No need for Doug Baldwin to be angry now.
Not after the biggest game of his scrapping, determined, five-year career.
The former undrafted free agent-turned-No. 1 Seahawks wide receiver set career highs with three touchdown catches and had 145 yards on six catches in eight targets from Russell Wilson.
Baldwin’s 80-yard catch across the middle beat the Steelers’ man coverage. His two stiff arms beat two more defenders on the catch-and-run with 2 minutes to go that clinched Seattle’s zany, 39-30 victory against Pittsburgh on Sunday at a rocking CenturyLink Field.
“I kept shaking my head like, ‘Russ, just give me a chance!’ And he did,” Baldwin said of his presnap look just before the third-and-10 from Seattle’s 20 — with the Seahawks a play away from giving Pittsburgh back the ball in a 32-30 game.
“He threw the ball a little early — it caught me,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin said the last time he had that experience was at Stanford, when Andrew Luck would throw early darts that would similarly “catch” him, instead of the other way around.
“It was as late as you can possibly imagine,” he said. “But fortunately enough my hands were already low, so I didn’t have to go far to catch it.”
Baldwin’s huge numbers, part of Wilson’s career-high five touchdown passes and 345 yards in the air, got all the attention. But Baldwin thinks the difference between Sunday — and the Seahawks being squarely in the NFC playoff picture — and three games ago, when they were 4-5 and thumped by Arizona, is on third downs.
Seattle was in the bottom third of the league in converting third downs into first downs, at around 37 percent for the season, after going 1 for 8 in the loss to the Cardinals on Nov. 15.
That’s when Baldwin was saying he took third-down numbers “personally.”
In the wins over San Francisco last week and now Pittsburgh, the Seahawks are a combined 15 for 27 on third-down conversions. That’s 55.5 percent. Seattle has scored 68 points, its biggest two-week output of the season.
“I keep saying this to you guys: Converting on third downs directly correlates to scoring,” Baldwin said.
“It keeps the defense off the field, which gives us a chance to win ballgames. That’s how we play football.”
That’s how they’ve gotten back in the playoff race.
BIG BEN LEAVES — EVENTUALLY
Ben Roethlisberger was exquisite while completing 36 of 55 passes for 456 yards.
But he had to be helped up by his Steelers’ linemen after a helmet-to-helmet hit on third down extended Pittsburgh’s next-to-last drive with Seattle leading 32-27. He appeared unsteady but stayed in the game to complete the drive that ended with a short field goal.
But for Pittsburgh’s final drive, after Baldwin’s clinching TD, Landry Jones was the Steelers’ quarterback. The team announced that Roethlisberger was undergoing the league’s protocol for a possible concussion.
So if he had a possible concussion, why did he stay in the game for nine more plays?
“All that stuff is going on behind me, guys. I don’t want to get into all of that,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said later, referring to the medical staff on the sideline. “We were going to do what’s appropriate and take care of our guys. So don’t make that assumption, you know what I mean?
“My eyes are on the field. I don’t know. We’ll find out.”
Jones added a 34-yard pass on that final drive, so Pittsburgh finished with 480 net yards passing. That was the second-most for an opponent in Seahawks’ history. Dan Fouts, Mark Herrmann and San Diego had 494 net yards passing on Sept. 15, 1985.
CARY WILLIAMS FROM STARTER TO INACTIVE
How done are the Seahawks with Cary Williams starting at cornerback?
They are paying him $3.5 million guaranteed this season to be inactive Sunday against one of their biggest threats to throw at their secondary all season.
Seattle making Williams inactive for Sunday’s game gave DeShawn Shead the start. Shead replaced Williams for the final 1 1/2 quarters of the Seahawks’ win last week over San Francisco.
Shead knocked down three deep passes Sunday, as Pittsburgh tested him with deep threat Martavis Bryant while fellow Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman shadowed Pittsburgh’s No. 1 wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called the switch “an opening for guys to step in and take advantage.
“I thought (Shead) played great.”
Seattle signed Williams in March in free agency from Philadelphia for three years and $18 million to replace departed free agent Byron Maxwell as the starting cornerback opposite Sherman.
But Williams has had issues all season, first with Seattle’s unique “step-and-kick” technique of jamming receivers and then turning to run with them at the line and then with zone coverage on deep passes. Opponents have continually burned Williams and the Seahawks on those plays, prompting the change and now demotion to not even being in uniform.
The rest of the Seahawks’ inactive players Sunday: WR Paul Richardson (hamstring), rookie CB Tye Smith, RB Marshawn Lynch (abdominal surgery on Wednesday), LB Eric Pinkins, C Drew Nowak and OL Kristjan Sokoli.
With Nowak inactive again, the Seahawks had 15 combined starts this season (Williams 10, Nowak the first five games) on the sidelines in sweat suits Sunday.
KEVIN SMITH: “AWESOME”
Twelve months ago Kevin Smith was loading packages onto FedEx trucks just outside Los Angeles, near his childhood home.
On Sunday, after being cut three times since 2014, Smith made his first NFL catch. It came about two seasons since his last catch with the University of Washington.
Smith went undrafted after a 50-catch senior season at UW. Then he signed and was waived by Arizona, and by Jacksonville, and by Seattle. He wasn’t on an NFL roster last season.
He re-signed with the Seahawks in February and was waived again in September. He re-signed to Seattle’s practice squad and then was moved to the active roster on Nov. 17.
On Sunday, he caught the only pass thrown to him: a 21-yarder down the right sideline from Russell Wilson in the second quarter that set up the Seahawks’ second touchdown one play later.
“That was awesome, man,” Smith said. “When the call come my way, my eyes got big. Russ told me to be ready outside before the play even happened. I made sure I was ready, and the ball came, so I caught it.”
The catch capped a nice weekend for Smith, who happily watched his Huskies whip Washington State to win the Apple Cup on Friday.
“That was awesome, man,” he said.
Sunday was the 20th game in which Wilson threw multiple TD passes without an interception. That’s the most by any player in his first four NFL seasons since 1970. … DT Ahtyba Rubin had his second career interception. … The last two times nickel back Jeremy Lane has touched the ball, he’s intercepted it and returned it a combined 68 yards. He intercepted a fake field-goal pass by Jones on Sunday in his season debut. The other time was Feb. 1, when he intercepted New England’s Tom Brady and broke his arm, plus tore a knee ligament on the return, early in Super Bowl 49. … Seattle’s game at Baltimore got flexed out of NBC’s prime-time primetime on Dec. 13. It will now start at 10 a.m. PST and air on Fox. New England-Houston is now that Sunday’s night game.