The Seattle Seahawks followed a terrible first half with an inspired second one before letting another close one slip away. After losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-20 in overtime, Seattle finds themselves at 2-4 and in last place in the NFC West.
***As many of you know, Cigar Thoughts is now a podcast in addition to an article.
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These are the games Seattle used to win. At least, that’s how it feels. For the last ten years, watching the Seahawks has been like being strapped to a tiger on ice skates, but it’s always felt like somehow we’d get off the rink alive. No matter the circumstances, no matter the opponent, nearly every game seems to devolve into absolute, unchecked chaos. Much of that has to do with Seattle’s stubborn insistence on not playing a complete game of good football, instead choosing to match one banal half with a scintillating one.
So it was again tonight. So may it ever be.
The Seahawks honored Geno Smith by winning the opening coin toss and, choosing to defer, kicked it off to a struggling Steelers offense. Pittsburgh would hand it off to their awesome rookie Najee Harris on each of the first two plays, gaining six, but a false start created a 3rd & 9, and forced a pass. There was a hilarious mash-up I saw on Twitter at some point that showed all of Ben Roethlisberger’s throws on 3rd/4th & long this year, and how hilariously short of the yardage to gain they all are. Such was the case here, as the ever-expanding QB dumped it off to Harris over the middle where Bobby Wagner gobbled him up to end the drive.
That brought Smith out as a starter for the first time in four years and I think you could tell It got to him a little bit. Shane Waldron gifted him an easy throw on the first play, a quick shot to Gerald Everett, but the Steelers defense sniffed it out for a loss. Then, after a handoff to Alex Collins got 7 yards, Smith took a timeout early in the play clock. That was followed up by bail-out toss to DK Metcalf, who was tackled short of the sticks and Seattle kicked it back. No worries, got the first series jitters out of the way.
Pittsburgh came out throwing on the next possession and Seattle was ready, forcing another three-and-out when DJ Reed broke up a deep attempt to Diontae Johnson. On the play Johnson, who is one of the quickest receivers in the league, appeared to get a step on Reed. A perfectly thrown ball probably goes for a big gain but Roethlisberger’s pass pulled the ripcord after about 30 yards and wafted slowly down behind his target, where it was batted away.
Seattle’s second turn with the ball got off to another rough beginning with a false start, but Collins got a bunch back with a nifty cut up the middle and down the right seam. That brought up a manageable 3rd down, and this time Geno came through. Smith took the snap and bounced around in the pocket as it closed around him. Twirling out of trouble, Smith found Travis Homer short of the first down, and the running back did the rest. Travis spun away from the first defender, stiff-armed the second, and outraced the third for 27 yards and the game’s first first down.
The drive fizzled after that and Michael Dickson hit yet another of his god punts, landing this one at the 1 and spinning it straight up in the air. Ugo Amadi won the race to the goal line and tipped it back to the 2, where it was corralled by lumbering oaf Cody Barton. All Barton had to do was literally hold the ball and stand in place. That’s it. Instead, he took a couple of steps, tripped over a teammate, and face-planted in the endzone for a touchback. I swear these boys just can’t help themselves sometimes.
The two teams would continue to trade punts until well into the second quarter, when a rare Dickson shank triggered the first real drive of the game. The Steelers would go 54 yards on 8 plays, with the keynote being a slick sweep to Johnson for half of them. The drive would end with Roethlisberger finding Harris on a simple out route at the goal line for a score. One of the (many) baffling aspects of Seattle’s defensive philosophy is their willingness— nay— their eagerness to drop defensive linemen into coverage. The unfortunate task on this one fell on Benson Mayowa, who had no chance of keeping up with the explosive back. Couldn’t have made it much easier for Big Ben than Seattle did right there.
Now that the seal was broken, it was time for Geno to do something and, on the first play of the ensuing drive, he did— finding a diving Metcalf for 14. Problem is, that’s all they could muster, as a sack quickly snuffed out any momentum and led to another punt. Sigh.
