Defense Rounding Into Form at Perfect Time for Seahawks
SEATTLE, WA - Trailing 17-13 on the scoreboard entering halftime on Sunday, the Seahawks had once again given up nearly 300 yards of total offense to Jared Goff and the Rams, allowing 17 consecutive points on the game's first three drives to dig the team a 10-point hole for a second straight week.
This had become the new normal for a once-vaunted defense. Week in and week out, Seattle let opposing passers surpass 300 passing yards with ease due to an underwhelming pass rush and a struggling, injury-marred secondary that earned a not-so-friendly "Legion of Room" nickname.
But something changed during that 15 minute intermission at Sofi Stadium. After playing uninspired football for much of the first half, though the Seahawks would allow a touchdown on their first defensive possession of the third quarter, it was the defense that kept the team in the game until the closing moments by forcing three straight punts by the Rams.
On an afternoon where Russell Wilson failed to throw a touchdown and threw two costly interceptions, the strong effort wasn't enough in a 23-16 defeat. But as deflating as the loss was dropping coach Pete Carroll's squad to third place in the NFC West, he was encouraged by the fight he saw from his defense.
Fast forwarding 96 hours later to Thursday Night Football, facing off against one of the NFL's best offenses without both of their starting corners, that strong half of play carried over in a big way as the Seahawks turned away the Cardinals in the final minute with a game-clinching sack by defensive end Carlos Dunlap to secure a potentially season-changing 28-21 victory.
Seattle finished the night with season-lows in total yards (314) and points (21) given up in a game this season. Keying the win, the team held Arizona's top-ranked rushing attack to a meager 57 yards and 3.2 yards per carry, including limiting elusive quarterback Kyler Murray to just 15 yards on five carries.
"Just play after play, the guys just kept executing really well," Carroll said about the Seahawks' stout performance against the run. "We're disciplined about it and this guy [Murray] poses so many problems. He's been a nightmare for opposing defenses and tonight we felt like we had a pretty good feel for what we needed to do and the guys executed beautifully."
Led by Dunlap's impressive two-sack performance, the Seahawks defensive line set the tone from the opening kickoff, consistently putting pressure on Murray with seven quarterback hits and setting the edge against the run. In the first half alone, Dunlap and L.J. Collier brought him down for sacks and when the speedy quarterback tried to escape the pocket, running lanes closed quickly.
In the second half, after the Cardinals had trimmed the lead down to two points and looked poised to steal another divisional game, Collier beat guard J.R. Sweezy inside off the snap and drew a hold on the former Seahawk in the end zone. The pivotal safety proved vital, as the two points plus a Jason Myers field goal gave the home team a seven-point cushion.
The most encouraging part? Both of Dunlap's sacks as well as Collier's came on plays dropping at least seven players in coverage without bringing additional pressure. The decisive final sack by Dunlap came on a three-man rush, as he bent around the corner against tackle Kelvin Beachum to wrap up Murray in the backfield.
“It was surreal,” Dunlap said. “With the way the sideline erupted, I can only imagine what it would have been like if the 12s were in there. This team is very exciting. I’m happy to be a part of it."
Throughout the evening, when Murray dropped back to pass, a secondary led by reserve cornerbacks Tre Flowers and D.J. Reed held up its end of the bargain as well. While the second-year signal caller made a few dazzling throws and tossed a pair of touchdowns, he struggled to get the football to his top receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who finished with five receptions for just 51 yards.
It was a far cry from the first matchup between these two teams when Seattle didn't register a single quarterback hit and allowed 360 passing yards to Murray, who probably didn't need to wash his jersey afterward.
"I think the energy was there, I think the focus was there, the execution was there," linebacker Bobby Wagner said following the game. "I think we obviously understood this game was big and you know, the way that they won the last game, we didn't want them to do it on our home field, especially since we just renamed it something else. I just felt everybody was locked in and we executed."
As Wagner noted, the Seahawks made key adjustments after the first loss in Glendale as well as recent losses to the Bills and Rams. Realizing they were making it too easy to tell when extra pressure was coming, the group did a better job of mixing in blitzes with three and four-man rushes, flustering Murray with disguised looks before the snap.
"I definitely felt like after the first game we learned a lot and understood what they were trying to do and just watching the last few games, what teams were trying to do when they saw us blitzing," Wagner explained. "A lot of the teams were checking out and doing jailbreak screens and things like that, so a lot of it is just intellect and learning from other games."
Aside from the schematic adjustments, the Seahawks finally look to be building chemistry, something that has eluded them for much of this season in large part due to injuries. According to Carroll, an accountability meeting set up by defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. on Wednesday proved most beneficial in this regard as players were put on the spot to go over their responsibilities in all of the team's base defensive calls.
In addition, newcomers such as Dunlap and Jamal Adams seem to be finding their groove having now played three straight games and the energy they bring to the field is contagious. Young players such as Collier, Alton Robinson, and Jordyn Brooks have fed off that energy and continue to improve while taking on bigger roles themselves. Reserves such as Flowers and Reed have elevated their games and performed admirably against two of the NFC's best offenses in a five-day span.
And the best news? Seattle still has plenty of room to get better moving forward, starting with eliminating penalties. As Carroll remarked, without several key penalties such as an unnecessary roughness call on safety Quandre Diggs extending Arizona drives in the second half, the group would have had an even better night.
Along with cleaning up penalties, reinforcements could be coming for the secondary and defensive line after the Seahawks "mini" bye, including cornerback Shaquill Griffin returning from a hamstring injury and rookie defensive end Darrell Taylor potentially being activated off the Non-Football injury list.
With an easier upcoming schedule featuring four straight teams with losing records, Seattle should have a prime opportunity to finish the season on a strong note. As he's preached all along despite the team's ongoing struggles, as the group continues to gel, the ever-so-optimistic Carroll has high hopes for what the defense can evolve into by playoff time.
"There's no reason we can't come together and play really good football. There's no reason and from this point forward, we just have to get comfortable with everyone that's out there... Some pretty good things are happening, so I'm really excited. It was a good night for us."