For 15 seconds, 11 Seahawks came together for one extraordinary moment that clinched a playoff victory and etched a play into the city's sports history.
Seventeen Power isn’t all that complicated a football play.
In fact it’s simple enough to be a staple in an NFL playbook. And Seattle was in its most basic personnel grouping when offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates called Seventeen Power for the first and only time during Saturday’s playoff game against New Orleans. The Seahawks had two receivers, two backs and a tight end on the field for a play that was only a little more ambitious than a quarterback sneak.
“If you get 4.1 yards you’re patting yourself on the back,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said.
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But on Saturday, 11 Seahawks took that one simple play and spun it into gold as Marshawn Lynch ran 67 yards, the longest postseason play in franchise history. At least eight Saints touched him on a play that has been burned into the hard drive of our city’s consciousness.
The play took 15 seconds, its reverberations registering on a seismometer and shaking the defending Super Bowl champions out of the playoffs. But the explanation requires so much more — from the precision of the blocking assignments to Lynch’s adamant and repeated refusal to be tackled, to the fact that center Chris Spencer found himself in the right place at precisely the right moment because of nothing more than good luck and sharp instincts.
It took more than a running back to produce a play like this.
“When I look at it, I think, ‘Man, I had a lot of help,’ ” Lynch said.
Eleven players had interlocking assignments, and it takes a magnifying glass and an interpreter to diagnose just what happened. The Seattle Times interviewed each of the 11 players on the field for that play, plus Bates, the color commentator who called it for NBC and former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, who described the play while watching the coach’s tape at NFL Films.
The result is a snapshot of everything that goes into making even one of the simplest plays in football successful.
Point of attack
Lynch reached the line of scrimmage within two seconds of the snap, which meant Seattle’s blockers had even less time to diagnose their assignments, which aren’t necessarily as simple or straightforward as you’d think.
Tight end John Carlson’s responsibility was to help left tackle Russell Okung block Will Smith, New Orleans’ defensive end. At least that was his assignment until the strongside linebacker, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, tried to push past Carlson down the line of scrimmage.
“If the strongside linebacker crosses my face, I take him,” Carlson said. “And he did. So I picked him up.”
Receiver Ben Obomanu went in motion before the snap, blocking safety Roman Harper to keep him from penetrating off the edge.
Right guard Mike Gibson pulled on the play, running to the left side of Seattle’s line. His assignment was to block the middle linebacker until he saw Carlson blocking one-on-one.
“If I see color on the tight end — by color I mean any defender on John Carlson — I’m supposed to hit color and run my feet and clear a hole,” Gibson said.
That’s exactly what happened when Gibson saw Carlson engaged with Dunbar.
“When I pulled around the corner that’s the first person I saw, a white jersey,” Gibson said. “So I took after it, and hit it with everything I had.”
Make a hole
Gibson was the bulldozer who opened the hole, but it was fullback Michael Robinson who kept the Saints from plugging it. A college quarterback at Penn State, Robinson is a steel-toed fullback who didn’t just put a body on Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, he physically rooted him out of space.
Robinson’s back was turned to Lynch after he engaged Vilma, but his ears told him what happened next.
“I heard the crowd,” Robinson said.
Linebacker Scott Shanle had shuffled over from the backside of New Orleans’ defense, positioning himself in the hole. The Seahawks had carried out their blocks as assigned, but the Saints had a defender untouched and in position to make the tackle.
“The Saints’ defense wins early in the down,” Jaworski said as he viewed the play. “The defensive line has all their gaps covered, Shanle scrapes over the top. Defense is in perfect position, right in the hole. It should be a 1-yard gain.”
Except this is the point where the X’s and O’s of football get trumped by the physics of a collision. That moment in which mass and acceleration mix with determination and attitude and a 215-pound running back like Lynch can hit a 245-pound linebacker like Shanle and bounce right off him and out of his grasp.
“Great backs run behind their pads,” Jaworski said. “Bad backs run under their pads.”
Lynch put everything he had into this run.
“Sometimes you’ve got to B.Y.O.B.,” said Bates. “Be Your Own Blocker. That’s what Marshawn was. He ran over a guy.”
The great escape
The block you probably didn’t notice was the difference between a good run and a great one, and that block came from a most unexpected player.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be there,” Spencer said.
Spencer’s job on the play was to help left guard Tyler Polumbus with Remi Ayodele, the Saints’ 318-pound nose tackle. But Ayodele went way wide on the play, moving down the line of scrimmage and away from the run. Polumbus stayed with Ayodele, and Spencer turned toward the next level of New Orleans’ defense, looking to pick off a bogey.
“I hit the first guy that was coming,” Spencer said.
That turned out to be New Orleans safety Darren Sharper, who was closing in on Lynch and preparing to make the tackle about 6 yards past the line of scrimmage. Spencer hit Sharper before he could get a lick on Lynch, opening a window that allowed the play to progress from successful toward spectacular.
“You’ve got a nosy safety,” Jaworski said. “If you make that block on a safety, you’ve got a lot of room downfield.”
Lynch ran past Sharper, and eluded Ayodele, who had run back into the play, and then the field opened wide in front of Lynch. At that point there was no playbook or game plan to help him. Football became as simple as the sandlot, instincts and attitude as important as anything.
“The offensive line did a great job of creating a seam,” Carlson said. “But that being said, there are a lot of plays where the offensive line creates a seam and it’s a 6-yard gain or an 8-yard gain, maybe a 12-yard gain.
“But Marshawn’s individual effort on that play went above and beyond.”
Lynch ran past a diving attempt from cornerback Jabari Greer, but nothing demonstrated Lynch’s will so powerfully as the left-handed shove he administered to Saints cornerback Tracy Porter, dismissing him downfield with extreme prejudice.
“If there was one moment that defined the integrity of the run it was the stiff-arm,” said the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, who called the game for NBC. “It was so violent and almost disdainful. It was almost like, ‘No one’s tackling me here.’ “
Gibson had a prime view.
“I just saw a guy go flying,” he said. “That’s the only thing that I saw.”
Obomanu paused for a moment, searching for the right description.
“It was like a man among little boys, the way he threw him off,” he said.
Polumbus stands 6 feet 8, weighs 300 pounds, an offensive lineman who hadn’t played a minute at guard until this season. Starting at left guard, he began by blocking Ayodele, and 60 yards later he provided a moving screen that prevented any last shot that Harper, the safety, had of stopping the play.
“That’s the longest I’ve actually ran and contributed to anything,” Polumbus said.
He wasn’t the only one. Sean Locklear was downfield. So was receiver Mike Williams, cracking back to block a pursuer.
“You just kind of want to make sure you’re in the highlight,” Williams said. “So I might have got a shove on somebody probably 20 or 30 yards down the field but that play was really the guys up front and just Marshawn’s effort.”
Even Hasselbeck was there at the end, reaching out and putting his hand on defensive end Alex Brown’s back for just a moment before letting go.
“I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a run where the entire offense is blocking downfield,” Mayock said.
There were five Seahawks teammates within a few yards of Lynch as he jumped backward into the end zone, more than half of the offense on a play that required a contribution from everyone.
For 15 seconds, 11 Seahawks came together for one extraordinary moment that clinched a playoff victory and etched a play into our city’s sports history.
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org