Warning: this article is almost 5,000 words. If you don’t have the patience to read it, there it a tl;dr section “near” the end. I figured it’s a holiday weekend and we play on Monday night, so you’ll have plenty of time if you want to break it up and read it in sections. I’ll understand, however, if you don’t want to invest the amount of time it will take to plow through this very long preview of Monday’s game.
Learning from Arizona
It’s been a long week, and it’s only Wednesday. I’m afraid I fell asleep watching the Arizona-Seattle game yesterday afternoon after I finished work. I was watching in order to get a feel for Seattle as I prepared this article, but I only made it partway through the third quarter.
Anyway, I think I saw enough of what the Cardinals, led by Colt McCoy and without WR DeAndre Hopkins, did to get the win against the Seahawks. It seems funny to say this about the team with the best record in the NFL, but — at least with McCoy at QB and without Hopkins — the Cardinals offense looked to me like it exploited the Seahawks defense in ways that Scott Turner and the Football Team offense can replicate.
There’s no doubt that successful coaches and teams develop a mystique that surrounds them; it aids the confidence of that team and sows doubt in the minds of opposing fans, players, and maybe even coaches. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have it; the Steelers used to, though Washington’s win last year may have broken that particular spell for the Ben Roethlisberger-led team. Obviously, the Patriots have been the very definition of this sort of mystique — so much so that it even seems to change the way the game gets officiated. With Brady’s defection to Tampa Bay, where he joined forces with Bruce Arians, a new, and possibly very temporary mystique has been founded on Florida’s gulf coast.
A certain mystique has also grown up around the Seattle Seahawks over the past decade, one that was founded on Coach Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson, the Legion of Boom, and “the twelves” that have made Seattle such an intimidating place for opponents to visit.
Once a fan base gets infected by the mystique surrounding another team, it can seem almost sacrilegious to suggest that our team can beat that one, but Washington fans should be getting used to winning against these teams.
- In 2018, we beat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers 31-17
- Last year, we beat the undefeated Steelers in Pittsburgh in Week 13 by a score of 23-17
- Two weeks ago, Washington made Tom Brady its bitch with a 29-19 win
Now, it’s time to kill off whatever mystique remains for the Seahawks.
Seattle’s season of struggles
Seattle and Russell Wilson come to FedEx Field on Monday night with some psychological weaponry that was accumulated from 2012 to 2020, including Washington’s perceived inability to play well in nationally televised games, but most of that weaponry can be heavily discounted at this point. Seattle is 3-7, and has struggled to win both at home and on the road, and both with Russell Wilson and without him.
The Seahawks are not a bad team; they beat the 49ers and the Colts this season. They certainly are not a team to be overlooked, despite being ranked 15th in the 16-team NFC. Seattle has good coaches, good players, and they are led by a good quarterback, but they are struggling through a tough season.
Washington’s mission on Monday is to put an end to the Seahawks’ season. With a win, Seattle can keep their faint playoff hopes alive. A loss that drops them to 3-8 will free up the Seahawks front office and fan base to openly discuss what Russell Wilson’s future is, and who they should be targeting in the draft to make a rebound in 2022.
Taylor Heinicke is the right man for the job
Oddly enough, I think Taylor Heinicke may be exactly the right guy to drive the next nail into the coffin of Seattle’s 2021 season. Washington’s quarterback has no PTSD from past failures in prime time games or games against the Seahawks. He is unafraid of failure since he is playing with house money, and, after struggling for a few weeks to find the balance between playing with too little discipline or too much structure, he seems to have finally found the sweet spot over the past two weeks.
Without being blessed with prototypical size or arm strength, Taylor Heinicke has learned how to make use of his understanding of the offensive system and his own genuine passion to become a leader and a rallying point for his teammates. He now does something that is more powerful than what can be accomplished with a cannon arm — he inspires belief. His teammates believe in him and follow him, which is pretty incredible when you look at his resume.
- Two weeks ago, Heinicke was the best quarterback on the field in the playoff rematch with Tampa Bay.
