SEATTLE -- Through much of the 2014 season, a once historically great Seattle Seahawks defense looked very mortal. Coming into their key NFC West tilt against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Seattle's defense ranked ninth in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, and 18th against the pass. Key to this regression was a series of injuries that had seen key players like linebacker Bobby Wagner and cornerback Byron Maxwell sidelined for important stretches of time. And when defensive tackle Brandon Mebane was lost for the season with a hamstring injury, it seemed like a breaking point for a defense that was already leaking in too many areas.
This season, the Cardinals have had the kind of resilience and intensity needed to maintain defensive excellence despite key personnel losses. But when Arizona came up to CenturyLink Field to revisit a place where they gave the Seahawks a rare home loss last season, they ran smack into the teeth of a defense that resembled the one that screamed through the league from start to finish last season. And it was Seattle who won this battle of NFC bullies, raising itself up to 7-4 and dropping the division-leading Cards down to 9-2 with a 19-3 win that was every bit as dominating as the score would imply.
Quarterback Russell Wilson was the star of the show with 211 passing and 73 rushing yards. But Seattle's defense clamped down on quarterback Drew Stanton -- limiting him to 149 yards and 14 completions on 26 attempts -- and denied an Arizona team that seemed intent on attacking Seattle's defensive line with its run game. The same fronts that were so vulnerable to Kansas City's rushing attack last week in the first game without Mebane were fairly impenetrable this time around, and Cardinals running back Andre Ellington barely made a dent, amassing 24 yards on 10 carries.
Health was a factor, to be sure -- Wagner was on the field for the first time since Week 6, and head coach Pete Carroll said after the game that he may not have fully realized what an impact player Wagner was until he didn't have him -- but there was more to it than that. This was a Seahawks defense that had no issue challenging Bruce Arians' deep passing concepts with tight coverage across the formation, and matching up any trips and bunch route concepts with bracket coverage. In simpler terms, this was mano a mano, and the Seahawks were primed to win those battles.
According to safety Earl Thomas, the difference in this game was a group of teammates who were not afraid to make mistakes -- and as a result, they very rarely did. Thomas spoke of discussions between teammates this week that escalated to boiling points and ended with positive resolutions. Receiver Doug Baldwin said that there were conversations between him and Thomas about ego holding the team back -- perhaps an inevitable Super Bowl hangover that had to be addressed.
"There was something missing and there was a subtle difference," Baldwin recalled. "Today, I feel we kind of found what we talked about through the week. Just trusting each other, respecting each other and going out there and playing for each other. I definitely felt it today. It's hard to get to that point, but once you open the door, it's easier to talk about. The feeling is mutual through the locker room. There was something missing. There was a feeling that was missing, and we're getting that feeling back. Playing for each other, trusting each other and loving our brothers."
It was something that several other team leaders talked about, from Russell Wilson to Marshawn Lynch to Richard Sherman. Eventually, head coach Pete Carroll made it a primary concern, and it resulted in Carroll getting his old team back.
"I think we had fun -- strictly fun," Thomas said. "The front played great. We stopped the run and made them one-dimensional, and that's the key to our success. If we make a mess, our brother's always going to be there to clean it up for us. Bobby -- the General -- he led us. I was just so happy to see him and [fellow linebacker] K.J. [Wright] play so well. They were patient. [Safety] Kam [Chancellor] played an excellent game. We're getting back to who we are, but the thing is, we just have to bring that same intensity on the road.
"The thing that stuck out to me was to just get absorbed in it. Coach Carroll told us before the game that he was going to play for us. I don't know what that meant, since he coaches and doesn't play, but that gave me so much confidence."
Apparently, the message doesn't always have to make sense. All Stanton knew was that he didn't appreciate facing this inspired Seattle defense.
"I think it has to do with the quality of the defense, but every defense is going to be good in this league," Stanton said. "We came in here and tried to do different stuff to present some problems for them, and it's a really good defense. They lean on that crowd noise, and they're really good at that. They kept everything in front of them today for the most part; we knew it was going to be difficult getting shots on them, and we just didn't stay on schedule."
The Seahawks went with some different looks against an Arizona run defense that's pretty top-notch itself -- flaring Marshawn Lynch wide right and bringing him in motion back to the backfield, running draws out of the Pistol, hitting him with quick screens. But running Lynch into the teeth of that defense over and over seemed like a bad play for Seattle, and they understood that. As a result, it was Wilson who led the team with 73 yards rushing, while Lynch gained more yards through the air (43) than on the ground (39).
And as the Cardinals ruefully noted, stopping Lynch on the ground didn't mean anything when Wilson was allowed to roam free and do what needed to be done despite constant pressure -- he was sacked five time in the first half alone and seven times total, but still managed to put up 17 completions in 22 attempts for 211 yards, a touchdown and no picks despite the fact that his offensive line seemed to be playing for the other side at times.
"He just extends plays," Arizona cornerback Jerraud Powers said of Wilson. "He has a knack for getting out of blitzes. He can read defenders even though he might look like he doesn't see it coming, he can see it. He did a good job of extending plays and getting some runs on us that hurt us. I felt that if we didn't let him escape in this game, we were going to handle their offense pretty soundly. But he was able to escape."
On offense, Arizona operated out of I-formation more than expected -- they clearly wanted to test that supposedly weakened Seattle line. To make up for it, Seattle kept extra defenders up at the line on obvious rushing downs (which are not always obvious with the Cardinals), and Arizona didn't really make Seattle pay for that. Veteran tackle Kevin Williams, signed in the offseason as a bit of an afterthought, has been a key and crucial addition in Mebane's absence. As end/tackle Michael Bennett said, it was a matter of everyone stepping up in place of someone who isn't easily replaced with any one player -- or rotation of players.
"It just shows the way the group is," he said. "Any day, one can take over. Everybody is playing good. Kevin Williams, Jordan Hill is coming in and doing well. To be able to move guys around after losing one of our key people on defense is hard, but those guys came in and have played good so far.
Carroll said after the game that it was his team's best defensive performance of the season, and it couldn't have come at a better time, really -- the Seahawks have a Thanksgiving night game down in San Francisco, and the brutal divisional battles keep coming. In 2013, this team was able to retain its status as the toughest kid on the block from start to finish. It hasn't been the case this time around, but as the cliché goes, it's not how you start ... and if the Seahawks can remember how to finish, they just might find themselves back on top of the NFC West. Arizona still has the lead from a win-loss perspective, but if Seattle is able to sweep the series when they go down to Arizona for that Dec. 21 rematch, things could get really interesting.
"We've had some good games and stuff, but this was the best one," Carroll concluded. "It comes at a good time. We have to turn this thing around in a hurry, and hopefully we can put together another quick week and continue to move in that same direction."
There have been times this season when the Seahawks looked like anything but champions. But in this game, against this team, they put everything together and made the kind of statement that could be heard more than once in the next couple of months.