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Originally published January 4, 2014 at 5:30 PM | Page modified January 4, 2014 at 11:43 PM

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Seahawks’ fourth quarter: Defensive dominance, offensive questions

The Seahawks’ offense struggled over the last four games of the regular season, leading to two uncharacteristic losses. But through it all, an already good defense became great.


Times staff columnist

Leadingthe way

The Seahawks finished the regular season first in the following defensive categories:

Points allowed per game

14.4

Yards per game

273.6

Passing yards per game

172

Interceptions

28

Turnover margin

+20

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Two weeks ago, in a melancholy locker room, Doug Baldwin sat shirtless and shoeless, arms folded, head down, staring at the carpet. He wasn’t just wallowing in a rare bit of Seahawks misery this season. It seemed he was addicted to it, unable to stop revisiting the pain, like a person who can’t resist poking at a bruise. He had to feel the hurt again. And again. And again.

The Seahawks had just lost their first home game in two years, a 17-10 defeat to Arizona. Their offense was incapable of punishing Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer for throwing four interceptions, and Baldwin, a wide receiver, didn’t want to brush off the struggles as an aberration.

Though the Seahawks had suffered only their third loss in 15 games, though they already had clinched a playoff berth, the team openly embraced this woe. In their lowest moment of the season, they were eager to learn about themselves.

“I love adversity because I think that the great ones don’t just become great through victory,” Baldwin said. “They don’t just constantly win all of the time. That’s not what makes them great. It’s the ability to recover from the defeat, and how they recover, and I think that’s what makes them better.

“This team, we’re going to recover from this in a better way.”

After two losses in the final quarter of the regular season and an offense that regressed, the Seahawks enter the playoffs with more concerns than they had during an 11-1 start. But the offensive issues coincide with the stunning improvement of a defense that was already elite. All at once, the Seahawks were as dominant and vulnerable as they’ve been all year.

The great challenge now is for them to minimize their few flaws enough to maximize their dramatic strengths. The Seahawks weren’t a complicated team to begin with, and now there’s little mystery over how to beat them. That’s still a daunting task for opponents. At 13-3, the Seahawks are proud of what they’ve accomplished so far, realistic about their issues and motivated to prove they’re more than a regular-season phenomenon.

“We can’t get too high, but we also got to remember who we are,” defensive end Red Bryant said. “We’re a good football team. We did some special things in the regular season. Because we lost three times, teams probably think there’s a formula to beat us. It may be true, but I think we’ve learned some things about how to counter all that.”

The Seahawks averaged only 19.3 points and 263 yards per game in the final four games of the season. They didn’t gain more than 327 yards in one game. They converted just 14 of 51 third downs (27.4 percent) and struggled in the red zone, too.

Their passing game wasn’t fluid. Their potent run game regressed. Even the usually efficient Russell Wilson missed throws that he easily makes.

When you look at the Seahawks’ entire season, their offense is far from pedestrian. They scored 26.3 points per game, tied for eighth in the NFL. Wilson became the only quarterback in league history to begin his career with consecutive passer ratings of at least 100.

Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,257 yards, the second-best season of his career. Golden Tate posted career highs with 64 catches and 898 receiving yards, and Doug Baldwin caught 50 passes for the second time in three years.

At its best, the Seahawks offense is a nice, functional complement to its great defense. But late in the season, the Seahawks couldn’t even meet that standard. A shaky, injury-burdened offensive line lacked continuity, a passing attack was limited by both the Seahawks’ conservative style and poor pass protection, and the team showed a penchant for drive-killing penalties.

Still, you’re talking about an offense that scored 33.8 points per game in the four weeks before this slump. The Seahawks are capable, though inconsistent and trending the wrong way.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll wants better, but he also wants to have a ball-control offense that gives the NFL’s No. 1 defense maximum support. In a sense, there’s a lid on how good the Seahawks can be offensively, but Carroll sees plenty of leeway to be effective.

“I think those kind of expectations are kind of cool, you know, that we should be better,” Carroll said. “I like that. It’s not good enough.

“I think we have an offense we can count on. We know where they’re coming from. They do a fantastic job taking care of the football, and they’re tough, and we run the ball. That’s what we need at this time. We need to know who we are and what we’re all about and then fit it all together with the rest of this football team. That gives us a chance to be successful.”

It’s not merely a question of whether the offense can break out of its funk. Now that Carroll has seen the good and bad, it’s a question of how much risk he can stomach and whether he wants to do enough to increase the Seahawks’ margin for error.

The Seahawks have a random, big-play attack. They do their best offensive work in chunk plays, often created by Wilson’s ability to escape disaster and throw downfield. If they go too vanilla, Carroll risks games like the one he lost to Arizona two weeks ago.

True to the Seahawks’ nature, they’re not overly concerned.

