Seattle Seahawks 28, Tennessee Titans 24
Sunday, December 18, 2005
The Coliseum, Nashville, Tennessee
Play Of The Day: Things looked pretty bleak when Tennessee went up 24-14 on Rob Bironas’ 38-yard field goal with a little over six minutes left in the third quarter. To make matters worse, Seattle safety Etric Pruitt was called for holding on the subsequent kickoff, pushing the Seahawks back to their own 17-yard line. This could have been Seattle’s death knell, but Matt Hasselbeck and Bobby Engram had other ideas. On the next play, Engram was split wide right, and Titans OLB Peter Sirmon was pulled out of zone coverage when Mack Strong moved out of the backfield to the right. Engram got a free release by CB Reynaldo Hill on a little inside slant into the hole in the zone, and he was off to the races. The play covered 56 yards, and began the momentum shift the Seahawks so desperately needed.
Handouts To The Standouts: Matt Hasselbeck, for providing pure efficiency once again…Darrell Jackson, for showing why the team missed him…Joe Jurevicius, for reminding everyone how he stepped up when Jackson was out…Bobby Engram, for producing in the clutch, no matter what…Shaun Alexander, for taking the NFL rushing lead back from Tiki Barber in decisive fashion…the offensive line plus Ryan Hannam, for once again opening holes and sealing ends…and the team as a whole, for showing their resiliency, tying the franchise single-season record for wins and ensuring at least a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Things That Made Me Go, “Blech!”: Did you notice the complete lack of defensive standouts? That’s enough to make me go, “Blech!” right there…Defensive Coordinator John Marshall, for backing his minions off far too often and allowing the Titans to manhandle the Seahawks for half the game…the secondary as a unit, for allowing free releases and easy completions at a 2003-2004 rate…the D-line, for getting virtually no pressure on Steve McNair (although McNair appeared to find assistance from more than the occasional uncalled hold)…and Seattle’s (un)special teams, for the same old, same old, same old…
Offense: It sure looked like another laugher to start, didn’t it? Just as with the smackdowns of the Eagles and 49ers. Seattle began this contest with a ruthlessly efficient opening drive, traveling 70 yards in 8 plays and 3:25. When the Titans were blanked on their subsequent opening drive, Hasselbeck led his troops back down the field again, this time covering 79 yards in only six plays and three minutes. There seemed little doubt that the 4-9 Titans would find themselves the next victims of Seattle’s dominant offense – an offense that had scored 83 points in its last two games. Those two opening drives were exquisite examples of the new balance between ground attack and aerial show which drives this team. After one quarter of play, Hasselbeck had accounted for 101 yards on 8 completions in 10 attempts, and Shaun Alexander was responsible for 91 yards on 11 carries. It was, quite simply, a textbook performance.
What happened to the offense in quarters two and three had a great deal to do with the long Tennessee drives given up by Seattle’s defense (hard to get anything together when you’re on the sidelines, and we’ll detail this later), but the imbalance didn’t help, either. From the end of the first quarter to the beginning of the fourth, Alexander gained a total of 7 yards on four carries – 4 yards in the second quarter, and 3 in the third.
The second quarter began badly, as Tennessee DT Alfred Haynesworth jumped pre-snap at the Titans’ 25-yard line and deposited every one of his 340 pounds on Hasselbeck’s person. Funny that such a penalty is only a five-yarder when it could easily lead to the season-ending decimation of an unprotected quarterback…perhaps the NFL will consider a stronger ruling on offsides plus contact when it happens to Brett Favre or Eli Manning. If you can’t hit the quarterback after the play stops, why don’t you get a 15-yard ding when you do it before the play?
Hasselbeck, for his part, completed exactly one pass in the second quarter for ten yards, while the Titans tied the game by the half at 14.
After a five-and-out drive to begin the second half, the Seahawks began to feel the groove again with their second voyage, jetting 83 yards in only three plays. This drive included Hasselbeck’s 56-yard pass to Engram, which is about when the Titans, up 24-14, had to wonder if their luck had run out.
Seattle’s defense stiffened after that score, and Tennessee would not see the end zone again. The Seahawks, having turned the tide back in their favor, began the fourth quarter with their offensive dénouement; a 13-play, 93-yard drive that took almost six minutes and re-introduced Alexander to the game plan.
Alexander ran 5 times for 49 yards in that drive alone, breaking Tennessee’s spirit and reaffirming his place as the NFL’s premier running back. After his amazing 220-yard performance on Saturday, New York’s Tiki Barber was 81 yards up on Shaun for the NFL’s rushing title. Shaun tilted the scales back by the end of the first quarter. His 172 yards on this day leaves him with 1,668 yards, 91 yards up on Barber and 203 up on Edgerrin James.
