The Morning After: Seahawks Find Their Backbone, Beat Panthers 13-9

Logo by Kevin Gamache, Hammerhead 

The human body needs muscles in order to move, lift, and push. Muscles can be used to intimidate. They are sexy. Most people associate muscles with strength, but without another ingredient, a muscle is powerless. It is when a muscle attaches to bone, and that bone connects to a spine, that the whole system begins to function. On a beautiful fall day in North Carolina, the Seahawks may have found their spine. It has been missing much of the year as their fancy muscles, in the form of All-Pro players, have appeared disconnected and, at times, powerless. It was a game where missed plays outnumbered made plays until the offense came through with a drive to take the lead and the defense came through with a dominant final stand. If the Seahawks find themselves in the thick of title contention late in the year, they may very well look back at this nondescript 13-9 victory as the moment of calcification.

Better late than never

Yes, there was a game-winning touchdown and a series of LCD-blurring sacks from Bruce Irvin. We will get to those. But there was a play from belly-rolling Brandon Mebane that set the stage for late-game heroics. Cam Newton had wiggled free of a Michael Bennett would-be safety to begin a drive early in the fourth quarter. He then connected with Kelvin Benjamin for 51 yards on a 3rd and 11 play that appeared to shift the game firmly in Carolina’s favor. In fact, that one play increased the Panthers win probability from 33% to 65%, according to
Six more yards from Jonathan Stewart, and then another seven, gave the Panthers a 1st and 10 at the Seahawks 29-yard line. K.J. Wright and some friends stuffed the first down run for a yard. The next play had Newton running to avoid pressure once again, except this time, he found that no amount of lateral agility would allow him to get around a waiting Mebane. The sack pushed Carolina to the edge of field goal range. It was a “you shall not pass” moment that the Seahawks defense has been lacking much of the year. The ensuing field goal were the first Panther points since the first quarter. 
Russell Wilson and the offense took over from their own 20-yard line with 4:37 left to play. Three minutes and fifty seconds later, the Seahawks had their first lead of the game. The drive was so decisive that Seattle never faced a third down, despite a false start penalty by James Carpenter that gave them a 1st and 15 at their own 36-yard line. 

Russell Wilson and the offense did not face a single third down on their game-winning drive

The drive featured four passes and five runs. This was not a team in a rush or feeling pressure. The tone did not change when they were firmly in field goal territory when some teams might have eased off the gas a bit to ensure at least a tie. It was a group that expected victory. Guys like Cooper Helfet, Kevin Norwood, Paul Richardson and Luke Willson made key contributions. Willson has dropped a must-catch ball earlier at the goal line that, combined with his similar drop against the Cowboys, was creating some doubt about his toughness. Wilson showed no hesitation in going to Willson again for the winning points. The play said a lot about both players.

And then Bruce Irvin happened…

There were whispers comparing Bruce Irvin to Von Miller when he was drafted a couple of years ago. That idea was not completely ludicrous after Irvin finished with 8.0 sacks as a rookie, but became pretty silly after he converted to a SAM linebacker who rushed the passer far less and finished with 2.0 sacks last year. 
He has 3.0 sacks now after a flurry of dominance to help seal a Seahawks win. It was the kind of display many of us had hoped to see this year after Chris Clemons moved on and Irvin was supposed to get more rush opportunities in nickel. Watch him on these three consecutive plays that resulted in a total loss of 15 yards for the Panthers:

2nd and 10 @ CAR 23: False Start -5 yards

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 2nd and 15 @ CAR 18: Sack -7 yards

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 3rd and 22 @ CAR 11: Sack -3 yards

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Notice the boundless energy before the snap. Notice how effortlessly he beat the Panthers left tackle around the edge. Marvel at his full-speed hurdle of the Carolina running back as he chased Newton down even after the play was designed to roll away from Irvin. All of this came after Cliff Avril had nearly sacked Newton on the first play of the drive. 
The quarterback pressure was up significantly throughout the game compared to previous weeks. Newton escaped a number of times as he often does, but plays were disrupted and drives were stopped. 
A quiet contributor was Greg Scruggs. After being inactive and even cut, Scruggs got a number of snaps as an interior pass rusher in the nickel package. He had a quarterback hit and contributed to moving the pocket in a few instances. His increased role was clearly part of the plan to get a bigger rotation on the defensive line, and he did little to dissuade the coaching staff from continuing to weave him in. Remember Clinton McDonald was cut last season as well before returning to key the team’s interior rush. 