By now, the Steelers had remembered that they were playing the Seahawks, and went to the quick-pass / dump-off approach that has been so easy for so many teams over the last few years. They followed up their first touchdown drive with a monotonous 14-play possession that covered 84 cumbersome yards and culminated with an Eric Ebron TD on a fly sweep. It’s just crazy how poorly this defense has been playing. I’m running out of different ways to say it and it’s only Week 6.
Seattle’s response to Pittsburgh’s second consecutive touchdown was to lose eight yards on three plays and kick it away once again. It was stunning to see just how much Geno Smith struggled in the first half— a bunch of bad throws wrapped in a crippling lack of awareness. And having TJ Watt maraud your O-line on every other play certainly didn’t help. The game went to the half with the Steelers up 14-0 and the Seahawks amassing all of 65 yards on 21 offensive snaps.
Seattle got the ball to start the third quarter and responded with some serious attitude. The next 15 minutes were like being lucid in one of Pete Carroll’s wet dreams. Collins kicked things off with a five-yard run, then slashed his way for 11 on the next snap, and followed that up by exploding for 21 off right guard on the next play. Then Geno hit DK on a bubble screen and Metcalf juked his way up the field for nine. That was all the passing we’d get on this possession and honestly, it was for the best.
Deejay Dallas came in for a quick run then it was back to the Alex Collins Show. Five consecutive handoffs to Collins gained the remaining 23 yards, with Alex finally diving in for a score from the 2 yard-line. On the drive, we not only saw the explosiveness that Collins brings, but perhaps the best sequence of blocking we’ve witnessed all season. Every single guy up front spent the entire possession blocking their asses off and the result was 68 rushing yards and a TD on eight carries for Collins on that drive alone.
After allowing a field goal, the Seahawks got the ball back and remembered that the concept of play-action passing exists. Pittsburgh correctly anticipated a Collins run on 1st down, but Geno played off of that and found Tyler Lockett up the left sideline for 11. After another give to Collins, Smith faked a handoff and hit a wide open Gerald Everett 20 yards downfield. Unsatisfied with that gain, Everett tossed a defender into the laundry pile like used gym shorts he’d just sniffed. From there, he trucked another 20 yards down to the 2. After Collins got stuffed at the goal-line, Smith ran a picture-perfect play-action from shotgun, froze Watt in the flat, and lobbed it out to Will Dissly for another score. All of a sudden, an uninspired blowout loss was just a three-point game.
And when the ‘Hawks got another stop on defense? Hoo boy. Here we go.
Seattle finished the third quarter the same way they started it, with Alex Collins Sparta-kicking the Steelers right in the chest. He wound out the period with a few more chunk runs, finishing with 79 yards and a TD on 13 carries over the entire 15-minute stanza. I think it’s been since the first few games of the Thomas Rawls era that we’ve seen a Seattle running back absolutely take over like that— with tons of credit going to the OL as well.
The vibe carried into the 4th quarter, with Carroll’s wildest fantasies coming true via an unrelenting rushing game. Seattle got all the way inside Pittsburgh’s 10 on this possession, and a third straight touchdown felt inevitable. Then, on 3rd & 2 from the 7, Smith backpedaled into an awful 15-yard sack and the Seahawks had to be content with a game-tying field goal.
That’s when the game got really weird. On Pittsburgh’s next drive, they picked up a couple of quick first downs on their first two plays. It seemed like they had rediscovered some rhythm as Roethlisberger dropped back to pass on the ensuing snap. Looking right, he pump-faked, choosing mid-throw not to let go. As he attempted to tuck the ball, the intended velocity forced by his indecision caused the ball to slip from his doughy, gooey hands and onto the field. Kerry Hyder Jr pounced on it at Pittsburgh’s 35 and just like that, this game was Seattle’s to lose.
