Michael Bennett almost did at the start of the fourth quarter what Russell Wilson eventually, ultimately, spectacularly did at the end.
Give the Seahawks their first lead Sunday against Carolina.
Bennett, Seattle’s disruptive defensive lineman all day and for much of the last two seasons, burst through the line immediately after the Panthers’ first-down snap from their own 8-yard line with the score tied at 6 early in the fourth quarter. He crashed into Cam Newton in the end zone and grabbed the dynamic quarterback by both shoulder pads. It was prime position for a go-ahead safety.
But Newton bent at the waist, ducked his head and escaped from Bennett to throw a pass away from danger and keep the game knotted. Carolina eventually kicked the go-ahead field goal on that drive with 4:37 left — before Wilson led the 80-yard drive to his winning touchdown throw to Luke Willson with 47 seconds to go.
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“You ever try to tackle Cam Newton?” Bennett said, his voice rising incredulously. “OK then.
“Cam Newton is one of the best athletes to ever play in the NFL.”
He also gave Seattle’s dormant pass rush life on Sunday.
Newton kept holding onto the ball and looking for receivers longer than previous quarterbacks had against Seattle. That, plus Carolina’s offensive line that started four undrafted free agents because of injuries, helped the Seahawks to their best day of QB pressure since the opening win over Green Bay seven weeks ago.
Coach Pete Carroll had made it a priority all week to increase the pressure on quarterbacks for the remainder of the season. Seven sacks in six games and four in the previous five was leaving the defensive backs in tougher positions having to hold zone and man coverage for far longer than they had to while leading the NFL in pass defense and interceptions last season. It was one of many reasons the Seahawks were 3-3 entering Sunday.
So was the fact quarterbacks such as San Diego’s Philip Rivers, Denver’s Peyton Manning and Dallas’ Tony Romo were throwing quickly to short routes far underneath Seattle’s coverages. The pass rush was often getting close to quarterbacks, but the ball was coming out to quickly for the defense to affect the throws.
Against Carolina, Seattle began rotating defensive tackle Greg Scruggs on the game’s first defensive drive to try and keep some of that front fresh. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn moved the outside linebacker often up onto the line as a rush end, like he was more in the first couple games this season. Quinn sent linebacker blitzes, all three at some points, after Newton. That’s something the Seahawks did only 21 percent of the time last season and about that often through six games.
The result: Three sacks, the most since the win over the Packers on Sept. 4. Irvin got two on successive plays on Carolina’s final drive that began with 42 seconds left — and ended with the Seahawks whooping and slapping each other on the back as they ran off the field with a win that was so close to a loss that would have left them 3-4 with a heap of issues.
Bennett and Irvin said Newton’s willingness to stand in the pocket and look long for receivers instead of throwing it or taking off each time sure helped.
“Oh, my God!” Irvin exclaimed. “It was a relief he was holding onto the ball for a change.”
Irvin had two of Seattle’s five hits on Newton, who finished 12 of 22 passing for 171 yards with another 24 yards on 12 carries as Seattle kept him contained for the second time in two seasons here. Cliff Avril had one hit on Newton that resulted in a fumble the defensive end recovered at the Seahawks 17-yard line in the second quarter to keep Carolina’s lead at only 6-3. Tackle Brandon Mebane had one, too.
“We were getting in, as usual,” Bennett said. “Just this time the quarterback held the ball longer and allowed us to get in and make the plays.”
Just in time, too. The pressure on quarterbacks which was so absent for the last month resurfaced at a good time in the Seahawks’ season.
“I don’t think we ever lost our mojo,” Bennett said. “We just lost some close games.”
Thanks in part to Bennett and his suddenly sacking mates, they won one close one this time.