By Scott M. Johnson
SEATTLE – This was the way Trent Dilfer is used to winning. Make a few big plays on offense, take care of the football, and then turn things over to a dominant defense.
It worked last season for the Baltimore Ravens, with whom Dilfer won a Super Bowl. On Sunday, the strategy made improbable winners out of the Seattle Seahawks.
Dilfer earned his 13th consecutive victory as a starting quarterback Sunday, but this time Seattle’s much-improved defense led the way. In what may have been the most impressive defensive effort by a Seattle team in nearly two years, the Seahawks held their own against one of the top offenses in the AFC. The result was a 34-21 victory over the Denver Broncos at Husky Stadium – only Seattle’s second win over Denver in 11 meetings.
While the victory was remarkable in that it helped propel Seattle into the thick of the AFC West race, the game also proved what the rebuilt defense can do.
“Our defense, with the talent it has and the scheme they play, can crank it up. And they shut down a very good offense today,” said Dilfer, whose last two wins have come since replacing injured starter Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback. “We knew that we needed turnovers to beat this team. I politicked with the defensive players all week, ‘C’mon, get us turnovers. Get us turnovers.’ And they did.”
The Seahawks intercepted three Brian Griese passes, including two by Reggie Tongue, and held the Broncos under 100 rushing yards for only the second time in the past 11 meetings. Denver’s totals of 281 total yards and 92 rushing yards marked totals so low that they’ve only been rivaled by one other defense this season: the Baltimore Ravens.
“No matter what other people are saying, whatever the critics are saying – ‘You guys are old; how long are you going to hold up?’ – it’s just about attitude,” Seahawks middle linebacker Levon Kirkland said. “We’ve been playing long enough to know that you take what people say and don’t even worry about it. You let it go in one ear and out the other.”
Kirkland, one of four veteran free agents added to the Seattle defense in the offseason, took it upon himself to set the tone early. During Denver’s second drive of the game, with Seattle leading 10-0 behind a 60-yard Shaun Alexander touchdown run, Kirkland gave Broncos offensive lineman Lennie Friedman a fierce shove. The fact that it came well after the play drew Kirkland a 15-yard penalty … and the ire of coach Mike Holmgren.
But in a sense, Kirkland had set the tone for Seattle’s defense.
“This game is totally mental,” Kirkland said afterward. “A lot of times you have to do what you’ve got to do. Just like they want to get into your head, you’ve got to get into their head also. When it’s a good team like Denver, those are the teams you’ve really got to take it to. You’ve got to take it to them and say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to lay down and die for you.’”
Seattle’s defense backed its bark with bite. The Broncos did not convert a third down until late in the first half, and by the time the two teams went in for halftime Seattle held an improbable 24-14 lead. Along the way, Tongue returned his first interception 55 yards for a touchdown, and John Randle harassed Griese so often that the AFC’s leading passer couldn’t get into a rhythm.
“Every time I turned around somebody was making an interception or making a big play,” Seahawks receiver Bobby Engram said. “You just saw guys in the trenches going all out, and guys flying around and hitting. That’s a good defense when you get like that.”
Seattle’s defense ranked at the bottom of the league last season, when it gave up the third-highest yardage total in NFL history. Finding replacements meant signing off on contracts that totaled $47 million, but Seattle is happy with the early returns. Kirkland, Randle, Chad Eaton and Marcus Robertson have earned their salaries thus far, as the unit entered Sunday’s game ranked 11th in the NFL in yards allowed.
Sunday’s performance should move the defense up even higher, as Denver was held below 300 yards for the third time in its past 21 games.
“The guys that we brought in, they’re not only veterans, but they’ve also been to playoff games,” cornerback Willie Williams said. “They know how to win. They can show the younger guys how to win. Hopefully we can continue to pull it together like we did today.”
Williams was an integral part of limiting Rod Smith, the AFC’s leading receiver, to 43 yards off six catches. The run defense held Mike Anderson to 51 yards on 17 carries.
That’s the same Mike Anderson that rambled for 326 yards in two meetings with Seattle last season.
If not for a relatively meaningless punt return touchdown by Denver’s Deltha O’Neal, the Seattle defense would have held the Broncos to their lowest point total in this rivalry since 1995.
Not that the victory was all defense. Seattle scored a touchdown on its first possession, added a field goal, then essentially put the game away on another Alexander touchdown late in the first half. Alex Bannister added a special teams touchdown after blocking a punt in the second half.
Much like Dilfer’s offenses had done in Baltimore, Seattle did enough offensively to win the game.
“It was fun today because we were in the huddle today and (receiver) Koren Robinson is like, ‘Man, they’re trying to steal our thunder,’” center Robbie Tobeck said, referring to Seattle’s defense. “We’re like, ‘OK, let’s get one.’ It’s kind of fun. You’re almost competing against each other.”