SANTA CLARA, Calif. – In the past two weeks, the Seahawks lost one game in a manner that head coach Pete Carroll described as "baffling," then they lost another fourth-quarter lead when defensive players weren't on the same page on what would end up being the game-winning touchdown.
But on Thursday night in Santa Clara, the Seahawks built a big lead, then finished out the game, rolling to a 20-3 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. It wasn't that the Seahawks did anything particularly unusual in a win that improved their record to 3-4, it was that they were themselves, playing stingy defense, running the ball and making big plays in the passing game.
"It felt like a really normal Seahawk night tonight," Carroll said. "It was great to have an opening drive like that—eat up a bunch of clock, move the football, hammer it in and stay with the run to get it done. We closed it out, we got the ball for the last three, four minutes, whatever it was, and we take a knee to end the game. That's the way we're supposed to finish the game."
Yes, the Seahawks finally finished, which leads our five takeaways from Thursday night's win over the 49ers.
1. The Seahawks found their finishing touch.
The Seahawks have held a fourth quarter lead in every game this season, yet they came into Thursday's game with a 2-4 record. Sometimes the late-game letdown came on defense, other times it was on offense, and occasionally it was on special teams—or in the case of the loss at Cincinnati, it was a perfect storm in all three phases of the game. But this time around, the defense that started the game by stifling Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense kept doing so for four quarters, and while the offense managed just a field goal in the fourth quarter, it took a lot of time off the clock with that drive, then Seattle was able to keep the ball for the final 3 minutes, 5 seconds of the game, finishing things off in victory formation.
"That was the way it's supposed to be," Carroll said. "That's supposed to be normal to be able to finish the game like that. I don't make a big deal about it; this is the way we should be playing. We should be finishing like that."
Added quarterback Russell Wilson: "We want to finish the game the right way. We've lost four games at the very end, but we were able to finish tonight."
Despite the blown fourth-quarter leads, the Seahawks didn't feel like a performance like this one was too far off. After both the Cincinnati and Carolina losses, players remained positive, saying the mistakes and breakdowns were correctable, and on Thursday they showed that with a complete effort.
"Yeah, it felt familiar," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "Just finishing a game. We've felt good the past couple of games, it's not like we didn't feel good in those games, but there were some mistakes in the end and some communication errors. Today we played a complete game."
2. The defense was dominant.
The 49ers had 11 possessions in Thursday's game, and other than one field goal drive, they accomplished very little, punting nine times (the other possession was a short one at the end of the first half). That's one more punt than the 49ers had first downs, and they managed just 142 yards of total offense.
"It feels real good," defensive tackle Brandon Mebane said of the defense's performance. "We're starting to put things together and starting to just play football. It's just playing a complete game, man. We know who we are, and we just started playing ball. That was the main thing."
In particular, the pass rush was dominant, with Michael Bennett collecting 3.5 sacks and the team finishing with six.
"The defense played really well, all night," Carroll said. "One drive gets them some points, but other than that it was a great night, and a fantastic night of rushing the passer, really highlighted by Michael Bennett."
Richard Sherman, who in the past has been Kaepernick's nemesis by picking off passes, instead had a big game by taking away Kaepernick's most dangerous weapon, not by taking his football. Rather than stick to his usual spot at left cornerback, Sherman followed Torrey Smith around the field, and the speedy receiver went without a catch after having three catches for 96 yards last week, including a 76-yard score.
"We respected 82, he had a big game last week," Carroll said. "We just felt like it was a good idea."
3. Marshawn Lynch is still Marshawn Lynch.
Thanks to a hamstring injury and some games when various factors kept the offense from getting on track, Marshawn Lynch had yet to have a big game this season, but if anyone was doubting his ability to get the job done in 2015, Lynch put that to rest with his play in this game, finishing with 122 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
Lynch set the tone from the get-go, carrying nine times on Seattle's first possession, including a 1-yard touchdown, and the cutback he used to break free for a 17-yard gain was as impressive as ever, showing the 29-year-old back has still got it.
"That is Seahawks football," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "We go with Marshawn. He leads the way. The style in which he runs, the style in which he leads in the huddle, that's what's important to us. That's what helps us get to where we want to be. We'll go as far as he takes us."
4. Wilson to Lockett was "one of the best plays of the year."
In the past two games, Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett have just missed connecting for big plays, but on Thursday they finally did for a 43-yard score on a perfectly executed play-action pass.
Lockett, who was Seattle's leading receiver with five catches for 79 yards, blew past single coverage—safety help had bit on the play fake—and protection held up long enough for Wilson to deliver a strike.
"The execution of the big play was perfect," Carroll said. "It was really a beautiful job of protection and the quarterback throwing it and him running the route to get open, and the execution of the catch too. It was just a beautiful play for us. One of the best plays of the year."
Yet it wasn't a perfect night for Wilson, who admitted he "kind of handcuffed us" with two interceptions. The first, which came late in the half, ended a promising drive, while the second was on a deep ball into double coverage.
"I was really disappointed in the long ball," Carroll said. "That was too bad, we didn't need to do that. He thought he had something, but we don't need to throw the ball like that… The last time he did that was against the Cardinals in his first game or something like that, so we don't need to throw the ball like that."
It was otherwise a very good day for Wilson, however, who was 18 of 24 for 235 yards and one "beautiful" touchdown.
5. Pete Carroll still can't figure out what's going on with turnover differential this season.
For his entire career, Pete Carroll has preached the importance of winning the turnover battle, and for good reason—there is a ton of data that shows that the team that comes out on top of that stat usually wins the game as well. Yet once again on Thursday, that wasn't the case, with the Seahawks winning in convincing fashion despite being minus-two in turnover ratio. That's the second time this season the Seahawks have won despite a negative turnover ratio, and they've been positive in that category in three of their four losses.
"I don't even want to talk about it," Carroll said. "I don't know, there's not a place in my brain for this. I don't understand. Minus two and we win, I don't know how that happens. What's going to be really exiting is if we turn this thing in the right direction, we're going to really be in great shape."
- Carroll said Russell Okung was fine after briefly leaving the game with an apparent injury, then returning to finish the game. Alvin Bailey, who split time at right tackle with Garry Gilliam, filled in for Okung while he was out of the game. Gilliam came into the game with an ankle injury, which is why the Seahawks wanted to spell him at times. "Garry came in with a sore ankle, so we just wanted to see how he would do," Carroll said. "We prepared Alvin to play, we wanted to give him some time to see how he would do and not give Garry the burden of the whole game. They were in and out a little bit. We needed to better on that edge though. They got to us pretty good over there." The only other injury Carroll reported was a calf injury to Thomas Rawls that was either a strain or a bruise.
- Safety Kelcie McCray, who was acquired in a trade before the start of the season, picked up two more tackles on special teams Thursday. McCray has not played on defense this season, but has been a huge part of Seattle's special teams units. "He is becoming a real leader in production," Carroll said. "That's a great pickup, that's a great job by John (Schneider) to find him."
- The Seahawks wore their alternate "Wolf Grey" jerseys and pants Thursday and improved to 6-0 in that uniform combination.
In Santa Clara, the Seahawks dominated on both sides of the ball and return to Seattle with a 20-3 win over the 49ers.