GLENDALE—Not long after Jadeveon Clowney reached the end zone following a 27-yard interception return, nearly every Seahawks player in uniform had joined the defense in the celebration.
The raucous festivity, which included an impromptu team photo, and the play that preceded it were the most obvious illustration that Sunday was a good day for Seattle's defense, but more significant than one big play was the way that unit continues to make strides as the season goes along.
In addition to providing Seattle's first touchdown in an eventual 27-10 victory, the defense also held Arizona's offense to 321 total yards, including 206 passing, a 3 for 9 third-down conversion rate, and sacked No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray four times.
"Our defense helped us out," quarterback Russell Wilson said. "They were rock solid all day."
It wasn't a perfect day for Seattle's defense—running back David Johnson had 99 receiving yards, including receptions of 28 and 31 yards on short dump-offs, two penalties played a big role in Arizona's only touchdown of the game, and the Cardinals found some success on the ground, averaging 5.0 yards per carry—but overall it was a solid performance for a defense that looks to be trending in the right direction.
"I feel like each week we are finding a way to get better," said linebacker Bobby Wagner, who had a team-high 11 tackles. "The first game we allowed a lot of passing yards and we kind of slowed that down. We're getting really close to putting together a complete game. We let them in (to the end zone) this week, we don't feel like they should have got that score. They did a quarterback draw, we should expect that from him. But we shut them down."
Part of the reason Seattle's defense feels like it's still growing is that players are still getting used to playing together. While all three of Seattle's starting linebackers were on the team last year, the Seahawks never had K.J. Wright and Mychal Kendricks available at the same time, and now those two are playing together along with Wagner. On the defensive line, Clowney, Ziggy Ansah and Al Woods are all new, Poona Ford is new to the starting lineup, and the Seahawks are just starting to work rookie L.J. Collier in after he missed almost all of training camp and all four preseason games with an ankle injury. Seattle did return all four of last year's starting defensive backs, but they've had to adjust some with safety Tedric Thompson missing the past two games due to injury before returning to the starting lineup this week.
"We're still trying to learn together," said Clowney, whose pressure also contributed to one of Kendricks' two sacks. "We're getting better. That's the name of the game, not peaking right now, it's about improving each and every week. I'm feeling better, I'm getting better with my rushes every week, other guys tell me they're feeling better. We're coming together as a unit… It's still coming together, but I feel like we just keep improving week by week, and we're stacking wins and still getting better. That's the name of the game, getting better and still getting wins."
The Cardinals haven't had the success they'd hoped for early this season under first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury, but Kingsbury's Air Raid offense has shown it can be dangerous in spurts, especially with Murray's playmaking ability, so Carroll was excited about how his defense handled a different test.
"All-in-all, to keep these guys in check—we had a 'bend-don't-break' thing to see what they were all about and it worked out fine for us," Carroll said. "We were able to keep them corralled. We got some sacks today which was great. (Murray) is hard to sack sometimes because you can't get to him. You could really see Kyler Murray is a really fine athlete and he's going to be a pain in the future."
And like his players, Carroll only sees this defense getting better as the season goes along.
"We're learning how to play our football with our guys," Carroll said. "If you look at the way and style that we're playing, we're still learning how to do it. It's still in process. We're putting it together. Seeing Ziggy and seeing Jadeveon on the outside is a big deal to us and learning we can count on them. The pressure was pretty solid throughout the day. In the last three weeks we have really held down people throwing the football in terms of the big numbers. We're starting to feel it a little bit. We're not quite there yet. We got a way to go, but we're learning. Real happy with the progress we're making and really high hopes that we can keep it going."
Making the performance all the more encouraging was the fact that the Seahawks got big contributions at all three levels of their defense. In addition to Clowney's pick-six, defensive ends Rasheem Green and Ansah added sacks, and Collier made a great diving tackle to stop a potentially big run before it broke. Seattle's linebackers were again solid throughout, with Wagner's 11 tackles, Kendricks' two sacks and six tackles, and Wright's seven tackles that allowed him to move into fifth place on the team's all-time tackles list, as well as the pressure he put on Murray that helped lead to Clowney's interception. And on the back end, coverage was solid throughout, limiting Arizona's top receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk to a combined nine catches for 84 yards.
"I think the whole back end played great," Carroll said. "Nothing went up top. We kept them underneath us the whole day."
One of the most notable elements of Seattle's defensive performance is that they were able to stick with the base defense they like so much even against an offense that likes to spread the ball out and throw a lot. There was speculation during the week leading up to the game that the Seahawks, who have kept all three linebackers on the field for the majority of their first three games, would have to abandon that plan against Arizona and play more nickel or dime defense, but once again Seattle kept Wagner, Wright and Kendricks on the field for much of the game. The result was not just another solid game overall, but two sacks from Kendricks, a player who wouldn't have been on the field as often had the Seahawks gotten away from their base defense.
"I was really fired up about Mychal," Carroll said. "We played a lot of three linebackers on the field today because those guys are good players and we like playing that way. Mychal really showed that he can be a factor doing that. He's playing out like a nickel guy. Love that he was able to have an effect today."
Said Wagner, "We put in the work, we understand what (the Cardinals) were going to do. A lot of the time when teams come out and see our base they want to throw the ball, but we really do a good job in the passing game. They got a couple screens out on us, but I felt all-in-all it was really good, and it just shows the talent we have at linebacker. It's not common for linebackers to be on the field that much, and we just keep proving people wrong. They were trying to replace the linebackers a couple years ago. I'm happy that didn't work out."
Or as Clowney succinctly put it, "We've got great players all over the place. We can line up in any defense. As long as we play with great effort, we'll be OK."