With only three days between games, the Seahawks promptly ruled out both of their starting cornerbacks before Thursday's pivotal rematch with the Cardinals at Lumen Field. Given the team's season-long difficulties defending opposing passing attacks, such injuries spelled disaster against one of the NFL's most explosive offenses.
After all, Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray had sliced and diced Seattle's secondary with Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar in the starting lineup only four weeks ago to a tune of 360 passing yards and three touchdowns. DeAndre Hopkins eclipsed 100 yards and burned Dunbar for a 35-yard touchdown, while Larry Fitzgerald added 62 receiving yards and Christian Kirk caught two scores against a defense once again struggling with busted coverages and missed assignments.
Without Griffin or Dunbar able to play for an already-struggling defensive backfield that has been on a blistering pace to destroy the single season record for passing yards surrendered, a repeat performance seemed all but guaranteed.
But in an unexpected development, with reserves Tre Flowers and D.J. Reed starting at the outside cornerback spots, the Cardinals weren't able to come close to replicating that success in Week 11. Instead, the Seahawks turned in their best defensive effort all season long, limiting their rival to 314 total yards, easily their lowest output of the season.
At the forefront of this performance, Carlos Dunlap sacked Murray twice and Seattle put constant pressure on the young quarterback, forcing him into several errant throws. The defensive line also held up well against the run, limiting the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack to just 57 yards and 3.2 yards per carry.
While the front four deserves immense credit, however, one of the overlooked story lines coming out of Thursday's victory was the surprising play in secondary. On the outside, Flowers and Reed both vastly exceeded expectations in coverage and contributed against the run as well, while safety Quandre Diggs turned in his best game of the season.
"We didn't make any of the [mistakes] - with one exception they checked down for a 20-yard play and it should have been nothing - there wasn't any plays out there," coach Pete Carroll said last Friday. "The guys did great, they were very consistent, they did stuff right the whole night, and played aggressive football for us and fit together with what we were doing up front."
As Carroll mentioned, Flowers did whiff on a tackle on Hopkins after a short curl route, allowing the star receiver to race down the sideline for a 23-yard gain. But away from that miscue, the third-year cornerback allowed only four receptions for 33 yards and no touchdowns in coverage.
When pitted against Hopkins in coverage, he kept the perennial All-Pro in front of him, holding him to 36 yards on three receptions. Though each of those catches moved the chains, he eliminated big plays downfield, playing a crucial role in limiting Hopkins to just 51 yards on five receptions.
"Everybody knows what we need to do and you can see Tre really embracing it," Carroll said. "That was a really nice game for him."
On the opposite side, Reed stuffed the stat sheet with a season-high 10 tackles and a pass defensed. While he did allow a four-yard touchdown to tight end Dan Arnold in coverage, he also made a key pass breakup on Arizona's final drive to prevent a potential score to receiver Andy Isabella on a third down heave from Murray.
Per Pro Football Focus, Reed produced four run stuffs, tying with linebacker Bobby Wagner for the most on the team. For a second straight week, he also chipped in on special teams, nearly breaking loose on one of his two kick returns for 45 yards. According to Carroll, he will remain the role for the foreseeable future even when Travis Homer returns from injury.
"I love him back there," Carroll gushed. "His suddenness and mentality about it is what you're looking for and so he's going to be a big part of the returns."
Overall, the Seahawks held the Cardinals to just two pass plays of 20-plus yards, with one of those being the previously mentioned completion to Hopkins with a missed tackle by Flowers. Otherwise, Carroll's defense shut down the vertical game, limiting Murray to 6.4 yards per pass attempt, his third lowest total of the season.
With Flowers and Reed locking things down on the outside, Diggs came through taking away posts, corners, and seam routes from his center field position. Though he received a costly unnecessary roughness penalty whacking Hopkins early in the third quarter that ultimately extended a touchdown drive, he made two of the biggest plays in the game for the Seahawks defensively.
Late in the second quarter, with the Seahawks leading 13-7, the Cardinals had moved the ball past midfield with 4:05 left in the half. With pressure coming, Murray spun outside to his left and scanned the field, eventually finding Arnold wide open on a 17-yard hitch between the hashes for what looked to be a first down. But rocketing out of his single-high drop, Diggs blasted the tight end and jarred the ball out of his hands with the monster hit, forcing a punt two plays later.
Fast forwarding to the final minute of the game, Murray led Arizona down to the Seattle 27-yard line trailing by seven on the scoreboard. Taking his first shot to tie the game, the quarterback fired a pass to Fitzgerald, who had a step on Wagner running down the seam. In two-deep alignment, Diggs closed ground quickly, swatting away the pass just short of the goal line for a critical incompletion.
When the final horn sounded, Diggs wrapped up the contest with a pair of tackles, a pass defensed, and one reception for three yards allowed in coverage.
As always, one game doesn't make a season. The Seahawks will have to prove they can play with consistency, something that has eluded them in the secondary all year due to injuries and a lack of cohesion.
But with Griffin scheduled to return to practice this week and Dunbar a few weeks away from being activated, Carroll understandably feels far more confident in the group than he did even two weeks ago. Considering how well Flowers and Reed have played under tough circumstances, the recent improvement of Diggs' play, and Jamal Adams' growing comfort level with Seattle's scheme, the defensive backfield appears to be coming together at the ideal time.
"This game put us in a position where we can really move forward defensively and keep the guys in the same positions and keep them getting a little bit healthier," Carroll stated. "This is a chance for us to really keep rolling."