SEATTLE Wearing a gold game jersey of his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, Richard Sherman wheeled himself and his repaired Achilles tendon out of the locker room on his knee scooter. He told me he will be off the scooter by mid-December.
Kam Chancellor watched Monday night’s game with Sherman from the sidelines. After it, he was nowhere visible in the locker room. He is figuring out what to do about his neck injury.
Shaquill Griffin was absent, too. The rookie starting right cornerback lasted just two plays then got what may be a concussion tackling Atlanta running back Tevin Coleman on a sweep run. Griffin was one of six starters on defense missing because of injuries.
But Earl Thomas was there. He is the last standing member of the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” secondary that’s gone bust.
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The three-time All-Pro safety felt right away in Seattle’s 34-31 loss to the Falcons how different it was for Seattle’s depleted defense. And obviously not for the better.
"Early on, we were trying to get things together,” Thomas said. “But we settled down.
"It definitely made us stronger tonight. Matt Ryan is an MVP quarterback, but we still had a chance to win the game. He made some good throws on us, but that’s going to happen. We really didn’t have a chance to really see ourselves in live action as far as everybody; the whole new group.
“All we can do is just get better.”
That is as accurate as anything said following Seattle’s second consecutive home loss. It left the NFL’s best team in November and December since 2012 at 1-2 this month.
So how did the Seahawks play the Falcons without having Sherman for the first time since 2010? Without having Chancellor, and then Griffin?
Seattle blitzed less than when they had Sherman and Chancellor in there this season. It became obvious that was to protect the depleted secondary. Linebacker Bobby Wagner played short zone instead of blitzing, and the Seahawks mostly relied on their four defensive linemen to get a pass rush on Atlanta reigning NFL MVP quarterback Matt Ryan. That mostly failed. Seattle’s only sack of Ryan came on Atlanta’s last offensive play, Sheldon Richardson’s third-down sack that got the Seahawks’ offense a final chance with 1:44 left. The Seahawks hit Ryan four times on his 28 drop backs to throw.
The one sack tied Seattle’s season low (also in the week-three loss at Tennessee and the win at the New York Giants late last month).
Instead of pressuring, the Seahawks mostly dropped into maximum coverages. As they often do, they mixed in man coverage with zone, with Thomas lurking behind as a roving center fielder. Linebackers Wagner and outside guys K.J. Wright and Terence Garvin mostly had the underneath zones in Seattle’s seven-man coverages. As expected, and unlike when they had Sherman in the two games with Atlanta in the previous 13 months, the Seahawks didn’t have anyone shadowing Jones on Monday.
The Seahawks spent the majority of time in base defense, Garvin in along with four defensive backs. They went to a nickel defense 39 percent of the time with fifth defensive back Justin Coleman in the slot. Incidentally, that’s the same percentage of snaps the Seahawks went nickel as in last year’s regular-season game against Atlanta in Seattle. They had Jeremy Lane at nickel back that day against the Falcons.
Seattle went to dime, six defensive backs, four times on Monday, with usual special-teams player Neiko Thorpe as the sixth DB. He got a defensive-holding penalty to negate an intentional-grounding flag on Ryan on one third down.
Lane, whom Seattle benched and then traded away to Houston last month only to have him returned by the Texans because of a failed physical, started for Sherman at left cornerback. Bradley McDougald, signed in the spring as a free agent from Tampa Bay, started for Chancellor at strong safety. And 29-year-old Byron Maxwell replaced Griffin at right corner. The Seahawks’ starting right cornerback in 2013-14 whom the team brought back as a street free agent last week after Sherman went on injured reserve played 59 of 62 snaps Monday.
The Seahawks had their sixth, seventh and eighth defensive backs--Lane, McDougald and Maxwell--combining to play all but three snaps on Monday. That was not in the team’s plans for this season.
Let’s look at how this changed secondary defended Atlanta All-Pro receiver Julio Jones, in particular.