For the record (so to speak), Alexander would have to average 166 yards in each of the final two regular season games to reach 2,000. Not a great chance of that if Seattle rests their starters for any length down the stretch, but Alexander is also only 3 TDs away from tying Priest Holmes’ single-season record for touchdowns (27). When the offense is clicking, Shaun could nail that number in one quarter.
In truth, there were several great offensive performances today. Darrell Jackson rejoined the team after missing ten weeks with a knee injury, and showed no slow-down at all with 6 catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. Jackson also went long more than once, stretching the defense in a way that Seattle has missed, despite D.J. Hackett’s nice fill-in work. Joe Jurevicius saw time in and out of the slot in three-receiver sets. With 3 catches for 31 yards and his own TD, Jurevicius showed once again why he may have been the NFL’s best free-agent pickup in 2005. Bobby Engram did what he always does – he laid waste to the defense on third down, made some brilliant play-extending moves James Brown would be proud of, and led all receivers on the Seattle side with 95 yards. TE Jerramy Stevens caught a TD, and TE Ryan Hannam continued his stellar blocking – an aspect of his game which makes a dominant line that much stronger.
Still, it’s what we all know, isn’t it? The Seahawks will go exactly as far as Hasselbeck and Alexander take them.
Defense: Seattle’s offensive authority was matched by a defensive dominion in the first quarter – after that first fifteen minutes, the Seahawks had outgained the Titans 195 yards to 24, and Steve McNair couldn’t get a thing done. With their cornerbacks playing tight and some decent (if not violent) pressure upfront, the Seahawks were able to dictate what the Titans did on offense.
And then, everything fell apart.
Whether caused by overconfidence (which seems odd from this team) or simple playcalling malaise (also unusual, but very evident), defensive coordinator John Marshall’s edict to switch to a straight vanilla “rush-four-drop-seven” base zone through the game’s second and third quarters was a tactical blunder which could have easily caused the Seahawks this game.
The theory seems to be that if your secondary is down to backups due to injuries (Jordan Babineaux and Jimmy Williams in for Andre Dyson and Kelly Herndon), you would want to keep your linebackers in coverage as opposed to bringing them up to blitz in strategically advantageous positions. Counter to that mode of thinking is the assertion that if a quarterback has all damned day to find seams in a zone, he will indeed do so. Especially if his name is Steve McNair, and he’s got the kind of veteran savvy that can kill a young defense.
Though the second and third quarters of the game, this is exactly what happened. McNair had 15 yards passing at the end of the first quarter, 121 at the half, and 310 at the end. Seattle’s game plan also had the corners frequently playing up to ten yards off their men, which gave McNair easy underneath routes and forced the secondary out of run support. As a result, a defense which led the NFL in sacks with 45 did not record a single sack today. Seattle barely laid a hand on McNair.
In the fourth quarter, just when it seemed that the prevent-led defensive collapses of Seattle’s past were back with a vengeance, the Seahawks took the game back. It wasn’t any sort of personnel modification that allowed this to happen – it was as simple as a flick of the switch. Going back to the tighter coverage that has marked its recent successes, and employing more stunts and pressure at the line, the Seahawks did not allow the Titans to score in the final 21 minutes of the game, and stopped two drives on unsuccessful fourth-quarter, fourth-down conversions called by Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher.
In the end, (and unlike in years past), Seattle’s defense was able to recover before the water ran down the drain. This was cause for backhanded encouragement, but Seattle fans, trained by past failures to dread the soft zone, could use a few less cardiac episodes.
Special Teams: Oy vay, once again. With their inability to spot punts and establish field position advantages, avoid return penalties, create lanes for big-play returns and sniff out the razzle-dazzle of opposing teams, the Seahawks have shown no proof whatsoever that their special teams will be anything but a liability in the postseason. Should Coach Bob Casullo have an answer for any of this, he’d best get with it in a big hurry. Given the new Age of Accountability in Kirkland, he might otherwise find himself cashiered in the off-season.
Summary: After two consecutive dominant performances, “winning ugly” again might be anathema to the Seahawks faithful – but it’s worth remembering that imperfect victories are far more common at this level. Although they didn’t yet obtain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which would have been the result of a Sunday night Atlanta victory over Chicago, the Seahawks control their own NFC destiny. One more win will mark their greatest regular season, and there’s a lot to suggest that a deep postseason run is finally a real possibility.
In that context, an “ugly win” is perfectly acceptable, as long as the lessons that must follow are taken to heart.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.