SEATTLE — If anybody doubted that the Panthers were for real after going 4–0 against the Jaguars, Texans, Saints and Buccaneers, Sunday’s 27–23 comeback win over the Seahawks was a decent jab at the non-believers.
And if anybody doubted that the Seahawks were in trouble before this loss ... those doubts are right out the window now. The two-time defending NFC champions are sucking wind at 2–4, and coach Pete Carroll had little in the way of answers after his team’s Week 6 loss. His defense, so stout until it ran into the Patriots’ offensive rebirth in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX, has been outmanned and outdone in the fourth quarters of the 2015 season. They’ve been outscored 55–27 in the final frame, and the repeated blunders as the games wind down are certainly a different look for a defense used to imposing its will.
Carroll kept insisting that there weren’t common denominators to these issues, and if Carroll really doesn’t know what’s going on with his team at this point, it’s fair to say he’s not particularly skilled at serial detective work. The Seahawks have led in every game they’ve played this season but have blown three fourth-quarter leads, including last Sunday at Cincinnati, in which the Bengals raced back from a 24–7 deficit to win 27–24 in overtime, and this disaster at home, in which the Panthers were down 23–14 when Steven Hauschka kicked a 43-yard field goal with 11:46 left in the game. Seattle’s formerly strong defense gave up two straight 80-yard touchdown drives after that, with the final dagger coming on Cam Newton’s 26-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen with 32 seconds left in the game. Once again, the Legion of Boom looked like a unit that did not deserve to wear that name, and the Seahawks’ once-confident players were a lot more soft-spoken after this one.
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Perhaps most disturbing for those who have tracked Seattle's defensive success over the last three seasons was Richard Sherman’s admission that he and safety Earl Thomas received conflicting signals on the Olsen touchdown. Neither Sherman nor Carroll would specify what the issues were, but Olsen had a wide berth to the end zone, and backup linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis was caught in the middle, handing Olsen off to nobody.
“It was unfortunate,” Sherman said. “We had a little miscue at the end, but we'll go back and look at the tape and come back for the next game. It was a confusion about what call we were in; there were a couple of calls being signaled in that were different. And the game’s at a fast pace, so you’ve got to make a decision.”
I asked Sherman about the team’s continued struggles against tight ends—a bugaboo that plagued the franchise even when the defense was playing at a higher level—and he referred back to the miscommunication.
“That was just kind of a fluky play,” he said of Olsen's final score. “Because we were playing two different plays at the same time. Anytime you do that, it’s tough in this league. It's not going to work out well. But we'll correct it. Obviously, there’s a miscommunication somewhere, there’s a disconnect somewhere, and we’ll correct that.”
Thomas was more specific about the error in communication. There was a schism between the “L.A.” (Cover-2) coverage defensive coordinator Kris Richard sent in, and the Cover-3 scheme played by the rest of the secondary left Olsen uncontested. Via Chris B. Brown of Smart Football, below is the coverage that was called on the game-winning touchdown—pity three-quarters of Seattle's defense wasn't playing it.
“We had some people playing ‘L.A.’, we had some people playing another coverage,” Thomas said. “But when stuff is going on like that, we've got to play the right call. Coach Richard said he called ‘L.A.’ Sherm was playing L.A., which is true, and I was playing a Cover-3. Kam was playing Cover-3 also; the whole backside was playing Cover-3. But I think Sherm was so close to the sideline, he got the correct call. We didn't get the job done.”
In this case, that would involve Sherman playing zone and passing Olsen off to Thomas, when Thomas had vacated that area as a result of the coverage he thought he was supposed to play. And that would explain the intense dialogue Thomas and Sherman had after the play on the field, not to mention the further discussion in the locker room—Carroll came right over to Sherman in the locker room after the game and wanted to know what went wrong.
As weird as this miscommunication may have been, it’s far from a one-week problem— both in its scope and in its fixability. Sherman, Thomas, safety Kam Chancellor and cornerback Cary Williams held an ad hoc position group meeting at the locker of slot defensive back DeShawn Shead, but they’ll have to wait until Thursday against the 49ers to see if whatever adjustments or exorcisms implemented on a short week actually make a difference. Right now, Carroll’s team is a hairsbreadth away from irrelevance, an unfamiliar position for this team in recent years.
Still, with all that drama surrounding Seattle, the more long-lasting story here is 5–0 Carolina. With the Falcons’ Thursday night loss to New Orleans, the Panthers are the NFC South leaders and, along with the Packers, one of only two remaining undefeated teams in the NFC. Newton has done a lot with a patchwork group of receivers (Olsen is his only consistent weapon on offense), and he stayed the course in this game even after Seattle picked him off twice.
Newton finished with 20 completions on 36 attempts for 269 yards, those two picks and the game-winning touchdown. It wasn’t pretty, but when you add in his 30 yards rushing and his ability to fool Seattle’s pursuit-based defensive fronts with read-option and misdirection plays, it was more than good enough.
And while the Seahawks were fumbling and bumbling over their own play calls, the Panthers made key protection adjustments that gave Newton more time to throw and Jonathan Stewart more time to run when it was most needed.
“This was one of the bigger victories we have had since I have been here,” said Ron Rivera, who’s been the Panthers’ head coach since 2011. “One of the things that stood out and one of the things I liked today was the resiliency. One of the things I told the guys on the sideline was to keep pounding. One of the things I told Cam was just to take it one at a time. Let’s get one score at a time. Let’s not press it. He did the things he needed to do ... we had some opportunities earlier in the game and we didn't capitalize on them. We turned the ball over, unfortunately, and you do that against good football teams, you're going to lose.”
The intimation within Rivera’s final comment that may sting most in Seattle is the simple fact that the Seahawks simply aren’t a good team right now. Good teams don’t waste opportunities. Good teams don’t let themselves get suckered out of wins over and over again. Good teams stay relaxed and understand that winning football is a play-to-play exercise. Good teams don’t continually insist that they’re playing well when they’re not, which is perhaps Seattle’s primary flaw right now. There appears to be a continued belief among the Seahawks that they are just a few tweaks away from turning it around, no matter how much evidence to the contrary.
On Thursday, they will travel to Santa Clara and prove it one way or the other against the 49ers. As for the Panthers, they’ve proven all they need to for now.