The Seahawks were 1 yard from humiliation Monday night. St. Louis, a losing team lacking its star quarterback, had rumbled 96 yards in a stunning game-closing drive, and the Rams stood 1 yard — 36 inches — from being Buster Douglas to the Seahawks’ Mike Tyson.
Twenty-seven seconds remained on a third down-and-goal play. That’s when Heath Farwell, a backup linebacker and special-teams ace who is part of Seattle’s goal-line defense, noticed something peculiar. During film study, the Seahawks hadn’t watched the Rams throw a single pass out of this goal-line formation all season, but Farwell saw the offensive linemen in a four-point stance, ready to fire off the ball.
So Farwell cheated. He guessed run. And soon after Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens handed the football to running back Daryl Richardson, Farwell was there to deny him.
One play later, Clemens threw an incomplete pass. Game over. The Seahawks had survived, 14-9, despite the Rams running five plays from the 6-yard line or closer. In the first half of a season that has been more about perseverance than perfection, it was a very Seahawks-like way to reach the midpoint of a potential title run.
“Instincts,” Farwell said of his decision on the game’s penultimate play. “You don’t have a lot of room down there to second-guess yourself. There are no ties at the goal line, right? You have to make a play.”
The Seahawks have a 7-1 record, their best start in franchise history, but October was a difficult month. They suffered their first loss, a 34-28 decision at Indianapolis on Oct. 6, imploding after a fast start and succumbing to a Colts team that has already beaten three prime championship contenders (Seattle, Denver and San Francisco). Since then, the Seahawks have won three straight games over middling teams, but they are being docked style points in every performance, struggling to live up to the mythical image of an early-season Super Bowl team.
They have a glaring weakness that could kill their hopes if not fixed before season’s end: poor pass protection from the offensive line, which turns the passing game to mush. Because of this wart, the typical inconsistency of a young team and an alarming amount of injury attrition, the Seahawks have been tested as much as any contender. Still, their record has just one blemish.
Consider that final drive in St. Louis a microcosm of their season. They’re flawed enough to give up a 96-yard drive to a team with a backup quarterback and limited offensive weapons, but in the end, in the red zone, you saw greatness.
“We’ve been in those situations before and not come through it,” safety Earl Thomas said. “This year is special. It’s magical. You can feel it.”
They can feel it. The public hasn’t always seen it, though.
So, it’s up to the Seahawks to defend their reputation. They tend to revel in that role.
“If you give us a chance, if you give us a blade of grass, we’re going to defend it,” Farwell said. “We knew we were going to keep St. Louis out of the end zone. Nobody second-guessed it at all.”
Andy Lyons / Getty Images
AS THE MOST EXPERIENCED and accomplished member of the Seahawks’ makeshift offensive line, All-Pro center Max Unger also serves as a spokesman for the oversized unit. The bearded Unger nods patiently, tries to answer questions that he can’t really answer and defends a group that is enduring heavy scrutiny.
It’s an awkward position that Unger handles with grace. Ideally, the offensive line would be doing its part so well that no one would notice, and the players would bask in anonymity. Instead, the Seahawks are playing without Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung (toe injury) and right tackle Breno Giacomini (knee injury), and the O-line is the weak link of a team that rates from above average to great in most every other category.
“It’s just missing assignments,” Unger said of the problem. “Physically, we can get beat, but it’s missed assignments. We definitely got beat here and there, but it’s the missed assignments that are really killing us.”
Under siege all season, quarterback Russell Wilson has been sacked 27 times in a half season despite his escape artistry. He was sacked only 33 times all of last season, and there was still concern about the protection. The punishment he’s enduring now borders on a crisis.
“He’s getting clocked every now and then,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “So we’re working like crazy to keep that from happening. It is a big issue.
“We don’t ever want him getting hit.”
Without Okung, Paul McQuistan, normally the team’s right guard, has had to play left tackle. Rookie Michael Bowie has replaced Giacomini at right tackle. Starting guards J.R. Sweezy and James Carpenter have struggled. And even Unger, who missed two games with a triceps injury, hasn’t played at his normal level.
Protection hasn’t been the only problem. Untimely penalties from the offensive line have ruined drives. Though the Seahawks have the fourth-best running game in the NFL, the run blocking hasn’t been ideal, either.
The Seahawks can’t reach their potential on offense with such poor play up front. Even though reinforcements are coming, there’s still the belief that this team isn’t great at pass protecting, even at full strength. The Seahawks have two months to graduate to functional in this area. If they don’t, it’s hard to imagine a team winning the Super Bowl with misadventures every time the quarterback drops back to pass.
To his credit, Wilson won’t criticize his line.
“Going through the injuries and the struggles,” Wilson said, “it’s just going to help us that much more down the road, I believe.”
John Lok / The Seattle Times
MARSHAWN LYNCH ROAMS the locker room happily, brushing off media requests for interviews and turning up the music at his locker. If he’s disgruntled, it’s hard to tell. He’s just Marshawn. He’s as consistent as a bag of his favorite Skittles.