- Last Sunday, Heinicke was the best quarterback on the field in the return of two starting quarterbacks to Carolina.
- Now it’s Russell Wilson’s turn to measure himself against Heinicke.
Obviously, if we’re comparing resumes, Wilson wins hands down — he’s an eight-time pro bowl player who earned a Super Bowl ring as the starting quarterback, and he was last year’s Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year — the NFL’s highest honor. But then, Cam Newton is a former league MVP and super bowl quarterback, and Tom Brady is the Greatest of All Time. If the game were decided on QB resumes, Washington would have gotten blown out each of the past two weeks.
Fortunately, each game is decided on the field, and, as Ron Rivera recently told his team, for every stone there is a Goliath, and for every Goliath there is a David...or a Taylor.
But, what about Washington’s inability to win in prime time?
If you’ve got that broken record playing in your head about how Washington can’t win in prime time (or on Thanksgiving), then it’s past time to get that soundtrack out of your library. The Ron Rivera team doesn’t feel that pressure. Look at last year’s schedule:
Week 12 - Thanksgiving day in Dallas
Week 13 - Monday night in Pittsburgh
Week 17 - Sunday night in Philly
Even the loss in the wildcard game to eventual superbowl champion Tampa Bay was more impressive than not. Washington, a 7-9 division champion starting its fourth quarterback of the season, went toe-to-toe with Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, eventually losing by 8 points, but looking like a legitimate playoff team in the process.
Washington proved last year that it can play in big games and not crack under the pressure. This season, Taylor Heinicke has proven the worth of a quarterback with almost nothing to lose who enjoys the full support of his offensive coordinator and head coach.
There’s no reason to fear Monday Night Football anymore. Them days is gone.
Okay, enough of the mind-games BS; let’s look at some numbers.
Rushing the ball
Seattle’s top RB, Chris Carson is on IR.
Rashaad Penny has been a non-factor (he has 43 yards for the season, and had only two carries this week against Arizona, and he came out of that game with a minor injury).
The load is being carried by 5th year RB Alex Collins, whose best season was 2017, when he rushed for 973 yards in Baltimore.
2021 Rushing Statistics
When they have the ball
These Seahawks are a long way from the days of Beastmode. On a yards per game basis, Seattle ranks 23rd in the NFL in rushing, and that includes whatever damage Russell Wilson does with his legs. Washington, by contrast, is ranked 10th.
If you focus on rushing yards per game over just the most recent three games, the difference becomes even greater, with Washington ranked 8th, at 132 yards per game, while Seattle is 28th, at a paltry 76.7 yards per game. Doubtless, this is driven partly by game script (Washington was winning in the 4th quarter of two of those games and running heavily, while Seattle is 1-2 over the past three games and likely to have been running less).
Still, Seattle’s rushing attack doesn’t appear to be fearsome; meanwhile, Washington’s rushing defense is ranked 6th in the league, surrendering just 98.5 yards per game on average. Again, when we focus on statistics for the past three games, Washington fares even better, ranked 3rd in the NFL at 82.3 yards per game.
Defending the run
On the defensive side of the ball, Seattle is ranked 23rd, giving up 122.2 yards per game, though they’ve been better in the past three weeks. Over the past three games, the Seahawks are ranked 10th, at 94.3 yards per game. Part of the reason for this, however, is the thumping that Seattle administered to the lowly Jaguars in Week 8, when Jacksonville, who lost by 24 points, rushed for only 69 yards. The Packers and Cardinals each rushed for right around 100 yards, but neither rushed with great efficiency against Seattle. Green Bay averaged 3.3 yards per carry while Arizona averaged just 2.9.
I would say that Washington doesn’t have a lot to fear from the Seattle run game. The Foootball Team held Christian McCaffrey to 59 rushing yards, limited Leonard Fournette to 47 rush yards, and allowed a combined 83 yards and a TD to Denver’s two running backs.