Now, I meant that last part as a simple turn of phrase but the Seahawks acted like it was a directive. Gifted the ball in go-ahead position, they went backwards instead. Collins had a beautiful 16-yard run called back on a dubious holding penalty and honestly, that flag would have a huge impact on things. Dallas got the 10 back with a nice carry on the next play but that was followed up with an under-thrown ball towards Lockett in the right flat. On 3rd & 10, Smith flipped it out to Freddie Swain on an ill-advised screen and he got slammed down for a loss of four that took Seattle out of field goal range. Just a really bad play.
The whole time the Seattle offense was making its resurgence, the ‘Hawks defense stood firm. They’d do so again here, bailing the offense out with their third consecutive stop and giving Seattle another chance to take the lead. This was the defense we’d been waiting for. Sadly, the tank was close to empty on offense and the Seahawks would go three-and-out once more, this time with the series ending on a never-had-a-chance screen play against zone coverage.
Pittsburgh found their stride a little bit after that, using four consecutive Harris totes to move the ball across midfield with just over two minutes left. After a brief dalliance in field goal range, the Steelers got pushed back on an offensive pass interference call against Chase Claypool. Facing 2nd & 15, Roethlisberger took the snap, looked left, and whipped a pass up the seam. The ball was well in front of his intended receiver and zipped straight at a charging Jamal Adams. With a perfect spiral hurtling directly at your face, most people would put their hands up and, at the very least, try to catch it. But not Jamal, no sir. He caught the ball with all the grace of rhinoceros, staring at his hands after the ball clanked off his face for an incompletion. Had he caught it, he’d be sprinting the other way at full speed. Maybe he scores, maybe he just advances the ball so the offense could. What he certainly did not do is get Pittsburgh’s offense off the field. Harris would then catch a dinky lil pass on 3rd down and turn it into a 12-yard gain. Not enough for a 1st down, but enough to let Steelers kicker Chris Bosworth bang home a 52-yard field goal. 20-17, Pittsburgh.
That left Geno Smith with 90 seconds, and he’d need every last one of them. On the first play, he calmly went through his progressions in the pocket before checking down to Dissly for seven. With Pittsburgh bringing extra defensive backs onto the field, Seattle went back to the run. Alex Collins was on the sidelines with a hip contusion, so Deejay Dallas charged up the middle for eight yards and a first down in his stead. Smith would dump it off to Dallas on the next play for seven more, then Deejay got another two on 2nd down.
On 3rd & 1, Seattle surprised everyone by passing and Geno delivered. He hit Metcalf on an out route for 11, a good pass that DK bobbled before securing with his toes still barely in bounds. Granted a fresh set of downs, Smith went back over the middle to Dallas for another seven, inching the ball into Jason Myers’ range. On the play, Dallas actually fumbled but the pigskin hopped right back into his grasp. That made two straight plays that the ball had bounced around in the grip of a receiver and Metcalf made sure the Rule of Three applied.
On the very next play, DK caught a stop route up the left sideline, putting the ‘Hawks firmly in Myers’ sights. At this point, Seattle had no timeouts left and DK turned to face the nearest defender with just 11 seconds remaining in regulation. Every single person on the planet would have stepped out of bounds right there, but DK is, for an infinite number of reasons, not like anyone else. Instead of taking the yardage and stopping the clock, Metcalf bull-rushed cornerback James Pierre. Eschewing the tackle, Pierre gambled with a punch and jarred the football free from DK’s grasp.
The ball could easily have rolled harmlessly out of bounds, but where’s the fun in that? Rather, it squibbed back towards the field of play where it was scooped up with a hook slide from Freddie Swain. Disaster averted yet again. Also, DK, what the hell are you doing, man? You can’t win the game on that particular play but you can sure as hell lose it. Anyway, Swain quickly fired the ball back to the official as the last few seconds circled the drain. Seattle’s offense hustled to get into formation and were able to spike the ball with one measly tick left. That brought Myers out and he knocked the clutch 43-yarder inside the left upright to send the game to overtime. Rooting for this team is exhausting.
