A perfectly satisfying Seahawks performance turned into a Stanley Kubrick movie part way through the second quarter as fans were forced to watch their irrepressible safety suffer a grisly injury and talk publicly about retiring when given his diagnosis. Earl Thomas reportedly has a broken tibia, which some say can take anywhere from four to six months to heal. There was some mention of a fractured fibula, which would give Thomas a chance to come back this year, but medical experts seemed rather certain it was the more serious injury. That would make sense given the reaction from Thomas. There is no player who can replicate what Thomas does on the field, or the fire he brings to every single rep in practice and on gameday. He is a titan. One can only hope we have not seen the last of our little dynamo in a Seahawks uniform. This team must press on. Their goals remain attainable after scraping the Panthers off the bottom of their shoes. The game said as much about who Carolina is as it did about Seattle.
Anyone who has seen Cam Newton dress should not be surprised to learn that head coach Ron Rivera held him out of the first series of the game due to a dress code violation. A case could be made that Newton has violated our eyes so often with his outfits that a full season suspension feels commensurate with the offense. The surprise was that he was not penalized for wearing leopard-print leggings or clashing colors, but for failing to wear a tie. Insert grimacing emoji here.
The subtext perfectly matched the game. Newton, the league MVP, and de facto leader of the Panthers, is a petulant child. He smiles broadly and loves attention when things are going his way, but shrivels into a sulking hobgoblin who abhors the light when things turn tough. It is no wonder that when his team fell out of playoff contention last week that he decided the rules no longer applied to him. Forget that the offense was so minor. He knew the rules, and actively chose to disregard them. His message after the game was that he did not pack properly for the team’s two-week stay on the West Coast. He must have forgot his credit card as well. Word is, San Francisco has a few places to buy men’s fashion.
You may wonder why I am spending all this time talking about another player on another team. It is rare to come upon such a perfect juxtaposition. These Panthers were 15-1 last season with the league MVP as their quarterback. They lost a number of close games this year, and then mailed it in against the Seahawks last night. Times of crisis bring forth different reactions from different people. Most run from burning houses while a precious few run straight in to save who they can. Many join bullies in harassing the weak or the different while a courageous few stand up to the horde. Character is both invisible and one of the world’s greatest sights when revealed. What we saw Sunday night, both in the casual act of disregard from their quarterback before the game and in their performance during the game, was a Panthers team that has responded to adversity with unconditional surrender.
The Seahawks, time and again, have proven they are the precious few. This was just the latest testament to their collective character. It took all of one play for them to turn the page on an abysmal performance last week. Mike Morgan, in his return from injury, intercepted the first pass of the game from backup quarterback Derek Anderson. A player who was an undrafted free agent and a grinder on special teams for years, suffered an injury earlier this year after finally getting his chance to start in the NFL. It was only fitting that a person who had to rise from the bottom of the roster and battle back from every obstacle, would benefit from the immaturity of the #1 overall pick in the draft. This is who the Seahawks are. There is no team quite like them. Certainly not the Panthers.
Great sign for the offense
One week after a bumbling, embarrassing, loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Seahawks offense reestablished their identity against a stout Panthers defense. Many will dismiss the Seahawks gaudy offensive numbers as coming against a Panthers team missing their best defensive player in Luke Kuechly. There is no doubt Kuechly would have made a difference. Consider, though, that the Panthers played without him last week in Oakland and held a Raiders team who boasts one of the league’s best offensive lines to just 58 yards on the ground and 1.8 yards per run. Kawann Short played. Star Lotulelei played. Kony Ealy and Thomas Davis played.
This was the top-ranked run defense in the NFL coming into this game. They were allowing just 3.3 yards per carry. Seattle dropped 240 yards of rushing on them and almost tripled that yards per carry number by averaging 8.3 yards per run. Tyler Lockett gave the team a rocket boost with his 75 yard run to open the second half, but Thomas Rawls averaged 7.1 yards per carry and Russell Wilson averaged 9.7 on his three runs. Even Troymaine Pope broke off an 18 yard run late in the game.
This was a promising performance by the offensive line against an incredibly stout front four. Believe it or not, this group is far superior to the one the Seahawks faced in Tampa. What the Bucs lacked in talent, they made up for in desire. The Panthers got knocked around by the Seahawks line and by their running back. It was a show of force that will serve them well if they can bottle it and use it the rest of the way.
Wreck-It Rawls is back
Technically, this was Rawls’ fifth game of the season. It really looked like his first. This was the player we saw last year on the way to leading the league in yards per carry. He was explosive. He was tough. The thing that really sets Rawls apart, though, is his lateral movement. His ability to cut across wide chunks of turf in a single step is special. There was an “I am back” play last night where he was running off right guard and saw simultaneously that the hole was plugged by Carolina and that there was an opening 3-4 yards to his right. He planted his feet and then seemingly teleported to the open space. Forty-five yards later, he was standing in the end zone. It also happened to turn a 10-7 game into a far more comfortable 17-7 game.