Far from perfect

Winning makes it easy to forget all the problems Seattle had in this game. This was their first time with two turnovers this season. They managed to get two takeaways, but missed at least three they should have had. The Panthers muffed a punt return and the ball fell right into DeShawn Shead’s hands, but bounced out. Tharold Simon had a ball bounce off his chest, and K.J. Wright could not come up with a pass that bounced off his hands. 
Kelvin Benjamin made coverage seem irrelevant a number of times by making full-stretch catches outside his already 6’5″ frame. 
The offense left the red zone without a touchdown in three attempts. Of course, the last “attempt” was a kneel down at the Panthers 9-yard line to end the game. The true attempts featured some of the same drive killers we have seen regularly this season. It seems almost required that Seattle draws a penalty as soon as they get to 1st and Goal. 
Everyone will kill Marshawn Lynch for dropping the pass before the half that hit his hands, and they should, but Wilson was standing 10 yards away from him and put way too much mustard on what was an inaccurate pass. Had he hit Lynch between the numbers, or even just kept the ball below his pads, the chances of an interception drop significantly. Wilson was a touch off a number of times.
Most notably, his pass to Helfet would have been a walk-in touchdown and Wilson had no pressure at the time of the throw. Doug Baldwin saved Wilson’s bacon on at least a couple of his inaccurate throws.

Wilson was 3-12 throwing to Helfet, Lynch and Willson, but 17-20 throwing to his other six targets

Had he managed to connect with Lynch for that touchdown instead of the interception, his passer rating would have climbed from 77.5 to 139.

Encouraging contributions

Paul Richardson had a 47-yard kickoff return that turned into a 58-yard field goal. He was targeted deep, which is important even when it does not result in a completion. Ricardo Lockette made a couple of tough catches. Kevin Norwood flashed his great hands, and should continue to see his role expand.
Robert Turbin had perhaps his most efficient game. This switch to fullback suits him. Seattle largely went to single-back sets without a fullback, but they also started exploring what life with Turbin at that position could look like with Lynch sometimes flexing out to the receiver position and the Turbin being left in to either pass protect or run. 
He averaged 5.0 yards per carry and caught all three of the passes throw in his direction for 32 yards. His strength is as a receiver out of the backfield, and there should be chances to get him in position to make important plays this way. It also gives the team a way to start working in Christine Michael, who ran hard and within the offense for tough yards. 
Kevin Pierre-Louis subbed for the injured Malcolm Smith and flashed his speed tackling Newton on a scramble and blowing up a screen pass for a loss. This was the player the team had hoped they drafted who was largely invisible during training camp. This was a performance to build on.
The offensive line also did a good-to-great job all day. Wilson had time to throw. Penalties were kept to a minimum. The team averaged 4.6 yards per carry on the ground. Justin Britt continues to have a solid season at right tackle, and Stephen Schilling did a commendable job despite his fumbled snap.
Tharold Simon went without a penalty and was not targeted in coverage that I can recall. 

The ascent

Seattle stands at 4-3 after eight weeks of the season. Their next two opponents are a combined 3-11 and come to CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks will soon welcome back Max Unger, Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane. Zach Miller is hopefully back soon after that. 
The Seahawks are not playing championship-level football yet, but the grit is showing signs of returning. They should get to 6-3 and be getting back some key talent for the stretch run. But more than any one player, this season will be about the team’s ability to connect to a spine that defined their run last year. That cannot be done as individuals, but leaders can accelerate the process. 
Earl Thomas had his most impactful game of the season. He led the team with 9 tackles and was flying into the screen to help finish plays. It would have been just another game last year. That it stood out this year says a lot. 
Baldwin and Wilson have a knack for making plays when it matters. They can help the younger players on offense grow into their roles by taking pressure off.
We saw a powerful offense last week that followed with a game-winning 80-yard touchdown drive this week. We saw a defense that held an opponent to 275 yards last week, hold an opponent to 266 yards this week and recapture a glimpse of the pass rush they need. 
It is time for this Seahawks team to come home and start creating separation from their opponents. It is time for them to regain the confidence that had been shaken. This quiet 13-9 win gives them the room they need to change the focus from the fall to the climb. They now know the voracity for their failure on the national level. That disrespect has always contributed to brotherhood inside that locker room. Their will to win showed up again in this game, and not a moment too late.

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