“I wouldn’t say we ever really panic,” Tate said. “We always feel like the best is yet to come. We always feel like we have a chance. We always know it’s up to us to turn it around.

“And, you know, we always end up doing that.”

John Lok / The Seattle Times

Russell Wilson, left, was up and down in the final four games, but played well in a win over the Giants.

St. Louis quarterback Kellen Clemens lofted the football into the end zone last Sunday, and three Seahawks defensive backs raced to grab it. Richard Sherman could’ve intercepted it. Earl Thomas could’ve, too. And Byron Maxwell was also there.

All three leapt into the air, collided and bounced off each other as if the football were a grenade. The ball hit the turf, incomplete. After a brief, fearful moment, the three Seahawks rose. They weren’t injured by their competitiveness.

“I’m not going to get into that,” Thomas joked, “but Sherman owes me one. He’s hatin’ on me.”

Said Sherman: “He might owe me some. I got there first.”

It was a dangerous but telling moment for the Seahawks defense. The effort, the desire to take away the football, the reckless abandon — that distinguishes this defense. But in a contradictory way, the play also alludes to why the Seahawks have advanced from great to extraordinary of late.

That all-out play was a rare break from the discipline, trust and selflessness that has helped the Seahawks grow. They didn’t do anything major to improve. They returned to good fundamentals, Carroll said. The results have been tremendous.

In this final quarter of the season, the Seahawks allowed 11.3 points and 241 yards per game. They gave up just 25 rushing yards in a shutout victory over the New York Giants, and 13 rushing yards in the season finale against St. Louis.

The Seahawks have gone from a great pass defense with a decent run defense to the most complete unit in the league. They finished the regular season as the league’s best in several major defensive categories: points allowed per game (14.4), yards per game (273.6), passing yards per game (172.0), interceptions (28) and turnover margin (plus-20). They ranked no lower than 10th in any major category.

Over this final quarter, three defensive players have turned in their best performances: tackle Brandon Mebane, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and cornerback Maxwell, who was behind Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond on the depth chart before their suspensions allowed him to have a bigger role. Maxwell has responded with great coverage and four interceptions. Though diminished at cornerback, the Seahawks appear as dangerous as ever.

The defense prefers a different adjective, however.

Disciplined.

“It’s just discipline,” said Sherman, who had eight interceptions and, along with Thomas, earned All-Pro recognition for the second straight year. “Playing sound football. Nobody is worried about doing too much. Nobody is worried about playing out of their mind or playing crazy. Everybody is just doing their job. Once you get everybody playing on the same page and nobody playing selfish football, it becomes an unbelievable product.”

Bryant has heard from his father-in-law, Seahawks legend Jacob Green, about how good this Seattle defense is. Hall of Famer Cortez Kennedy, who is around the team often, tells the players how much he respects their game. If the Seahawks can sustain this level, they could be regarded as an all-time great defense.

“We’re living in the moment, but we don’t blink when people tell us that,” Bryant said. “This is what we expect. We’re not surprised by how we play. With all this talent, all these players, why should we be?”


It’s a myth to think that an imbalanced team can’t win the Super Bowl. Study the NFL champions, and you’ll discover that dominance on one side of the ball, not both, is a prerequisite for hosting a February parade.

Most Super Bowl winners are exceptional on one side of the ball and functional on the other.

The Seahawks went wire to wire as the best team in the NFC and tied the Denver Broncos for the best record in the NFL. For the most part, they used the classic formula: exceptional on defense, functional on offense. In the final quarter of the season, they elevated to a different planet on defense and fell into a ravine on offense.

Can the defense hold steady? Can the offense rise?

And if not, can a lopsided team wobble to a championship?

That will be the drama of the Seahawks’ postseason. But they knew it would get difficult.

“It’s going to be hard,” Bryant said. “It’s the playoffs. That’s how it should be. We can handle hard.”

Final four games of the Seahawks’ regular season
Game 13Game 14Game 15Game 16
San Francisco 19, Seahawks 17Seahawks 23, N.Y. Giants 0Arizona 17, Seahawks 10Seahawks 27, St. Louis 9
No NFC West title yet as Phil Dawson makes winning field goal with just 26 seconds leftDefense picks off five passes and allows its fewest rushing yards in over a decadeLoss snaps Seattle’s 14-game home winning streak, a franchise recordHawks finally claim NFC West title and home-field advantage in playoffs
“The game came right to us. We had a chance and we just let them get out with the big run and that was it.” - Pete Carroll“It’s a beautiful place. And we’d love to be back.” - Richard Sherman, on playing at MetLife Stadium, home of the 2014 Super Bowl“I thought it was one of those games where we were just an inch off here or there, for whatever reason.” - Russell Wilson“Years down the road, when they talk about the Seahawks, they’re going to talk about that 2013 team.” - Red Bryant

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com



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