GREEN BAY, Wis. Earl Thomas was back.
Yet it was like he never left.
The three-time All-Pro free safety played for the first time since he broke his leg in December. And he smacked Packers all over the field. Again.
“I feel like I am back,” Thomas said, saying what he showed.
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Here’s what was also familiar: He and his Seahawks defense were on Lambeau Field for 74 plays and just under 40 of their opener’s 60 minutes Sunday. They held two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay scoreless into the third quarter. The first time they yielded was allowing a touchdown drive of 5 yards. That was after the offensive line’s issues in pass protection caused a fumble Russell Wilson lost while getting sacked.
So what about having to be on the field so much? Did the defense, which actually scored a touchdown of its own only to have it called back by a penalty, finally wear down in the Seahawks’ 17-9 loss here in this ugly, half-worrisome way to begin the 2017 season?
“Man, it’s been like this for eight years, man,” Thomas said.
Yes, a “man” sandwich.
The Seahawks’ newly reinforced defensive front sacked Aaron Rodgers four times and intercepted him once -- in the first half. Michael Bennett had 1 1/2 of those sacks. And the Seahawks held Green Bay scoreless into the third quarter.
Oh, and Thomas was absolutely back.
But the line couldn’t give Wilson -- and thus the offense -- enough time to produce any sustained yards or points. The Seahawks kept in tight ends and running backs, sometimes on the same plays, to help. But Seattle managed just three field goals by debuting kicker Blair Walsh.
“That as an opener was not as good-looking as we would like to show,” coach Pete Carroll said.
“I’m disappointed that they were able to be as aggressive up front as they were with their defense...I was surprised that they were able to do that. It’s what made it hard to get the running game going for us like we wanted (Seattle had 50 yards on 16 carries by running backs, taking out Wilson’s two run-for-your-life scrambles for 40 yards).
“It reminds you how you have to do right and you have to...not give away things, and we gave them the football at the 5-yard line.”
The Seahawks have scored three, five, six and now nine points in games over their last 16 regular-season games dating to week two of 2016, a 9-3 loss at the Rams which Wilson played with a sprained ankle. They scored only 10 points in their previous trip here to Green Bay, in December. Seattle is 0-4-1 in those empty-on-offense games, 10-3 in all others.
This was the fifth time in their last 16 regular-season games the Seahawks’ defense held a foe to 17 points or fewer -- yet Seattle lost.
“We understand that sometimes the offense is not in rhythm like it needs to be,” Thomas said. “We just have to stand up, come back stronger. When we have tough challenges like that, it’s going to keep building our character. We needed that.”
“It’s not frustrating. We want to be the best. And put it on us if we have to put it on us, man. We just have to capitalize and keep giving Russ those opportunities to get in rhythm.”
About the only time it happened Sunday was when Seattle was in no-huddle, 2-minute-offense mode.
Wilson threw quickly. The besieged line didn’t have to to block for long on quick-hitting plays. And the Packers’ pass rush didn’t get 30-plus seconds to rest but more like 10 between plays. The Seahawks gained 115 yards and scored six points on six plays (19.2 yards per play) running hurry-up offense at the end of the first half and middle of the fourth quarter. Wilson wasn’t sacked or even hit on any of the no-huddle plays.
They gained fewer than that -- just 110 yards -- on their other 42 plays (2.6 yards per play) in conventional, huddling offense. Wilson was sacked three times and hit seven times in that.
“Yeah, the times were really had the rhythm was when we were in 2-minute,” Wilson said. “It’s something we have to see and study and see it it’s something we can do a little more of, or better job at.
“You’ve got big guys on the defensive line that get tired, you know, kind of slows them down a little bit. Also, we are playing instinctive. We are playing fast. ... It’s kind of like fast-break basketball a little bit. A little bit more challenging (for a defense).”
There is this: The Seahawks are likely to be favored in their next five games, including next weekend in their home opener against San Francisco. The starting-over 49ers lost Sunday 23-3 at home to Carolina.
Then again, the way this line is affecting Seattle’s entire offense again, who knows?
Wilson completed 14 of 27 passes for 158 yards. This was the sixth time in the last 16 regular-season games he didn’t throw for a touchdown. That had happened only four time in his previous four season before this stretch.
He was sacked three times, hit seven more times, and escaped at least four more sacks with his exquisite runs out of trouble -- which he can do again now that he’s healthy.
Seattle nearly had first and goal at the 2 down 17-6 midway through the fourth quarter after Wilson’s pass briefly found the hands of rookie Amara Darboh. But Green Bay’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix sprinted over to the sideline and whacked the ball from Darboh’s grasp for an incomplete pass. The Seahawks settled for Walsh’s third field goal in as many tries and trailed 17-9.