Overtime. Coin toss. With Geno Smith playing the part of Russell Wilson, Russell Wilson played the part of Geno Smith. Even though I’m pretty sure Russ wasn’t allowed to be on the field, he still trotted out for the coin toss, called tails, and got the ball for his team. What a psycho.
After Seattle received the 5th quarter kick, I turned to my wife and said, “I’d bet our entire savings account this first play is a run”. Sure enough it was, and sure enough Pittsburgh knew it too, wrapping Homer up in the backfield. Fortunately, Smith threw his best pass of the season on the next play, fitting a spiral inches over the outstretched hands of a linebacker and beneath the hard-closing coverage of the safety. Lockett snagged the seed for 21 yards and it looked like Seattle would be off and running.
Instead, they lost four on 1st down, gained 10 on 2nd, and suffered another enormous sack on 3rd. The number of missed opportunities were beginning to pile up and you had to wonder how long they could get away with them. The Seahawks defense continued to grind and would force a three-and-out on the Steelers’ first OT possession. The best play came from rookie Tre Brown, who was awesome tonight. On 3rd & 4, he found himself guarding Claypool as he ran up the field. Behind him, Ray-Ray McLeod was sneaking into the right flat for what looked like an easy first down. But Brown, showing the type of intuition usually reserved for veterans, peeled off of his man and sprinted towards the ball. He got low mid-stride and exploded up through the receiver, wrapping McLeod and dropping him short of the sticks. Fuckin’ hell of a play.
The Steelers kicked it back to Seattle and, with about four minutes left in the game— for real this time— Geno took the field with another chance to win it. Remember last week, when he had one final possession to go down and steal a victory? And remember how anticlimactic it was that he turned it over (whether his fault or not) on the first play? Well, the only thing worse than misery is misery re-lived.
I actually liked that Seattle called a pass on the first down of their final drive. I liked even more that they ran a convincing play-action. On the play, Smith’s first read was to Metcalf, but he was being doubled. With the pass rush getting upstream, Smith climbed the pocket and took off to run. The middle of the field was open for a decent gain but the only problem was the existence of TJ Watt. Watt was nothing short of dominant tonight and the highest-paid defender in history mushroom-stamped his mark on the game with one final play. As Smith looked to escape pressure, Watt swung his arm down like a club across Geno’s hands, knocking the ball out where it was recovered by a teammate.
All that remained was for Pittsburgh to center the ball so that Bosworth’s 37-yard game-winner was even easier. Good snap, good hold, ballgame. 2-4.
~There’s no question that the bulk of this game’s narrative centered around Geno Smith. For the first time since Obama’s first term, a quarterback other than Russell Wilson was starting for the Seahawks and, at 2-3, it sorta felt like the season’s prospects were hanging in the balance. For the game’s first 30 minutes, it seemed too much for Smith.
He looked out of sorts in the first half and frankly, a lot of that is to be expected and can be forgiven. He completed 8 of 14 passes in the opening two quarters, albeit for just 55 yards. He looked unsure and rushed, and his throws were wobbly and lacking in oomph. All in all, pretty discouraging. Then Seattle’s OL started thumping fools and the run game that brutishness allowed took the pressure off of Geno. His response was to complete 15 of his final 18 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown. That’s really good. Like, really really good.
Still, the fumble. Ugh. The only other thing I’ll point out about his performance tonight were the batted balls. For all the flack Russell Wilson has had to endure about his relative lack of height, I don’t think he’s ever had as many balls batted down as Smith had in this one (4). Part of that is TJ Watt’s ridiculous anticipation (he had three of them) but I think it mostly had to do with the low release point Smith’s throwing motion has. No sense trying to change it at this point— just something to watch for.
