On the road to Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seattle Seahawks displayed dominant defense, timely offense and a lucky-at-times special teams unit. It began one cold, rainy afternoon at CenturyLink Field, when Seattle and its workhorse, running back Marshawn Lynch, stepped on the throat of the New Orleans Saints and would not let up.
Throughout the 2013 NFL season, it was obvious the Seahawks were the best team in the league. They certainly had the best defense in all the land, and while the offense wasn’t on the level of some juggernauts, it had its moments.
A 13-3 record netted Seattle the NFC’s top seed, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and allowed it to rest up during the bye week while four other NFC teams battled it out on Wild Card Weekend.
One winner of one of those games—the Drew Brees-led Saints—had the misfortune of being the lowest seed remaining in the conference and had hell unleashed on them the following week at The Link.
This is how it happened.
Seattle on offense
Looking at bulk stats and box scores these days tells you very little about the outcome of an NFL game. What do we know about this NFC Divisional Round box score?
We know that New Orleans outgained Seattle by 132 yards (409-277), gaining nearly a full yard per play more than the home team. We know that Brees (309) threw for triple the yards that Russell Wilson (103) did.
We know that Wilson was 9-of-18 passing (50.0%) for just 103 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions for a 67.6 passer rating¹. Out of 37 games played in two NFL seasons, his passer rating is the seventh-worst he’s ever recorded.
The Seahawks’ offense was true to form on third downs, converting 5-of-14 (35.7%) for the game—they finished 17th in the NFL at 37.3 percent during the regular season. An average day on third down is nothing new to Seattle; it had been down this road before with remarkably successful results.
But we also know that the Seahawks outrushed the Saints by 66 yards (174-108). Seattle put this game on the back of Lynch and the running game, just as they have done since 2011. He carried 28 times for 140 yards (5.0 YPC) and two backbreaking touchdowns.
We highlight both his scores in depth here, as well as a route combination you’ll see multiple times throughout this series.
Lynch from 15
To this point in the game, Lynch had carried five times for 14 yards (2.8 YPC). Seattle’s first drive began at the New Orleans 40-yard line, and gains of zero, 5 and minus-4 yards from the bell cow back aided in the team settling for a Steven Hauschka field goal.
Its second drive, also resulting in a Hauschka field goal, saw the rushing attack start to open up a bit, as Lynch carried twice for 13 yards and second-year back Robert Turbin added a 5-yard carry.
A Saints turnover then set up the Seahawks with a first down at the New Orleans 24. After a 9-yard end around from wideout Percy Harvin, the following took place.
14:23 remaining in the second quarter
From the gun and with Lynch to his right, Wilson calls out his cadence. Harvin is in the slot to Wilson’s left and is set to run a dummy screen. All he is doing is trying to draw attention away from Lynch, who is about to take a handoff from his quarterback.
It works, as strong safety Roman Harper follows Harvin just long enough to render himself useless on the play. Down at the bottom, cornerback Corey White briefly follows Wilson on the zone read, which gives Lynch the room he needs off right end. Free safety Rafael Bush reads Lynch correctly, but as you’ll see, angles are important when pursuing a ball-carrier.
Harper is so far out of the play, he may as well be on the sideline; White won’t make the tackle because Lynch is strong enough to fend off defensive linemen that outweigh the 205-pound corner by 100 pounds; and Bush, though he read the play from the snap, over-pursued the run and is out of position once Lynch cut toward the middle of the field.
The result is the first touchdown of the game, which nearly was enough to put the game to bed early in the second quarter. This game would have been over and done with if not for a late surge by Brees and Co.
Remember this route combination. The Seahawks run this play all the time, and in the playoffs it worked to near perfection multiple times. This play came in the fourth quarter of a one-score game and preceded Lynch’s second rushing touchdown of the game.
The pick play, if done a certain way, is illegal in the NFL. It falls under Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2 of the official NFL rule book and states that a player on either side of the ball is in violation when doing the following:
“(e) Cutting off the path of an opponent by making contact with him, without playing the ball.”
But NFL receivers have become adept at running these pick routes (or rub routes, depending on your preference) and do so in such a way that they don’t make contact with a defender. Instead—and ideally—two defenders run into each other while crossing paths to follow their man, which frees up the intended receiver.
One simple way to eliminate the effectiveness of the pick route is to run a zone defense. In that instance, your defensive backs will cover whichever receiver crosses into their area of the field and let them do all the picking and crossing they want—it won’t work.
But against Seattle’s receivers—a unit that lacks a true No. 1 target—the best course of action is to match up man to man and go to work.
That’s what happened on this play.
