No Richard Sherman. No Kam Chancellor. Then, no rookie starter Shaquill Griffin.
The Seahawks’ first game since 2010 without Sherman, their three-time Pro Bowl cornerback, and with the famed “Legion of Boom” down to just Earl Thomas and the fifth through eighth options in the secondary went as Seattle feared. The Seahawks were missing six starters in all on defense. The defending NFC-champion Atlanta Falcons feasted on the remains Monday night.
A blown coverage on a touchdown catch by wide-open tight end Levine Toilolo. A dropped deflected pass in the end zone by Jeremy Lane, Sherman’s injury replacement, that would have been an interception. Mohamed Sanu beating nickel back Justin Coleman, who didn’t join the team until September, for another score. The most points Seattle allowed in a first half of a regular season in six years. Seattle allowing Atlanta to convert nine of its first 12 third downs.
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Even Russell Wilson’s one-man magic couldn’t overcome all that.
Matt Ryan completed 19 of 27 passes, many time and again to Julio Jones against Lane to extend drives. Wilson’s 86 yards passing and 258 passing--96 percent of the offense’s total--got Blair Walsh into position to try a 52-yard field goal for the tie with 2 seconds remaining.
It, like most of this Seahawks’ night, was just short to end Seattle’s 34-31 loss at hushed CenturyLink Field.
“That side of the stadium is definitely tricky, and I wanted to make sure it was straight so it went through,” Walsh said of the downtown, open-end of Seattle’s field. “But I needed to drive it. I know it sounds simple, but it is the only thing I can think of.
“I thought it was good. It is tough when you are not there for your team in a moment like that. … I was happy with everything else I did in the game, so it is tough the last play it is what it came down to. But hey, that is part of football.”
So is this: The Seahawks doing too many wrongs—like two turnovers, three wasted drives into the red zone, nine more penalties for 106 yards on the NFL’s most-flagged team—to be completely right.
“I want to see the coaches, and the players get better on the details. Button down the details,” Seahawks’ leading receiver Doug Baldwin said after his late touchdown was not enough.
Which details, exactly?
“All of them,” Baldwin said.
Wilson’s summation of the mistakes and Seattle’s night: “It was unfortunate.”
Wilson’s touchdown pass to Baldwin of 29 yards then two-point conversion pass to Jimmy Graham with 3 minutes left got Seattle within 34-31. Then, three plays later, Sheldon Richardson sacked Ryan on third down. Seattle took over at its own 25, following a holding penalty on the punt return by reserve linebacker Josh Forrest.
The Seahawks had 1:44 and no time outs left.
Wilson’s scramble across the middle got Seattle into Atlanta territory with 45 seconds to go. On third and 3 with 21 seconds left, Wilson completed a pass to Paul Richardson to the Atlanta 34. Wilson spiked the ball with 7 seconds to go. After an Atlanta timeout, Walsh came on. He made his first three field-goal attempts Monday.
The final, fateful one was down the middle. But it dropped about a yard short of the crossbar no good.
Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn, the former Seahawks defensive coordinator, jumped and hugged assistants over beating his former team for the second time in 10 months. The Falcons ended Seattle’s 2016 season with a win in the divisional playoffs in January.
For a long time this one looked like it could end Seattle’s 2017 season, the way the secondary got exposed with Sherman out for the season with a ruptured Achilles and Chancellor out indefinitely with a nerve issue in his neck. Then Griffin, the rookie starting right cornerback, went off the for the night in the first quarter with symptoms of a possible concussion.
But fact is the Seahawks (6-4) remain just one game behind Los Angeles for the NFC West lead, with a win in hand over the Rams and L.A. coming to Seattle for another game next month.
So all’s not lost.
“We’ve still got a lot ahead of us,” Wilson said. “We can’t get discouraged now.”
Yet this is not the same team that started this season. Or this five-year run of Seahawks’ excellence.
The Seahawks trailed 21-10 midway through the second quarter and 24-17 at the half directly because of 14 points they gave away. In this and any game the rest of this season, with their defense missing some of their foundational stars, that will usually result in a loss.
