To hear them tell it, the problems with the Seahawks’ star-filled defense at key times this season distill to one factor.
In the fourth quarter last weekend against Pittsburgh, Earl Thomas didn’t fully trust.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made another one of his signature escapes from pressure with 12 minutes left in a wild shootout. As Roethlisberger scrambled to his right, Thomas ran up toward him at midfield.
Thirty yards behind Seattle’s All-Pro free safety, Markus Wheaton broke right, across the middle of the field Thomas had just vacated. Wheaton beat Jeremy Lane’s trailing coverage. Strong safety Kam Chancellor arrived late. Roethlisberger’s rocket pass met Wheaton in stride at the 25.
The 69-yard touchdown put the Steelers back ahead, 27-26. It was exactly the play coach Pete Carroll had earlier warned Thomas not to bite on, to instead stay back to help Chancellor.
“The safeties are supposed to take care of that,” Carroll said.
The play was why Carroll also said of Thomas this week: “He’s played better than that.”
“Pete said that?” Thomas asked Thursday, his voice rising. “I feel like I was in Roethlisberger’s mind. So I just feel like I was out there having fun.
“But coach Carroll, he sees some blind spots. He’s OLD, you know? He’s been around things for a long time. He’s about 80 years old, 70. He understands football.”
Carroll is actually 64. But the point is, Thomas knows he should trust his coaches. As defensive coordinator Kris Richard put it Thursday: “We cannot go rogue. … Just trust.”
For a crucial — but not decisive — moment in Seattle’s 39-30 victory, Thomas lapsed in trust. In Carroll. In his teammates’ pass rush on Roethlisberger in front of him. In the system of denying “over-the-top” routes at all costs, the one that made the Seahawks’ the league’s top-ranked defense the two previous years.
“I felt like I was right where I needed to be — except one time when I was too aggressive,” Thomas said Thursday, three days before the Seahawks (6-5) play at NFC North-leading Minnesota (8-3).
“Scrambling. Off his back foot. A crazy throw, but it was a great throw by him; he’s a great player. A deep bomb to J. Lane. And they scored.
“So if Pete’s talking about that, he’s correct. He’d told me earlier in the week, ‘Don’t do it.’ And my instincts did it. And — boom — it happened.”
Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” has often gone bust against deep throws, especially late in games. Roethlisberger’s 456 yards passing were the most ever by a quarterback against the Seahawks. Seattle has led in the fourth quarter of all 11 games — but has lost five of them.
The reason the players repeatedly have given for the breakdowns is “not trusting in one another.”
They will need trust on Sunday against NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson and the Vikings. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said that each Seahawk trusting the other to fill his assigned gap and patiently waiting in it is the key to stopping Peterson’s cuts and dashes.
A chief reason for Seattle’s mistrust this season is the secondary having its weakest link in years. The Seahawks had hoped long, athletic, promising Tharold Simon would challenge free-agent signee Cary Williams for the right-cornerback job opposite All-Pro Richard Sherman, the job Byron Maxwell vacated for free-agent riches in March.
But Simon got hurt again and is on injured reserve for the second time in his first three seasons. Meanwhile, Williams struggled mightily. Cincinnati’s A.J. Green beat him so badly in the first quarter of a game in October that the Seahawks had to move Sherman onto Green for the rest of that loss.
Sherman has shadowed many top receivers this season for the first time in his standout career — Dallas’ Dez Bryant, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Green Bay’s Randall Cobb among them — because he’s excelled in shutting them down. And because Seattle has needed to keep those top wide receivers from targeting Williams.
Marcus Burley could have been an option at right cornerback, but he was originally needed at nickel back, and Will Blackmon, the 30-year-old that Seattle signed from Jacksonville in the spring, performed so poorly that he got cut at the end of training camp. No trust there.
Then, in October, Burley broke his thumb. He missed three games, has been limited since while playing with a cast, and now he has a sprained ankle that left him limited in practice Thursday.
DeShawn Shead started the second game, at Green Bay, at strong safety when Chancellor was holding out. He made his first NFL start at cornerback against the Steelers. The Seahawks demoted Williams, who started the first 10 games, to inactive and on the sidelines in street clothes.
Pittsburgh continually targeted Shead, but he broke up three long passes by Roethlisberger that could have been touchdowns. Carroll raved about Shead, saying a first-time starter at a position can’t get challenged more than he did.
“I think he’s doing a fantastic job,” Carroll said.
Shead is a huge favorite of his coaches and teammates. For four seasons, they’ve watched him selflessly play on all special-teams units and at every position in the secondary with the same, overlooked determination — all while starting just three of 32 career games.
It’s enough for the rest of the Seahawks to, well, trust him. Carroll says Shead will remain the starting cornerback.
“Just to see him go out there and shine like that, it’s just giving me confidence in him,” Thomas said. “Playing at middle field, you have to trust both of your corners, because they’re asked to do a lot. He held up. He made some big, big plays. Hopefully, they give him a lot of confidence going forward.”
So why does this trust in one another waver? Why has the league’s best defense over the last few years, the first to allow the fewest yards and points in three consecutive seasons since the Vikings’ “Purple People Eaters” of the early 1970s, lost that trust during games this season?
“Why does it come and go? It’s a lot because you’re dealing with an individual person,” Thomas said. “Everybody’s going through their own battles, whether you’re battling having a good game, and now you’ve got to go back and do it again. Once you have that good game, everybody’s telling you how good you are, so now you’re feeling yourself a little bit and sometimes you get out of whack.”
Thomas agreed that trust is the most elusive key to any game — and season.
“Yeah, trust,” he said, “because most of the time you don’t see each other out there. It’s just a feeling. If there’s no trust, there’s no accountability; we can’t contain a quarterback. Everybody has a set job, especially in this defense. We’re playing a single safety high, eight men in a box, and everybody has a set role.”
Asked where he thinks the trust is right now for defenders, after the Seahawks’ two consecutive victories have them holding the NFC’s final playoff spot with five regular-season games remaining, Thomas said: “I think it’s great. I think you’re seeing it.
“I think that we’ll be all right.”
QB Russell Wilson said his stomach virus has passed. “Feeling much better,” he said Thursday. He said Sunday was his worst day. That was when he had a career-high five touchdown passes and regular-season-best 345 passing yards against Pittsburgh. … Wilson’s pet phrase this week was former Kansas City Chiefs coach and Hall of Famer Hank Stram’s favorite: “Matriculating the ball down the field.” … It’s looking iffy for DT Jordan Hill to play against Minnesota. He missed a second consecutive practice with a toe injury. … DL Demarcus Dobbs returned to full practice from a concussion … WR Paul Richardson’s return from a hamstring injury may wait until after a third consecutive missed game. Carroll had hoped the speedy 2014 second-round draft choice would return to practice on a limited basis Wednesday. But on Thursday he missed his second straight practice. … FB Will Tukuafu (concussion) returned to practice on a limited basis. He could be a blocking option at tight end with Jimmy Graham out and pass-catchers Luke Willson and Cooper Helfet moving up to starter and No. 2 there, respectively. … DE Michael Bennett missed practice to rest.
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle