Sometimes, when you try to determine the most important play in a football game, the choice is obvious. A key turnover or a game winning touchdown in the final seconds would certainly qualify. However, sometimes the most important play is not so apparent. This was the case in the Seahawks’ loss last Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals. The most important play in that game was a return, although it wasn’t the one you’re probably thinking of.
Brandon Tate’s 56 yard punt return for a touchdown was certainly a pivotal play. It made the score 27-12 with 3:22 left in the game. It definitely sealed the outcome, but it wasn’t the most important play in the game, in my opinion. It was his previous return, on a kickoff, that had a greater influence on the game.
It happened at around the nine minute mark in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks had just scored what would be their only touchdown of the game on a seven play, 84 yard drive. Even though they failed on their two point conversion attempt, the score was 17-12 and momentum was on Seattle’s side. The crowd was energized and ready to make some noise. Then came the kickoff.
Tate fielded the kick seven yards deep in the end zone, but decided not to take a touchback. It was a wise decision. He ran the kick back 45 yards to the Cincinnati 38. You could feel the wind go out of the sails from the crowd and the Seahawks themselves. The Bengals managed, with the help of two Seahawks penalties (which I will discuss in detail tomorrow), to take four minutes off the clock and convert a field goal to make it 20-12. At that point, any momentum the Seahawks had was long gone. They went three and out, then punted to Tate, whose touchdown return sent most of the fans heading for the exits.
After the Seahawks scored, it was vital to keep the Bengals from having good field position. As it has in so many instances this season, the coverage unit failed. The Seahawks needed to keep the Bengals inside their own 25 to keep momentum going. Even though it’s only about fifteen yards, it makes a monumental difference. Having the ball on their 38 certainly gave Cincinnati a lot of breathing room and put the team in more of a comfort zone than they should have been. The Seahawks’ defense couldn’t be as aggressive as they would have liked. The fans, while still very energetic, were deflated a little by the return. If the Bengals’ drive would have started further back, the crowd would have been exponentially louder.
I won’t go so far as to say that the Seahawks would have won the game if they had held Tate to a shorter kickoff return, but all the pressure would have been on the Bengals’ shoulders if they had. Having excellent field position after the return eased the load on Cincinnati significantly.
The Seahawks won several games last season by winning the battle of field position. They haven’t been able to do that this year because of the ineptitude of the coverage units, both on kickoffs and punts. The Seahawks are simply not good enough to overcome poor special teams play. There have been far too many big returns this season, and I’m not just talking about the ones for touchdowns. Plays like Tate’s kickoff return might not show up in the box score, but they are the ones that are most important in determining whether the Seahawks win or lose.