Rawls has proven he is a difference maker. Last season was no fluke. What becomes paramount now is finding a way to stay healthy. He left the game for a while last night to check for a concussion. I love his energy and toughness, but my hope is the coaches help him understand that those attributes only matter if he is on the field to display them. The team needs him to strike the right balance. Striking is something he does quite well, so we can hope.
Kudos to Kearse
I have been hard on Jermaine Kearse. I do not enjoy being critical of players or coaches. There was not much positive to say about the way Kearse has played in recent weeks, and really, throughout this season. He has been a non-factor except for the moments where he was a negative one. Last week I mentioned he needed to step up or step aside. He chose the former this week. For the first time in five weeks, he caught more than half the passes thrown his way. He was sure-handed most of the night, and made a gorgeous catch late on an equally gorgeous pass from Trevone Boykin. His final line was nothing to hang on a wall: 5 receptions for 68 yards and 0 touchdowns. It was something to build on. He needs to put together of a few of these games in a row.
Baldwin continues his wizardry
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Doug Baldwin continues his workmanlike season. He finished with 7 receptions in 7 targets. He has caught 30 of the last 34 passes thrown his way. That is an astounding 88% catch rate. He is on pace for a 90+ catch year and over 1,100 yards receiving. Baldwin showed a little more wiggle last night with a few nifty runs after catching short passes. I still would like to see the team give him more red zone opportunities. The guy did lead the NFL in touchdowns last year.
Keep an eye on Nick Vannett
The rookie tight end appears to be getting his feet beneath him and is earning increased playing time, even if Luke Willson was healthy. Vannett made a number of impressive blocks in the running game last night and caught a couple of passes, including one that stuck out. He and fellow tight end Jimmy Graham streaked up the left side of the field in what appeared to flood a zone coverage the Panthers were playing. Wilson found Vannett for a 21-yard strike. I do not recall seeing that play this season, or at least run with two tight ends. If Vannett can build on this game and become another target teams need to worry about in the seams, it only makes the offense that much more dangerous.
One thing we saw a lot of in this game was the Seahawks going with a tackle eligible, meaning they brought in another offensive lineman (Rees Odhiambo). This is a heavy package that puts more emphasis on the role of tight ends in the passing game. It allows the Seahawks to pound the ball on the ground, and is a viable formation as long as the tight ends can threaten the defense vertically on play-action. Otherwise, you are simply removing receivers from the field and telegraphing run every time.
Vannett was a star in mini-camp and was decent during training camp. Even if all he does is continue to block the way he did last night, he will become a vital part of this team. Adding a few chunk plays certainly would not hurt.
Run defense was extraordinary
The Panthers only hope of competing in this game was if they could establish the running game. Their offensive line was riddled with injuries, making a heavy emphasis on passing a dangerous gambit. They came out trying to pound the ball and were stoned time and again. It was frustrating to see the lack of sacks for the second week in a row, but some of that can be attributed to the Panthers employing a quick passing game and the Seahawks deciding to play heavy against the run much of the night.
They rarely went to their rush package. Instead, Tony McDaniel, Jarran Reed, and Ahtyba Rubin rotated most of the snaps on the interior. The rush patterns also seemed to put a heavy emphasis on staying in front of Newton. They appeared willing to give Newton some extra time to throw in exchange for limiting his running and scrambling. It worked. Newton had just 12 yards rushing on 3 carries.
This was just the 5th time in Cam Newton’s career that he has been held below 200 yds passing and less than 15 yds rushing.#HB29
— Brian Nemhauser (@hawkblogger) December 5, 2016
This was just the second time in Cam Newton’s career that he has attempted at least 32 passes and completed 14 or fewer. #HB29
— Brian Nemhauser (@hawkblogger) December 5, 2016
Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, and K.J. Wright were terrific again. Morgan played a really nice game even after his early interception. He set the edge better than any of the players who had been subbing for him the last six weeks. The only blemish on the night came on the play immediately after Thomas was injured. Otherwise, this very well may have been a shutout.
We will learn more about what this injury to Thomas means to his career and to the team in the coming days and weeks. Steven Terrell is an experienced backup who knows the system well. Kelcie McCray becomes the next option behind Terrell if there are any further injuries. McCray does not have the speed that either Terrell or Thomas have, so the defense would have to change should he be forced into action. We may not see a true test of Terrell the rest of the regular season.
The Seahawks head into Green Bay next week to face Aaron Rodgers, but the forecast calls for snow. That would clearly impact the passing game and make it impossible to truly assess Terrell’s play. In limited time, we have seen Terrell cover ground well and stay on top of deep passes. There is no way this team is as good without Thomas on the field. One could argue we won’t truly know the impact of his loss until a possible Super Bowl matchup with Tom Brady or Derek Carr. The Falcons could pose some unique challenges to the secondary as well. For now, the team will do what it is built to do. They will meet adversity head on and knock it on its ass.