SEATTLE — Five minutes into the second half, the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicked a field goal to push their lead to 24-7 over the Seattle Seahawks.
It completed their third drive of at least 10 plays and 65 yards. They had scored on four of five possessions, not counting a kneel down at the end of the first half.
The Tampa Bay offense, ranked 31st in the 32-team NFL, was dominating the Seattle defense in every way, and things couldn’t have looked worse for the home team.
But that was the last time the Buccaneers (0-8) would cross midfield, and while the highlight shows will focus on the big plays Seattle made on offense and special teams to get back into the game, the heroic turnaround by the Seahawks defense was every bit as critical to Seattle pulling out a 27-24 victory in overtime Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
“I really liked the way we responded at the end of the game defensively,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “It took us all day to get going, but the last (five) times they had the ball they didn’t score a point. The way it was looking before that, who would have believed that?”
Frankly, nobody, as the game was a second straight disaster for the Seahawks defense on the stat sheet, particularly against the run.
Rookie running back Mike James ran the ball 28 times for 158 yards, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. As a team, Tampa Bay rushed for 205 yards, a week after St. Louis ran for 200.
Seattle (8-1) won both games, so it will not be necessary to remove sharp objects from the defensive meeting room, but there will be a lot of head scratching, soul searching, and chalkboard writing.
“Well, we won,” Seattle defensive end Red Bryant said. “But there’s no question we’ve got to work on it.”
Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner was asked whether he was proud of or frustrated with the defensive performance, which yielded 350 yards and produced no turnovers.
“To come back from 21-0 speaks volumes for our program, but for them to rush for over 200 yards is not good,” Wagner said. “So I’m kind of both. I’m in the halfway mode.”
Ironically, Seattle safety Kam Chancellor said that the transformation from Mr. Hyde back into Dr. Jekyll occurred when the defense stopped trying to make big plays.
“We said enough is enough and played disciplined ball,” Chancellor said. “At the beginning we didn’t start off disciplined. Everybody was just all over the place just trying to do more and making plays.
“We started to play disciplined and trusted each other, and the outcome was different.”
Carroll agreed. He said that his defense’s identity and personality as a ball-hawking turnover machine may be working against it.
“Right now, we’re in a little bit of a funk in the running game” he said. “We’re not tackling very well. We’re trying to take the ball away so much that we’re not tackling very well. Until we fix that, we’re going to continue to struggle.
“It’s really obvious to me what the difference is. We’re kind of going for too much, and trying a little bit too hard, and I think we can fix that,” he said. “I think that’s really what’s going on. There’s a lot of yards after first contact by the running backs, so we need to do much better there.”
Whatever the reason, Seattle’s defense was spectacular indeed after the third-quarter field goal.
On their last five possessions, the Buccaneers totaled three first downs and 76 yards. They had more than that on each of their first two scoring drives.
In the first half, they were 7-for-8 on third down conversions. The rest of the game they were 1-for-7.
In the overtime, Seattle forced a three-and-out after the kickoff — only their second one of the day — to set up the offense with good field position, which it used to drive to the game-winning field goal.
So when all is said and done, Seattle is 8-1 and in the driver’s seat for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
But that feels like a long way off from here.
“We need work,” Chancellor said. “We need work.”