Geno Smith slammed his helmet into the sideline.
The quarterback the Seahawks have universally praised for his poise was as irate as he’s been during a game all season — one that started so wonderfully and has turned so woefully, for Smith and his team.
What had Smith so frustrated?
“Losing,” he said.
They are getting too used to that.
With Kam Chancellor, Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman in the house, the maligned Seahawks’ defense rose up. It largely, finally, did its job.
But Smith and the offense failed Seattle in its biggest game yet.
The result: The Seahawks’ postseason hopes are what most are for team that have lost four of its last five games.
San Francisco rushed, rattled and distracted Smith. The 49ers throttled Kenneth Walker and Seattle’s non-existent rushing offense.
That, a crushing dropped interception by Seattle’s Quandre Diggs then lost fumble by Travis Homer in the game’s key sequence, sent the Seahawks to a 21-13 loss Thursday night at chilly Lumen Field--and clinched the NFC West for San Francisco.
“I hate losing. It truly sucks,” Smith said. “And I know how hard the guys work inside the locker room, the time everyone puts in, the hours. It’s very unfortunate that we didn’t get it done tonight.
“I think our fans deserve it. Our city deserves it. I don’t know if I have all the right words, but, man, I just hate losing.
“I got to figure it out.”
He’s not alone.
“It’s frustrating, but that’s the NFL. The margin of victory is slim,” seven-year veteran defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson said. “We can’t come out here shooting ourselves in the (frickin’) foot, blowing coverages, misfits (in run defense) and (stuff). We can’t do that. Can’t win.
“We already knew that this game was going to be a dog fight. Everybody and their momma knew that.”
On this Seattle night, Momma said knock you out.
Bad got worse after the game when the Seahawks learned captain and top wide receiver Tyler Lockett, who has missed only one game because of injury in his eight-year career, has a broken bone in his index finger. He is likely to need surgery. He is expected to miss at least two of not all three of the team’s games remaining in the season.
“I can’t fathom not playing with him,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
“We are going to miss the heck out of him, whatever he misses.”
Smith completed 31 of 44 passes for just 238 yards and a late touchdown pass to make a 21-6 game closer. Getting sacked three times and hit nine times only begins to describe the pressure Seattle’s quarterback got from Nick Bosa and Francisco’s NFL-best defensive front. It consistently beat Seattle’s five offensive linemen on third downs and key moments.
“Obviously, they do have a great pass rush, great front seven, great guys on the back end,” Smith said. “It felt like a championship game and we didn’t get it done.
“We were close. We had our opportunities, but just didn’t get it done.”
After 49ers rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, in his first career road start playing with oblique and rib injuries, threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to wide-open George Kittle, the Seahawks trailed 21-3. That was two plays into the third quarter.
It put Seattle in frantic, desperate mode for the final 28 minutes.
Smith completed 15 consecutive passes after a rocky beginning to the game. That and a roughing-the-passer penalty that truly wasn’t kept the Seahawks in the game. Barely.
An exchange of points, starting with Michael Dickson pinning San Francisco on its own 1, gave Seattle a drive start at its own 46 with 10:44 remaining down 21-6. On first down, Smith held onto the ball a while after moving the pocket on a half-bootleg. Three pass rushers finally crashed in on him. He threw the ball away to no one for a crushing penalty for intentional grounding. That made it second and 23 and ruined the drive.
Seattle punted with under 10 minutes left, for the seventh time. On the Seahawks sideline, Smith slammed his helmet.
San Francisco’s Robbie Gould missed 43-yard field goal wide right with 5 minutes left to keep the score 21-6.
Smith’s and the offense’s last chance flickered with a 33-yard catch and run by Walker then on the next play a 10-yard touchdown pass to Noah Fant made it 21-13 with 3:35 to go.
On San Francisco’s ensuing third and 1, Purdy capped his second career start with a bootleg run past SJefferson for the first down with 2:16 left.
That clinched the NFC West title for the 49ers (10-4), who won their seventh consecutive game.
Jefferson saw the way the Niners blocker over him, right tackle Mike McGlinchey, blocked down to Jefferson’s right so hard that he knew Purdy was coming around to Jefferson’s left on the bootleg to run for the first down.
Jefferson weighs 291 pounds. Purdy weighs 220. Guess who won that race.
“I was trying to run out there as fast as I can,” Jefferson said. “I wish I had gone even more flat down the line. Yeah, it’s a frustrating play. Hindsight, I wish I’d just went flatter and met him at the first-down line.”
The Seahawks have turned first place in the division, the third seed in the NFC playoffs and a surprising, 6-3 start into 7-7. They are eighth outside the seven-team conference postseason chase, with three games remaining.
The next is at mighty Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City (10-3) on Christmas Eve.
“I mean these next few games are really going to show who the (fudge) we are, what our identity is,” Jefferson said, back to spitting mad. “Fold and start making trips for Cabo and (stuff), or we can come in this (place) and fight and hopefully we get a chance to (frickin’) play in the playoffs.
“Because I want to (frickin’) play in the playoffs. Every year I’ve played in the NFL I’ve played in the (frickin’) playoffs. I want to (frickin’) go back.
“We are going to see what this fight is in this locker room.”
Defense rises up
Unlike while losing four of the previous five games, Jefferson and Seattle’s defense did the work it had to do to keep the Seahawks in this one. They allowed two big-play passes from Purdy to wide-open Kittle, plus the 5-yard TD drive Homer’s fumble gifted to the 49ers.
“We want to play a lot better on defense than we’ve been playing the last couple weeks, and in the running game in particular,” Carroll said.
“We started pretty well. We might have had a pretty good night on defense.
“Offensively, we didn’t.”
Seattle’s defenders stayed together after their leader, signal caller and inside linebacker Jordyn Brooks, left the game in the third quarter with a neck injury that does not appear to be serious.