Green Bay defensive tackle Mike Daniels 1 1/2 sacks on the Seahawks’ first three offensive plays after halftime. Daniels beat right guard Mark Glowinski on the first one, then jab-stepped quickly inside spun-around left guard Luke Joeckel to sack Wilson and force a fumble that Green Bay recovered at the Seahawks 6.
Ty Montgomery ran in for a touchdown and the Packers’ first points on the next play. Poof! Seattle trailed 7-3.
The Seahawks answered on the next series with their first sustained drive not in a 2-minute offense, to a field goal to make it 7-6. That was after Wilson’s third-down pass sailed over Jimmy Graham’s head incomplete at the back line of the end zone. Two Packers defenders made contact before the ball arrived, but no flag followed.
“It looked like a couple guys were jumping on him. I don’t know,” Carroll said of the officials. “And then they said that the ball was clearly overthrown. If that’s what it was, I think it hit the white (paint just beyond the back-line boundary of the end zone, and Graham is 6 feet 7.)
The Seahawks would have led 10-0 at halftime if not for Avril getting called for a block in the back on Rodgers. That came while rookie Nazair Jones was running for a would-be touchdown with his interception of Rodgers in the first quarter.
Avril said he only touched Rodgers, and not that much.
“I didn’t even know (the flag) was on me until the third quarter,” Avril said--turns out teammate Richard Sherman told him. “I was like...’What?!!’ I bet they threw it as soon as I touched him.
“That stopped us from scoring. He is A-Rod. He is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. ... Yeah, that was crazy. ...
“But, some guys get ‘The Michael Jordan Rule.’”
Carroll lamented that Avril didn’t have to touch Rodgers at all, to give the officials the chance to make that call.
The penalty pushed the ball back to midfield. The Seahawks’ offense, of course for this Sunday, subsequently punted instead.
Nickel defensive back Jeremy Lane, who also started at right cornerback in base defense, was ejected on the play after getting tied up with Green Bay receiver Davante Adams. Officials ruled Lane threw a punch, though television replays Fox showed during its game broadcast of the tie-up and in the press box didn’t show a punch.
Lane’s ejection meant rookie third-round pick Shaquill Griffin was the right cornerback on every down, not just in nickel defense, and Justin Coleman was the nickel. The Seahawks traded with New England to acquire Coleman last week.
Rodgers went right at Griffin immediately, as the rookie and all expected. But with Coleman also unexpectedly in, Rodgers went after him, too, including for clinching first downs late in the fourth quarter while Green Bay protected its one-score lead.
Griffin gave up at least three short passes in front of him, including to Jordy Nelson on third down midway through the fourth quarter to put Green Bay at the Seahawks 22. But the debuting rookie also broke up three deep balls. The third was near the goal line when Rodgers tried Nelson against Griffin again. The Packers got a field goal instead on that drive to go ahead 17-6.
“He balled out,” Thomas said, beaming about his rookie mate.
The Seahawks’ justified concern about the pass protection of its offensive line -- with guys starting for the first time at four positions -- led them to keep tight ends Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson plus running backs Chris Carson and Tre Madden in often to help block. Some of Wilson’s early completions came to those extra blockers, after they released into short routes late; Graham’s first three catches netted 8 total yards.
The result over most of the first half was Green Bay’s five defensive backs and one, sometimes two linebackers easily covering Seattle’s four remaining receivers running routes down the field. That’s why Seattle had 25 total yards over the game’s first 29 minutes, and why the score stayed scoreless.
The game was a stalemate for the first 29 minutes and 30 seconds, thanks to the Seahawks’ pressuring defense, and Seattle’s issues of pass protection. Seattle was content to run out the final minute of the first half, calling three consecutive runs by C.J. Prosise from its own 11. But Prosise gained 4 yards on third and 3, out to the 22. The Seahawks called time out. Then Wilson scrambled. That gave Doug Baldwin time for the game’s first big play, all the way across the field to the right sideline for 34 yards to the Packers 44.
Wilson dropped to throw again on the next play and saw enough open, green grass from here to Sheboygan. He ran through it for 29 yards. Another time out and two incomplete passes to covered Tanner McEvoy and Graham later, Walsh kicked a 33-yard field goal. Improbably, Seattle had a 3-0 lead at the half in which it gained 25 total yards over the first 17 plays.
The Seahawks’ first 17 plays in conventional offense on Sunday netted the grand total of 25 yards. Four plays in hurry-up mode to end half gained 63 yards.
“I mean, on paper we look amazing,” Pro Bowl defensive end Cliff Avril said.
“But that means nothing.”