5 Down, 18 To Go: It’s Not How You Start, It’s How You Finish

I knew there was a reason to be worried about the Panthers.  What I didn’t know was how good their defense truly was.

If you’re like me, you’ve been gorging yourselves on all the hype surrounding the Seahawks.  Both ESPN and Sports Illustrated have the Seahawks at least going to the Super Bowl.  The Seahawks appear to be a favorite over at Grantland as well.  Obviously, the Seahawks-related bloggers (including yours truly) are no place to go for objective, rational journalism.  Unless you’re a particular fan of a particular set of teams that might have the talent to compete for a championship (San Francisco, Atlanta, Green Bay, Denver, and to a lesser extent Houston and New England), you’ve probably thought long and hard about the Seahawks.

It’s the way the world works.  The Seahawks were one of the best teams in the NFL at the end of last season.  In the off-season, they made a bunch of moves to seemingly get better while other teams (including those listed above) made a bunch of moves to seemingly get worse.  The 49ers lost a couple of crucial defenders, then they lost Crabtree to injury.  Atlanta lost some defenders and traded in one old running back for another old running back.  Green Bay lost Woodson and Jennings and is relying on bits and pieces at running back.  Denver blew it with Elvis Dumervil and saw Von Miller lose 6 games to suspension.  Houston has always been a fringey type of Super Bowl contending team and they’ve still yet to find a second receiver aside from Andre Johnson.  And, speaking of receivers, New England has none.  Then, they lost Aaron Hernandez to prison and Gronk to yet another surgery.  I don’t even consider Baltimore a contender anymore, but if you include them, they still lost Boldin as well as the heart and soul of their defense; this is a transition year for them and nothing more.  They’ll be back, but not in 2013.

So, really, among the contenders, the Seahawks were the only team to really IMPROVE.  Of course they would be the near-consensus #1 football team in America!  Once the sportswriters picked up on that talking point, it all snowballed into the Hype Machine, where out plopped the Seahawks, Men Among Boys.

After a 12-7 victory in Carolina, I shudder to think how the national media is going to over-react.  I would expect more than a few power ranking polls to have the 49ers steal all of our glory.

The Seahawks didn’t look good yesterday.  Then again, they didn’t look particularly bad either.  I think you have to give Carolina’s defense a lot of credit.  I also think it’s unfair to ask a West Coast team to travel to Carolina in week 1 and play a 10am game.  But, I don’t think the national media will take that into consideration.  12-7 was probably the best we could have hoped for given the circumstances.

Normally, in these types of games, the Seahawks show up and look sloppy and unorganized from the get-go.  I didn’t think we looked necessarily that bad in the beginning, I just think that Carolina looked really GOOD and fired up.  They made two things abundantly clear in their gameplan:  they weren’t going to let us run the football, and they weren’t going to let Russell Wilson scramble outside the pocket.  Unless it was a designed roll-out, there weren’t many instances where Wilson was able to get outside on his own and make something happen.

It was hard to tell if the Seahawks made a conscious decision to not run the zone read with Wilson keeping the ball, or if Carolina’s defense dictated that the zone read wouldn’t be viable to begin with, but as we maintained a 7-6 deficit into the fourth quarter, I was ready to unleash Wilson in a variety of run plays as long as it meant we could move the football consistently.

The offensive line could have been a lot better, but that’s probably to be expected.  Going from the likes of our pre-season competition straight to one of the best D-Lines in the NFL, there’s going to be some transitional growing pains to be had.  Carolina’s front four is beefy.  They have the kind of defensive line that we’ve been dreaming about for years.  When was the last time we were able to generate consistent pressure up the middle, with just our tackles?  I like Mebane and everything, but he’s no Star Lotulelei.  Unfortunately, you mostly have to draft in the top 10 to get that type of talent, and I don’t see the Seahawks drafting that high anytime soon.

The defensive line most certainly could have been better.  Injuries have ravaged this unit; this is probably (hopefully) the most-injured we’re going to see this team, as Avril and Clemons work their ways back into playing shape.  I’ve kind of given up hope of this team having an elite pass rush, but I do think there is room for lots of improvement once we get our two horses back out there.

On offense, what can you say?  It was the Russell Wilson show.  He took a couple nasty sacks (including a fumble) and a lot more nasty hits, but with the running game out of commission, Russell Wilson was the only thing working.  Doug Baldwin was a godsend, Sidney Rice looked as good as ever, and Golden Tate made a few plays.  Wilson spread the ball around to eight different receivers, including Hero of the Game:  Jermaine Kearse.  His 43-yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter gave us the lead (one play after Stephen Williams just dropped a similar-looking pass along the same sideline).

But, it was our secondary, and specifically Earl Thomas with his forced fumble of Deangelo Williams, that gave us the win.  Going into the fourth quarter, with the Seahawks scuffling and Carolina doing everything they could just to hang on, I figured the Seahawks needed two big plays to win it.  One on offense and one on defense.  The offensive big play was the long bomb touchdown, which couldn’t have come at a better time.  The defensive big play was the fumble recovery, which ditto.

This is the type of game the Seahawks likely would have lost last year.  I kept harkening back to the Dolphins fiasco.  Sure enough, after Seattle took the lead, Carolina started to drive right back down the field.  That Williams carry brought them inside the ten yard line (his longest carry of the game, by the way, at 16 yards).  Had he managed to hold onto the ball, Carolina likely would have taken the lead with five minutes to go in the game.  Yeah, maybe Seattle would have worked their way into field goal range in those five minutes (after all, we did kill the clock with a five minute drive to end the game), but maybe the play-calling shifts knowing we’re playing from behind instead of with a lead.  A lot of those plays on that final drive were fairly safe, meant to keep the guys in bounds, keep the clock moving, and eliminate turnovers.  Would we be so safe if we absolutely HAD to score on that drive?  And, in so doing, would we have been as effective in moving the football?  On the flipside, if Carolina’s defense was given a lead, would they have played differently?  More fired up, perhaps?

The point is, it’s no guarantee that Seattle would have scored again had Carolina re-taken the lead.  Ergo, that fumble recovery WAS the game.

And, truth be told, our secondary was everything that was advertised and then some.  Yeah, Steve Smith had his touchdown (and acted the got-damn jackass everytime he was on camera), and yeah Greg Olsen did what he does best (drop perfectly thrown passes), but without any real pass rush whatsoever, this Seahawks defense held Cam Newton to a career-low 125 passing yards.  That’s AMAZING!

Carolina might not have come away very impressed with what we were able to do to them – citing their own mistakes as reasons why they lost – but I’m pretty taken aback by what we were able to accomplish.  Carolina’s offense is POTENT, and we held them to 253 yards.  So, take a deep breath, relax, and be happy that we’re 1-0.

A win is a win is a win.  A win is especially a win when you’re on the road, playing at 10am on the opposite coast, against a quality mid-range opponent.  The Panthers might not be the Packers, but I’ll tell you what, that Panthers D is something else.  And, if you played that game in Seattle, it would’ve been a cakewalk.

Let the 49ers and their fans believe they are the best team.  They’ll see how far that gets them next week, when they face the howling maw of CenturyLink Field.

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