A defense that finished the season on an unprecedented roll set the tone for another tough-slog Seattle Seahawks victory Sunday.
Only this time, the momentum changer wasn’t a ferocious open-field collision, or a third-down sack in the red zone. The play pivotal in turning a fourth-quarter tie with the St. Louis Rams into a 20-6 division clinching win was when a defensive tackle got a chance to resemble the traveling-circus acrobat he isn’t.
At 6-foot-1 and 303 pounds, Jordan Hill has a tank-engine body he uses to clog lanes and preoccupy offensive linemen. Put it this way: There were 53 players on the Hawks active roster Sunday, and 52 were more plausible candidates than Hill to pick off a pass with a dazzling scoop.
But that’s what happened on the first play of the fourth quarter, with the score tied 6-6. The Rams had the ball at the Seattle 34-yard line — routine field-goal territory, considering the big-bang leg of kicker Greg Zuerlein — when quarterback Shaun Hill decided to toss the ball away after a screen pass attempt was blown up by a heavy pass rush.
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Realizing an intentional grounding penalty could be called if he aimed at no specific target, Hill delivered his throw at the heels of running back Tre Mason. That was the plan, anyway.
“It was a screen but they had it covered, so you have to burn the ball into the ground,” Hill said. “It has to be at the running back’s feet. You can’t throw it directly down like you’d do to kill the clock. You have to get it into the vicinity of the running back.
“And their guy made a crazy play on it. He just made a great play.”
Hill intercepted the ball a few inches off the ground, and returned it to midfield. Taking advantage of a stout Rams defense that appeared to be demoralized by the turnover — or at least surprised — the Seahawks needed only six plays to score the Marshawn Lynch touchdown that gave them the lead for the first time.
We’ve now seen Lynch cross the goal line 62 times in a Seahawks uniform. Until Sunday, all we knew about Jordan Hill is how the second-year Penn State product had quietly filled a defensive-line rotation spot in the aftermath of Brandon Mebane’s season-ending hamstring tear.
Turns out Hill is a quite more versatile athlete than his build suggests. Prevented from playing youth-league football in his home town of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Hill concentrated on basketball in the winter and baseball in the summer.
“I was a first baseman, and played some left field,” Hill said. “But my favorite sport was basketball. In high school, when I finally got a chance to go out for football, I was a fullback and a linebacker.
“You’ve got to have some athletic ability to play those positions, I think.”
The athleticism Hill showed didn’t surprise Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.
“Everybody in the program has to have good hands,” he said, “and it showed up right there why that’s so important.”
Developing and maintaining dexterity, Carroll explained, “is something we always preach. We throw the ball every day. Everybody has to catch the ball every day in practice.”
Carroll’s belief in a good-hands policy would seem to be another example of his cutting edge coaching principles, but he was taught that 30 years ago as a defensive backs coach on Bud Grant’s Minnesota Vikings staff.
“I give that one totally to Bud Grant,” Carroll said of his close friend and professional mentor. “That was Coach Grant’s deal, and I just swiped it.”
More accurately, a defensive tackle swiped it. The interception ranked as a career highlight for Hill, but football being football, his day was done a few minutes later by a left knee sprain.
Trainers applied an ice pack around the knee and Hill spent the remainder of the game on the Seahawks bench.
Hill insisted afterward his knee was fine, but Carroll, beneficiary of a first-round playoff bye, has the luxury of taking a wait-and-see approach with injuries.
“The two weeks,” he said, “will really help.”
By the time the Hawks return to CenturyLink Field for a second round NFC game on Jan. 10, Jordan Hill’s left knee could be good to go.
There will no doubt about his hands.