While Beast Mode exists in his own world, there’s plenty of anxiety around him. In consecutive games, the Seahawks haven’t given Lynch, the most physical runner in the NFL, the ball in goal-line situations. In Arizona, he was caught on video flipping the bird to his sideline after a red-zone play didn’t include him. In St. Louis on Monday, Wilson didn’t give him the ball on back-to-back zone-read plays, and Lynch had only eight carries in the entire game.
On the flight home from St. Louis, Carroll sat with his star running back, and both men were frustrated.
“That’s now how we play,” said Carroll, vowing that Lynch will be a bigger part of the offense.
Will Lynch’s discontent develop into a legitimate problem? The Seahawks want to address the issue before it turns into the latter.
“I want Marshawn to want the ball,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “I want Golden (Tate) to want the ball, and I want Doug (Baldwin) to want the ball and all those guys. That’s how they should feel. That’s what great competitors do.”
But with an offense that Bevell admits isn’t playing up to its standard, perhaps there should be a greater urgency to force-feed Lynch, whose hard running is the most important element of the Seahawks’ offense and their overall style of play.
The Seahawks are still emphasizing Lynch. He’s on pace for 292 carries, which would be slightly lower than the 315 he had a year ago. He has 601 rushing yards, a pace for a little more than 1,200 yards, which wouldn’t come close to his 1,590 total from 2012. But much of that is because Lynch is averaging only 4.1 yards per carry, down from 5.0 last season.
It isn’t just about giving Lynch the ball more. The Seahawks still run the ball plenty. The entire run game, starting with the blocking, can be more productive and efficient.
In addition, the Seahawks ran only 40 plays and converted only 2 of 11 third downs against St. Louis. Opportunities to give Lynch the ball more were lost because the team didn’t convert and extend drives.
“I share the frustration with him,” Carroll said of Lynch. “I don’t mind one bit him being frustrated about that. I was, too.”
TEAMMATES KEPT ASKING Brandon Browner if he was OK. Browner insisted that they not worry.
“Nah, I’m fine,” he told safety Thomas.
On Oct. 13, during a 20-13 victory over Tennessee, Carroll benched Browner for part of the game. Titans receivers burned him several times early, and the coach decided to give opportunities to others in the Seahawks’ deep and talented secondary. Quietly, it was a huge test of the maturation of this team.
Until he pulled Browner, Carroll hadn’t yanked a prominent player quite like this. The 6-foot-4 Browner is a former Pro Bowler whose size and physical play at cornerback help define the Seahawks’ smothering defense. He’s in a contract year, and he got benched?
Browner knew people were curious to see his reaction. So, he acted like a professional. He didn’t complain. He stood on the sideline and encouraged his teammates. After the game, he didn’t express frustration to the media.
Cornerback Richard Sherman looked Browner’s way that day, his body language suggesting that they should go somewhere and talk. Browner looked back in a way that told Sherman it was unnecessary.
“It was the kind of look you would give your brother to tell him you’re OK,” Sherman said.
Then, four days later, Browner went to Arizona and played his best game of the season. He tipped a pass that led to a Thomas interception. Later, he picked off a pass himself and he would’ve returned it for a touchdown, but he tripped at the 10-yard line and fell a yard short.
Browner’s comeback effort was an example of the accountability and mental toughness the Seahawks need to make a title run. The Super Bowl champion often isn’t the best team in the regular season. “It’s the healthiest team that learns how to endure the most,” Unger said.
For all the talent the Seahawks have, they still consider themselves a bunch of underrated and overlooked players who succeed partly because they have such an edge.
In the case of Browner, who missed the first two games because of a hamstring injury, the brief benching restored his edge. For others, it might take a different tactic.
But the Seahawks must keep enduring.
They must endure until the return of their tackles and their would-be star receiver, Percy Harvin. They must endure through their own mistakes, which keep limiting their ability to dominate and lead to disapproval of unimpressive victories. They must endure through Tate’s tug-of-war between audacity and contrition, through the loss to Sidney Rice to a season-ending knee injury, through whatever unexpected twists the second half of the season is sure to provide.
“We are so far away from playing the way that we are capable of playing,” Carroll said.
More like curious.
Said the coach of the challenge to improve: “It’s exciting to see where we can take it.”
|Eight games into the Seahawks season|
|Game 5||Game 6||Game 7||Game 8|
|Colts 34, Seahawks 28||Seahawks 20, Titans 13||Seahawks 34, Cardinals 22||Seahawks 14, Rams 9|
|Seattle loses its first regular-season game in more than 10 months||Russell Wilson provides stability, throwing for 257 yards and rushing for another 61 yards||Arizona gets within four points but Seattle responds quickly for a solid win on the road||Defense makes goal-line stand in final seconds and Seattle improves to 7-1|
|“We still have our confidence, our swagger and all that.” - Earl Thomas, who led the team with nine tackles||“I felt like I was really in tune with the game. And that’s where I want to be every week.” - Russell Wilson||“We never want the game to be in question. We’re going to make mistakes because that’s just inevitable in a football game.” - Richard Sherman||“Very fortunate to get out of here (with a win). I think everyone who watched that one could see we were very fortunate.” - coach Pete Carroll|
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer