This article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
Most games in the NFL are decided by a handful of plays. Sometimes one play – or six inches as it was in the Detroit Lions’ 13-10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks – is the difference between winning and losing. The winning team is able to out-execute the other in a few big moments, which swings the contest in one team’s direction and results in the final outcome.
Monday night’s Lions-Seahawks matchup was no different. Both teams made a few big plays and missed on plenty of others, leading to a low-scoring, physical affair.
Here’s analysis and film breakdown of the game’s biggest plays.
Early in the second quarter of a scoreless battle, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson set-up the game’s only offensive touchdown with his trademark ability to escape pressure and extend a play that looked like a disaster from Seattle’s perspective.
As he’s done countless times, Wilson makes the first man miss, keeps his eyes downfield (an underrated skill for a quarterback amid chaos), and fires a strike to a well-covered Jermaine Kearse for 34 yards and a fresh set of downs. Defensive lineman Jason Jones can’t believe he let Wilson get away.
It wasn’t Wilson’s only scrambling connection with Kearse as we’ll see in a bit.
The following play, receiver Doug Baldwin beats Lions rookie cornerback Quandre Diggs inside from the slot on a seam route. Wilson holds safety Glover Quin by looking at tight end Jimmy Graham’s underneath route, allowing Baldwin to slip past the last line of defense. Quin creeps towards Graham and by the time he retreats to the end zone, Diggs is beat and Wilson drops the ball in the basket to his receiver for six points.
The Lions had a chance to strike at the end of the first half with 29 seconds left on second-and-10 from their own 41.
Johnson, lined up wide left against cornerback Cary Williams, inexplicably garners an one-on-one opportunity due to safety Earl Thomas seemingly getting distracted by Tim Wright’s seam route. It’s what Stafford and the Lions had been waiting for all season; a clean pocket and Johnson with a step deep on a corner with no safety help.
Johnson is able to earn late separation on Williams, but Stafford’s throw is too far and outside (though it does appear Johnson slows for a second before adding an extra gear once he locates the pass). You can’t afford to miss on that throw on the road against a standout defense and Stafford knew it.
Johnson clearly isn’t the same player he was two or three years ago. It would have been laughable for the Seahawks to have covered Johnson with a corner of Williams’ caliber in those days. Johnson would have torched Williams, a cast-off from the Philadelphia Eagles, whom Seattle picked up in the off-season. Not anymore.
Johnson has lost some explosiveness and long speed, yet remains a weapon because he’s a huge target at 6-foot-5 with outstanding hands. But to the people who think Johnson is not getting the ball on deep routes solely because of the Lions’ inability to block long enough or that Stafford is flat out ignoring shot plays, here’s a nugget for you: There are no open receivers running free!
It’s a combination of many factors, but Johnson has been a possession receiver thus far, averaging a minuscule 9.4 yards per catch this season. That’s likely to climb into the low teens, but don’t count on a drastic uptick.
Back to the game. With the Lions’ offense unable to move the ball, even after recovering a muffed punt in Seattle territory, the defense forced two huge fourth-quarter turnovers.
The first came on a low snap, which slows Seattle’s play-fake. This allows defensive end Ziggy Ansah to easily read the quarterback keeper and head right towards Wilson for the strip sack and fumble recovery at the Lions 45-yard line.
The Lions did nothing with the ball, thanks to an idiotic unnecessary roughness penalty from left tackle Riley Reiff, negating what would have been a third-and-2 from Seattle’s 39.
So, back comes the Lions defense, with a hat-tip to defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Austin draws up one of his patented zone blitzes, calling for a defensive tackle and defensive end to fake the rush and drop into coverage, while two other defenders blitz. The Lions only rush four here, but they catch the Seahawks’ much-maligned offensive line off-guard.
Safety James Ihedigbo and cornerback Darius Slay both come free. Slay misses his clean shot at Wilson (and we wonder why cornerbacks cover people instead of being counted on to make a tackle), but Ihedigbo cleans up and pops the ball loose. Ivy Leaguer Caraun Reid, lined up at left defensive tackle, locates the ball and calmly waits for a good hop before scooping and scoring for his first NFL touchdown. Finally, the Lions had made Wilson pay for scrambling and not protecting the football.
Credit the Lions for attacking the football on those two sacks to force key turnovers down the stretch.
Trailing, 13-10, the Lions received the ball back with 6:23 to play after the defense stopped Seattle short on third-and-2. Detroit started from its own 9-yard line after a precarious punt return from TJ Jones.
Stafford was money on this drive, going 6-for-6 for 73 yards, and tossed a few dimes on timing routes where his ball placement was perfect in a tight window. The best throw may have been his 26-yard strike to Tim Wright down the seam against Seattle’s Cover 3 to move the offense into the red zone for the first and only time all night. You can see Stafford is in rhythm, his feet are set and he delivers a great ball between two defenders (and Stafford took a shot from defensive end Michael Bennett after the throw).
Now, here’s the play everyone has seen replayed over and over again. Let’s set the scene.
With 1:51 left, the Lions faced third-and-a-yard from the Seattle 11 after runs of six yards and three yards from rookie tailback Zach Zenner.
Johnson, lined up to the left against Williams just outside the numbers, runs a route called popcorn to free himself. He starts immediately on a dig towards the middle of the field (to force Williams into the trail position), then sticks his foot in the ground while facing the quarterback and cuts back towards the sideline. It’s a well-run route, and Stafford puts the ball out in front of Johnson so he can catch and turn upfield in full stride.
Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, playing Theo Riddick’s wheel route at the bottom, is aware enough to turn back to the quarterback and find the football. Chancellor – playing his second game of the season after a 54-day holdout – doesn’t give up on the play and displays great reaction, hustle and instincts to jar the ball loose from Johnson before he crosses the goal line. It’s the perfect example of what defensive coaches preach of running to the ball, and the execution is why the Seahawks have been a top-ranked defense for three-plus seasons.
As John Gruden says on the broadcast, “The effort of Chancellor may have saved Seattle’s season, Mike.”
And ruined Detroit’s, John.
Very few people could have been in position to make that play, let alone be smart enough to make a fist and punch at the football, and that’s why Chancellor is a two-time All-Pro and a mainstay in Seattle’s Legion of Boom.
The Lions had a chance to get the ball back if they could force a three-and-out.
Faced with third-and-two, Wilson, as he has done his entire career, escapes an untouched Josh Bynes (who takes a horrid angle and is unable to lay a hand on Wilson), ad-libs and finds Kearse wide open for a 50-yard catch-and-run. Never mind the breakdown in communication between Rashean Mathis and Ihedigbo, who both run to the flat, leading to a blown assignment with no one within 15 yards of Kearse.
A brilliant play from Wilson, though an odd and certainly dangerous call by Seattle.
However, when your team has an upper echelon quarterback who more often than not makes the winning play, perhaps it wasn’t such a risk.
Credit to NFL Game Pass for the game footage. All photo illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter.