Forget, for a moment, how monumentally the Seahawks blew it in the wild-card round against the Rams Saturday, and a new picture emerges.
One where the NFL’s top-ranked defense by points, yards, and passing defense carried a team through the first round of the playoffs, despite losing its best player for nearly a half.
There’s very little about Seahawks-Rams that makes sense. John Wolford, a quarterback with an active LinkedIn page, started for Los Angeles but left the game in the first quarter after suffering a neck injury. He was replaced by Jared Goff, who was initially not expected to play after breaking his thumb two weeks ago. The Rams had little choice but to turn to Goff, because third-string quarterback Blake Bortles was inactive. That Bortles’s absence was a significant factor in the game should tell you everything. Worst yet, defensive tackle and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald left the game in the third quarter with a rib injury and did not return.
None of that wound up mattering. The Rams won 30-20 because their defense rendered all those other factors secondary to their shutdown of the Seahawks’ offense and Russell Wilson.
Los Angeles played mostly two-high safety coverages to keep Seattle receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett in front of them—to keep Russ out of the kitchen, if you will—and relied on four-man fronts to bring pressure. It worked: Other than a broken play that led to a 51-yard Metcalf touchdown reception in the second quarter, the Seahawks had one other completion of more than 20 yards before garbage time. The Rams’ top passing defense shut down intermediate routes, too—Wilson completed just three passes of 10 to 19 yards. This was possible because Jalen Ramsey, who shadowed Metcalf on 69 percent of his routes, held Metcalf to three receptions for 33 yards on seven targets, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. In three games shadowing Metcalf this season, Ramsey has limited him to four catches for 44 yards on 11 targets.
Jalen Ramsey shadowed DK Metcalf on 69% of his routes (22 of 31), limiting Metcalf to 3 receptions for 33 yards on 7 targets.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 10, 2021
Ramsey vs Metcalf in three matchups this season:
4 receptions, 44 yards on 11 total targets
65%+ shadow rate in every game#LARvSEA | #RamsHouse pic.twitter.com/66jp4tjaVA
Wilson finished 11-of-27 for 174 yards, two touchdowns and an interception—a pick-six to cornerback Darious Williams, who emerged as a quality starter for Los Angeles during the regular season. Wilson was under pressure for most of the game: He was sacked five times and hit 10, with Donald and Leonard Floyd turning in two sacks and three QB hits apiece. The only other time in the last 20 years when a team had five sacks and held an opponent below a 41 percent completion rate was in 2012 when the Patriots faced Tim Tebow.
The totality of the shutdown flummoxed Seattle coach Pete Carroll.
“I have no place in my brain for this outcome,” Carroll said after the game.
It flummoxed @SeahawksFrance.
La saison fini sur un sack tout une image— Seahawks France (@SeahawksFrance) January 10, 2021
(The Seahawks only make rational sense to me in French—they are mostly high-functioning but have a tendency to disappear completely because it’s lunchtime, August or an important playoff game.)
The Rams’ issues—the ones that made this outcome so difficult to imagine—are not going anywhere. Bortles is their only healthy quarterback. The severities of Wolford’s and Donald’s injuries aren’t clear. In Donald and Ramsey, the Rams have the most potent one-two punch in the NFL for disrupting an opposing quarterback and shutting down his top receiver. Whether that’s Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams or Tom Brady and Mike Evans, it’s a solid place to start.