LOS ANGELES -- What's that saying, "It's better to be lucky than good"?
The Seattle Seahawks' defense was both on Sunday. It got a little lucky when a pass into the end zone with 12 seconds left went off the outstretched hands of a Los Angeles Rams receiver who had gotten open behind the secondary. That bit of good fortune allowed Seattle to escape Los Angeles with a 16-10 victory instead of another agonizingly close defeat to their upstart division rivals.
But for much of the second half -- when the Seahawks allowed zero points, forced three turnovers and put the clamps on what had been the NFL's best offense over the first month of the season -- boy was their defense good.
"These guys have been playing great football for a long time," coach Pete Carroll said of his defense, "and I think it's just another statement that they will not relent."
The Rams entered this game leading the league in scoring, going from worst in that department last season to first under new coach Sean McVay and second-year quarterback Jared Goff. And for the start of Sunday's game, they were as difficult as advertised. The Seahawks allowed 124 yards in the first quarter alone while failing to generate any pressure on Goff and allowing his receivers to get wide open on a few occasions. According to defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, it was a product of the Rams surprising Seattle's defense with things it hadn't seen on film.
The Rams would have taken a lead on their opening possession had free safety Earl Thomas not made a save at the goal line by forcing Todd Gurley to fumble the ball off the pile-on, which prevented a touchdown and gave Seattle possession. It was strikingly reminiscent of a play Thomas made against the Rams in 2014, and it was emblematic of how the Seahawks' defense played in this game. It was by no means perfect, but it finished.
The Seahawks got another takeaway in the second quarter via a muffed punt, and then their defense forced three more turnovers in the second half.
Richardson made the biggest play of his young Seahawks career in the third quarter when he deftly sniffed out a screen pass, peeled off and came down with an interception after Goff's throw bounced off Gurley's hands.
Thomas picked off an errant Goff throw over the middle in the fourth quarter, and on the Rams' next possession, defensive end Frank Clark blew by left tackle Andrew Whitworth to force a fumble that Richardson recovered.
The Rams had only allowed four sacks over the first four games, and for much of Sunday, their offensive line was impenetrable. On one of the few occasions the Seahawks got pressure on Goff, they had to bring six defenders to do it, which left the quarterback with a lot of open field when he stepped up in the pocket and took off running for a 22-yard gain.
But on Thomas' interception, defensive tackles Jarran Reed and Garrison Smith collapsed the pocket in front of Goff, preventing him from stepping into his throw. On his strip sack, Clark said he had been setting up Whitworth all game for the outside move he made to beat the left tackle off the edge.
That gave the Seahawks their fifth takeaway, their most in any game since a shutout win against the New York Giants in Week 15 of the 2013 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"Whenever you get five turnovers in a game you're supposed to win the game," Carroll said.
And yet the Seahawks almost didn't.
On the Rams' final possession, when they drove 55 yards on only three plays to give themselves three shots from Seattle's 20-yard line, it looked like the Seahawks' defense might give away a victory it had done so much to secure. It really looked that way when, on the game's second-to-last play, rookie receiver Cooper Kupp got open up the seam.
Thomas said he thought Goff had a matchup that he liked with another receiver and tried to bait him into the throw. But Goff looked Thomas off, which drew him toward the middle of the field and left Kupp open. Thomas was too far out of position to have any chance at making a play on the ball once it left Goff's hands.
"I got lucky there," Thomas said.
Seattle's defense has been a mixed bag this season. It's been gashed at times against the run and its pass rush has been inconsistent, which were both issues on Sunday. It fell apart entirely in the second half against the Tennessee Titans in Week 3. That performance was uncharacteristically poor for a group that includes eight Pro Bowlers and has set a very high standard over the past five seasons.
On the other hand, Seattle's defense stood up to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the opener, then held the San Francisco 49ers out of the end zone in Week 2. It played its most dominant half of football in recent memory last week while holding the Indianapolis Colts to three points and 32 yards over the final two quarters.
The Seahawks' defense finished strong again on Sunday, even if it got a little lucky in the process.
"Of course, of course, man," Thomas said when asked if the Seahawks feel fortunate about the way this game ended. "But like I said, we all played so well on defense. Even when our back was against the wall early, we still stood up in the red zone. This is the No. 1 offense, and I think we did a great job against them."