2:57 remaining in the fourth quarter
Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis is lined up on the outside across from receiver Golden Tate, who will be doing the picking on this play. White, who we already talked about, is in the slot pressing Doug Baldwin, the eventual target of Wilson.
As Wilson hits the top of his dropback, Tate and Baldwin are in the middle of crossing paths. But Lewis played off on Tate and is behind the pick, so rather than colliding as they mirror their men, White still has an opportunity to run with Baldwin.
Wilson underthrew the pass, which is a reason White nearly got to it. A better throw would have netted the Seahawks an even larger gain than the 24 they got, but we would be without the highlight-reel catch from Baldwin.
You talk about a big-time play. This came on third-and-3 with under three minutes left in a one-score game. Conventional wisdom says just run the ball and hope Lynch—who had been solid all afternoon—can gain three yards.
But that’s not how head coach Pete Carroll thinks. He’s creative and will push the envelope whenever he deems necessary. That mindset helped Seattle win its first Super Bowl this season.
Beast Mode puts it on ice
Lynch’s final carry of the divisional round was a backbreaker and yet another for his career highlight reel. His 27 previous carries had totaled 109 yards. His 15-yard touchdown and an 18-yard run in the second quarter were his longest, but also his easiest.
This tote would not be so easy.
We have seen this type of effort from Lynch before, and in this same situation—less than four minutes left in a one-score playoff game against the Saints. One of the greatest runs in NFL playoff history, Lynch’s 67-yard touchdown in the 2011 Wild Card Game will forever live in infamy.
The week after Lynch’s run, NFL Network ranked it as the No. 2 run in playoff history, right behind Marcus Allen’s 74-yard score in Super Bowl XVIII.
While this 31-yard scamper is not quite on that level, his impressive display of athleticism, power and vision helped send the Seahawks to the NFC Championship Game.
2:48 remaining in the fourth quarter
The Saints, of course, guessed correctly here. With 10 defenders and eight blockers up front, 18 men stand at the line of scrimmage. No defender wins, but neither does any offensive player. That creates a mess at the point of attack—there’s nowhere for Lynch to go.
But notice wideout Jermaine Kearse to the left. He’s coming down the line in hopes of helping spring Lynch to the outside.
And that’s exactly what he does. He clobbers free safety Malcolm Jenkins just before he gets to Lynch in the backfield. After that, all Lynch has to worry about is getting by Lewis, which he does by way of a stutter-step-to-stiff-arm combination that leaves the cornerback in his wake.
There isn’t a more powerful running back in the NFL. Adrian Peterson is neck-and-neck with him, but if you’re starting a franchise, your first back should be Lynch because of his remarkable durability and a propensity to pound opponents into the ground.
He’s the most difficult player in the league to tackle, and he proves that week after week, year after year, playoff highlight after playoff highlight.
Seattle on defense
The following is a list of everything in which the Legion of Boom led the NFL or tied for the lead during the 2013 regular season:
- Total defense (273.6 YPG)
- Yards per play allowed (4.4 YPP)
- Passing defense (172.0 YPG)
- Passing yards per attempt (5.8 YPA)
- Yards per catch (9.9 YPC)
- Takeaways (39)
- Interceptions (28)
- Scoring (14.4 PPG)
- Points allowed in 1st Quarter (22)
- Points allowed on the road (15.1 PPG)
- Rushing TD (4)
- Rushing TD at home (2)
- Rushing TD on the road (2)
Seattle finished in the top 10 in many other categories. The point is, the Seahawks are pretty good on defense. No unit was more dominant throughout the season.
That said, the Saints had opportunities in this game to make things happen. But, whether it was a stupid penalty—four offensive holding calls and two personal fouls—or stupid play-calling, they shot themselves in the foot time after time and could not overcome the atmosphere or the swarming “LOB” defense.
The following series took place in the first quarter. The Saints were moving the ball and chewing clock, but a combination of stupid play-calling, heads-up defense and pure dumb luck led to an empty five-minute drive and a shift in momentum that could not be conquered.
10:19 remaining in the first quarter
It’s New Orleans’ second drive of the game, and already they’re down by a field goal. That’s nothing to panic about, so Brees and the offense come out running. In 13 personnel, the Saints have one back and three tight ends on the field. All three ends have a hand in the dirt to the right of right tackle Zach Strief, and the Seahawks counter with nine defenders up close.
Star cornerback Richard Sherman, who plays the left side of the field rather than the offense’s top receiver, is all alone on this play and has an opportunity to bring running back Mark Ingram down for a minimal gain. But he whiffs on the tackle, allowing Ingram a 7-yard gain.
