Russell Wilson scrambled for his life, Marshawn Lynch could not find running room, and the Seattle defense could not stop Kevin Kolb from scoring the winning touchdown. That was last year. Tarvaris Jackson was battered with five sacks, Lynch could not find running room, and the Seattle special teams gave up two kick returns for scores to get blown out in San Francisco. That was two years ago. Go back all the way to the first franchise opener. Seattle had never won an opener in which they trailed at halftime, home or road. They were 0-21 in those games, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Not anymore. Winning the season opener against a quality opponent is tough no matter where you do it. Seattle was 13-24 in week one games heading into Sunday. Facing a team in Carolina with a lot to prove, an infusion of serious talent at impact positions, and a solid franchise quarterback is a chore in any week. Facing them the first week, on the road, with a long list of injured or suspended players, stacks the odds against good things happening. Credit the Seahawks for making just enough good things happen to fly home with a win that counts in the standing every bit as much as their 42-13 thrashing of the 49ers a year ago.
FACT: Record for all NFL teams since 2000 when trailing at halftime on the road: 333-1379 (.195)
FACT: Record for all NFL teams since 2000 when trailing at halftime on the road in Week 1: 16-82 (.163)
No player performance better embodies the team fortunes than Russell Wilson. The spectrum of his play was broad on a day when he made rookie-level mistakes in the red zone while also leading his sixth game-winning drive in just 17 regular season games and throwing for a career-high 320 yards. Pundits that want predicted a sophomore slump or an MVP year both walked away feeling good about their chances of being a prophet. Wilson looked tentative and indecisive for much of the game. Some made it sound like he was under constant pressure all day, but the Panthers walked away with one quarterback hit and two sacks, and both of those sacks was direct result of Wilson’s dithering with the ball instead of getting rid of it. One of those occurred in the red zone, resulting in a turnover. Wilson held the ball longer than any quarterback in the NFL last season. We have largely explained that away as a side effect of his ability to extend plays with his feet. A fair assessment would have to include some criticism of a stubborn streak in Wilson that keeps him from taking advantage of his dump-off options when his down-field receivers are covered up.
His poise helped him to shine in response to the adversity, finishing the game with a sparkling 115.7 passer rating and chunky 9.7 yards per attempt. Seattle’s ability to create explosive plays on offense and limit them on defense was one of the keys to this improbable victory. The Seahawks had six explosive passes (defined as 16 or more yards) and two explosive runs (defined as 12 yards or more). The Panthers had one explosive pass and two explosive runs. The last explosive run for Carolina ended in a fumble.
Leading the way for the Seahawks in explosive plays was Doug Baldwin, who had an encouraging return from a 2012 season that did not meet expectations. His seven catches and 91 yards were more than any game last season, and he was hyper-efficient in doing it with only eight targets. I harped on the importance of Wilson developing a connection with Baldwin during camp this year as there is no receiver on the team that can help Wilson extend drives better than Baldwin. That proved true today as Wilson found him regularly on third down, including a likely forgotten 3rd and 5 deep in Seahawks territory after the fumble recovery. Had the Seahawks punted from that spot with over four minutes to play, there is a very real chance we are talking about another opening day loss.
Baldwin was not alone in playing well at receiver. Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, and Jermaine Kearse all had at least one explosive reception, and Stephen Williams came oh-so-close to one for himself. The touchdown catch for Kearse was of the spectacular variety. Wilson made the perfect throw, and Kearse made a very difficult catch running at full speed and high-pointing the ball. I have been struggling to come up for a comparable to Kearse, and he looked very much like Tate on that play. Wilson hit eight different receivers on the day. Keeping defenses guessing with who to cover will be important as the season wears on. All five of the Seattle receivers are capable of going over 100 yards receiving on any given game. That was not the case last year.
The offensive line was predictably challenged by a terrific new defensive front. Chris Meyers and Tim Ryan were atrocious announcers, but they were absolutely on point about the quality of the Panthers front seven. Seattle will not play three defensive lines this year as talented as the one they just faced. Much of the angst about the way Seattle played comes from the memory of what the Panthers were in 2012. If Carolina manages to finish 10-6 this season, we will look back at this game in a very different light.
Still, the line struggled mightily in the run game. They appeared to institute a new run scheme that is nearly all read option related. There were precious few pro set groupings, or straight hand offs. Instead, Wilson was opening up and Lynch was taking the ball across the formation. I did not like it. Not one bit. It felt like a cutesy Oregon Duck running scheme instead of the power football we had seen last year. Maybe it will look different after watching it again on tape. Maybe it will look different when facing a different defense. For this week, though, it was a departure from what makes this team great. Bring eight men in the box. Bring nine. Seattle will run on you, and run through you. Do not forget who you are.
The defense quietly put up a fantastic day. Limiting the Panthers to seven points and 253 yards of total offense when they were missing Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, Bruce Irvin and Brandon Browner is impressive. Earl Thomas ended the day with 10 tackles, more than he has had in his last 37 games. I have harped on needing to see more impact plays from Thomas, and he came up with a huge one that may have saved the game with his forced fumble.
Walter Thurmond and Byron Maxwell played well in Browner’s absence. There were a few missed tackles, but some credit has to go to a tough player in Steve Smith. O’Brien Schofield got an early sack, and Benson Mayowa very nearly had one himself. Tony McDaniel finished with five tackles, more than Alan Branch had in any game last year.
Seattle’s rush defense continues to be a concern. It is not clear if a solution is on hand. The Panthers rolled up 134 yards on the ground and averaged a healthy 5.2 yards per carry. That will surely be the focus of many fans and analysts heading into a punishing week two game against the 49ers.
This was not a win that will further inflate the good ship Seahawk. It was ugly and far from decisive. It was, however, a win on the road against a quality opponent on the East Coast at 10AM without a number of key players. Seattle won by four points in Carolina last year, and the season turned out pretty well. Much will have to change and improve this week in order to beat an opponent far superior to the Panthers. One change that you can count on is the venue. Pre-game starts right now.