Every now and then, your favorite sports team rises up and proves people wrong. It is a great feeling. Pride and hope enter the collective home town psyche where there once was only trepidation and shame. Local and national media would have had to eat their words even if the Seahawks had just put a whooping on the Oakland Raiders or Denver Broncos on Sunday. What made this game all the more sweet was witnessing the crestfallen 49er fan base as they realized a good defense doesn’t make your QB any better. Mike Singletary can talk all he wants about this being a useful wake-up call for his team. This loss will haunt them. And, oh man, does that feel good.
Much of the early reporting on the game talks about how poorly the Seahawks started, and how miraculous their comeback was. San Franscisco folks are focusing on missed opportunities by the 49ers, the classic “it’s not you, it’s me” tactic. The Seahawks definitely turned in a tremendous 7 minutes of scoring, but ignoring the first 27 minutes would be a mistake. While the offense was sputtering, the defense was making a statement. They held the 49ers to a FG after the opening interception. They stuffed the 49ers again on 3rd down of the following series, before watching Alex Smith overthrow his fullback on 4th down. Another goal-line stand led to a second FG. Through it all, the defense imposed its will on the 49er offense, dictating the rules of engagement. It all started with the defensive line.
Colin Cole turned in what may have been his best game in a Seahawks uniform. He dominated the interior of the line all day. Not only did he stuff the middle, but he was shedding blocks and making tackles. His partner, Brandon Mebane was not as noticeable, but played nearly as well. The trio of Cole, Mebane and Red Bryant are playing with swagger. People dismissed the Vikings game as just pre-season, but this is now the second good offensive line in a row that our starting d-lineman have dominated. Bryant is raising his ceiling with every outing. If he made a negative play, I didn’t see it. Chris Clemons made LT Joe Staley look bad on multiple occasions while harassing Smith all day. Even the backups made a strong impression. Junior Siavii is a huge upgrade over Craig Terrill if yesterday was any indication. He’s disruptive, strong against the run, and flashed some pass rush. Raheem Brock is also a big upgrade over Nick Reed. Brock was chasing down plays all afternoon. Dexter Davis now has four sacks in his first five NFL games. He looked just as dangerous as he did during the pre-season. The only thing better than watching a stout defensive line stuff the run all day, is watching them get after the passer as well. There were multiple hits on Smith, and even though the stat line shows two sacks, Clemons had a third when Smith was called for intentional grounding (note to the NFL: that should count as a sack).
The linebackers took full advantage of the great line play. Lofa Tatupu was absolutely phenomenal. This was his best game in two years. Forget the fact that he was tied for the lead in tackles. Tatupu played with the precision and power of a predator missile. Did you see him light up 330 lb rookie guard Mike Iupati? Tatupu didn’t even make the tackle, he just blew Iupati out of the lane and created space for his teammates to drop the hammer. Be excited, because Tatupu looks like he is back to his old play-making ways. David Hawthorne proved a perfect compliment to Tatupu on the weakside. His stats are not gaudy, but he funneled the plays back to the middle and made the tackles he should have. Aaron Curry had some nice moments setting the edge, and put a few hits on Smith. His tackling remains suspect, including the missed sack he had while running free at Smith. It is obvious that teams are now starting to target Curry in their game plans. He’s got to step up and make them pay. Will Herring got sucked inside on a big screen play in the 1st quarter, and played a mostly forgettable game. Screen plays may end up being an achilles heel of this defense.
The secondary is so clearly improved from last year, it almost deserves to be called a tertiary. They all made plays. Lawyer Milloy is going to be fun to watch. You get the feeling he will set the tone every week. He’s a bad man. Marcus Trufant is a Pro Bowl CB again. Earl Thomas finally started to wrap-up on his tackles instead of launching himself at players, and made a couple great plays behind the line. But the real stories of the secondary were Jordan Babineaux and Kelly Jennings. Who the hell were these two guys? Babineaux looked solid as a rock, making textbook tackles and flashing great coverage the entire game. And Jennings…I mean who was that? Did you see him smashing on wide receivers? His tackling was Trufant-esque, and his coverage wasn’t bad either.
When stepping back and reviewing the full body of work by the defense, it is hard not to get excited. It had all the characteristics of a top-flight defense: stout up the middle, no plays over the top, dependable tackling and good enough pass rush. Ironically, after all those years of Ruskell trying to recreate the Tampa-2, we finally saw a defense that reminded me of those old Bucs teams. Seeing how they perform on the road, and against smarter QBs are the next tests.
Offensively, this looked like a team playing its first game of the season against a pretty good defense. There was a lack of rhythm and decisiveness. The running game struggled, as expected. The passing game was better than it may have looked on first glance. This was not the game to open up the playbook with lots of throws down the field. Possession was critical, and it did not take long for Bates to find a happy-medium where he could get the safety of a sure throw combined with the explosiveness of a big play. They saw the 49er cornerbacks jumping routes early, and burned them with double-moves soon thereafter. Mike Williams turned in another 30+ yard play. Deon Butler’s route on his TD catch was sick. Deion Branch’s back-shoulder catch for the last TD was sterling. John Carlson was steady. And, don’t look now, but guess who went over 5+ YPC again? Justin Forsett finished with 6.1 YPC. Don’t belittle that by saying it all came on one run. That’s how it works folks! Chris Johnson got 75 of his 137 yards on one run.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this game was that it appears there are two rising stars for the Seahawks that never stepped on the field, Gus Bradley and Jeremy Bates. The initial returns on this under-front, press coverage scheme were spectacular. It is not an accident when almost every player on the defense played a good game. Bates demonstrated the creativity and adaptability that was completely absent from Greg Knapp’s offense last season. Again, it is hard to argue with the idea that he got the most out of his talent. Savor this double-dip of delight. Read SFGate.com and wallow in 49er fan misery. Soak in all the national “surprising Seahawks” stories that are sure to pop up. Not every week will be this fun.