9:41 remaining in the first quarter
Collins provides the key block, as he takes out linebacker Malcolm Smith to open a hole through which Ingram bursts and gains first-down yardage.
This running-the-ball thing is working well, clearly. But now it’s time to change it up a bit to throw off the Legion.
9:04 remaining in the first quarter
On first-and-10 from their own 38, the Saints come out in 22 personnel and fake the handoff to rookie running back Khiry Robinson. But the play comes back to Robinson after Brees finds wideout Robert Meachem and tight end Jimmy Graham covered downfield.
Robinson gains 13 after embarrassing linebacker Bruce Irvin with a nasty stiff arm. Sure, Seattle won the game in dominating fashion, but small victories are sometimes important to the psyche of an NFL player. That’s one play of which Robinson can be proud.
8:24 remaining in the first quarter
Keeping with the big formations, New Orleans remains in 22 personnel for this first-down play. Just across midfield now, it’s back to the run game. Collins provides the lead block once again, and Robinson gains four tough yards, once again off left tackle.
This play could have gone for more, but the Seahawks had seven in the box, and Irvin was at the line just to the left of the box (the offense’s right).
No one blocks him as he shuffles down the line and, in an attempt to avenge being stiff-armed and face-planted to the turf the play before, he wrangles Robinson for no more damage than an average gain.
7:45 remaining in the first quarter
Ingram is back in the game for this play, and though the play is initially defended well by Seattle, he finds a lane off left end and heads out of bounds 12 yards downfield. Why was there a lane off left end?
Rookie left tackle Terron Armstead drives an overanxious Irvin upfield and out of the way. Had Irvin played it safe and stayed home—after all, the Saints had been running it off tackle all drive—the play could have netted next to nothing.
This is where the drive turns. The ball is now inside the Seattle 35, and no defense played better in the regular season when the field got small. Once backed up inside its own 35-yard line, the Seahawks allowed a touchdown on just 6.82 percent of all plays (9-of-132). That was good enough for No. 1 in the NFL (as though they didn’t lead the league in enough categories).
7:11 remaining in the first quarter
New Orleans stays with 22 personnel, this time bringing Josh Hill and Ben Watson to the right of the formation. Seattle is wise to this move, however, as they bring six defenders to that side of the center, while the Saints initially have only four blockers to center Brian De La Puenta’s right.
To equal things out, Collins lead blocks to his right and left guard Ben Grubbs pulls that way as well. But Smith and strong safety Kam Chancellor remain unblocked, completely blowing up the play for no gain.
6:31 remaining in the first quarter
Now second-and-10, Brees spreads out the defense in hopes of creating some space for one of his many athletes. But the play selection is questionable at best; another screen to a back, this one sniffed out by linebacker Bobby Wagner.
This is a Cover 3 look from Seattle, so Wagner is headed to that flat anyway—it’s the perfect play call for what New Orleans wants to do. But notice Graham. He’s on his way to a vacated middle of the field, where he would have had some space to run.
Wagner runs through Grubbs en route to punishing running back Darren Sproles, who loses three yards on the play.
5:50 remaining in the first quarter
And now for the final play before some of that dumb luck referred to above. It’s third-and-13, and Brees stays in the gun. He has three receivers on the field for the first time this drive, so there’s a good chance a receiver gets in on the action to help his team, right?
Its yet another screen pass (the third pass behind the line of scrimmage, if you’re counting). Sproles gains solid yardage, moving the field-goal attempt closer for kicker Shane Graham.
Not once was Brees pressured before screen passes started flying. Not once did he have to run for his life before throwing the ball away or forcing a pass into double coverage to avoid the sack. No, these first-quarter screen passes were by design. They had done this all season with mixed results. Seattle knew that. But Brees and Co. did not adjust until it was too late.
5:08 remaining in the first quarter
“Laces out, bruh.”
Garbage-time stats don’t mean much in the NFL. Brees entered the fourth quarter having completed 11 of 21 passes (52.4%) for 121 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions for a 69.7 passer rating. He threw for 175 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter while amassing a 95.8 rating.
Had he played the first three quarters the way he did the fourth, perhaps the Saints could have stood a better chance.
As it turns out, Seattle’s defense had an answer for everything the Saints tried to do. And on offense, Lynch was too much to handle, and the passing game showed up in key spots.
It all amounted to a 23-15 Seahawks victory and a date with the NFC West arch-rival San Francisco 49ers in the conference title game the next week.
We will go over that game next, right here on BTH.
¹Seattle is 3-4 when Russell Wilson has a passer rating below 70.0 (playoffs included).