"It's going to be close."
I keep hearing that, or something right near that, over and over in my head. It's something that Pete Carroll said in response to a question about Russell Wilson in a radio interview a month or six weeks ago. I can't remember exactly when he said it, and I couldn't quote back the whole thing to you, but I found the statement 'it's going to be close' a bit curious when he was describing the growth and development of his quarterback.
It was something like this: "We're going to grow together, and work on it, and Russell's going to have growing pains, and we're going to have to improve and study and it's going to take time and you guys [the media] are going to get impatient and it's going to be tough and we're going to be in some games that go down to the line, and, it's going to be close."
For whatever reason - and I can't even really remember what exactly was said, that "it's going to be close" really stuck with me.
Pete's certainly been right about it. A last-second win against Green Bay that came down to the final play. A loss to St. Louis that came down to the final drive, with the Seahawks in a position to score a touchdown that would steal away a win. A tense final quarter versus Carolina where the defense held strong - including a huge goal line stand - and finally strip-sacked Cam Newton to seal he victory with under a minute to go. 14 points in the fourth quarter against New England, and a game that came down to the final drive for the Patriots. Combined with the heart-stopping finish in Arizona in Week 1, and five of the first six games for Seattle this year had come down to the final drive, either for the Seahawks or their opponent.
It's not surprising to me whatsoever then that naturally, tonight's game against the 49ers made it six out of seven, as Russell Wilson and the Seahawks inherited the football on their 11 yard line with 1:36 remaining, trailing by seven, 89 yards between Max Unger and a decision for Pete Carroll to tie the game or go for two and the win. Of course, the potential game-winning or tying drive was an cluster -- a microcosm for the entire 2nd half offense -- and quickly came down to 4th and 17 from Seattle's 4 yard line. Ben Obomanu caught a pass from Russell Wilson that ended up about a six inches from a first down, but the suspect high-low block by Paul McQuistan that resulted in a safety ended any drama for that measurement. Regardless, it was close. As usual.
The nature of writing a post-game recap after a loss typically means I'll focus on all the negatives but first, rather deliberately, I'd like to first list off a few positives.
One, Seattle hung with what many have considered the class of the NFC and one of the top two or three teams in the entire NFL, in their place, and it's significant that they despite all the drops, the poor run defense, the awful game-long field position, the missed opportunities, and the untimely penalties, the Seahawks were, indeed, in a position to tie or even win the game on their final drive.
Holding San Francisco's offense to 13 points at home is nothing to scoff at, in my opinion. The Niners' loss last week to the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants at home clouds the realization that the two weeks prior to that, Harbaugh's gang had dished out death and destruction to their enemies, smashing the Jets 34-0 and then moving on to the Bills, sacking them 45-3. For perspective on this type of complete and utter offensive domination, consider what Bill Barnwell told us this week:
"Teams that win consecutive games by 30 points don't come around often. When the San Francisco 49ers did just that in Week 5 and Week 6, they became the 16th team to pull off the feat since 1990."
16 teams in 22 years. I literally can't remember the last time Seattle won any game by 30 points. Probably 2005.
Through Week 6, prior to tonight, San Francisco had the 4th ranked offense in the NFL according to Football Outsiders' DVOA - 11th in passing and unsurprisingly, 1st in rushing. After dropping 175 yards on Seattle, on 32 carries (5.5 ypc, with Frank Gore averaging an absurd 8.2 ypc), that rushing rank is sure to stay at the top, but Seattle's pass defense hung tough, holding Alex Smith to 140 yards passing on 14 of 23 passing, a TD and a pick.
Regardless, this is a legitimate offense in San Francisco, and the Seahawks' defense, yet again, put their offense in a situation where they could win the game. Naturally, Pete Carroll was not happy with their performance, but from a points perspective, Seattle held the Niners to two points under their season opponent average.
The loss is more disappointing because the first half felt like a fairly dominating performance by Seattle on both sides of the ball - San Francisco punted on four of their five possessions and the defense forced the Niners to settle for a field goal in their only redzone appearance. However, on offense, Seattle once again got field goals, not touchdowns, and a big drop by Robert Turbin and a missed field goal by Steven Hauschka meant the Seahawks owned only a slim 6-3 lead going into the locker room.
