It’s a shame that the Seahawks didn’t play the Rams in London. The underground there has a famous visual and audio warning to tube riders about the space between the cars and the station platforms: “Mind The Gap.”
Had the Seahawks followed the legendary British admonition at the Clink Sunday, they likely would have delivered the season’s first loss to the Rams. If the defense again mishandles the space between the run stoppers and the long-ball defenders Sunday against Oakland at Wembley Stadium, the Seahawks likely will be 2-4.
“We had given a lot of ground in some coverage drops that allowed for a lot of room,” coach Pete Carroll said this week. “You give Todd Gurley that much room, he’s just about impossible to get down one-on-one.”
As a result, the Seahawks allowed the Rams to score on six of their nine possessions and surrendered season highs of 30 first downs and 468 yards. Yet the Seahawks held premier rusher Gurley to 72 yards in 22 carries, and no completed pass play by LA was longer than 31 yards.
What happened? They chose not to mind the gap.
The Seahawks’ prime directive for the game was to slow Gurley’s rushes. Beyond that was the standard pass defense strategy under Carroll of keeping the game in front of the secondary, allowing nothing over the top.
But in making those commitments, something was left uncovered: The underneath routes that QB Jared Goff exploited with short passes, including five to Gurley for 36 yards. Compounding the problem: Poor open-field tackling, particularly from FS Tedric Thompson in his first career start.
It’s possible to summarize this defensive vulnerability in three words: No Earl Thomas.
The first game of the rest of the Seahawks’ lives without their All-Pro safety did not go very well.
It wasn’t that Thompson was terrible. But no free safety in the NFL covers as much ground as Thomas, nor goes so directly to the ball, nor wraps up so securely. Thompson is in his second year and played only eight scrimmage snaps in his rookie season; Thomas was in his ninth season orchestrating the back end of Seattle’s defense.
“I think I played all right,” Thompson said after the game. “I feel like it’s a lot I can improve on, and I know I’m going to improve on. I think I missed a couple of tackles I know I should have made.”
There’s no guarantee Thomas would have made the tackles. But in a two-point game that required a huge fourth-and-one gamble in the final two minutes by the Rams to hold their 33-31 lead, the notion that Thomas would have been a difference-maker in stunting the Rams is hardly a stretch.
Just as obviously, Thompson and rookie CB Tre Flowers are the sort of newbie starters that offensive coordinators put in their crosshairs. What the Rams did will serve as a template for the Raiders, who despite their 1-4 start are averaging 411 yards a game, sixth in the NFL.
Asked whether improvement in tackling is something that can be done in one week in the middle of a season, Carroll gave an expansive answer in the affirmative. He said besides adjustments in scheme to cut down the cushion the Seahawks allowed Rams receivers — who had neither WRs Cooper Kupp or Brandin Cooks in the second half due to concussions — there were techniques involving use of angles and other tacklers that can be emphasized.
But his main point was a mental technique — the use of imagination in an era when padded-up tackling in practice and in training camp has been severely limited.
“Imagination is a very powerful skill for us to develop when you can’t hit and you can’t do things full-speed,” he said. “Can you be really mindful of that opportunity and how it would be at full speed, and what you would do in the situation?
“Earl was fantastic at it. He wouldn’t talk to anybody. He would just be in his own little zone, but he would be fitting things up. He was the illustration that we used for other guys and what it could look like. It was a great example.”
Which is yet another reason the absence of Thomas looms over the defense. His mentorship, as with that of Richard Sherman’s, would be useful in shrinking the learning curve for Thompson and Flowers.
Now, they have to fly solo while in the starting lineup. Thompson has to imagine how Thomas might have taken an angle and planned for an open-field hit that would drop the ball-carrier where he was met.
It’s a lot to ask of 50 percent of the secondary. Raiders QB Derek Carr undoubtedly plans to ask the question. Answers will come eventually, but until then, it probably requires the Seahawks offense to play shoot-out ball every time.