The first, big gift came on Atlanta’s second drive that ended with the Falcons’ second touchdown in the first 8 minutes. Seahawks linebacker Terence Garvin tipped Ryan’s pass intended for former Washington Huskies receiver Marvin Hall in traffic. The ball bounded tantalizing into the air and end zone to Lane. But he dropped the ball while falling backward. Instead of Seattle ball and the score staying 7-0, the pass was incomplete.
Two plays later, Ryan threw a fade pass to the back, right corner of the end zone. Mohamed Sanu made the catch with his right arm, while Seahawks’ defensive back Justin Coleman grabbed Sanu’s other arm. Atlanta led 14-0.
Wilson’s jump-ball pass outside to 6-foot-6 tight end Jimmy Graham on Falcons’ 6-3 linebacker De’Vondre Campbell for a 4-yard touchdown made it 14-7. It was Graham’s seventh touchdown catch in six games, all in the red zone.
Eureka! Three seasons in, the Seahawks finally have found how to effectively use Graham inside the 20.
But the Falcons kept exploiting the Seahawks’ mistakes--and their depleted secondary.
Atlanta defensive end Takkarist McKinley sped past Seahawks right tackle Germain Ifedi and sacked Wilson deep in Seattle’s end of the field. As he did, McKinley forced a fumble at the 10-yard line. Adrian Clayborn picked up the ball and jogged into the end zone for the touchdown that put the Falcons ahead 21-7.
Seattle responded with a drive to a first down at the Atlanta 7. But then came the Seahawks’ second gift of the half. They squandered that golden chance for a touchdown. New starting running back Mike Davis, days off the practice squad, ran for 1 yard. Wilson had to scramble then threw to Tyler Lockett for 4. On third and goal from the 2, Wilson completed a pass to Graham at the goal line. But Atlanta safety Keanu Neal, a protege of Chancellor’s who has consulted with the Seahawks’ star, delivered a Chancellor-like hit on Graham to knock him back 2 yards and Lockett got called for offensive pass interference for a pick-block before the catch, anyway. Instead of a 21-14 game, Seattle settled for Walsh’s 30-yard field goal that made it 21-10.
Seahawks special-teams coach Brian Schneider then had Walsh loft a short, “pooch” kick in front of Atlanta’s kickoff returners. Walsh exquisitely placed loft shot bounced past Falcon Andre Roberts for a muffed kick. Seahawks rookie safety Tedric Thompson covered the free ball at the Atlanta 11.
It took Seattle four tries; J.D. McKissic and Eddie Lacy each got stuffed on runs, to keep the number of touchdown rushes by Seattle’s running backs this season at zero. But on fourth down Wilson rolled out right and jogged into the end zone to close the Seahawks to within 21-17.
The Seahawks’ third gift of the half came on their final offensive play. On fourth and 1 with 10 seconds left and the field-goal unit on the field, Carroll approved employment of special-teams coach Brian Schneider’s plan for a fake. Holder Jon Ryan flipped a shovel pass to tight end Luke Willson cutting left to right behind the linemen.
Problem for Seattle was the Falcons kept their starting defense on the field against the Seahawks’ field-goal unit. Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett bulled through the line to ruin that play. Instead of three points there, Seattle stayed behind 24-17 at halftime.
Carroll explained he wanted to stay aggressive.
“It was a chance to make a touchdown, or get out of bounds,” he said. “If that pops, he may walk in. We were prepared. We worked on it. We saw something we liked. We didn’t expect the nose tackle to make the play.”
The Seahawks got to the Atlanta 14 on the opening drive of the second half. But then Jarrett broke in again and sacked Wilson for a loss of eight. Then Davis got injured on a screen pass that gained 3 yards on third and 12. So Seattle settled for another field goal by Walsh and 24-20 deficit instead of getting the tying touchdown.
Monday was the fourth time Seattle allowed 14 or more points in the first quarter at home during the Carroll era. Two of those four times have comes in the last four weeks.
Yet Atlanta and Ryan didn’t exactly shred the depleted secondary. The reigning NFL MVP who threw for just a tick short of 5,000 last season to lead the Falcons into the Super Bowl threw for 195 yards, ending a streak of 64 games with at least 200 yards passing.
“I mean, how many passing yards he have? 200?” Thomas said. “And couple times the referees bailed them out because we play physical on the outside.”
Then again, these games are going to be different. Those guys playing physical are not Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor anymore.
These are not the same Seahawks.