When Washington is running the ball, they should be able to find success, especially given the three-pronged attack of Gibson, McKissic and Patterson, who challenge the defense in different ways. Against three top-10 defenses over the past three weeks (Denver, Tampa, Carolina), Washington runners have put up 112 yards at 4.7 ypc, 94 yards and 2 TDs, and 190 yards at 4.8 yards per carry respectively.
Watching Arizona run against Seattle seemed reminiscent of Washington’s rushing attack versus Tampa Bay. The key seemed to be rushing downhill, straight at the defense rather than trying to run outside. Consistent gains of 2-4 yards might frustrate some offenses, but I think that Washington is learning to enjoy that kind of football, and it should be effective against the Seahawks. I’d expect the Football Team to get around 115 rush yards at around 3.4 yards per carry (so, around 33 rushes) with Heinicke accounting for about 10% of the attempts and yards.
Seattle relies on play-action passing, so they will rush between 16-20 times if they fall behind, and about 20-25 if they can get a lead, but they aren’t likely to find a lot of success with the running game against Washington’s defense.
Seattle will live or die by Russell Wilson’s ability to make plays in the passing game.
Passing the ball
When comparing the passing attacks of Seattle and Washington for all of 2021, the similarities are more striking than the differences to me, but the differences are noticeable and important.
2021 pass game stats
Firstly, given that Washington had about 250 more rushing yards than the Seahawks, I had expected Seattle’s passing numbers to be higher than Washington’s. Instead, the Seahawks have about 100 fewer passing yards than does the Football Team.
When I double-checked the offensive rankings, I found that this all checked out. Washington is ranked 20th in total offense, with 3,478 yards in 10 games, while Seattle is ranked 30th, with just 2,986 yards in the same number of games.
The only two teams with less productive offenses than the Seahawks on a total yards or yards per game basis are the Bears and Texans. Honestly, this surprised me.
It’s clear that Wilson has two dangerous receiving targets in Lockett and Metcalf; the two have nearly identical numbers for targets and receptions. Lockett has a higher average yards per catch, but Metcalf has caught more than half of Seattle’s touchdowns this season.
Lockett is an experienced veteran and skilled route runner, while DJ Metcalf is a young receiver with incredible size and speed. The defense is likely to be designed to simply limit the damage done by these two receivers — preventing either from beating the coverage deep and attempting to limit yards after catch.
Russell Wilson thrives on play action and off-schedule plays, but without a strong run threat, the linebackers and safeties are free to focus more on pass defense, and Wilson’s accuracy during 2021 has been comparable to Heinicke’s — so, not great. In fact, Wilson’s completion percentage for the season is 64.9%, while Heinicke is at 66.2%.
Washington faced a better passer in Tom Brady two weeks ago, and another dangerous dual-threat quarterback in Cam Newton last Sunday. Having done well in those two contests, I expect the Jonathan Allen-led defense to put a lot of pressure on Russell Wilson in the passing game, and the DL to work together to contain him by maintaining good rush discipline.
Wilson relies on his tight ends about as much as Heinicke does his, and they are about equally productive. After being heavily reliant on rookie John Bates for the past two weeks, Washington could potentially see the return of Logan Thomas or Ricky Seals-Jones on Monday night, though neither is assured. The return of either or both would be welcome, as would a healthy Curtis Samuel.
Of course, when the Seahawks are on defense, they know who the primary threat is — it’s Terry McLaurin, who has already been targeted 91 times in 10 games. The lack of a second threatening wideout seems to be a weakness for Washington, but Scott Turner and Taylor Heinicke have adapted by exploiting matchups and throwing to whoever is open — be that a slot receiver, running back or tight end. The result is that Washington’s 6th-most targeted player (RB Antonio Gibson) has about twice as many targets as Seattle’s 6th-most targeted receiver (RB Homer).
The fact that running back JD McKissic is the team’s 2nd leading pass catcher says a lot about how the team has adapted to Curtis Samuel’s almost season-long absence. McKissic has the 4th highest receiving yards among running backs leaguewide, and ranks 6th in receiving yards per game.
