Pete Carroll may have had trouble closing out seasons in the NFL when he coached the New York Jets and New England Patriots in the 1990s, but his teams never found it difficult to engineer blowouts in their first games with the new guy in charge.
The 1994 New York Jets upended the Buffalo Bills, 23-3, in Carroll’s NFL debut. The 1997 New England Patriots demolished the San Diego Chargers, 41-7, when Carroll opened that season having replaced Bill Parcells. So history suggested that the Seahawks, possessing Carroll’s opening magic and as desperate for a win as any team with nine victories in the last two seasons could simply roll over the San Francisco 49ers. After all, a 31-6 win tells the tale, right?
Not so fast. Which is just how things began for Carroll’s third NFL team.
The Carroll era in Seattle began not with a bang but with a series of clown horns a Leon Washington fumbled (but recovered) opening kickoff return in the end zone, and a Nate Clements interception of a Matt Hasselbeck pass on the first play from scrimmage.
“I had a pass I was trying to get to John Carlson,” Hasselbeck said of his tight end. “I had Deion Branch running a post to clear (the defense) out, and Nate Clements disregarded the post, jumped the route, and made an interception it’s probably an educated guess on his part, and he’s a smart player and a talented player.”
Fortunately for the Seahawks, the 49ers could come up with only a field goal on the subsequent drive; they were victims of their own conservatism after a touchdown pass from the 8-yard line from Alex Smith to Josh Morgan was overturned. Smith was 3 of 4 for 10 yards on that first drive, which gave a good indication of San Francisco’s early game plan: When in doubt, check down.
Once Smith’s passing ability became apparent on intermediate and deep throws contended by any level of coverage, the wisdom of that conservatism came across. Though only one of Smith’s two interceptions was his fault, he was glaringly inaccurate on a number of throws. He threw too high to fullback Moran Norris on a fourth-and-1 play from the Seattle six-yard line with 13:24 left in the second quarter, and never seemed to adjust to what the newer, faster Seattle secondary was doing. The 49ers had a total of 17 red-zone plays on their first three drives, and managed just two field goals. They were also 1-for-15 on third down conversions.
Buttressed by the defense’s elasticity, the Seahawks’ offense began to make strides after a very slow start by adjusting to something they’d seen repeatedly on film aggressiveness in the San Francisco secondary. Wide receiver Deon Butler, who caught a 13-yard touchdown late in the first half, detailed how he and his mates exploited what their opponents were trying to do.
“We saw that the guys were squatting on our routes,” Butler said. “Deion Branch caught a couple of hitch passes, and they were right there with him. When we got to the goal line, we said that we were going to do a double move, and that guy (cornerback Tarell Brown) and another guy bit on the same fake it was pretty bad. Matt just threw it out to the back corner of the end zone he was patient and threw it to where I could get it and it was a great scheme thing.”
Another trick the Seahawks used under new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates was the frequent pre-snap motion of tight formations to four- and five-wide sets. While the end zone stuff Butler saw was the product of diligence in the preseason, those formations were a newer development. “That’s something we just put in this week, which we saw on film,” Butler said. “On third downs, they like to do that (set the formation just before the snap) so that the line can’t call out the protections and Matt can’t call out the coverage. So, we said, You know what? We’re going to do the same thing to them there’s no rule in the book that says we can’t do it as well. Sprint and line up and see how they handle it.”
Such treachery is new to a team that preferred limited formation diversity and pure execution under Mike Holmgren, and didn’t have the coaching chops to get tricky under Jim Mora. Linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who ran Carroll’s defense at USC, said that the defensive fronts, which now alternate far more between 4-3 and 5-2 than they have for the Seahawks in at least a decade, are predicated on the concept of gap integrity and the ability to see that through via the acquisition of larger players in the front seven overall.
“With the scheme we’re running now, we might be out-gapped sometimes, out-manned sometimes,” Tatupu said. “We’ve got some guys up front CC (Colin Cole) and Red (Bryant) a lot of times they are two-gapping (playing straight up against an offensive lineman as opposed to shooting a gap). So, the credit goes to them when they’re shutting people down in a seven-man front.”
“We felt really good with our base stuff, which is a really big deal to us,” Carroll said after the game. “We’ve made a transition in the way we play up front from how (the team has) played in the last couple years. Things worked out well against what we consider to be a very good running team. That’s where it always starts.
“They did a nice job of mixing and watching the throwing game they kind of pecked around us pretty nicely. I think they did a good job of throwing underneath, and it kept their drives moving. But after a while, it settled in, and I thought (defensive coordinator) Gus (Bradley) did a great job of staying with the game plan and making it work.”
Pass pressure was a concern through the preseason, but the Seahawks harassed Smith fairly often; whenever Smith wasn’t blowing himself up in the pocket, he didn’t have to look far for help. He was sacked twice and suffered eleven quarterback hits, with Chris Clemons (four) and Red Bryant (three) leading the charge.
It was a total win, ugly as it may have been to start. Hasselbeck gave Carroll the game ball, and Carroll notched his first Seahawks win against the team whose defense he coached in 1995 and 1996. For the first time in a long time, it seemed it was the Seahawks taking advantage of mistakes, as opposed to being shot down by them.
“(Carroll) was into it,” Hasselbeck said of his perennially fired up coach. “We know how he is. Probably the only thing that surprised me was late in the game, (backup quarterback) Charlie (Whitehurst) and I were sitting there talking, and he came over to us to ask us to help get the crowd into it more. It was great he’s very excited. It starts with the coaching staff; all of them. They set the tempo in practice in terms of the energy and the enthusiasm, and you can feel that. From player to player you feel it, and we’re just trying to get everybody in.”
This was a very smooth start for a team that has largely overhauled its roster and coaching staff. Carroll inevitably will have some rough times ahead. How he handles them will define his tenure. But to start, Seattle’s newest combination of coach and cheerleader shouldn’t have any trouble getting the crowd to bring the noise.