The Seahawks’ special teams had been the rock of the team all season — the main reason Seattle had been in every game. And then they went to St. Louis, where the Rams have a history of beating the Hawks on special teams.
Punter Jon Ryan had been a huge factor all season for Seattle. He was the regulation MVP of the overtime win over the Denver Broncos, flipping field position with booming kick after booming kick. He was a big reason the Hawks still had a late chance to win in San Diego. And he helped make sure Washington never started past its 20-yard line in Seattle’s Monday night win.
He and Ricardo Lockette had become their own special battery, Ryan pitching fastballs to his speedy catcher, who typically made it downfield in time to prevent any kind of runback or to keep the return to a minimal gain.
Ryan had punted 18 times, and opponents had returned three of them for a total of 21 yards. Denver returned just two of six punts, and Washington didn’t have a single return on six kicks.
On top of that, Ryan had converted a big fourth down on a fake field goal in the fourth quarter of the win in Washington.
The Hawks had been just as good on kickoff coverage, yielding just 16.6 yards per return. In all, they were one of the league’s top four or five special-teams units.
And then they went to St. Louis, where Jeff Fisher’s staff once again outsmarted Pete Carroll’s. And, once again, the Hawks left with a close loss, 28-26.
The Rams returned a kickoff 75 yards to set up one touchdown, then pulled off an unbelievable ruse on a punt return that went 90 yards for a TD. And they topped it all off with a desperate, but perfectly executed, fake punt on fourth down from their 18-yard line with about three minutes left.
“We have an old history here, with the hideout play, but this was great execution by them on a couple of different situations,” Carroll said. “They made a huge difference. The kickoff return was huge. That was a ball that was kind of a miss-kicked ball that generally doesn’t happen like that.
“The punt return was a great play by them; they played to our discipline. The last play, if they didn’t catch the ball, we would have kicked a field goal and (gone) home. Very gutsy play by Jeff — the kind of stuff he has done in the past and the way we anticipate him being.”
You would have thought the Hawks would have learned after they got dominated on special teams in a 19-13 loss in 2012 — Fisher’s first year in St. Louis.
In that game, Greg Zuerlein hit four field goals — including from 58 and 60 yards — and the Rams fooled the Hawks on a fake field goal as punter Johnny Hekker threw a 2-yard TD pass to Danny Amendola.
Hekker got them again with the late fake punt Sunday.
After Russell Wilson had rallied the Hawks to within two points at 28-26, Fisher told special teams coordinator John Fassel that he planned to go for it if they did not convert on third-and-3. Richard Sherman knocked the pass away, bringing up fourth down.
“We were having a hard time stopping Russell,” Fisher said of Wilson, who became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 yards and run for 100. “There was too much time left on the clock right there and I didn’t want to give the ball back to him, and I thought that was our best chance to get a first down.”
It was a gutsy call — similar to many Fisher has made in his career — and it surprised the Hawks even though they had practiced for it.
Carroll: “We didn’t think they would do it in this situation.”
As for Stedman Bailey’s 90-yard punt return — a deception play that rarely, if ever, works — Fisher said it was “something that we saw on tape. We took advantage of it.”
The Rams basically fooled the Seahawks’ coverage team into thinking Ryan had shanked the ball, sending it right instead of left.
Fisher said, “The key is that Tavon (Austin) and Cody (Davis) really oversell that the ball is going (the wrong way). … And so when they saw Tavon running over, they probably thought it was miss-hit. The downside was he doesn’t catch it, the ball goes in the end zone, it’s a touchback or it’s downed. The upside was we felt like if he was able to field it, then we had a chance to probably put points on the board.”
Carroll said, “They did a great job. It pushed everybody that way. We chased all of our blocks in that direction. Unfortunately, on that play Ricardo Lockette was just getting lined up and checking with the official and missed the snap. I think Stedman was there with him and he makes the catch on it and Lock may have seen it differently had he got off right.”
Fisher said the Chicago Bears did it with return star Devin Hester against Green Bay several years ago, but it was called back for holding.
“I told coach Fassel to go ahead and run it if we had the right field position, and we did. So it worked,” Fisher said. “Special teams obviously played a big factor in this one.”