In short, while Washington needs to split its defensive focus between two talented receiving options, Seattle can focus primarily on Terry McLaurin, but Taylor Heinicke is happy to go to his 2nd or 3rd option at RB, TE or slot receiver based on the most favorable matchup he can spot, creating a different kind of challenge for the Seahawks.
Pass game summary
Washington’s passing defense is ranked 22nd in the NFL, but Seattle is ranked 28th. When you shift the focus to just the past three games, Seattle still ranks 28th, giving up 277 yards per game, but Washington improves to 9th at just 199 yards per game given up. When you consider that Seattle’s opponents were playing with a lead in two of those games while two of Washington’s opponents were playing from behind, this difference seems more surprising.
It seems as if the two passing attacks, while structured a bit differently, are quite comparable in production, but that the Football Team’s defense has shown marked improvement in November, while Seattle’s pass defense has been among the NFL’s worst all season long.
Unsurprisingly, the 4-6 Football Team and the 3-7 Seahawks are both in the bottom half of the league in scoring, with Washington at 21.2 points per game and Seattle at 19.4 points per game.
Like the passing defense, however, the most recent three weeks show the two teams diverging. Over the past three games, Washington’s scoring rate has picked up slightly to 22.0 ppg, while Seattle has fallen to 14.7 ppg, which is better than only three other four other NFL teams.
When it comes to stopping the other guys from scoring, Seattle’s defense has outperformed Washington’s both on a season-long basis and over the past three weeks.
Seattle has the 7th ranked scoring defense in the NFL, and that ranking jumps to 4th if you look at just the past three games. Washington ranks 28th on the season as a whole, but leaps into 9th if you look at just the past three games.
In the Red Zone
The fact that Seattle’s defense is ranked so much better in scoring than in yards indicates a bit of a “bend-don’t-break” quality to their season, which should show up in red zone stats. The Seahawks are, in fact, ranked 5th in red zone scoring percentage at 50% (WFT is ranked 17th, at 60%).
However, Seattle ranks 28th in red zone scoring attempts, having faced 40 incursions inside their 20-yard-line this season, compared to 35 for Washington.
A key, then, will be to get into Seattle’s red zone frequently, and Washington may have to be ready to kick several field goals in this game. Fortunately, Washington has been improving its success rate at penetrating the red zone. For the season, Washington is averaging 3.2 red zone drives per game, but they have averaged 4.0 over the past three weeks, and the had 6 red zone drives against Carolina.
Scoring in wins & losses in 2021
If you look at scoring breakdowns of wins & losses for the two teams, the “magic number” seems to be 23 points.
- Washington has won every game in which is has scored more than 23 points, and has lost every game in which is has scored less than 23 points.
- Seattle is 3-1 when they score more than 23 and 1-5 when they score less, with the only outlier being a Week 2 loss to the Titans.
What’s the winning formula for Washington?
If Washington is likely to get TDs on only half its red zone drives, and the team needs to score more than 23 points, then the minimum goal should be to get either:
2 TDS + 3 FGs
3 TDs + 2FGs.
Four red zone drives seems to be a good target against the Seattle defense. Given the Seahawks’ high rate of success at stopping TDs, Washington needs to aim for 2 TDs and 2 FGs from these 4 opportunities. That would mean the team needs to score once more from outside the red zone to get to the target of 23 points or more.
Washington’s defense has 11 takeaways this season, while Seattle has 9.
The problem is that Washington’s offense has given up 15 while the Seahawks have only given the ball away 6 times.
I don’t think Washington can count on generating turnovers in this game; protecting the ball is one of Russell Wilson’s strengths. The Seahawks have lost just 4 interceptions and 2 fumbles in 10 games.
The burden, then, falls to Washington’s offense to protect the ball. Heinicke threw two interceptions against Denver and lost; he was responsible for zero turnovers in the wins against Tampa and Carolina.
However, Washington lost fumbles against Tampa and Carolina — both of them costly — and the Football Team was lucky not to lose the DeAndre Carter fumble this past Sunday.
