SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Amid all the madness here Monday night, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner hopes you noticed something.
“We reminded everyone we know how to play defense,” he said.
It was a huge and satisfying victory – 27-24 in overtime – for the Seahawks over the San Francisco 49ers, made especially exhilarating by the sheer chaos of the action. There were enough twists and turns to make it the sporting embodiment of San Francisco’s famously crooked Lombard Street to the north.
But if this game has a legacy beyond its audacity. The Seahawks hope it is the emergence of a defensive unit that all year has been considered its weak link. If they did, indeed, figure something out in the din of Levi’s Stadium, the Seahawks’ playoff hopes took a massive upward turn.
Coach Pete Carroll certainly believes the game was a defensive turning point for his squad. He lauded defensive coordinator Ken Norton for his adjustments, Jadeveon Clowney for his game-wrecking dominance, and Shaquill Griffin for his out-of-nowhere diving breakup of a long pass intended for Deebo Samuel in overtime that could have sunk the Seahawks.
And that was just the start of it. The Seahawks’ long-dormant pass rush was disruptive all game and seemed at some point to get in the head of 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. With Clowney leading the way – and Shaquem Griffin making an unexpected appearance in place of dormant Ziggy Ansah – the Seahawks recorded five sacks. They held one of the NFL’s best rushing teams to 87 yards on the ground, well below their average, and safety Quandre Diggs – another revelation in his first Seahawks start – had a key interception.
“I really loved what the defense did during this night, and it’s really important to us, really important to us the way we played,” Carroll said.
The importance lies in what this bodes for the future as the Seahawks hit their bye week before continuing a brutal finishing stretch. Lined up in order are the Eagles, Vikings, Rams and Panthers, playoff contenders all, before a slight – very slight – respite against the Cardinals. After that looms the regular-season finale at home against these same 49ers, a game that will be wildly hyped if current form holds.
To navigate that stretch, and especially to make noise in the playoffs, the Seahawks can’t be a team that lives and dies with its offense. Their two previous trips to the Super Bowl under Carroll were predicated on a fierce defense. But that unit had been alarmingly vulnerable this season, and it seemed a potentially fatal flaw.
Now there is renewed hope that the defense will thrive, and it begins with the revitalization of the pass rush. As Diggs said, “Those guys up front were eating all night. That’s what we expect them to do each and every week. Those guys showed up for Monday Night Football and put on a show.”
“They came to life,” added Wagner, who with K.J. Wright was in position to add to Seattle’s interception total but couldn’t quite hang on to an errant Garappolo pass.
Clowney filled up his statistical sheet – and the 49ers backfield – with five tackles, five quarterback hits, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. I’ll have to double-check, but I believe he also sang the national anthem and parachuted down with the game ball.
“Maybe this is the start that we’ve been looking for with our pass rush,” Carroll said.
Clowney, in particular, is settling into the Seahawks’ system after being acquired in a trade at the end of August. He is showing why he was so coveted an acquisition.
“He’s been active since we started,” Carroll said. “I think he understands where to take advantage of the scheme more so now, about where we send him. We move him a lot and do a lot of things with him to try to get him in the spaces.
“He knows better how to use that to make the most of it. He’s an exciting football player. He can do so much stuff and sometimes, he takes the wrong trace, because he just hasn’t been with us enough, but he is maximizing more so. And that’s why, I would like to think, he had a big night tonight.”
It was a huge night for the Seahawks defense, standing out even more because of how poorly it began. Beset by penalties that nullified an early Griffin interception and kept the 49ers on the field several times beyond what should have been, it looked grim early.
“You couldn’t have made it easier for them,” Carroll said grimly after the game. “We stopped them a couple times in there. I think we stopped them twice in the drive. So we just had to settle down. Maybe we were a little too jacked up or something, I don’t know. … But the cool thing is to see your guys settle down and play good ball after that and not get your head down, and we didn’t do it. That’s not even anywhere in their vernacular around here.”
Dominating defense has been part of the Seahawks’ vernacular for a long time. If it’s headed back to life, the Seahawks just became the team no one wants to face.