For the first time since 2005, the Seattle Seahawks managed to beat the Arizona Cardinals in the Valley of the Sun. They'd never beaten their divisional foe in University of Phoenix Stadium, but the real concern among Pete Carroll's crew was less about travel-related records and more about rebounding from a horrible two-week stretch that saw them allow a combined 74-10 score against the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants.
It's almost hard to remember after those two rugged results, but it was against this same Cardinals team, back on October 24 at Qwest Field, that the Seahawks last looked anything like the near-playoff squad Pete Carroll has been trying to establish and sell to the players. They matched it again in a 36-18 victory that established many of those points of emphasis - making big plays, establishing dominance on both sides of the line, stellar special teams play, and constant quarterback pressure based on varied defensive fronts.
"There was a lot of good stuff here," Carroll said after the game. "Just to respond after the last two weeks and come back and play well."
Even when the Cardinals came out and scored a touchdown on their opening drive, the Seahawks were undeterred. They put together a methodical 12-play, 77-yard touchdown drive to tie the score, and never looked back from there. "We could have gone in the dumpster or whatever, but our guys responded beautifully," Carroll said on his postgame show. "Matt (Hasselbeck) leads them downfield for a big touchdown drive, which really made a big statement. We talked about it all week, that we really wanted to hang tough and be there when the opportunities were presented to us, and that's what it felt like today."
"The last two weeks were embarrassing for our group," safety Lawyer Milloy(notes) said. "No matter what happens, and how many injuries we've had, we feel that as long as we play our style of ball, we can win. And that didn't happen the last two weeks."
Injuries were still a concern, but less so than in recent games. Hasselbeck was back with a vengeance after missing the Giants disaster with a concussion and allowing Charlie Whitehurst(notes) to display Hasselbeck's true value in his absence. Hasselbeck completed 17 of 23 passes for 273 yards and a touchdown in the first half alone, though he left the field just before the end of the first half to attend to a broken bone in his wrist.
Returning to the game with 9:06 left in the third quarter, and returning to the game soon after, Hasselbeck displayed why he's the unequivocal starter at his position. In Whitehurst's limited third-quarter activity, he threw a howlingly bad interception to Arizona cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes) while targeting receiver Ben Obomanu(notes) on a play in which Obomanu was bracketed by two defenders.
Meanwhile, Hasselbeck finished with a season-high 333 passing yards, and several big plays, most notable to receiver Mike Williams. Williams matched his own season high with 11 receptions in 17 targets and established a new career high with 145 receiving yards. He didn't score a touchdown, but Williams enjoyed a bravura performance - he once again showed his ability to move into the catch in short spaces and get acrobatic when need be.
Seattle's stop-start running game stayed on "pause" for most of the day, a phenomenon partially attributable to the continued absence of left tackle Russell Okung(notes), who missed the game with a high ankle sprain. There was some thought that Okung might be able to go, but by holding him out in this game, Carroll may have preserved the rookie for the long term while still enjoying a measure of consistency on the left side with tackle Tyler Polumbus(notes) and guard Chester Pitts(notes). Hasselbeck and Whitehurst were each sacked just once, and furtherance of the improvement when in the Giants game when Whitehurst wasn't sacked at all. The Seahawks learned against the Raiders that putting Hasselbeck in extreme danger, as they did with weak pass protection that allowed eight sacks, leads to bad results down the road.
One bugaboo that continued to plague the team was the occasionally questionable playcalling of offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates in short-yardage situations. One week after an unsuccessful lateral pass to tight end Chris Baker on third-and-1 that destroyed a drive and put the Seahawks in a hole they never got out of, Bates got tricky once again. This time, it was a fourth-and-1 call from the Arizona 16-yard line. Instead of running Marshawn Lynch(notes) or Justin Forsett(notes) behind Student Body Right, Bates called for a Hasselbeck quarterback sneak out of a bunch right formation and Forsett in the backfield. Hasselbeck didn't gain the first down, but he was injured on that play.
"I didn't think I could go," Hasselbeck said about coming back in the second half. "I went in and got X-rays at halftime, While we were waiting for those, we were trying different splint and cast options - practicing snaps and handoffs. In my mind, I was like, ‘There's no way."
But he managed to finish the game, and based on Hasselbeck's pre-game demeanor, Carroll didn't seem all that surprised. "Matt came back this week with an evergy about him that was special. He made a comment in the middle of the week that he was really excited to be back and playing. He said something in the locker room before the game, that he was jacked up and trying to get the other guys pumped up, and then he just went out and lit it up in the first half. It was a big week for him, and he hated being out a week ago."
Carroll was asked about the wisdom of the fourth-and-1 play. "If I knew he was going to get hurt there, I wouldn't have done it," the coach said with a laugh. "But I wanted to get the first down there. It was a foot (to go), and we need to knock that foot out. In hindsight, I would have kicked the field goals, but I didn't know that was going to happen."
Carroll would have several more opportunities to make those decisions, as the Seahawks continued to struggle in the red zone. Six of Seattle's eight second-half drives ended inside the Cardinals 20-yard line, and only one - Justin Forsett's four-yard run with 3:54 left in the game -- ended in a touchdown. Kicker Olindo Mare(notes) was the man of the game, attempting five and making four field goals in the second half alone.
On defense, the Seahawks were a bit more consistently successful. Arizona was limited to 2 of 11 third-down conversions, gained just 41 yards on the ground, many of quarterback Derek Anderson's(notes) passing yards came in garbage time, and the Cardinals amassed -10 net yards in the third quarter. Linebacker Aaron Curry(notes) has his best pass-rushing day as an NFL player with two sacks, and Chris Clemons matched those with two of his own.
"It just feels great to win in the road," Curry said. "It was so important, because we were questioning whether we could get it done or not. To prove that we can do it down here in Arizona is awesome."
One key to that defensive success was the return of defensive tackle Brandon Mebane(notes), who had missed the last four games with a calf injury. With their bastion of line stability back at full strength, Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley could dial up different pressure packages with defenders coming at Anderson from all kinds of different angles without worrying about losing contain at the point of attack.
"It's good to have him actively involved and making things happen," Carroll said of Curry. "He's been trying like crazy to get it done and to have a big game. It was really important, and hopefully, we can build on that."
A good sign for Curry; a good sign for his team. The challenges don't get any easier for the Seahawks; they will face the Super Bowl Champion Saints in New Orleans next Sunday, and then welcome the surprising Kansas City Chiefs to Qwest in two weeks. That makes any euphoria over a 5-4 record, matching last year's win total already, and first place in the NFC West short-lived, but Carroll would likely have it no other way. A convincing win that still leaves multiple teaching points hanging like the proverbial low fruit might be the best kind of result for a team still finding its way above the middle.