Washington survived a -1 turnover differential this past week, and Seattle is 3-7 despite enjoying a +3 differential for the season, so it might be possible to get a win with a -1 turnover differential on Monday night, but ball security always needs to be a priority.
Aside from the actual score, turnovers are the most highly predictive stat when it comes to predicting wins & losses. The Seahawks have not been parlaying their turnover advantage into enough wins, but Washington needs to minimize mistakes to come out on top.
tl;dr - Who has the advantage?
Rushing - Washington seems to have the clear advantage in the run game on both offense and defense.
Passing - The passing offenses are similarly productive, but while both defenses are in the bottom half of the league for the season, Washington has played much better pass defense over the past month, giving it a slight advantage over the Seahawks.
Red Zone - Seattle is giving up yards, but is among the stingiest defenses in the NFL once the drive reaches the red zone. Their top-ten scoring defense gives them a clear advantage here.
Turnovers - The Seahawks have also have demonstrated better ball security than Washington has this season, and the odds seem to favor the idea that Seattle will win the turnover battle on Monday night. The key will be for Washington not to allow turnovers to get out of hand.
Washington is likely to move the ball between the 20s with greater ease on Monday night, but may find that drives stall in the red zone. Ron Rivera may need to accept more field goals than he’d ideally want to, and the team will probably need to score at least once from outside the red zone. Seattle attacks the ball and creates turnovers, while they do a very good job of protecting it on offense.
Key Seattle injuries at CB
Washington will be facing a secondary that is missing one starting CB and possibly a second as D.J. Reed was injured before the Arizona game, while Tre Brown left Sunday’s game with a knee injury. and it is reported that he has had successful, but season-ending surgery.
Seattle also saw RB Rashaad Penny and RT Brandon Shell come out of the Week 11 game with injuries that could affect their availability this week.
A word An essay about Washington’s injuries
Washington has plenty of injuries of its own, but the roster depth that we were so happy about in training camp is now paying off, and Washington faces the prospect of possibly seeing Curtis Samuel, Logan Thomas, or Ricky Seals-Jones on the field of play on Monday night. At this point, the most concerning injuries may be at Center, where Wes Schweitzer may offer the best solution while Tyler Larsen recovers, but at the cost of guard depth if he does. Sam Cosmi is also a question mark for Monday night.
Lots of fans of lots of teams point to injuries in October, November, December and January and say, “but we had so many important players injured”. Here’s my point of view: each season, there may be one or two teams that legitimately get decimated by injuries (this year it looks to be the Titans); everybody else loses players to injuries big and small. This is why roster depth is so important, and why I was among the many people applauding the focus on the 2nd & 3rd string players Washington had on the roster in training camp.
I was not the only one to comment this past summer that one reason why Dallas struggles to achieve expectations annually is that they tend to build a roster of star players on big contracts without quality depth. Those Cowboys teams look really good until they lose a key player or two; just look at what happened this past Sunday when they had to play without Amari Cooper, or look at pretty much every game that they’ve had to play without Tyron Smith in recent seasons.
I was one of many people who suggested that one of Washington’s competitive advantages in 2021 was the roster depth — which shows up as more important week-by-week as the injuries pile up. Teams without good depth struggle in the second half of the season. Teams that have solid players behind the starters get better (relative to the competition) as the season wears on. One thing I’ve come to understand over recent years is that the playoffs and Super Bowls are played by different guys than were on rosters in Week 1, and its usually the team with the best guys on the bench in Week 1 that are playing for trophies in the postseason. Look at Tampa Bay’s recent struggles at CB to see how lack of depth can hurt even a very strong NFL roster.
Prior to the start of the season, the concerns with depth for WFT centered on LB and DE. Linebacker looked pretty weak overall apart from Cole Holcomb. DE looked great when you saw Sweat & Young, but they were backed up by rookies and 2nd year players who were all 7th round draft picks, with some UDFAs on the practice squad.
