By Chris Cluff
The Seattle Seahawks defense completely dominated quarterback Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers Sunday, gift-wrapping the go-ahead touchdown for the Seattle offense and then making a goal-line stand to preserve a 16-12 victory.
Seattle quarteback Russell Wilson and the offense continue to play very inconsistently, but they managed to get the winning touchdown late in the third quarter after Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner stole the ball from Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams at the Carolina 29-yard line. Wilson then hit wide receiver Golden Tate on a 13-yard TD pass on third down to put Seattle up 13-10 at the end of the third quarter.
The Seahawks added a field goal on the next drive to go up 16-10, and Newton then drove the Panthers from their 20 to the Seattle 1-yard line, where the Seahawks held on fourth down with 3:47 left.
Seattle managed to get the ball out to the 18 before having to punt, and rather than kick from that far back, it chose to take the safety and get a free kick from the 20, a smart move that ended up putting the Panthers at their 31 with just 53 seconds left.
Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin secured the win by knocking the ball out of Newton’s hand for his second sack. Seattle defensive tackle Alan Branch recovered the ball, and the Seahawks improved to 3-2 heading into a tough home game against New England next week.
Wilson’s numbers look pretty good, aside from two interceptions: He completed 19-of-25 passes for 221 yards, with the TD to Tate and the two picks — one of which was his fault and one of which was just a great play by Carolina against running back Marshawn Lynch.
But the offense still struggled to finish drives. They got into the red zone three times and ended up with two field goals and a TD. They are now just 4-for-14 in red-zone TD conversions.
While he hit some nice passes, Wilson continues to fail to see open receivers and to bail out too soon at times. These are typical rookie growing pains, and the Hawks had to know they would occur.
Of course, coach Pete Carroll chose to overlook those errors in the afterglow of victory.
“I thought Russell played a great football game today,” Carroll told reporters, per The News Tribune. “He was in control the whole time. He had one throw that got away from him. He was terrific on third down. He only missed one completion on third down. I think Russell really showed his strength as a football player and a competitor to just hang in there. There’s been a lot of scrutiny about him and all that stuff, but he had a great week and put it all together for us.”
The Hawks had their best third-down game of the season. Converting just 28 percent for the season, they made it a major point of emphasis in practice last week, and they ended up going 7-of-14 vs. Carolina.
They were surprisingly unsuccessful running the ball. Not counting punter Jon Ryan’s intentional safety for a loss of 18 yards, they had just 116 yards on 34 carries (3.4 average) against a Carolina team that was giving up 135 yards per game.
Although they struggled to finish drives, Wilson and his receivers continued to grow together. Wide receiver Sidney Rice played his best game of the season, with five catches for 67 yards.
Carroll wanted to get Tate more involved: Mission accomplished. Tate caught three passes for 31 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown. He also caught a 56-yard bomb in the first quarter that was called back because of a hold by right tackle Breno Giacomini.
Giacomini also had personal foul penalty and was benched briefly because of it. He had three penalties, including two personal fouls, against the Rams last week and has six penalties in five games.
“I had to sit him down,” Carroll said. “We’re talking so clearly about the issues that are coming up with these penalties. I’ve been with him and on him since OTAs. But it showed up again. But we had to sit him down just to make the statement that you can’t keep doing stuff.”
The Hawks are starting to find tight end Zach Miller. Wilson hit him for gains of 30 and 23 on seam routes (the key route for tight ends in the West Coast offense).
Overall, it was barely a good enough performance by the offense, which still needs to score more touchdowns.
Is it possible to send an entire defense to the Pro Bowl? This unit continues to amaze in every way and is challenging for the title of most dominant D in the NFL.
The Hawks are No. 1 in fewest yards allowed, No. 2 in points allowed and No. 3 in rushing yards allowed.
Third downs were the only failing in the first month, but the Hawks held Newton and the Panthers to 2-of-11 while yielding just 190 yards. And they surrendered no touchdowns for the second straight game.
Newton completed just 12-of -29 passes for 141 yards and was Carolina’s leading rusher with just 42 yards.
Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane continued his all-star season, opening the game by stuffing the Panthers’ runs on the first two plays. He also batted a pass later in the game and was active throughout as he continues to play the best football of his career.
Irvin had two sacks, including the fumble-causing game-clincher. He also had two more hits on Newton and a tackle for loss.
Fellow rookie, linebacker Bobby Wagner, had 1.5 sacks, a tackle for loss and two more QB hits.
It was interesting to compare the performance of those two rookies to the game by Carolina rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had 11 tackles, a sack and an interception. The Seahawks would have drafted Kuechly if he had slid to them three picks after Carolina took him.
Instead, they ended up drafting Irvin in the first round and their linebacker, Wagner, in the second.
Browner shared the tackle lead (six) with Wagner and defensive end Chris Clemons and had the huge fumble to set up the Seahawks’ only touchdown.
Clemons was in on a high-low sack of Newton with Wagner and also hit the QB a couple more times and batted his pass after a questionable roughing call against Clemons.
Meanwhile, cornerback Richard Sherman, who also forced a fumble that was recovered by Carolina, gets the award for getting into the immature Steve Smith’s head. The Carolina receiver was so frustrated that he was dropping passes and attacking Sherman. Smith finally was called for holding Sherman in the second half, but he could have drawn flags on two other plays as well. Sherman’s trash talk undoubtedly had something to do with it.
All in all, the defense once again showed it is ready to go to the Super Bowl whenever the offense is.
The Seahawks dominated the field-position battle. Carolina had 11 possessions, and only one of them started beyond the Panthers’ 31-yard line.
Ryan punted only three times, and he landed two of them inside the 20. He also carried out a called self-safety that was a very strategic coaching decision, enabling him to send a free kick to the Carolina 31 with 53 seconds left.
Kicker Steven Hauschka hit all three field-goal attempts, including a 44-yarder that pushed the lead to six points in the fourth quarter.
The special teams had one negative play when Leon Washington fumbled at the end of a 47-yard return to open the second half. That was the only time the Panthers started with the ball in Seattle territory, but the defense pushed them out of field-goal range.
On the heels of a bad loss in St. Louis in which Carroll and his staff were roundly outcoached by Jeff Fisher and his guys, the Seahawks put together a good game plan for Carolina.
The call for the safety was the best strategic call of the game. The Seahawks were up 16-10, so a field goal would not help Carolina even at 16-12. And the Hawks were able to run some more time off the clock and avoid the possibility of a blocked punt.
The offensive play-calling, which has been conservative and puzzling at times this season, seemed quite good in this game. The offense’s failings seemed due more to Wilson’s poor reads on pass plays or to blocking issues.
For more Local Football Bloggers and the latest Seahawks news, see CBS Sports Seattle.
Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.