It’s third down. There’s just 2:59 to go in the 4th quarter, and the Rams lead by two, and need three yards for a first down, still in their own half of the field. The offense lines up, Austin Davis is under center for the snap, which goes back to him. Instantly he zeroes in on Tavon Austin, throws the quick slant pass, which is deflected to the ground with ease by a tightly-covering Richard Sherman. Fourth down then, and on come the punt team, and Johnny Hekker. Hekker lines up, composes himself for the long snap, grabs it and pu- oh no! No he doesn’t! Fake punt, and Benny Cunningham runs out into the flat, catches a pass from Hekker and it’s a first down! The Rams only need to convert one more set of downs, which they do thanks to Tre Mason runs and a fortunately recovered fumble. The mediocre Rams have beaten the Super Bowl champion Seahawks!
As of Week 2, 2016, the Rams (St Louis and Los Angeles varieties) have now won 4 of their last 5 games against the Seahawks. Which means that 4 of the last 9 games Seattle have lost have been against the Rams. That’s so strange! The Rams, a not very good team, seem to have the ‘Hawks number! But why? Well, I delved into a couple of Seahawks-Rams games to find out…
Ah, the fake punt game, as trailed above. Except this game was about so much more than just that fake punt for the Rams. How did they manage to stay in this game, with Austin Davis at quarterback, a Benny Cunningham-Tre Mason combo at running back that’s less a 1-2 punch than two minions fighting, and a wide receiver core still, improbably, led by Kenny Britt?
Well, the Rams are never going to dominate the Seahawks with their offense, but they have dominated teams with their defense. This game was probably Aaron Donald’s breakout as a rookie, he got a sack, repeatedly demolished Seattle’s interior offensive line on run plays, and at one point occupied three Seattle defenders, while Eugene Sims was left basically unblocked to sack Russell Wilson. Seattle haven’t had a good O-Line for a while now, and it showed, but I will spoiler this now by saying their 2014 O-Line was better than 2015 and 2016’s, er, vintages. Anyway, before half-time, as Seattle marched towards the redzone, all of a suddenly St Louis’ D-Line started swarming Wilson, making it impossible to get a pass away. With plenty of good players in coverage too, a potential touchdown suddenly became a field goal. So, the Rams were perfectly positioned to take advantage of a stuttering Seattle offense.
When the Seattle pass offense did get going in the second half, only really Doug Baldwin was a credible threat, mainly down the seam but he got all over the field, and ended up well over 100 yards for the game. That’s not unusual for Seattle though, and it hasn’t stopped their incredible success these past few years. Then again, neither has their weak O-Line.
That said, St Louis still had to pull out all the stops to win this game. Okay, so end arounds (and fake end arounds) to Tavon Austin aren’t that unusual for them, but they’re still unusual in the context of the NFL. And it was a selection of less common plays that did the business for St Louis. First touchdown was basically thanks to a 70-yard kickoff return by Benny Cunningham, that put them in great position to finish off with a Tre Mason rushing TD. Second touchdown was a shovel pass – again, shovel passes aren’t that uncommon, but they’re still an example of something an offense brings out when they’re trying to fool their opponents. During this game, it took until the third quarter for Austin Davis to even throw an incompletion! Then there was their third touchdown.
Allow me to take a step away from the analysis for a second. While NFL games tend to vary in the pattern they create, generally there isn’t a great deal of deviation in how they get there. A passing TD, a one-yard full back dive, some interceptions, fumble recoveries, and even big returns on kickoffs or punts. The majority of things, you’ve seen before. So, when something all but unheralded happens, we have to savour it.
The Rams scored their third touchdown on a big punt return TD. Yet even that doesn’t do justice to the Mountaineer play they used. Seahawks punter Jon Ryan punted the ball to the left, yet instantly all the Rams players tracked it to the right, where Tavon Austin was waiting. Austin looked up, looked to catch the ball and fall backwards as he did. Only the ball wasn’t there. Meanwhile, Stedman Bailey caught the punt, and started charging up the field with a handful of Rams players for company, and miffed, baffled-looking Jon Ryan and his long snapper Clint Gresham trying to do anything. They couldn’t. Bailey ran it in, and one of the most enjoyable plays of the last couple of years happened. If you’ve not seen it, watch this. It’s marvellous.
Of course, I mentioned that fake punt at the start, the fact it can almost be an oversight into what St Louis got up to is testament to how barmy this game was!
Johnny Hekker attempts a pass, ’cause he can (Getty Images)
The Rams won this game because they used all their special teams nous and trickery, because they got lucky with a bad quarterback having a good day, and because their defensive line chose this game to break out.
An overtime victory seems to find in to a general narrative of “The Rams are just lucky”, but we’re still in the position of a bad Rams team having to get to this point against a far superior Seahawks team, so there will be more to it than that.
St Louis actually started this game abysmally. The first play, they lost 9 yards on a Tavon Austin screen pass, which they’re contractually obliged to do at least twice a game. Then, 2 yards on a Benny Cunningham rush, nearly conceding a safety. Then, Jamon Brown false started. So, we’re at the 1 yard line and 3rd down, so it’s just a QB sneak, just to avoid a safety and get a few yards for Johnny Hekker to punt from. Of course, this is all immaterial as the punt leads to Tyler Lockett’s first touch in the NFL, and also his first TD. Whoops.