~Been a while since we’ve seen the Seahawks run the ball like that. After just four rushes in the first half, it’s about all they did in the second. Alex Collins was the main beneficiary of those opportunities and he got everything out of them that he possibly could. Collins ran with fire in his gut, shaking and dodging but never losing his forward momentum. He attacked every gap like his job depended on it and didn’t stop until he got dinged up. Even though he wasn’t on the field for the final three drives, he still finished with 101 yards on 20 carries and looked good doing it.
When Collins wasn’t out there, Deejay Dallas and Travis Homer filled in admirably. Dallas turned nine touches (four carries and five catches) into 50 yards while Homer ran twice for 27 and caught one for another 27. All in all, over 200 total yards for the trio. Not bad at all.
~DK Metcalf was the only receiver to get anything going today, and he almost gave the whole thing away at the end. I’d have to check the passing chart but I don’t think Smith threw the ball deep once tonight. That left the receiving corps fighting for the ball in crowded areas, and no one did more with those opportunities than Metcalf.
Targeted seven times, DK caught six of them, gaining 58 yards along the way. He also bullied a number of defenders while blocking for his running backs, so he made sure his presence was felt throughout. On a night without much production to go around, Metcalf turned 22% of the team’s targets into 26% of the catches and 28% of the yards. He did what he could under the circumstances and I commend him for that— he’s just gotta be smarter than he was on that final catch.
Tyler Lockett also received seven targets but he was only able to come away with two catches for 35 yards. Now, a couple of those passes were batted down at the line and two more were badly under-thrown, so I do think Lockett played better than his box score. That being said, it’s been a while since we’ve seen him really impact a game and he’s gonna have to elevate his performance if the team is to survive this Wilson-less stretch.
Nice to see Gerald Everett back, as he snagged two passes for 40 big yards and his tight-end-mate Will Dissly chipped in with two of his own for eight more yards and the lone receiving score. This offense is just better with both of them healthy.
~The Pittsburgh offense reminds me a lot of the 49ers offense, only with an infinitely less mobile QB. By that I mean a team with lots of weapons but no real threat of dynamic downfield passing. This invites the defense to cheat a little bit, which is something I’ve been begging for all season. They tried that tonight, sort of, and it worked for a bit. Then, in the second quarter, Pittsburgh was able to do what so many opposing offenses have— inch the ball down the field methodically, only stopping when the referee’s arms are in the air. But for as bad as the defense looked at the end of the first half, they were pretty damn good down the stretch. After allowing the back-to-back TD drives, the ‘Hawks D forced the Steelers to go:
Six points on seven drives is excellent work and, had Jamal Adams not literally been born without hands, it may have been a victory.
Against San Francisco, and again tonight, Seattle played the shell defense I prefer, one that keeps an intermediate border on passing routes while freeing up safeties like Jamal Adams and Ryan Neal to go hunt. It also relieves a ton of stress on the linebackers, who are no longer required to try and cover WRs 30+ yards downfield. It’s no coincidence that Seattle’s best defensive performance this season came against the Niners, and I was thrilled to see more of that today. Maybe it’s because the DBs didn’t have to be scared of the deep ball but it was encouraging to see the corners pressed up on their men, knowing they had help behind them. That also freed up the linebackers to just go get the ball instead of getting caught up in wacky coverage schemes.
As a result, Bobby Wagner got back to the business of being Bobby Wagner, and Jordyn Brooks joined him. In their best game all year, the duo each recorded a game-high 14 tackles and were able to play the entire contest with their eyes looking forward. They’re just so much better that way.
Jamal Adams who despite recent struggles, still introduced himself pregame as “best in the nation”*, and spent a lot of this game up by the line of scrimmage. Finally. Sadly, the vast majority of those snaps saw Adams lined up outside the left tackle, rushing straight into the backfield over and over again. Just zero creativity which, while nothing new, continues to drive me bonkers.
