SEATTLE — It's not often that you get injury updates in the locker room after a game—usually, coaches wait until the post-game press conferences to disclose what has happened to their players. But as Pete Carroll walked through the locker room at CenturyLink Field following his Seahawks' 39-30 win over the Steelers on Sunday afternoon, his look and a couple of words told the whole story: “Patellar tendon.” And that knee injury suffered by tight end Jimmy Graham with 13:41 left in this game will put him out for the rest of the season. Teammate Doug Baldwin said after the game that he hoped Graham could come back sooner, but at this point, it does indeed appear that Graham's first season in Seattle, star-crossed as it has been, has come to an abrupt end.
It's a shame, because the Seahawks were finally starting to use Graham as he is meant to be used—as a mismatch nightmare with his height and athleticism—and in doing so, Seattle's offense responded in a way it really hasn't throughout the Russell Wilson era. The win was the Seahawks' first this season over a team with a record above .500, the first in Russell Wilson's time with the team that the Seahawks won despite giving up more than 24 points, and the first time since Super Bowl XL at the end of the 2005 season that the Seahawks scored a single point against the Steelers.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this game was that Wilson, who completed 21 of 30 passes for 345 yards and a career-high five touchdown passes, had to go to bat for his defense and win the game in spite of it. Pittsburgh's aerial attack is among the most dangerous in the NFL, especially its vertical passing game, and the Legion of Boom secondary, which has been tested and frustrated at unusual levels all season, was weakened in a few ways. Starting cornerback Cary Williams, benched in last Sunday's win over the 49ers, was a healthy scratch in this game, with DeShawn Shead taking his place. A welcome addition, however, was slot man Jeremy Lane, who returned to the field for the first time since he broke his forearrm and tore up his knee early in Super Bowl XLIX.
It didn't matter, though, because Ben Roethlisberger was going to test that defense no matter what. Roethlisberger is in command of the league's most dominant vertical game, and he did manage to torch the revised secondary for a total of 456 passing yards. The difference, though, was that Seattle was able to contain the Steelers when it mattered, and for all his fireworks, Big Ben threw just one touchdown pass to two interceptions, and the Seahawks got 19 of their points off of turnovers. Seattle has struggled all season with losing games despite winning the turnover battle. They've also held a fourth-quarter lead in every game this season. That they came out of this win over the Steelers with just 6–5 record shows you how they've also had trouble holding on late in games this year. And this game, in particular, was a crucial one to make sure they didn't let slip away.
“What a football game that was,” a highly relieved Pete Carroll said. “There was so much that happened; so many explosive plays. So many challenges back and forth for both teams. We feel like we got a win over a very, very good football team, and that's why we take this one in high regard. They were on it today, man — they were tough to stop. Ben was fantastic, and the receivers were great. They challenged us to the max, but we had what we needed to get it done.”
That they did, and the now 6–5 Steelers could only wonder what might have been. The lead changed eight times in this topsy-turvy event, and there were stars everywhere, especially on offense, and often the unexpected kind. Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin caught three touchdown passes from Wilson on the day, including an 80-yarder with 2:01 left that sealed the deal. Baldwin's six-catch, 145-yard day, however, wasn't a patch on the performance put up by the Steelers' third-year man Markus Wheaton who burned the backside of Seattle's secondary for nine catches on 13 targets for 201 yards and a touchdown. Richard Sherman did a commendable job for the most part of keeping Antonio Brown out of it—Brown had six catches on 12 targets for 51 yards—but Shead and Lane struggled throughout the day to keep pace with Roethlisberger's targets.
“To get those yards, they had to put it up and take some chances, and our guys came through with big plays,” Carroll said of his team's four-interception day. “It had been missing in our game, and that gave us the opportunity with field position and drive momentum that was really important. We need to do better, and there are so many plays we can go back and coach up and improve on. But you give them credit—that's a fantastic football team, and great players over there.”
Two decisions will most likely haunt Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin for a long while. There was the call to run a fake field goal at the start of the first quarter, with holder and backup quarterback Landry Jones throwing a floater across his body and across the field to Lane, who returned the interception to the Pittsburgh 24-yard line. That set up Wilson's first touchdown pass to Baldwin, and the Seahawks were off.
Then, down 32–27 with three minutes left in the game, Tomlin called a field goal—no, a real one this time—and kicker Chris Boswell responded with a 22-yard boot. But with the ball at the Seahawks' three-yard line on fourth-and-goal and the Steelers cruising on offense at that point, it seemed like an unnecessary admission of defeat. It's possible that the concussion Roethlisberger may or may not have been dealing with through a large part of the second half had a hand in that decision (don't ask the NFL about that; their spotters didn't feel compelled to check on the quarterback in the second half when he was hit and lay there for multiple seconds), but that's as may be. It was still too little, too late, and another lost opportunity.
Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones wasn't about to blame the loss on this or that little thing. The Seahawks riddled that defense with third-and-long conversion after third-and-long conversion, and as much as this defense has shown improvement in recent weeks, it's not a patch on the Pittsburgh defenses of yore.
“You can't say that because they scored two or three touchdowns after that, so in the big scheme of things, we didn't execute. We didn't get off the field on third down, and we gave up too many points. That's the big scheme of things.”
For the Seahawks, the big scheme of things will revolve around how to get past the injury to an offensive target in Graham from whom so much was expected this season. More has been expected from this entire franchise than has been delivered this year, but at least on this night, Seattle managed to keep it together enough to look like the defending NFC champs they have not resembled nearly enough in 2015.