Earl Thomas knocks the bll loose from the Rams Benny Cunningham

Earl Thomas knocks the bll loose from the Rams Benny Cunningham

With 6 minutes and 5 seconds left in their game last Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, the St. Louis Rams had the ball with a 3rd down and goal at the Seattle 6 yard line. They had just seen the Seahawks come back from a 6-0 half time deficit with two 3rd quarter field goals, a 4th quarter Marshawn Lynch, 9 yard touchdown run and, a couple minutes later, a Bruce Irvin 49 yard interception return for a score; all of which put the Rams in a 20-6 hole. For most “twelves”, Irvin’s interception return was a back breaker for St. Louis. That play had given Seattle a two score lead with momentum; and facing Seattle’s defense…well…I thought the CenturyLink sun was setting on the Rams in more ways than one.

I was wrong! The Rams took the kickoff following Irvin’s play and drove nearly the length of the field in less than 4 minutes; and now here they were, 6 yards from a touchdown that would make it a one score game. Punch it in now and every option would be on the table for St. Louis. They could play it straight on the ensuing kickoff, use their excellent defense to force Seattle into a punting situation, and get the ball back with time on the clock and all of their time outs. Or, a bit more risky, they could use an onside kick and get the ball back that way. No matter what they did, at that point they’d be playing with Seahawks house money, and could play fast and loose as a result. That was the situation as Ram’s quarterback Shaun Hill brought his team to the line of scrimmage for what would be the 11th play of his team’s drive. The stage was now set for what I believe was one of the greatest defensive plays any of us have ever seen a Seahawks player make.

From his viewpoint, as Hill came to the line of scrimmage and looked at the Hawks defense arrayed before him, what he saw was Seattle’s standard “cover 3” defensive alignment, though a bit compressed due to his team’s proximity to the end zone. In Seattle’s “cover 3” Hawks strong safety Kam Chancellor plays much closer to the line of scrimmage, like a 4th linebacker, leaving free safety Earl Thomas alone, at regular safety depth, and responsible for the entire middle 1/3 of the field in pass defense (the left and right outside 1/3s being the responsibilities of cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell respectively, hence the term “cover 3”). This defense makes Seattle very tough to run the football against because there are 8 players close to the line of scrimmage, the 4 defensive linemen, the 3 linebackers and Chancellor; and as we all know, the Hawks linebackers (Bobby Wagner, Bruce Irvin and KJ Wright) are all very fast and excellent tacklers; as is, of course, Chancellor. During the Seahawks recent display of defensive prowess, through which they have given up a total of 39 points across the final 6 games of the season; and which also has elevated them to the elite of NFL defenses both currently and historically, the “cover 3” defensive alignment has been a Seattle staple.

A good image of the Seahawks (in grey) "Cover 3" defense. Note Earl Thomas as the single safety and Sherman and Maxwell in their outside thirds

A good image of the Seahawks (in grey) “Cover 3” defense. Note Earl Thomas as the single safety and Sherman and Maxwell in their outside thirds

The reason Seattle can play this defense so well lies in their personnel, especially the incredible speed and cover ability of Sherman, Maxwell and Thomas; but particularly Thomas. When it comes to speed and the ability to get to where the ball is to make a play, the Seahawks free safety is without peer in the NFL. Possibly because Pete Carroll is an old defensive secondary coach from his first days in coaching, the Seahawks defense (unlike many NFL defenses that are built on the foundation of a pass rush and defensive line) is built from the secondary forward. The key to Seattle’s defensive success over the last 6 games has been shutting down the opponent’s running game, thus forcing them to become one dimensional and throw the ball. Seattle’s “cover 3” facilitates this by, in effect, “lending” Kam Chancellor to the linebacker corp. To play this defense the way he wanted Seattle to play it, Carroll knew he needed big, fast, athletic corners who could handle the bigger receivers playing in today’s NFL. He also needed a “sideline to sideline” free safety who could cover the center of the field, help the corners when necessary, and clean up any plays that somehow got by Seattle’s first layers of defense. He found all of these attributes in Earl Thomas, as we twelves have had the pleasure of witnessing for the last 4 seasons.

