Sometimes you have to win ugly. Every team in the NFL is capable of winning when they play their best football*, but it's another thing entirely to win you don't. That goes double for a three-time-zone road game against a team on the upswing. That's how the Seahawks did it today, overcoming 109 penalty yards and a Russell Wilson fumble in the red zone to beat a tenacious Carolina team.
*Obligatory "except for maybe the Oakland Raiders" clause
The first quarter started off slowly, with the two teams trading punts on the first 47 drives. Jon Ryan was, in all seriousness, one of the most valuable players on the field today, consistently flipping the field with punts averaging 50 yards, including a 69 yarder (no roll) in the first quarter. I'm not going to spend too much time on the first half, because it was about as exciting and informative as a toaster commercial, but there are a few things worth mentioning:
~We knew we were going to see fewer fullback sets this year with Michael Robinson out but the question remained as to what we'd see instead. I'll have to wait for the official snap counts, but it looked like Seattle was much more comfortable going three-wide, one-tight, one-back than they were with two tight ends. My guess is that has a lot to do with Doug Baldwin's polish and Luke Willson's inexperience.
~Russell Wilson looked uncomfortable all half long. It could be rust, could be the early East coast start time, or maybe he just couldn't find a Make-A-Wish kid to inspire before the game started. Whatever the cause, he was a few degrees off on a number of throws, even the few in which he wasn't pressured. Wilson started off 1-5 with zero yards, and spent many of his dropbacks having to tuck the ball after three or four steps.
~The reason Wilson had to pirouette so often was Carolina's fearsome front seven re-establishing the line of scrimmage in Seattle's backfield. The Seahawks O-line was working overtime just to avoid looking silly and, to their credit, were at least able to deflect the Panthers rushers past Wilson enough to allow their QB to improvise. The O-line looked a little better on running plays, but Marshawn Lynch was unable to get past the second level all half.
~The lone touchdown in the first half came on a three yard wrinkle to Steve Smith, who wisely used the back judge as a screen and who continues to be one of the most frustrating guys to cover in the league.
~Seattle had a chance to answer before the end of the second quarter, but Wilson was stripped and the 'Hawks had to settle for a rare red zone zero.
At half, both Carolina and Seattle were averaging about five yards per play, an impoverished number given the playmaking capability on both teams. To my eye, it looked mostly like a bunch of guys playing at real full speed for the first time in seven months, and I'm comfortable accepting that. In the second half, penalties continued to plague the 'Hawks, who finished with nine to Carolina's four and while a couple of the calls were debatable, most of them weren't. One of the bugaboos for the Seahawks last year was their propensity for causing the head ref to use his microphone and they're not off to a good start in 2013.
Wilson, for his part, looked adjusted in the second half, finishing 25/33 for 320 yards and a TD (more on that in a minute), for a sparkling 115.7 passer rating. Part of that can be attributed to the line's improved ability to create a pocket but from the look of it, Russ simply found his rhythm.
The biggest beneficiary of Wilson's second half accuracy was Doug Baldwin, who finished with seven catches for 91 yards. The diamond in 2011's rough, Baldwin had become a bit of an afterthought among the Seattle receiving corps heading into the season but when it was third down, there was little doubt who Wilson was looking for. Third down conversion was a huge point of emphasis for this offense in the offseason and after converting six of 13, they're off to a nice start.
The third quarter only featured one score, a 40-yard Steven Hauschka field goal and was, largely, as unremarkable as the first three. As per Wilson's penchant, however, the fourth quarter heated up. With a grooving QB, Seattle's offense opened up a bit and they began to string first downs together for the first time all game. Nearly every pass that Wilson threw was first or second level, but he finally dialed up a bomb to Stephen Williams with 10:30 left. The pass was a gorgeous parabola that squirted out of Williams diving grasp as he hit the ground and as excited as I am about Williams' ceiling, I was hoping it would be Jermaine Kearse who was targeted.
Granted, it's easy for me to say that in hindsight but to my excitement, they went right back up the left sideline on another bomb, this time to Kearse who hauled it in for Seattle's only touchdown on the day. Pete Carroll talked a lot of about explosive plays and stretching the field this season and while Seattle only came up with one, it was the one that mattered. Golden Tate, who may not be knocking on the door of stardom but is at least climbing the stairs, finished with an uninspiring line (four receptions, 51 yards), but he made the catches count with first downs and also bought Seattle 48 yards on punt returns that most guys would have fair-caught or let go. Those yards matter and the coaching staff knows that. It's why Tate has the green light to return a punt inside his own five yard line if he feels he has even a sliver of room.
After the Seahawks TD, Carolina moved it right back down the field on the legs of DeAngelo Williams and a couple of monster penalties against Seattle. As Carolina continued their march into the red zone, it was beginning to appear as though Wilson would have to try and win the game on the final drive. Then, in a moment that was sure to stir up some PTSD in Panthers fans, Williams fumbled and Seattle recovered. Last year, in a very similar situation, Brandon Browner forced a fumble late that led to a Seahawks victory. The Seahawks then ripped off three first downs, the last of which was a calculated bounce out by Lynch, and before long Seattle was kneeling out their second victory in Carolina in as many years. It was Russell Wilson's sixth fourth-quarter comeback (seventh if you count his miraculous performance in Atlanta last January) in just 19 career starts. For perspective, Tom Brady notched his 24th today - in start #177.
He didn't get talked about much, but considering how well Walter Thurmond played in his first NFL start, that's a good thing. Even with Browner out, the Legion of Boom looked just as ferocious, limiting Panthers wide receivers to 61 yards on seven catches. Considering that five of them came from Steve Smith (primarily against zone coverage), that's a sensational performance.
Some noteworthy final numbers:
~Cam Newton finished with just 125 yards passing on 16 of 23 passing and a TD. Given how well Cam actually played, that's a sensational set of numbers for the 'Hawks D.
~After his first five passes, Wilson went 24 for 28 with an 11.4 YPA, good for a 126 passer rating.
~Lynch never really got going, ending up with 43 yards on 17 carries, adding two catches for nine yards.
~Robert Turbin was the clear #2 back today, getting the bulk of the third down work and adding 30 yards on five touches. Never saw Christine Michael on the field, but I'm not reading into that too much. He's got a long way to go as a blocker before they put him out there against a defense like Carolina's.
~Great to see Zach Miller (3 catches, 42 yards) healthy and involved.
The Seahawks have now won seven of their last eight games, with this being arguably their worst performance of the bunch. It's hard not to see Seattle getting better from here, which is encouraging because even this mostly lackluster effort was good enough to snag a win. In the NFL, there are no voters to impress. You get wins any way you can and this morning, the Seahawks defense (253 total yards allowed) carried the day.
Feel free to add your own observations in the comments.