As the Seahawks prepared to face the Atlanta Falcons last week, special teams coach Brian Schneider and some veteran players, led by tight end Luke Willson, challenged the special teams units, and the return teams in particular.
The Seahawks have been impressive in kick and punt coverage all season, but All-Pro returner Tyler Lockett and the return units have yet to get on track. Prior to Monday's game, Lockett had just one return of note all season, a 43-yarder in Seattle's season opener, and Lockett was averaging just 21.3 yards per return.
That all changed in big way on Monday, however, with Lockett and his blockers providing one of the bright spots in a 34-31 loss. Lockett piled up 197 yards on five kick returns, which was not only a career high for him, but the fifth highest single-game total in franchise history behind Leon Washington (253), Maurice Morris (231), Washington again (222) and Charlie Rogers (198). That was also the highest kick return total in a game since the NFL moved the touchback on kickoffs from the 20 to the 25-yard line in order to discourage returns.
For that performance, Lockett was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week, his second time winning the award, having also done so late in his rookie season. Lockett also earned Special Teams Player of the Month honors twice during that 2015 campaign, winning the award in September and December.
According to Lockett, the message from Willson, a longtime special teams contributor, was that "in the six years he has been here, the return game has been phenomenal, everyone has done a great job, and we weren't really getting a lot of things going. We were putting our offense in tough situations, starting on the 20 or the 15, and we knew we were better than that. We knew that if we were able to get it going, we could change the game… Challenging us, it brought everybody to the table and said, look, it's time for us to make it happen, and everybody did it."
One reason the returns improved was Lockett's blocking, but he was also as decisive as he has been all season, allowing for those big returns.
"We just went back to the basics," Lockett said. "Schneid just wanted to focus on the little things. The wedge play, the leverage, knowing which return we were going with. He wanted me to be able to hit it instead of just kind of dancing around, so we all had a job we needed to focus on, and I think everybody did exactly what he wanted us to do. We did a great job putting the offense in great field position to be able to go out there and try to score."
Lockett, who broke his leg late last season, didn't feel like he was any faster or more explosive Monday than he has been in recent games, but did note that he was trusting his blocking and, as Schneider requested, being more decisive.
"You run differently whenever you trust it, and one things Schneid was telling me was to just trust it, just hit it," Lockett said. "Don't tiptoe or worry about if it's going to be open or not. Just trust it and hit it. When you trust it and hit it, you don't second guess anything, you just run. It's hard for defenses to try to make tackles when you're running full speed and they're running down full speed. They've got to break down and try to tackle you, and that's when you see a lot of returners able to run straight through them."
The Seahawks lost Monday night, but they hope they may have rediscovered a big weapon that can help them win the field position battle down the stretch.
"It was great to see that," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "That was the whole unit, really, to be celebrated in our room, for coming through and blocking and making all those plays and staying away from penalties and all the things you have to do to make that happen. We know Lockett's a terrific returner; it has just been like the lid's been on it all year long, so to get him a chance tonight was great. He was pretty much controlling the field for us. It was a great job by him."
The Seahawks fall short 34-31 against the Falcons in Week 11 at CenturyLink Field.