So that is what Shaun Hill was staring into when, from the shotgun, he looked out at the Hawks defense on that 3rd down and goal situation at the Seattle 6 yard line—and he and the Rams had the perfect play called to beat that defense. For the coming play St. Louis was set up in a “trips right” formation (3 receivers split to the right side of the field) and one receiver split to the left (tight end Jared Cook). To Hill’s immediate left in the backfield was running back Benny Cunningham. Hill used a quick count on the play and it almost worked, catching the Seahawks corner opposite Cook, Byron Maxwell, not quite set. As the Rams quarterback took the snap his tight end Cook took off and went straight up field into the end zone. For a split second Maxwell went with him, thus leaving a wide open area in the flat in front of the right side of Seattle’s defense. Into this open area “leaked” Rams running back Benny Cunningham, who was, for the moment, all by himself. Seeing the danger immediately, Maxwell passed Cook off to the linebacker next to him and, just as Hill was flaring a little swing pass to Cunningham, made a B line towards the Rams running back. Cunningham made the catch at the 6 yard line and turned his eyes up field towards the goal line, totally expecting to score. An instant later Maxwell and Cunningham collided at the 3 yard line, close to the sideline; but the Rams running back had the angle on Maxwell and, though slowed, was clearly going to break the tackle enough to cross the goal line for the touchdown.

Another angle on Thomas' brilliant play

Another angle on Thomas’ brilliant play

Meanwhile, 16 yards away, in the middle of the field and 5 yards deep in the end zone, Earl Thomas saw the same danger that Byron Maxwell did, but quicker. I have now watched this play in slow motion at least 20 times and I am still amazed at what Thomas then did. On seeing the Rams running back leak into the flat, even before the ball is thrown, the Seahawks safety takes off towards him at top speed. Cunningham makes the catch, angles toward the left, front corner of the end zone and takes that glancing hit from Maxwell at the 3 yard line. Maxwell slows Cunningham, but the running back is able to lean past him and extend his right, ball holding hand towards the end zone in an effort to break the plane of the goal line which, by rule, would be a touchdown. With Cunningham’s ball hand no more than 6 inches from the goal line, Earl Thomas, superman cape and all, arrives after his 16 yard dash from the middle of the end zone; whereupon he delivers a text book karate chop to Cunningham’s arm, forcefully knocking the ball from the running back’s hand. The loose ball moves down from Cunningham’s hand, and slightly forward, impacting the turf at the front part of the goal line stripe. As his momentum was carrying him towards the sideline and down, Thomas then nudges the ball with his hand, which goes across the tip of the front corner of the end zone, and then across the sideline and out of bounds for a touchback.

With the chaos of players and officials at the goal line it was almost impossible for anyone watching the game on TV, and for most fans watching in person at “The Clink”, to understand immediately what had just occurred. On TV it initially looked to me like Cunningham had scored, but then I saw the referee excitedly signaling that a touchback had occurred. A moment of confusion reigned in my mind as what I thought I had seen with my eyes conflicted with what I was now seeing from the ref. And then I saw the replay, and the incredible images of the play Thomas had made, and my jaw hit the floor…where it still is. As a result of Thomas’ play the Rams not only did not score, but the ball was turned over to the Seahawks on their own 20 yard line. Now I have seen “sudden changes”[1] before—but this was ridiculous! Thomas’ play had abruptly altered the course of this game. The Rams never again threatened and the Seahawks closed out a 20-6 victory.

There were other great plays for Seattle in this game that bear comment, particularly the two other turnovers that occurred earlier in the 4th quarter, both of which led to Seattle touchdowns. The first of these took place on the first play of the 4th quarter and was almost as unbelievable as the play Thomas made. On this play the Rams had the ball with a 2nd and 19 at the Seattle 34 yard line. From the shotgun Rams quarterback Shaun Hill took the snap, retreated a few steps, and then looked to his left flat area, expecting to find his running back Tre Mason with a short screen pass. Mason, however, got caught up in the confusion of defensive and offensive linemen and never made it to the flat. Seeing this, Hill decided to try to find a way to dump the ball where no one could catch it. He looked back to his right just a little, towards what appeared to be an open spot in the field in front of him just a couple of yards away; and fired a pass to that spot on a sharp, downward trajectory towards the ground.

Jordan Hill runs with his interception

Jordan Hill runs with his interception

Reading Shaun Hill’s eyes the whole way was Seahawks right, defensive tackle Jordan Hill. As the play developed Seattle’s Hill instantly recognized the screen pass, but saw as well that Mason would not be able to get to his spot. So instead of pursuing the play to his right, he more or less just stood there, a few yards up field from and slightly to the left of the Rams quarterback, eyeing him to see what he would do.  When he saw Shaun Hill unloading that short, downward pass to no one, Jordan Hill simply took a step to his left and dove to the spot where the ball was headed, while extending his left arm towards it. A foot or so above the ground the ball hit Jordan’s extended left hand and caromed back towards his chest, whereupon he gently cradled it and fell the rest of the way to the ground. Realizing he had just intercepted the ball but had not been touched, Jordan Hill then got up and started running downfield; advancing it to the Seattle 46 yard line before being tackled. From there the Hawks quickly drove to the Ram’s 9 yard line and scored their first TD of the game when Marshawn Lynch busted up the middle and covered those final 9 yards untouched.