*I know I know, but I love how Jamal Adams Jamal Adams is
We saw everything that makes Adams both exhilarating and annoying tonight. On the plus side, he flew to the ball, notching eight tackles including two in the backfield. He also turned the lights out on Najee Harris with a full-speed body blow that crumpled the rookie like a Jenga tower. But, again, he had two excellent shots at interceptions and came away with neither. One of those drives would result in a touchdown and the other in a late go-ahead field goal. I honestly don’t know if Adams can catch a football.
Man, if Tre Brown ends up being good that will be HUGE for this team. Getting his first career start, Brown balled out in a big way. I already mentioned the fantastic tackle he had in overtime but he was really sharp all game long. He was targeted a number of times while covering really talented receivers and he more than held his own as the left-side corner. Perhaps most importantly, it freed DJ Reed up to get back on the right side where he’s most comfortable, and he looked really good tonight as well.
~Darrell Taylor got hurt in the 4th quarter and for a while there, it had me feeling sick to my soul. It looked so innocuous at first, with Taylor rolling over onto his back after ending up in the middle of a gang tackle. It looked like he was just taking his time to get up; but then he grabbed up by his head and some other players started waving towards the sideline. A few minutes later, he was being strapped to a gurney with his facemask removed and every player from both teams gathered around him.
Taylor is so young. He, like everyone else out there, had been working his whole life for this chance but unlike the vast majority of those dudes, his time in the league was just getting started. After missing his entire rookie campaign with an injury, all Taylor has done is be the best defensive lineman on this team. He has been an absolute menace on a defense sorely lacking in that department and his raw pass-rushing skills paint an exciting vision of the future. And then, just like that, he was on the edge of having it all taken away.
All I could think about during those awful 15 minutes was how scared he must be, and for how long he’d remain scared before getting the word. Fortunately, it sounds like he cleared the testing and has use of all his extremities so it appears the worst has been avoided. What it means for his playing future, I have no idea, but I am just thrilled to hear he didn’t suffer something debilitating.
This game is violent and beautiful. Most of us wouldn’t last a single play in these guys’ world yet when they’re reduced to pixels on a TV screen, it’s easy to forget their humanity. They seem to us as gladiators, warrior automatons out there to throw their bodies around like cars in a demolition derby for the sake of our entertainment. But then you see the true, undeniable fright in the faces of these young men as they watch one of their own get loaded up and carted off. It’s good to remember that players are people, and to not need potentially devastating injuries to remind us. Get well, Darrell.
The Seahawks are 2-4. There’s no way around that. There’s also no way around the fact that it’ll still be a month at least before Russell Wilson is back. The two games remaining before the bye are against the Saints next Monday and the Jaguars the following Sunday. A split keeps hope that this team can find itself and make a second half playoff push with Wilson back at the helm. Losing both would likely sink them irreparably. Now, winning both? Well, doing that would just about reset things, wouldn’t it?
If that’s to happen, however, this team is going to have to put together a complete game of football. This good one half, bad the other ain’t gonna do it. Relying on miracles can’t sustain you forever. The Seahawks that came out of the locker room after halftime can beat a lot of teams if they played that way for 60 minutes. The Seahawks that showed up for the first half ain’t beating shit.
The margin for error is gone now— this team needs to figure itself out ASAP and start turning that into wins if they want to get back to the playoffs. Even with 11 games left, the division title is out of reach. Now it’s just about clawing your way into the dance to let chaos reign one last time. Whether or not they’re capable of such a thing remains to be seen, but we’re gonna learn a lot over these next few weeks. Until then, onward and upward my friends.
If you watched the live pre-game stream on Twitter (something we’ll be doing before every game), you already know that today’s cigar was the Ashton VSG Robusto. A bit lighter than most robustos I’ve had, the VSG drew almost effortlessly which is always such a nice experience. Nothing more frustrating than constantly fighting the draw on an otherwise enjoyable stogie. Certainly no worries about that with this one! I shared my attention with the impossibly easy to drink Highland Park 12 Viking Honour so even though the game’s outcome stunk, I was still living gooood.
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