The 2nd half, on the other hand, was owned by San Francisco. 117 of their 175 yards on the ground came after halftime, and Seattle's defensive line had no answer for the Niners' trap running schemes. Frank Gore became the first running back this season to badly gash the Seahawks on the ground for multiple big gains - up the middle no less - and the Seahawks were caught out of position or sealed off from the play a few too many times to mention. Gore also had tons of success in the short range passing game, as Alex Smith repeatedly dumped off to him in the middle for modest but deadly gains. San Francisco picked up 12 first downs in the second half to Seattle's 3, held the ball for 17:43 to Seattle's 12:17, and mounted one impressive drive, going 88 yards on 10 plays for a touchdown, the difference in the game.
Momentum is a funny thing. Seattle had it going into the half. They came out like a team possessed, running Marshawn Lynch three straight times for 9 yards, 7 yards, and then 5 yards. Cruising. Another run. 1 yard. Oh, another run. 2 yards. Ok....
Punt. Penalty. Sweet! Seahawks' ball! Let's throw the ball. Incomplete deep to Miller. Go back to Lynch. 8 yards. Easy. Rolling. 3rd and 2. Quick slant to Tate, executed to perfection, we're in business. Ah, nevermind - huge drop. Punt.
Wilson would complete one more pass for -2 yards for the rest of the half, prior to the Seahawks' final, game-deciding drive, which failed miserably. That miss by Tate - the receiver that didn't drop a pass last year and the guy that has come up big for Seattle several times this season - just goes to show how big of an impact that rhythm and momentum and confidence and flow can have on an offense's execution. Seattle, after opening the half and looking very strong on their initial drive, moving the ball well before the big Tate drop, gained all of 37 net yards, total, the rest of the game. What changed?
Credit is surely due to the Niners' excellent defense, and they won the game doing the things that Seattle normally hangs their hat on. They won the time of possession game. They wore the Seahawks' defense down with tough, relentless running. Frank Gore talked about what I mentioned above - offensive rhythm.
"I just got in that rhythm, and once I get in that rhythm, I feel I can't be stopped," Gore said.
Also importantly, San Francisco won the field position battle -- Seattle's average starting field position was their own 15 yard line -- the worst average starting field position for any team this season. That's big.
Coming out of the game I'm not any more concerned about the offense than I already was prior to tonight. Uncharacteristic drops by Golden Tate and Robert Turbin meant two huge plays never happened. Would they have been the difference in the game? Who knows. The Seahawks lost by a touchdown. One score. We'll never know if Turbin would have scored had he caught that pass or whether the Hawks would have converted had he not made it to the endzone. We'll never know if Golden had hung on to that big 3rd down pass if the Seahawks would have wrested momentum and have been able to do to San Francisco what the Niners did to Seattle - demoralize them:
"We just kind of felt them start to give up a little bit, and they knew we were just going to keep running the ball on them," 49ers right guard Alex Boone said. "It was more of, 'Let's get back to our roots and do what we're good at,' that's being physical, pounding the ball. Frank's a great runner."
You could easily insert the names Paul McQuistan and Marshawn Lynch into that paragraph. An SBN colleague of mine, James Brady -- a writer over at NinersNation and the SB Nation Bay Area editor -- tweeted at me right after it was over, saying that the "game could have been exactly the opposite, play for play, score for score, and I wouldn't have been surprised." That sounds about right to me.
Seattle has now lost to the Niners four straight times dating back to 2010, but each and every game has been a slugfest, knock-down drag-out battle and I don't see that changing. Right now, I'd say the Niners are ahead of where the Seahawks want to be on both sides of the football, but I still think that Seattle is close. They're going to get a respite in the coming weeks in terms of opponent defenses, and Russell Wilson shouldn't see five or six drops on a consistent basis.
This is a growing team and though it may not really feel like it, they're still one of the youngest teams in the NFL. Their recipe - their formula - a conservative approach on offense and a sippy cup lid on their rookie quarterback, dictates that the margin for error in their games is going to be very slim. This team, where it sits in its development, simply cannot overcome big mistakes and huge drops and poor execution in key moments and expect to beat elite teams on the road. Even with those big drops, and the Russell Wilson pick, Seattle had a chance to pull it off, once again. They got close.
I doubt that will change much in the foreseeable future, either. It's going to be close, as Pete Carroll pointed out, probably every week.