If you listen closely, you can almost hear the World War II-vintage Winston Churchill coaching the Seahawks’ defense.
“We shall fight on the beaches … we shall fight in the fields … we shall never surrender.”
With the Seahawks, the similar rallying cry has been to defend all the way to the final blade of grass, to that last thin, green filament at the threshold of the goal line if necessary.
The solemn pledge has led the Seahawks’ defenders to treat their end zone as if it’s some kind of sacred ground, private and impermeable, to be protected at all costs.
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“It’s become a true belief because we’ve done it and seen how it affects the team,” said safety Earl Thomas — the Earl of the End Zone, Ultimate Protector of the Realm. “It teaches a great lesson about finishing, always running to the ball, because you believe something good will happen.”
Something good has happened any number of times because of this defensive obstinacy.
Thomas forced a fumble an inch from the end zone against the Rams in the final game of the 2014 regular season, and fellow safety Kam Chancellor likely preserved a win over Detroit last season when he even more dramatically punched the ball away from Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and through the end zone in the game’s final minutes.
“It’s something we live and breathe by,” said linebacker Bobby Wagner, who assiduously performed his solemn duties against the Cardinals on Sunday night. “It’s a way to remind yourself to stay positive and in the moment, whatever it may be, because we know we can always make a big play.”
It sometimes becomes a matter of which defender can get there first.
“It’s contagious with us,” Wagner said. “Guys get geeked for the opportunity that maybe they can be the person who stops somebody at the goal line. Everybody wants to be that guy.”
Wagner and Thomas were among those guys Sunday, in a remarkable three-play span in overtime that allowed the Seahawks to hold on to a tie with the Cards.
Safety Kelcie McCray came up with the first act of conspicuous end zone protection. After speedy Cardinals receiver J.J. Nelson eluded Richard Sherman, McCray pursued him for 28 yards until he tripped him by one ankle at the 4-yard line.
If McCray missed Nelson by the margin of a shoelace, the game is over.
That kind of effort, McCray explained, is the minimum that is expected. “When you have 11 guys playing that way, believing the same thing, it’s something special,” McCray said. “You never know when one play can make the difference in the game. But after that tackle, I was still thinking all they had to do was kick a field goal.”
But they didn’t. Not yet.
On the next play, they sent power back David Johnson into the middle of the line, where he met a stonewall of Hawk defenders. As Johnson bounced to his left toward the sideline, Thomas read his mind and began a sprint from outside the opposite hash mark.
Other defenders strung him wide, but as Johnson neared the goal, it was Thomas who hit him with a flying dive that knocked him out of bounds so close to scoring that Johnson’s foot hit the pylon.
On the next play, Johnson cut toward a hole in the left side of his line, but Wagner scraped through the clutter, met Johnson at the line and dropped him cold.
Forced to kick the potential game-winning field goal, the Cardinals’ Chandler Catanzaro clanked it off the left upright.
The Seahawks missed their own chip-shot field goal, though, and the game ended in a tie — a tie earned by a handful of heroic tackles. Never have so many Seahawks offensive players owed so much to so few defenders.
“Those were fantastic plays and they were unbelievable, but that’s just who they are as players, as people, as teammates,” Sherman said. “They’re relentless.”
The timing of Sunday’s big plays made them more dramatic than most, but the Hawks have kept their end zone pristine for most of the season.
Of the four touchdown passes thrown against them this season, three came in one quarter against Atlanta when a secondary brain cramp led to an uncharacteristic loss of focus.
And of the three rushing touchdowns by opponents, two were meaningless scores by San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde after the score was 37-3 in Seattle’s favor.
Another touchdown came against the Jets on a fumble recovery that the Hawks all thought was a dead ball.
Even with those quirky scores, they’ve only given up eight touchdowns in six games.
“Here’s what we believe … all we need is a centimeter to defend,” linebacker K.J. Wright said, apparently a proponent of the metric system. “That can be enough to make the difference between winning and losing, and I’m thankful we have so many guys who believe that and give it their all.”
Michael Bennett said that the “last blade of grass” verbiage is common, but the Hawks’ results are rare.
“People say that everywhere, but not a lot of people really truly believe it,” Bennett said.
This week, they’re playing inside against the Saints at the Superdome, where they’ll pledge to defend the final inch of UBU Intensity Series S5-M synthetic turf.
That doesn’t have an inspiring ring to it, but the Seahawks defenders don’t need to quibble over specifics.