SANTA CLARA, Calif. A barrel-roll. A twist. And a bear hug.
That--plus Russell Wilson’s continued brilliance through improvisation—is what it took to get the Seahawks through their latest slog.
Wagner’s creative, hustling interception ripping the ball away from a 49ers receiver while on his back set up Sunday’s first touchdown in the first half. It also continued what may be the All-Pro linebacker’s best season yet.
“Easily a top-five interception. Of all time,” Seahawks defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said.
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Baldwin’s two remarkably savvy plays led to the two Seahawks touchdowns that broke open this game in the second half.
“Just doing my job,” Baldwin said with a grin.
Wilson’s continued brilliance in improvisational scrambles away from pressure, Jimmy Graham setting two team records and Seattle’s defense handling San Francisco and an overwhelmed quarterback yet again finished off a 24-13 victory at seemingly vacant Levi’s Stadium on a gray, damp Sunday by the Bay.
“There wasn’t a lot of fans in the stadium,” Seahawks Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett said after he had one of his team’s three sacks and two of Seattle’s 13 hits of rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard.
“I looked online and you could have gotten a ticket for $17. You can’t get a ticket for $17 to my house.”
Seattle (7-4) stayed one game behind the victorious Los Angeles Rams for the NFC West lead entering next Sunday night’s home game against soaring Philadelphia (10-1). L.A. plays at Seattle in three weeks. That will be the third of three consecutive games for the Seahawks against division leaders. The other is at Jacksonville Dec. 10.
“Luckily, we’ve got a really good defense that keeps us in the game early,” Baldwin said of this season’s Seahawks habit.
“We’ve still got improvements to make.”
In the third quarter it was 7-6 Seahawks ahead of a 1-10 team that has won just three times in its last 27 games. Then Baldwin sparked a 71-yard scoring march with a leaping, twisting catch of Wilson’s improvisational pass behind him. That got Seattle across midfield on third down.
“That,” coach Pete Carroll said, “was the play that really was the spark.”
Then on a play-action pass, no 49er got near Wilson. That gave him time to throw a dart into Tanner McEvoy’s chest across the middle for a 24-yard gain. It was only the third catch this season for the reserve wide receiver. Wilson lofted his next ball exquisitely over the linebacker and before San Francisco’s closing safety Antone Exum arrived for a 17-yard touchdown to Nick Vannett.
The second-year tight end’s first career score put the Seahawks up 14-6 midway through the third quarter.
After the Seahawks’ defense got a three and out, Baldwin made another saving play on third down. Wilson’s pass to him in the end zone was arriving way underthrown. With nothing else to do, Baldwin decided to bear hug 49ers cornerback Dontae Johnson, who was inside Baldwin and nearer the ball. After the hug, Baldwin threw up his arms to lobby for a penalty against Johnson. He got it, late from the back judge. Instead of a 38-yard field goal try by recently iffy Blair Walsh, Seattle had first and goal at the 1.
“In those situations when the ball is underthrown you’ve only got a couple options. You either try to make a play on the ball and see what happens, or you put yourself in a situation where you can lend yourself to see if the refs will make a call,” Baldwin said. “I couldn’t get to the ball. So I figured I’d try to make a play in a way that we could get the penalty.”
Asked if that was one of the warmer bear hugs he’s made in a while, Baldwin laughed.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
Before that, the Seahawks’ offense continued to look bargain-basement. They managed just a single touchdown in the first half, and that was on a 16-yard drive after Wagner’s interception.
“We’ve got to know who we are,” was Wilson’s message to his teammates at the start in the third quarter, with the score 7-3 against a foe that has won just three of its last 27 games. “We’re a championship-caliber football team; we’ve proven it many times. So have no fear. Don’t doubt anything that we are doing.
“It’s really that simple,” the QB said. “It’s just the thought process.”
Wilson was like his team: Maddeningly off, then refreshingly sharp. He started 11 for 24 then completed nine of his next 10 passes in the Seahawks’ ninth consecutive win over their NFC West rivals.
Jimmy Garoppolo drew roars from the few remaining fans with 1:07 left when Tom Brady’s former New England backup made his San Francisco debut. That was after Beathard left injured, having completed 22 of 38 passes for 201 yards.
“I thought that was rude,” Bennett said of the fans cheering Beathard getting hurt so Garoppolo could play.
Garoppolo threw for San Francisco’s only touchdown on the game’s final play, making the final score closer than this game was.
“I’m glad they didn’t put him in earlier,” Bennett said.
Graham’s touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter was his eighth this season. All have come in the last seven games, and all in the red zone.
Who knew the 6-foot-6 tight end was such a potent red-zone threat?(!)
“He’s one of the best tight ends to ever play the game,” Wilson said, while describing how the week and a half Graham spent in Southern California with him catching passes this offseason have helped.
Graham had eight TD catches in his first two Seahawks seasons combined.
Graham, in the final year of his four-year, $40 million contract, set the Seahawks record for most scores by a tight end in a season--and in a career. His 16 for Seattle is one more than Jerramy Stevens had in the early 2000s.
The game began as most Seahawks ones do this season: as an ugly slog. Seattle led 7-3 after an underwhelming first half.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Seattle sent wide receiver Tyler Lockett in motion leaving the 6-foot-6 Graham alone outside right. Wilson’s pitch and Graham’s catch on the 1-yard slant pass for an easy score for a 21-6 lead.
Early on, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson dominated the line of scrimmage, continually wrecking 49ers offensive linemen and plays. Like they did six days earlier in the narrow home loss to Atlanta, the Seahawks again chose to mostly play seven-man coverages to help their battered secondary. It was again missing Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, and was also minus rookie starting cornerback Shaquill Griffin because of a concussion. Seattle’s four-man pass rush consistently got through San Francisco’s porous offensive line into the rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard’s face. The Seahawks hit Beathard 10 times in the first half alone and sacked him twice, while rarely blitzing.
The Seahawks scored the game’s first touchdown thanks to Wagner.
The All-Pro middle linebacker made a typically starring play on Beathard’s pass to 49ers wide receiver Trent Taylor in the second quarter. Taylor had the ball in his hands, but Wagner rolled on top of him and ripped the ball from Taylor before tumbling to the turf. That gave Seattle the ball at San Francisco’s 16-yard line.
“I just saw 81…he didn’t really have much control of it. I just kind of took it away,” Wagner said.
“Yeah, most definitely, we felt like the offense needed a little bit of help. We felt like a turnover or something at that moment of the game would be big for us.
“And it was.”
J.D. McKissic took a pitch around left end for 14 yards before Wilson kept the ball around the same end on a read-option keeper for a 2-yard touchdown.
San Francisco got a 29-yard pass to Taylor in soft zone coverage near the end of the half to set up a 38-yard field goal by Robbie Gould and set the halftime score at 7-3.
Wilson was 8 for 19 for 80 yards and two dropped passes, off the hands of Paul Richardson and Graham. Wilson late and soft on his throw to Lockett when the receiver was open on a backside post route in the end zone. That allowed 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon to break up the pass instead of it being a Seahawks touchdown. He threw an interception on the game’s first play, way underthrowing Graham into the arms of San Francisco’s Eric Reid. It was Wilson’s fifth interception in five games. He threw just three interceptions in his first six games.
His passer rating for Sunday’s first half was a meager 32.8.
But, they won—playing again without injured superstars Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. Now comes a far tougher grind for a battered team that already looks as if it’s gone through one: the next three foes—Eagles, Jaguars and Rams—have a combined record of 25-8.
“We are holding together pretty good,” Bennett said. “These young guys can fill the void—not at their level—but still they can make a name for themselves.”