Look at what’s happened:
Ryan Fitzpatrick was lost in the 2nd quarter of Week 1 (apparently for the season, possibly ending his career). Taylor Heinicke stepped in, and Washington has effectively played the entire season with a backup QB who is developing right before our eyes. He’s only 4-5 as a starter this season, but seems to be getting better all the time.
Logan Thomas went to IR after a Week 4 injury. His backup, Ricky Seals-Jones, stepped in and basically replaced his production without any real problems. When RSJ got hurt playing in the Tampa game two weeks ago, rookies John Bates and Sammis Reyes stepped up. Bates has caught two or three critical passes in two games, and Reyes has stepped in as a blocker. The two of them could be seen together on several plays against Carolina, side-by-side, allowing Scott Turner to call an offense that relied on a pair of players who, before Sunday, had a combined 127 offensive snaps of NFL experience.
Center Chase Roullier is rightly considered to be an important reason why the Washington offensive line has played well together for its two seasons under OL coach John Matsko. Unfortunately, Roullier went on IR going into the bye week after fracturing his fibula. He was replaced by Tyler Larsen, but Larsen was injured in Sunday’s game against Carolina. No worries — Guard Wes Schweitzer, who has rarely played center in the NFL, stepped in and played at a high level. When he had to leave the field briefly on Sunday, 2nd year interior lineman Keith Ismael got a few snaps. Based on what I saw from Schewitzer on Sunday, I expect the coaches will give serious consideration to the idea of keeping him at center for the remainder of the season (or until Roullier comes back, if he does).
Prior to the start of the season, many fans were expecting the front office to find a veteran pass rusher in the mold of Ryan Kerrigan to come in as a backup to Montez Sweat and Chase Young. What would happen, they asked, if both Sweat and Young were injured at the same time? Well, we’re finding out now, and the answer seems to be that the world isn’t coming to an end. James Smith-Williams, Casey Toohill, Shaka Toney, Daniel Wise, and Bunmi Rotimi have stepped up and helped deliver the two best defensive performances of the season.
I’ve already mentioned in the main part of the article how multiple players have stepped up to replace the production that had been expected from Curtis Samuel.
I always felt that the biggest challenge this season would be maintaining the confidence of players and fans through the brutal schedule that the team would face prior to the bye. I had expected to arrive at the bye with a 4-4 record, not 2-6, but I always felt that two factors would combine to make 2021 a story of a second-half surge.
The first factor would simply be that the schedule appeared to be considerably easier in the final 8 games than in the first 9. Secondly, however, I felt that the roster depth would begin to pay off for Washington.
While teams around the league are struggling to field competent backups, Washington’s line play on both offense and defense is getting better, as our backups beat up on their backups. The passing game clicks along with a backup quarterback, one star receiver and a bunch of “other guys” who each do a little bit. With our lead back struggling with a stress fracture, McKissic and rookie Jaret Patterson kept the ground game going. Now, an apparently healthy Antonio Gibson is imposing himself on defenses (aside from the odd fumble here and there). The defensive secondary is mostly healthy, but Torry McTyer and Darryl Roberts are on IR, and William Jackson and Ben St-Juste both missed a few games. The DBs struggled early, but they are now playing together and the defense is thriving.
Pointing to the injury list in November, December and January to put losses into context is just excuse-making. Good teams are built to withstand injuries. This time of year, success is built on our backups being better than the other team’s backups, and, personally, I think this is part of what will make it possible for Washington to play to win every week for the balance of the 2021 season. Washington’s roster is built for the marathon of a 17-game season, not just the ‘sprint’ to the bye week.
Monday night’s game appears to have the makings of a tough 24-20 type of contest that will be won by the team that makes the fewest mistakes and plays the best defense.
At this point, every game matters hugely in the race for a wildcard seeding. While a win doesn’t guarantee anything, a loss will almost certainly kill Seattle’s playoff hopes, and would put Washington in a position — practically, if not mathematically — of having to “win out” to reach the postseason.
This is Washington’s only prime time game of the 2021 season. Let’s hope the team uses it to show off a little bit and change the national perception of the 2021 Washington Football Team.