Jones played 50 snaps for Atlanta’s offense. Lane lined up opposite him 28 times on the offense’s right side. Jones caught three passes on six targets versus Lane for 52 yards. One of those receptions went for 16 yards to the Seattle 19-yard line to set up Atlanta’s second touchdown of the opening quarter. Another was for 29 yards to the Seattle 29 on a third and 6 in the fourth quarter. That set up the Falcons’ clinching field goal for their 34-23 lead with 3:49 remaining.
Maxwell lined up against Jones 18 times on the offense’s left side. Jones caught one pass on Maxwell in two targets, for 13 yards in the third quarter. That set up Matt Ryan’s touchdown pass to tight end Levine Toilolo, who got behind Garvin in a blown coverage. Garvin was playing because Michael Wilhoite was one of the six defensive starters out injured.
Nickel back Justin Coleman, who took Lane’s job in the slot last month, lined up on Jones inside three times. Griffin covered Jones once in the two plays before he got hurt.
Though Jones got his--five catches on 10 targets for 71 yards--it’s what happened when Lane, Maxwell and Coleman tried covering Mohnamed Sanu that truly hurt Seattle.
Ryan threw for just 195 yards, ending his NFL-record streak of 64 games in a row with at least 200 yards passing. But two big pass-interference penalties on the Seahawks’ secondary, totaling 41 yards, was a large reason why Ryan didn’t have more yards.
“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."
Ryan went after Lane on the game’s opening series, on his first pass into the end zone. That was to Sanu, who got behind Lane. Lane grabbed the receiver’s arm as the ball arrived in the end zone for a 25-yard pass-interference penalty, a flag eight days a week in this league. That put the ball on the 1-yard line, and Atlanta scored the game’s first touchdown on the next play.
On Atlanta’s next drive Lane had a deflected pass inside go off his chest in traffic while he was falling on his back in the end zone. Instead of a Seahawks interception that would have kept the score 7-0, the Falcons scored two plays later, on a 2-yard pass outside to Sanu. Sanu, from the right slot, made a brilliant catch with one hand after he got past Coleman on an out-and-up move. Jones ran a rub route on the play to pick off Lane on the right edge.
That touchdown came on third down. Atlanta converted nine of its first 12 third downs into first downs. That ultimately is what ensured the Seahawks’ defeat.
“Julio made plays, but that’s going to happen,” Maxwell said. “We really just have to get off the field.
Such as Maxwell’s. In the second quarter Maxwell’s interference penalty for pushing Sanu off a go route down the left sideline, basically a body block while the ball was in the air to keep Sanu from getting past him, moved Atlanta 16 yards out of its own end. That drive ended with a Falcons field goal.
So Lane’s and Maxwell’s penalties trying to stay with Sanu--two of nine more flags for 109 yards against the league’s most penalized team--set up 10 of Atlanta’s points in a game Seattle lost by three.
“I thought we had two...P.I.s that really made a difference in the game, and the field position,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “I don’t know how the calls went and everything; I don’t care about that. Those were big plays. It was like catching bombs on us.
“It was unfortunate. We needed to get through those plays without foul, and just let our good coverage play, because we made those plays. The guys were in great position on them. So, it was unfortunate.”
This is the way it is likely to be for the final six games of the regular season. Sherman is out for the year. Signs are ominous that Chancellor will be joining him. Griffin being in concussion protocol on a shorter week doesn’t bode well for him returning to start Sunday at San Francisco (1-9). That would mean Lane and Maxwell starting on the corners again. The 49ers may be debuting former Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garroppolo against them.
When asked following Monday night’s loss about his “Legion of Backups” in the secondary, Carroll said: “We’re not going to be as experienced as we were. Pretty logical thinking, there.
“Those guys can play; they’ve been around. Shaq’s already played a half a season with us. Jeremy has played for years, and Maxy’s played for years. Bradley McDougald has started years. I’m not worried about them, at all.
“I thought those guys did a nice job, other than getting off the field on third down. That was really the Achilles heel tonight."
Achilles heel. Seattle has had more than enough of that already.