give them credit for it. Those were two big plays. The rest of the game, we found our way to get off the field. A lot of positive stuff there.”
Subtract those 88 yards and Dalton recorded a pedestrian 6.4 yards per attempt on the day. Otherwise, Seattle’s defense played bend-not-break well enough against a new coach and scheme that was difficult to game plan for.
Clowney is a game-changer as advertised.
Playing 48 snaps in his debut, Clowney recorded just two tackles on the afternoon, but one of them was a sack and his contributions went beyond the stat sheet. Clowney was consistently disrupting the pocket. On Jefferson’s first sack, it was Clowney who forced Dalton to move off his spot right into Jefferson’s waiting arms.
He admitted after the game there were plays where his teammates had to tell him where to line up and which gap to attack. It’s not hard to imagine how disruptive he can be once he’s comfortable and Ansah is his bookend.
Reflecting on Clowney's performance, Carroll said, “He did some stuff. He knocked the ball down right off the bat, and had a big play on the sack. It was great to have him out there.”
“I felt like I was still knocking some rust off,” Clowney said. “But I had a good time out there getting going and getting moving.
Facing the Steelers may not be as daunting as expected.
Two points here - the Steelers were terrible in a 33-3 loss to the Patriots last night and there are reports of internal disconnect in that organization. And the Seahawks didn’t give away much for the Pittsburgh coaching staff to see on tape yesterday. Seattle stayed in their base defense for most of the game, electing to play three linebackers despite the Bengals wide-open passing attack. They didn’t blitz much, and without many long drives on offense, they didn’t have to dip very deep into Brian Schottenheimer’s play sheet.
It may have seemed like the type of win that’s more bad news than good given the expectation this was going to be an easy premiere for the 2019 Seahawks. But a year ago, this team started 0-2 while dropping two games they had plenty of chances to win. Winning a game without several key players, with several challenging games coming in the weeks ahead, while being able to keep things close to the vest certainly beats the alternative.
Presumably, Seattle comes out of this game with a bunch of bullets left in the chamber as they begin to prepare for a trip to Pittsburgh.