After that, it follows a similar pattern to the previous game I looked at, albeit without so much special teams hi-jinks. Benny Cunningham actually runs quite well early, even though he’ll finish with less than 3 yards per carry. Tavon Austin uses his speed to get an early rushing TD. The Rams are relying on short passes, knowing Seattle’s D is strong and their O-Line…is not. Of course, the key is that the Rams’ D is also strong, and Seattle’s O-Line is considerably worse! At one point, Russell Wilson got totally smeared from his blind side, and despite knowing he was fine I was convinced there was no way he was getting up at the half. At the same time, Marshawn Lynch, despite all his power, is just given no chance by his O-Line. What yards he gains is all on him, which no running back needs.
St Louis aren’t much better on offense, but they get their tight ends involved early and often. While Jimmy Graham’s going to finish his Seattle debut with 51 yards on 6 catches including a touchdown, Jared Cook is going to make 5 catches for 85 yards, and Lance Kendricks 2 for 42 yards and a touchdown. And this is the key. When your O-lines aren’t giving you much time to throw, you need those dump-offs to running backs to stay upright sure, but you also need to be able to find your comfort blankets, underneath but in the middle of the field, for 8-, 10-yard plays. St Louis, hard as it is to believe, made their opponents fear Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks more than Seattle made them fear Graham. And that just opened things up a little for other receivers.
Back to the game, and midway through the third St Louis fake an end around to Tavon Austin and I completely buy it. I miss the play, have to go back and check what they actually did. And this is another thing St Louis can do – they have players who are utterly adept at faking, at selling one thing and doing another, possibly none moreso than Austin. And Seattle just seem…a bit more credulous than most about it. That or it’s the old chestnut of the Rams only pulling out the trickery against one opponent.
But I’m coming back again to the effect of the O-line on the various teams. And I do need to say, again, that the Rams O-Line did kinda suck. Greg Robinson and Rob Havenstein were (and are) shit. But the line as a whole just did enough. Seattle’s was so bad, Wilson’s longest pass was for 23 yards! His only pass over 20 yards! There’s playing it safe, and then there’s that. St Louis weren’t that adventurous, but Cook had a 30-yard catch, Cunningham a 42-yard catch-and-run, Stedman Bailey took one for 29 yards, Kendrick’s touchdown catch was 37…you get the picture. And that’s because Wilson just didn’t have time to let plays developed before Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn, Alec Ogeltree and whoever else were about to eat his face off, every single play!
The glib answer here is that the Rams beat the Seahawks in these two games, as they did in Week 2, 2016, because they were the better team on the day. Of course, looking at the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Seattle were the better team overall, so it’s individual match-up differences.
As far as players go, in effect the Rams won because on both occasions their O-Line was less worse than the Seattle D-Line, than the Seattle O-Line was to the Rams D-Line. Davis and Foles had a little bit more time to throw than Wilson did, running backs made a little more hay (especially in the 2014 game), plays just had that little more time to develop. Seattle found it harder than normal to get into a rhythm, in both games only hitting their stride in the 4th quarter, which just isn’t good enough.
But it takes more than just that to beat a team that overall had better players. The Rams box of tricks were out in full effect on both occasions. This was in flashier effect 2014, with fake punts, fake punt returns, and an array of weird and wonderful playcalling. But 2015 was unpredictable too – helped by Tavon Austin being just a touch more refined player, giving them more opportunity to mess with Seattle’s heads.
And with all that in mind, there was dumb luck. Aaron Donald chose the Seahawks game to have his real breakout – Nick Foles and Austin Davis played good games, a real rarity for those two. Marshawn Lynch and Jimmy Graham had mediocre days for the Seahawks. Everything just kind of fell into place for them.
And There’s 2016 Context, Too
I didn’t re-watch this year’s game again because I couldn’t face that much Rams football, but the key was, even Russell Wilson couldn’t perform, and that’s going back to the issues with the Seattle O-Line that the Rams are able to feast on. Wilson’s ankle was injured, as he was hit more, and more under pressure than with a serviceable O-Line he would’ve been. He might still have injured his ankle behind reliable blocking, but the odds would be decreased.
There is this sort of trend in the NFL at the moment, for coaching staff to try and make an offensive line out of little more than a sheet of tarp, some pine cones and a two-by-four with a nail in it, much like Bill Bellichick might try and do with a slot receiver. It’s obviously resource management – if you can make one area of your team on the cheap, you’ve got more to spend on the rest. And given how bad the last few drafts have been for O-linemen, it’s not the worst idea! (That said, this year the likes of Ronnie Stanley, Jack Conklin, Cody Whitehair et al are redressing that balance neatly.)
Sometimes, it works – Pittsburgh have managed to turn Alejandro Villaneuva into a perfectly serviceable replacement for Kelvin Beachum. More often than not it’s not going to, and what Tom Cable has done to Seattle’s O-line (and by extension, Russell Wilson’s ankle), is a good example of that. No-one is going to make J’Marcus Webb, Garry Gilliam and Mark Glowinski into solid starters.
Let’s not overreact. Rams have outplayed and beaten Seattle four out of the last five games, yet still look light years short of being a playoff calibre team. Seattle have flamed out against the Rams, yet still won playoff games both seasons, reaching a Super Bowl in 2014. It’s just one of those things. But the Rams have found a weakness that better teams may exploit. It’s just a shame they don’t quite have the coaching nous, or indeed the luck, to be able to do this with every team. And it’s lucky for Seattle that not every team does it to them.