Sunday featured the usual smorgasbord of NFL action, with plenty of white-knuckle finishes, despite a slate of match-ups that looked Thursday-ish at the offset.
We had Colin Kaepernick lead a frantic fourth quarter comeback against seemingly the entire city of Miami, only to be tackled two yards short. There were the Raiders, who overcame a dented pinkie to Derek Carr and an eight-point fourth quarter deficit to eke past the downtrodden Carolina Panthers.
Tom Brady had another obnoxious fourth quarterback comeback to stymie the New York Jets, like he seems to every year. Finally, the night game featured Alex Smith reminding us over the first, oh, 58 minutes of what his pro career looked like before Jim Harbaugh entered his life, only for him to magically turn into Joe Montana –another 49er who was traded to the Chiefs– for the two-minute drill and the ensuing overtime to bury the Broncos.
So you can be forgiven if Seattle’s sleepy 14-5 loss at Raymond James Stadium to the upwardly mobile Tampa Bay Buccaneers escaped your notice. Jameis Winston and Mike Evans connected for two first-quarter scores for the Buccaneers, taking advantage of a Seattle defense that was missing the leader of their secondary in Earl Thomas and their top pass-rusher in Michael Bennett, and their lead was never seriously threatened. Russell Wilson had an awful outing, completing 17 of 33 passes for just 151 yards with two interceptions, and he was sacked six times despite looking more mobile than he has all season.
The question before us is whether this was just a one-game blip, a classic letdown performance after a couple of statement wins over the Patriots and Eagles, or whether Seattle’s feeble front line is enough of an Achilles heel for them to be more pretenders than contenders come January.
We’ll get to the Seahawks’ woes in a second, but are we positive that Buccaneers’ staffers haven’t been spiking the Gatorade jugs with roofies this past month? The Raiders set a record for penalties committed and needed overtime to beat them. Jay Cutler plays heroically in a Monday night game against what had been a ferocious Vikings defense and the next week he and the Bears got flattened 36-10 at Tampa.
The Chiefs were 7-2, riding a five-game winning streak and a 10-game home winning streak and they lose 19-17 at Arrowhead, with Smith doing the unthinkable for him, throwing a red zone interception. And now this dismal snoozer by Seattle. You laugh now, but just wait until the first case the Donald Trump-appointed ninth Supreme Court Justice has to hear is whether it’s constitutional to vacate the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl title in the “Ambien-Gate” scandal.
Okay, let’s say for the sake of argument that the Buccaneers had Seattle’s full attention and there were no shenanigans involved. I’d still argue that Thomas and Bennett weren’t even the Seahawks’ most significant absences on the afternoon. While it’s true that those guys are stars and practically household names for fans, fairly anonymous center Justin Britt and rookie running back C.J. Prosise, out with ankle and shoulder injuries respectively, were missed more.
Britt’s been Seattle’s best lineman this season by a mile according to the game trackers at Pro Football Focus, the 11th-best center in football per their metrics. Left tackles get most of the money and all of the credit, but nothing ruins a line more than losing a good center.
They’re the ones who change blocking assignments when things look ominous and obviously, they’re responsible for a clean snap to the quarterback. Joey Hunt, who looks more like he should be on the cover of a romance novel than making a living looking at the world upside down, held up mostly well in the first start of his career, but fellow rookies German Ifedi –their first-round pick– and George Fant couldn’t say the same, allowing five sacks and nine quarterback hurries between them.
Perhaps Britt would’ve gotten the group out of some bad plays. The Buccaneers came into the game 30th in the league in generating pass pressure, succeeding on just 22 percent of drop-backs according to ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Sheil Kapadia, but they pressured Wilson on 23 of 45 dropbacks on Sunday, and nine of those came when he wasn’t even blitzed.
Wilson was uncharacteristically bothered enough by that pressure to not only take a half dozen sacks, but he couldn’t make any plays on the move, completing just 3 of 13 passes with a pick while under duress. He really missed Prosise, who had provided the club with a dual threat as a runner and receiver who could line up anywhere and cause mismatches. Thomas Rawls is still trying to find his form coming back from a variety of ailments, and without Prosise, the Seahawks were easier to box in even as Wilson scooted for a season-high 80 yards on eight scrambles.
It’s no secret Seattle’s line has struggled. After Britt, their next highest-rated lineman is left guard Mark Glowinski, who’s the 56th-best guard per PFF. His bookend Ifedi ranks 76th among guards while tackles Fant, Bradley Sowell and Garry Gilliam –benched after one series at right tackle against the Buccaneers– all rank in the 70’s as well, essentially mid-tier backups starting for a contender.
However, even including the six he suffered at Tampa, Wilson’s only tasted turf 26 times in 11 games. He’s been sacked between 42-45 times each of the past three seasons, so he’s on a similar pace. The difference is he’s normally been elusive enough to make people pay when they don’t get home on him and this year, he hasn’t made as many of those splash plays. He also hasn’t had the consistent running threat that Marshawn Lynch provided.
My gut tells me the loss was a blip. The Seahawks aren’t being pushed in the NFC West at all. They knew Arizona had already lost at Atlanta to drop to 4-6-1. They were missing some key people. It was just Tampa Bay. It happens, the same way these guys always seem to lose to the Rams. They’ve bigger fish to fry.
The good news for them is having a pass rush or any kind of defense isn’t part and parcel to being a contender this season. Among the top ten teams in sacks, only Seattle and Washington look likely to make the postseason. The Seahawks could have a conceivable playoff road of Atlanta, Dallas and then New England again in the Super Bowl, without ever facing a legitimate pass rush. And they well may have Prosise back for those games.
If having good pass rushers doesn’t correlate to winning this season why should having a decent line matter? The biggest storyline of the whole season has been the quarterback of a team that lost ten straight games taking a knee during the national anthem. Nothing makes sense anymore, but Pete Carroll’s Seahawks usually thrive in chaos.