We can debate whether or not the Seahawks were vulnerable on Sunday in wake of the Percy Harvin trade, or due to the number of injuries on both sides of the ball, or even the general perception that they don’t look as dominant as they did a month ago when everyone was ready to send them back to the Super Bowl following their Week 1 rout of the Packers.
But they’re still the defending Super Bowl winners. And when you’re an undisciplined 1-4 Rams team coming off a short week and playing the defending champs, you better do something to tilt the advantage in your favor at some point during the game.
That something for the Rams came midway through the second quarter of their 28-26 victory over their division rivals.
Play 1: Fassel takes a page out of the Bears’ playbook.
The Bears ran a play against Green Bay in a late-September game in 2011 in which they got the Packers’ punt coverage unit to flow in the direction of returner Devin Hester, who faked as if he was going to catch the ball by looking up to the sky.
On the opposite side of the field, receiver Johnny Knox fielded the punt over his back shoulder and raced untouched toward the end zone with only Green Bay’s punter standing in his way. Unfortunately for Chicago, what should have been an easy touchdown was negated due to a holding penalty on Corey Graham.
While watching film earlier this week, Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel noticed that Seattle punter Jon Ryan’s kicks would drift to the left when he attempted to sky punts near midfield.
So the Rams installed the same play that the Bears used back in 2011 and, while nursing a 14-3 lead midway through the second quarter, Jeff Fisher dialed up the fake with Tavon Austin filling the role of Hester and Stedman Bailey assuming the part of Knox.
The fake worked perfectly, as Seattle’s punt coverage unit converged on Austin as the Rams’ punt return unit sold the fake by flowing to his side of the field. On the opposite side, Bailey was all alone to field the punt over his back shoulder and raced untouched toward the end zone for a 21-3 lead with just over seven minutes remaining in the first half.
The play faked out the Seahawks, as well as most people inside the Edward Jones Dome who had their eyes fixed on Austin.
While the “Mountaineer” play was certainly a defining moment, there were other factors that contributed to the Rams’ victory. Thanks to the emergence of Tre Mason (18 carries, 85 yards, one TD), the team’s running game was more effective against Seattle than at any point during the team’s first five games. All things considered, the Rams’ defense also held Marshawn Lynch in check, and the pass rush awoke from its five-game slumber.
Quarterback Austin Davis was effective as well, throwing for 152 yards on 18-of-21 passing with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He was perfect in the first half, although his defining moment didn’t come until the fourth quarter.
Play 2: Davis finds Givens on perfect play design.
Russell Wilson found tight end Cooper Helfet for a 19-yard touchdown with just under 10 minutes remaining in the game to help the Seahawks cut their deficit to 21-19. On the ensuing drive, the Rams marched into Seattle territory but faced a third-and-6 from the Seahawk 44-yard-line following Davis’ incomplete pass to Lance Kendricks on second down.
Up to that point, Davis had been conservative with his passing. Out of his first 13 attempts, he completed only five passes of 10 yards or more, and his longest competition was a 19-yarder to Brian Quick on the Rams’ first offensive drive of the fourth quarter.
There were a few times when he may have been able to pull the trigger on longer routes had he cycled through his progressions and was more aggressive when receivers like Quick were one-on-one with defensive backs.
But considering the Rams led for most of the game, it’s hard to argue with his decision to get the ball out of his hand quickly and find open receivers in the short-to-intermediate range.
But Davis saved his best throw of the day for that third-and-6 from Seattle’s 44-yard line. The Rams came out in a spread formation with Austin and Givens (slot) lined up to the wide side of the field and Quick to the boundary. Davis was in the shotgun and was flanked by Jared Cook and Benny Cunningham in the backfield.
Before the snap, Cook motions left before coming back right and aligning himself on the same side as Givens and Austin. Safety Kam Chancellor followed Cook to the right of the formation (Chancellor’s left), indicating that the Seahawks were in man-to-man coverage. At the snap, Quick runs a shallow crossing pattern while Cook takes off up the seam and Austin runs a comeback route with Richard Sherman mirroring him in coverage.
The key to the play is that Givens, who eventually runs a deep over, gets a free release at the line. With his speed, he does exactly what you would expect him to against a corner like Marcus Burley: He gained separation.
Another key to the play was that free safety Earl Thomas, who got caught in between deciding whether or not to jump the Givens route or chase Cook up the seam, chose to give help on Cook. Almost simultaneously, Thomas breaks to his left and Davis lofts a perfect pass to Givens in stride for a 30-yard gain.
Three plays later, Davis found Kendricks for a four-yard touchdown pass to give the Rams a 28-19 lead. Up nine with just over five minutes remaining in the game, one would think the Rams wouldn’t need to dial up another trick play to ensure victory.
Or at least one would think.
Play 3: The fake punt.
After the Seahawks cut St. Louis’ lead to two points following a Wilson touchdown pass to Doug Baldwin, the Rams took over on their own 11-yard line needing to pick up a few first downs to run the remaining 3:18 off the clock. Following a two-yard loss by Cunningham on first down, Davis made an athletic play to dodge a potential sack and get the ball to Cook for what turned out to be a crucial 9-yard completion. Following an incomplete pass on third down, we soon found out why the completion to Cook held so much importance.
On fourth-and-3 from the Rams’ 18-yard line, Johnny Hekker and the Rams lined up in punt formation with 2:55 remaining on the clock. Before the snap, Bailey, who was the gunner to Hekker’s left, stepped back and was replaced on the line of scrimmage by Chase Reynolds, who was one of the up-backs on the play.
Bailey then went in motion and, at the snap, ran to the middle of the field to pull his defender inside as Cunningham leaked out of the backfield. Hekker then hit Cunningham in stride for an 18-yard pickup and a first down.
What’s gut-wrenching for Seattle’s players, coaches and fans is that it was a play that the Seahawks clearly prepared for. Even before Bailey went in motion, several defenders started to communicate via hand gestures, which indicated they knew what was coming. But DeShawn Shead was late getting to Cunningham in the flats, and it turned out to be a huge first down as the Rams eventually ran out the clock (although not without some drama, of course) in a 28-26 win.
Fisher was eventually asked after the game if he would have called for the fake punt had Davis not completed the 9-yard pass to Cook two plays prior. Fisher said no, which brings to light how key that completion was to the Rams’ victory. In fact, had the Rams punted the ball on fourth down, ESPN.com estimated that their win probability would have been 54 percent (provided that the Rams netted 40 yards on the punt and taken 13 seconds off the clock, which would have given the Seahawks the ball on their own 42-yard line).
Then again, with the way Wilson had taken over the game in the second half, that 54-percent figure sounds too high. The Seahawks only needed a field goal to take the lead, and with how the Rams had blown leads against Dallas and San Francisco this year, you got the sense that Seattle was about to deliver heartbreak to the Edward Jones Dome once again.
Credit Fisher with a gutsy call, the players with perfect execution and the Rams for finding ways throughout the game to tilt the advantage in their favor while playing against the defending champs.