Five weeks into the seasons, the play of quarterback Geno Smith has been one of the bright spots not just of this young Seahawks season, but also league wide.
In Week 6, however, Smith, like anyone else watching, recognized who the star was in Seattle's 19-9 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
"How 'bout that defense?" Smith said with a grin to start his postgame press conference.
None of that is to say Smith and the offense played poorly on Sunday, but after a three-game stretch in which the Seahawks scored 103 points and still lost two of those games, it was the defense that stepped up and emerged as the biggest factor in a win that improved Seattle's record to 3-3, matching San Francisco and Los Angeles for the best record in the NFC West.
"Really happy with the whole group on defense," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "They've been fighting their tails off to get it done and to try to get to a point where they really feel like they're doing something. And the pass rush came to life today. And the guys were all over the quarterback. So really rewarding in that regard. It's a big deal to get a win today. Everybody in the division is the same, so we're starting all over again. So you could look at it a lot of ways; I'm looking at it like we're in first place and fired up to be in that position."
Sunday's game didn't start off very well for the defense, with Kyler Murray taking a third-and-4 run 42 yards for the Cardinals' longest play of the season. That was followed by a 26-yard completion on third-and-6 to put the Cardinals in the red zone, but that's when things started to turn for Seattle's defense. After Arizona got to the 1-yard-line, rookie linebacker Boye Mafe and cornerback Mike Jackson did well to contain Murray on a run attempt, forcing the quarterback out of bounds for a 4-yard loss. Then, after an incomplete pass, the Cardinals settled for a short field goal that gave them a 3-0 lead.
It was the only score Arizona's offense would produce all afternoon.
While the Cardinals were able to make the game close in the third quarter due to a special teams miscue by the Seahawks, their offense was kept in check the rest of the game, with the rest of its possessions ending in four punts, three turnovers on downs, a fumble caused by Coby Bryant, a Tariq Woolen interception, and finally the clock running out to end the game.
"It looked good, it felt good. It felt different," said safety and defensive co-captain Quandre Diggs. "We came out with a purpose and understood what the mission was. It was dope. The D-line, the linebackers, the secondary, everybody played really well. We still have some stuff we can clean up and get better, but at the end of the day, you hold a team to 3 points—their only score on us was the first drive when we're trying to get settled down, so great effort from coaches and everything. Dope day.
"I just think when everybody's locked in and everybody knows what's going on, and you're seeing things, and you kind of get settled down. The coaches were able to let us settle down after that first drive, where those guys are going fast, and we get calls in quickly. We just play what we play, but just being able to see different formations and seeing things like that, which was really cool. Guys are bringing the defense to life, and it's cool when everybody's out there talking. When everybody's talking and everybody sees something, that's what makes the game fun to me. The running, hitting, interceptions, all that's cool, but the intellectual part of the game is what I love to see everybody on the same page about, because that's what slows the game down for everybody."
Part of the improvement came from schematic change—Carroll noted that some adjustments were made to the defense without getting into too much detail—but pride and attitude were also factors after the Seahawks surrendered 84 points in the previous two games.
"I just think guys were more focused, I think guys were more pissed off," Diggs said. "That's one of those things that happens. I love to see the fight in the team after we had a heartbreaking loss last week."
The most obvious statistical change for the Seahawks were the six sacks they recorded, a season high, but that started with another area of improvement, the run defense. Murray did plenty of damage thanks to that early big run, finishing with 42 yards on 10 carries, but after that play Seattle's run defense was considerably improved from previous weeks, with Cardinals running backs gaining just 44 yards on 18 carries. With the run defense setting up more obvious passing situations, and with the Seahawks playing from ahead for much of the game, Seattle's pass-rushers were able to get after Murray, with six different players recording sacks.
"We stopped the run, that's really what it was," said outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, who had one of those sacks, his third of the season. "The last four or five weeks, we've had trouble stopping the run, and that's what the game plan was going into this game: 'Stop the run so we can have some fun.' We did that, and guys were able to fly all over the field and get after Kyler Murray. Keeping him in the pocket was going to be a big deal in this game, and we were able to do that. Not one, not two, not three, not four, but six different guys got a sack, which is huge."
One of the most noteworthy parts of a great day of defense was that the Seahawks got standout play from a defensive line missing arguably its best player—nose tackle Al Woods, who was out with a knee injury.
With Woods out, players like Bryan Mone, Poona Ford, Shelby Harris and Quinton Jefferson all stepped up with big performances.
"I feel like Big Al was out there with me," said Mone, who started in place of Woods. "We talked about it in practice, having each other's back, and I hope the film shows that I had his back today."
Mone said some of the improvement just had to do with being more physical at the point of attack.
"Last week we were kind of getting tossed around," he said. "This week I feel like we brought the knock-back back. I felt like everybody did their job. Linebackers to the DBs to the D-line, I felt like we all played as one together. And six sacks today? Shelby had one, Poona had one, Q, everybody was ballin' today, man."
Said Jefferson, who had a sack and five tackles, "It finally clicked for us today. Hopefully this is a steppingstone for the rest of the season. I tell a lot of people, it's not how you play at the beginning of the season, it's how you finish. We're in the first quarter, and it's a great start to the back half of the season. We've got to just keep building off this game."
The Seahawks face the Arizona Cardinals at Lumen Field for Week 6 of the season on October 16, 2022. Game action photos are presented by Washington's Lottery.