Bruce Irvin returns his interception for a TD

Bruce Irvin returns his interception for a TD

Seattle’s other turnover took place on the Rams possession following the Lynch TD. This was also an incredible play, and it directly led to Seattle’s 2nd touchdown. The play started with the Rams having a 1st and 10 situation at their own 43 yard line. This time Shaun Hill took the snap from under center, took a five step drop and then fired a pass to his tight end Lance Kendricks, who was midway between the right hash mark and the numbers at the Rams 49 yard line when he began the process of receiving the ball. I say “began the process of receiving the ball” because before he could ever really complete the reception Kendricks was interrupted by the arrival of Hawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who hit the tight end in the back, wrapped his arms around him, and then stripped the ball from the Rams player in such a way that it went backwards behind both Kendricks and Wagner. The ball was loose for a split second but had no time to fall, because standing right behind Wagner and Kendricks was Hawks linebacker Bruce Irvin, in whose midsection the ball fortuitously landed. All Irvin had to do was grasp the ball and head for the end zone, which he did, running 49 yards for the score.

With those three 4th quarter turnovers the Seahawks claimed this 20-6 win over the Rams. At the same time they also accomplished ALL of their goals for the 2014 NFL regular season; something that just 6 weeks ago seemed all but impossible. At that point they were 3 games behind the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West with a 6-4 record and were in danger of not even making the playoffs. From that point on, fueled by a dynamic defense that has played at historic levels, and equal to any of the great defenses in NFL history, Seattle has won 6 consecutive games against some the best competition in the NFL while surrendering an average of 6.5 points per game (a grand total of 39 points) to opposing teams! As a result, for the second consecutive season the Seahawks have the NFC number 1 playoff seed, and ALL of their playoff games except the Super Bowl will be played within the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field!

For the Seahawks team, their mission for the 2014 regular season is accomplished; and for Seahawks fans it doesn’t get any better than this! We are, indeed, living history as it is being made. The goal this year is to repeat as Super Bowl Champs, something no team has done in a decade in the NFL, and now here our team is, just two home playoff games from returning to the Big Game.

So enjoy it you twelves, for opportunities like this in big time, pro sports do not come along very often.

I know I will!

Oh…and one more thing…Go Hawks!


Copyright © 2014

By Mark Arnold

All Rights Reserved

[1] The term “sudden change” in football is usually used to describe a turnover. The term is apt because, whether it’s the offense that turns the ball over, or the defense which causes and is the recipient of the turnover, there is a sudden change from offense to defense, or the other way around.

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4 Responses to Mission Accomplished: Thomas Led Seahawks Defeat Rams-Claim Home Field Advantage Through Playoffs—by Mark Arnold

  1. Awesome Mark! You nailed it again!

    Your statement from above…..”Seahawks defense (unlike many NFL defenses that are built on the foundation of a pass rush and defensive line) is built from the secondary forward.”, is a “plus point WHY” that explains the “situation” of how the Legion of Boom sets up and creates the overwhelming defensive model that still has NFL offenses and coaches scratching their Cajones game after game.

    3 amazing, magical turnovers… WOW!!!! Mission accomplished… NFC #1 seed, and as you so eloquently communicate, it seemed like the chances of this happening were sooooo slim to none, yet, here we are, knocking on the door at a possible repeat as Super Bowl champs and a piece of football immortality.

    My prediction at the Clink for the next 2 games are 1. PAIN delivered and 2. A whole lot of Cajones scratching by the losing visitors!

    Go Hawks!!!

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Thanks Steve! I like you predictions. As always, the Seahawks need to be ready to play come Saturday, for they will get the Panthers best effort. I can’t get that play by Thomas out of my head….magical, but I have a feeling the best is yet to come! Go Hawks!!!!

  2. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and
    wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.
    After all I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope
    you write again very soon!

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Hello! Thanks for the nice comments and for your interest. I usually publish weekly during the football season and otherwise a couple of times a month on various subjects. Come back again soon Best, Mark

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