SANTA CLARA, Calif. — A barrel-roll. A twist. And a bear hug.
That — plus Russell Wilson’s continued improvisational brilliance — is what it took to get the Seahawks through their latest slog.
Bobby Wagner’s creative, hustling interception, ripping the ball away from a 49ers receiver while on his back, set up Sunday’s first touchdown. 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.
Doug Baldwin’s two remarkably savvy plays — one a twist, the other a hug — led to the two Seahawks touchdowns that broke open the game in the second half.
“Just doing my job,” Baldwin said with a grin.
Wilson’s continued brilliance in scrambling 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 collecting one of his team’s three sacks and two of Seattle’s 13 hits on 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 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. “We’ve still got improvements to make (on offense).”
In the third quarter it was 7-6, with the Seahawks leading a 1-10 team that has won just three times in its past 27 games. Then Baldwin sparked a 71-yard scoring march with a leaping, twisting catch of Wilson’s pass, which was well behind him. That got Seattle across midfield on third down.
“That,” Seattle 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 just the third catch this season for the reserve wide receiver. Wilson lofted his next ball exquisitely over the line backer and before San OVERSET FOLLOWS:Francisco’s closing safety, Antone Exum, arrived for a 17-yard touchdown to tight end 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 big play on third down. Wilson’s pass to him in the end zone was 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.”
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 hit Graham on the 1-yard slant pass for an easy score and a 21-6 lead.
The catch was Graham’s eighth TD this season — all in the past seven games, and all in the red zone. 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.
Before the twist and the hug, the Seahawks’ offense continued to look bargain-basement. Seattle managed just a single touchdown in the first half, and that was on a 16-yard drive after Wagner’s interception.
Wilson was like his team: Maddeningly off in the first half, 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.
“We’ve got to know who we are,” was Wilson’s message to his teammates at the start of the third quarter, with the score 7-3. “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 8-for-19 for 80 yards and two dropped passes, off the hands of Paul Richardson and Graham, in the first half. At halftime, his passer rating for the game stood at 32.8.
Fortunately for Seattle, 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. “… 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.
Now comes a far tougher grind for the battered Seahawks: Their next three foes—Eagles, Jaguars and Rams—have a combined record of 25-8.
“We are holding together pretty good,” Bennett said of missing Sherman and Chancellor. “These young guys can fill the void — not at their level — but still they can make a name for themselves.”