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How Seattle’s defensive strategy shut down the high-flying Eagles

On offense, though, it was the Russell Wilson show

Going into Week 13, the Philadelphia Eagles had been the most impressive team in the NFL. At 10-1, they hadn’t lost since Week 2, winning their past four games by 23 points or more. So they were expected to continue their winning ways against a short-handed Seattle Seahawks team on Sunday night. But even without two of the game’s best defensive backs (Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor) and a severely overmatched offensive line, the Seahawks controlled the game and won. Here’s how:

Despite Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz’s MVP-caliber play so far this season, the Seahawks were daring the Eagles to pass. Early in the game, the Seahawks played almost exclusively man-to-man coverage, ensuring that they’d always have an extra man in the box to stop the run. But that pressured the defensive backs to cover the Eagles’ talented pass-catchers. Considering that Seattle’s secondary is without Sherman and Chancellor, playing a lot of man coverage seemed risky. I would have expected them to play with fewer players in the box and pressure their outstanding front four and linebackers to get off blocks and stop the run without the help of a down-in-the-box safety. Instead, they showed a lot of respect for the run-blocking ability of the Eagles and loaded the box.

Linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright were aggressively attacking any run action, which made for play-action opportunities for the Eagles. Fortunately for the Seahawks, most of the Eagles’ play-action routes didn’t attack the area vacated by the aggressive linebackers. And Wentz was inaccurate on those occasions when that area was targeted, missing open players. Wentz threw 10 total play-action passes, completing five for 84 yards and an interception. And the Eagles’ running backs only had 68 yards on the ground. The risky strategy worked.

The corners weren’t Sherman-level, but they were good, considering what was being asked of them. However, I thought strong safety Chancellor’s replacement, Bradley McDougald, was remarkable. McDougald’s tackles were not as noteworthy or bone-crushing as Chancellor’s can be, but they were effective. McDougald spent a lot of the game in the box. Like a linebacker, he adjusted to some tricky blocking schemes, made proper run fits and tackled well. He even played well in coverage against the Eagles’ top pass-catcher, tight end Zach Ertz.

It is impossible to feel confident about a game plan when no single player on your offensive line is better than any single player on the opposing defensive line, but the Seattle offensive coaches tried to install a game plan that gave them the best chance to succeed. Knowing that conventional running plays would be difficult to execute and the line wouldn’t be able to protect for long, the Seahawks majored in quick passes to start the game. To combat the Eagles’ aggressive press coverage, the Seahawks used a lot of tight and stack formations, with the receivers just a few feet away from each other. Out of those formations, the Seahawks ran a lot of crossing and pick routes against the Eagles’ man coverage. On the first few drives, the receivers came open early, and Wilson found them. Two of their four first-half drives ended with points. At the end of the first half, Wilson was 10-for-12 for 101 yards and a touchdown. The running backs contributed 22 yards on eight carries.

But the second half was when Wilson really put on a show. The Seahawks went away from the quick passing game and ran more intermediate passing plays. The Seattle O-line didn’t suddenly get better and the Eagles’ D-line didn’t suddenly get much worse, so I am not sure of the logic behind the strategic shift, other than “let Russell be Russell.” And he was. By now I am sure you have already marveled at Wilson’s spectacular schoolyard plays. He was incredible. That scrambling lateral play will be one that Seahawks fans won’t soon forget, but I am not sure it should give them a lot of confidence.

The very next play was a failed flea-flicker attempt. The Seahawks went on to score, putting the game out of reach. But that scrambling lateral play followed by a flea-flicker doesn’t seem like a reliable offensive strategy going forward. That’s fine as long as the defense can continue to play as if it is at full strength. But even though the Seahawks held the mighty Eagles to just 10 points, I can’t imagine the Seattle D not taking a step back without two of its best players. In that case, the Seahawks will need to have a more consistently productive offense.

Domonique Foxworth is a writer at The Undefeated. He is a recovering pro athlete and superficial intellectual.