Nursing a slim two-point lead and facing a manageable 3rd and 3 situation from the opposing 41-yard line, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson turned to his left and pitched the ball to running back Travis Homer.
Seattle had hoped to catch Atlanta off guard with the toss play, but Atlanta wasn't fooled. A swarm of defenders led by linebacker Deion Jones quickly surrounded the second-year runner and dropped him in the backfield for a two-yard loss, bringing up 4th and 5 just past midfield.
Last year, coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer likely would have played the field position game with punter Michael Dickson trotting onto the field aiming to pin the Falcons deep in their own territory.
That would not be the case in Sunday's season opener, however. Not for these suddenly aggressive Seahawks.
As multiple Atlanta defenders continued to whoop it up after stopping Homer, Wilson quickly glanced over to the sidelines waiting for a play call from Schottenheimer. There was no doubt Seattle would be going for it. And they weren't playing for just a first down.
"I recognized they were celebrating and I just kinda stood out on the field and Pete [Carroll] held the guys back and let us go for it... it's time to separate a little bit," Wilson explained.
Lined up with two receivers on each side of the formation and Homer in the backfield, Wilson initially used a hard count and then took the snap from Ethan Pocic. Promptly identifying one-on-one coverage pitting cornerback Isaiah Oliver against DK Metcalf with no safety help, he took a three step drop and launched a downfield bomb between the numbers and the sideline, hitting the receiver in stride for a 38-yard touchdown.
"Look at how much belief and how comfortable Russ was in that situation," Carroll said after the game. "He didn't just think to dink it to try to get the conversion. He took what was there and took a great shot to DK. Beautiful execution by both of those guys. That's just Russ making the most of the opportunity and I think it was a really good illustration of how to execute like that under that circumstance is what we really hope to see and first game out, gave him a shot and went for it and that was a huge play in the game."
Though the touchdown only increased Seattle's lead to 21-12 at the time, it was a demoralizing blow for Atlanta's defense. And after a fake punt failed miserably with Sharrod Neasman fumbling the ball back to the Seahawks four plays later, the game quickly got away from the home team, as Wilson threw another touchdown to Greg Olsen just moments later. A field goal by Jason Myers turned a close game into a 31-12 blowout early in the fourth quarter.
"What really sticks out is that last year, we probably would've punted in that situation," Metcalf said on Thursday. "But for Schotty to have trust in Russ and the offense in that situation, for us to go deep and just to score a touchdown, that says a lot about our growth and our different mentality we have this year."
Several of Seattle's games in 2019 featured questionable fourth down decisions that irked the fan base. Most notably, Carroll decided to punt on 4th and 11 late in the fourth quarter of a Divisional Round matchup with the Seahawks trailing the Packers by five points, ultimately preventing Wilson from getting another shot to finish the comeback.
This offseason, Schottenheimer spoke frequently with Carroll and Wilson about ramping up their aggression on fourth down, recognizing they had an elite quarterback with numerous weapons around him.
"We certainly have had way more discussions about it, and honestly when you watch the play, there sideline is going crazy and it was almost instinctive," Schottenheimer told reporters on Friday. "I knew what Pete was getting ready to do. The competitor in Pete was like 'okay, those guys are going crazy over there, let's go try to get 'em.' I think that starts with the preparation through the offseason."
Contrasting Metcalf's score from Sunday to a fourth down touchdown from Wilson to David Moore against the Panthers when the team went for it out of necessity in 2018, Schottenheimer thinks this latest example shows "the aggressiveness we're looking for," but admitted those decisions will be determined each week depending on opponent and other factors. This weekend against the Patriots, for example, there may be similar fourth down situations the Seahawks choose not to go for it because they're facing a stingy, well-coached defense.
"We realize he [Wilson] is a tremendous player and we've got great players around him. We want to give him those opportunities," Schottenheimer said. "But it's going to be game planned each and every week. What we just did in step one is we showed we can play that way and that when we do it against certain opponents - not that it will always turn out like that - we know he's capable of doing that and Tyler and DK and Greg are capable of doing those things, so that's the thing that gives us confidence."
While it remains to be seen if Carroll and Schottenheimer are truly turning a new leaf or this was just an isolated decision, such aggressiveness shows they are willing to adapt their philosophies. By putting the ball in their best player's hands and trusting Wilson to work his magic connecting with one of his playmakers, it's a great sign the Seahawks want to display more of a killer instinct to put away opponents this year, which could be a major difference maker pushing to return to the Super Bowl.