Following a 23-20 overtime defeat to the Steelers, the Seahawks have dug themselves into a hole they didn't envision being in before training camp, sitting in last place in the NFC West with a dismal 2-4 record.
At the center of the team's disappointing start, Seattle has once again struggled defensively and entered Sunday's contest ranked 32nd against the pass and 30th against the run. Through five games, the unit was on a historic pace to obliterate the 2011 Green Bay Packers for the most total yardage allowed in a single season and tied an NFL-record with four straight games allowing 450 or more yards.
But while the Seahawks weren't able to quite finish off a comeback victory in Pittsburgh, coach Pete Carroll was encouraged by the team's defensive performance in a hostile road environment. They held the Steelers to 345 total yards and allowed just six points in the second half, keeping the team in the game without star quarterback Russell Wilson under center for the first time since 2011.
In particular, Carroll was pleased with how well Seattle did locking up rookie running back Najee Harris, who was held to just 81 rushing yards on the night.
“I do think that we did a nice job last night and they tried hard to get it going," Carroll said on Monday. "We felt in control of it but late in the fourth quarter there were a couple runs that got out that moved the ball a bit. All in all, the guys did a really nice job up front, and we played a lot of seven men front football in this game so that called on those guys to do a good job and they did."
As Carroll observed, Harris did find a bit more success in the second half, averaging nearly five yards per tote in the final two quarters of play. But in the first half, the former Alabama star was bottled up to a tune of just 28 yards on 13 carries for a 2.2 yards per carry average.
Leading the charge, All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner seemed to sniff out every play, finishing the game with 14 tackles. On three different occasions, he brought down Harris for less than a two-yard gain. Jordyn Brooks also found his way to the young back frequently, tying for the team lead with 14 tackles of his own, while safety Jamal Adams and defensive end Kerry Hyder also brought him down for a tackle for loss.
By shutting down Harris for most of the game, the Seahawks put the ball in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's hands, forcing the veteran to beat them through the air. While he completed 29 out of 40 pass attempts for 229 yards and a touchdown, he averaged less than six yards per attempt and only completed two passes of 15 or more yards. Stellar play from cornerbacks D.J. Reed and Tre Brown on the outside helped limit receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool to a combined 88 receiving yards on 11 receptions.
In total, the Steelers were limited to a grand total of two explosive plays - a 25-yard run and 23-yard catch both made by Johnson - thanks to a stellar all-around effort at all three levels on defense. Even considering the final outcome and the fact the Seahawks only registered one quarterback hit on Roethlisberger, Carroll believes the game could serve as a turning point similar to the one that happened in a loss to the Rams in Week 10 last year.
During that contest, after allowing 17 points in the first half, Seattle buckled things down after halftime and surrendered just six points in the final two quarter, which was a stepping stone to a second half defensive revival on the way to a 12-4 record.
"I do think that this was an important game for us. To only allow two explosive plays for the night was a big improvement on what happened the week before," Carroll remarked. "It was necessary to get that done and I’m hoping we can take a turn. Ben [Roethlisberger] didn’t let it be a pass rush game, he would not hold the football, so we didn’t see numbers there, but we kept them under control for the most part. I thought it was a good step and a necessary step for us.”
Of course, Sunday's defensive resurgence should be taken with a grain of salt. Pittsburgh didn't exactly roll into the game firing on all cylinders, ranking 19th in passing offense, 31st in rushing offense, and 27th in scoring offense. With Roethlisberger well past his prime behind a new-look offensive line featuring two rookies and without his trusted security blanket in receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, Seattle wasn't exactly dealing with an offensive juggernaut.
Coming up next Monday night, the Seahawks will face a far stiffer test against the Saints, who ranked 11th in total offense before enjoying a bye week in Week 6. Jameis Winston has revived his career as the replacement for a retired Drew Brees, throwing 12 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. Behind him, Alvin Kamara remains a dangerous do-it-all running back with nearly 500 yards of total offense and four touchdowns.
Facing off against one of the best offensive minds in the business in coach Sean Payton, this latest prime time matchup will serve as a far better litmus test to see where Seattle's defense stands closing in on the halfway point of the season. If last week doesn't prove to be an aberration against a better opponent, the team may be able to survive a few more games without Wilson and climb back into the playoff hunt.