Brooks said in the locker room after the game, after Tanner Muse replaced him for the final quarter, that he would be OK.
San Francisco gained 170 yards rushing, 55 of which came one play: rookie Jordan Mason’s romp to the 2-yard line with a minute left in the game.
“Actually, I feel like we played pretty well on defense. I feel like we, for the most part, stopped the run game from big plays, except for that last play,” Seahawks defensive tackle Shelby Harris said.
“Obviously, the explosive passes were a problem. That was an issue for us in this game. There is always something that you can get better at, but if you don’t come out with a win, you can always work on something to get better, no matter what the performance was.”
Seattle’s offense — its run game, the pass protection — failed the entire Seahawks operation Thursday night.
The turning point
The Seahawks’ defense was staying in the game, holding down the 49ers to four punts on their first five possessions into the final minute of the second quarter.
San Francisco’s fourth punt of the half should not have happened.
On third down Diggs easily read Purdy throwing late across the middle. The Pro Bowl safety broke on the pass and inter...dropped the ball off his chest. The ball hit Diggs in his jersey number 6, centered on his chest. He had room to return that deep into 49ers territory in a 7-3 game.
Instead of a Seahawks first down at the end of the field, they had a drive start at their own 19-yard line late in the half following San Francisco’s punt.
Then third-down running back Homer tried to make a move on a defender after catching a short pass from Smith in the right flat. San Francisco’s Dre Greenlaw lowered his shoulder onto the ball inside Homer’s arm, causing a fumble. The Niners’ Charvarius Ward recovered and returned the ball 40 yards to the Seattle 6.
From there, two runs by Christian McCaffrey (26 carries, 108 yards) gave the 49ers a 14-3 lead — instead of the Seahawks being in prime position to take the lead into halftime, or at worst being behind only 7-6.
The Diggs drop and Homer fumble were why, despite holding San Francisco to 152 yards and just 56 rushing in the half, Seattle trailed by 11 points into the third quarter.
If Diggs made the easy catch, there would not have been a Homer fumble deep in Seattle’s own end. No 49ers scoring drive of just 5 yards. Likely, the way the maligned Seahawks defense was hanging in during the first half, no touchdown late in the half for San Francisco.
Diggs said his mistake was letting the ball get into his body instead of reaching out and catching it with his hands.
“It’s on me,” he said. “I dropped it.”
Team captain Quandre Diggs after his crucial dropped interception was the pivot point in the Seahawks’ loss to the 49ers: “It’s on me. I dropped it.” pic.twitter.com/6y3qTXUU3O
— Gregg Bell (@gbellseattle) December 16, 2022
DK Metcalf steaming mad
Six penalties on the Seahawks in the half didn’t help. They included two major ones on DK Metcalf: for unsportsmanlike conduct banging into a 49er after a play, then for grabbing Ward’s jersey and pulling him off-balance before what would have been a 27-yard catch to the San Francisco 43 with 34 seconds left in the half.
Metcalf (seven catches, 55 yards) was steaming after the first penalty. Carroll tried to talk to him on the Seahawks’ sideline, and tapped him on the back side. Teammate Johnathan Abram tapped Metcalf on the chest as the Seattle defense played the ensuing series.
“He’s freaking competing like an elite performer with the highest of expectations. And every once in a while he may make a mistake in that level that he plays at,” Carroll said. “He could do a little bit better. Yeah, he could do a little bit better. We just got finished talking about that.
“But I don’t want him to be anything but what he is and who he is. He’s a frickin’ warrior on the football field. He wants to walk that edge and live there in the game, I’m all for it. He’s just got to not screw it up and get penalized on it. He did and made mistakes out there and they got him. But you should see the smile on his face. But he didn’t get thrown out. Made it through the rest of the game.
“So if you don’t like a guy that plays like that, okay, you’re not on our side. I love the way he played.”
Geno Smith or bust
After Walker (47 yards on 12 rushes) kept running into white brick walls early, Seahawks offensive coordinator Shane Waldron chose to attempt to throw over the 49ers’ superiority along the line of scrimmage. Waldron called passes on 18 of Seattle’s first 24 and 24 of the first 31 offensive snaps.
But Smith, the NFL’s leader in completion rate coming in at better than 71%, completed just nine of his first 17 throws Thursday. He was harassed consistently by San Francisco’s defensive front into rushed and off-target throws incomplete.
His statistics didn’t count what would have been an interception returned for a 49ers touchdown and a 28-3 lead early in the third quarter — but for an iffy roughing-the-passer penalty on the Niners hitting Smith as he threw the interception that wasn’t.
Because of that, and again no running game, the Seahawks again failed to convert too-long third downs. They were 1 for their first 7 on third down, and 4 for 13 in the game.
Meanwhile, Purdy rolled through his first road start: He completed 13 of his first 17 passes for 150 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 141.8. He finished 17 for 26, 217 yards and a passer rating of 117.
Both touchdowns were to Kittle.
The first was 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan designing a double-fake screen pass, one to each right then left side. No Seahawks picked up Kittle running down the center of the field after the fakes: 28-yard touchdown and a 7-0 San Francisco lead early.
Jefferson said he’s never seen that play before. Carroll said it’s an old one he rarely sees in pro football anymore.
Two plays into the third quarter, the 49ers’ All-Pro tight end got behind Seattle linebackers Brooks and Bruce Irvin, who were both in the right flat. No one was on the deep zone outside right in the Seahawks’ coverage, rookie cornerback Tariq Woolen’s side. Kittle was alone for the catch, then ran through blown tackles by Diggs and Cody Barton to the end zone.
That put San Francisco ahead 21-3 early in the third quarter.
The Seahawks were in desperation mode for the game’s final 28 minutes after that.