• The Star Staff

Seahawks defense is an asset again in division-clinching win

By Ben Shpigel

The corner of the end zone beckoned for Los Angeles Rams running back Darrell Henderson, who took a third-quarter handoff, rounded the edge and sprinted toward the pylon. Scurrying away from Seattle’s line, Henderson evaded one defender — but not the man who raced clear across the formation to drag him down from behind, 2 yards short of the goal line.

“There was no way I was going to let him walk into that end zone,” said Seahawks safety Jamal Adams.

By preventing a touchdown, Adams preserved the Seahawks’ lead and embodied a smothering defensive effort that fueled their fifth victory in six games, 20-9, over Los Angeles at Lumen Field in Seattle, and clinched their first NFC West title since 2016.

Back then, Seattle’s identity revolved around its defense, around a fierce pass rush, a formidable secondary and the colorful personalities who powered them. This team doesn’t reach or surpass the lofty standard set by the Legion of Boom. But over the past five weeks, as the playoffs draw near, no team has allowed fewer points (61) than the Seahawks.

“There were times during the season where everybody had enough statistics to go ahead and blow us out, that we weren’t worth anything on defense,” coach Pete Carroll said. “This defense is good. And they’ve shown it and they’ve declared it. This is the kind of defense that we’ve played in years past.”

Midway through the season, even as they were winning, the Seahawks were trending toward defensive embarrassment: the most yards and most passing yards allowed in league history. The unit’s improvement has coincided with a drop in quality from its opposing quarterbacks — facing Colt McCoy, Dwayne Haskins and Sam Darnold in three consecutive games — but also with enhanced communication and comfort.

“You keep the explosive plays down, the points stay down,” safety Quandre Diggs said after a game in which Los Angeles had only three plays of at least 20 yards, none longer than 26. “I think that’s been the big thing for us.”

Even though the Rams ran 14 more plays and held the ball nearly six minutes longer than Seattle, they managed only three field goals, stifled in moments big and small. The Seahawks (11-4) sacked Jared Goff three times and intercepted him once, and were at their mightiest near their end zone, stuffing the Rams on four chances inside the Seattle 5-yard line after Adams’ tackle.

Right before that stand, the Rams (9-6), trailing by 13-6, faced second-and-5 from the Seattle 7. They ran a play that Adams had seen before, had sensed was coming, and he tore into the backfield as soon as the ball was snapped. Pursuing Henderson as if powered by rocket fuel, Adams yanked him down, saving what could have been the tying touchdown. In a sequence that Carroll said he’ll never forget, the next four plays went for minus-2, 3, 0 and 0 yards, and after the Seahawks knocked back Malcolm Brown on fourth down, they galloped away together.

“Give us a blade of grass, and we’ll defend it,” Carroll said. “We were in full-on attack mode.”

That attack mode materialized on offense in spurts Sunday, as Russell Wilson escaped the Rams’ pressure just enough times to lead two second-half touchdown drives, running for one score and throwing another to Jacob Hollister with 2:51 remaining.

In clinching the division title, Seattle assured itself of earning at least the No. 3 seed in an NFC playoff bracket that, bizarrely enough, might not even wind up including the Rams.

Even in this week-to-week league, they are as trustworthy as an email from a Nigerian prince. Just as they were approaching stability, winning four of five in a stretch that began with a Week 10 victory against Seattle, they faltered at home against the winless New York Jets. Put another way, after beating Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots on a short week, Sean McVay had 10 days to out-coach the Jets’ Adam Gase and could not.

The Rams, denied a postseason berth for the second consecutive week, can secure a wild-card spot by beating Arizona in Week 17. But they might have to play without Goff, whose status was imperiled after he appeared to dislocate his right thumb, on his throwing hand.

Even before Goff got hurt, he struggled. The first half unfolded as an extension of both teams’ recent fortunes, all middling offense and suffocating defense with a modicum of scoring. Had the field been shortened to 60 yards, Seattle and Los Angeles might not have noticed: Neither ran a play in the red zone.

The Rams’ forays into Seahawks territory produced two field goals and an interception that defied justification. On first-and-10 from the 29-yard line, Goff, flushed right, tottered toward the sideline, where a sliver of open space welcomed him. Instead of running, he floated a pass across his body into an area the size of a city park but absent any receivers.

One of a few Seattle defenders nearby, Diggs swooped in for the interception, Goff’s 13th of the season, and Seattle converted the turnover into the field goal that sent the game sputtering into halftime at 6-6.

When asked what he saw on the interception, Diggs said: “I couldn’t tell you. I mean, my coaches always told me in high school when I was a quarterback, never throw the ball across your body.”

Reliable quarterback play distinguished Seattle from the Rams on Sunday. But so did something else: On the same field where nearly 12 months earlier the Seahawks had lost the division by inches, when on fourth down San Francisco stopped Hollister just outside the end zone, their defense — once maligned but now, just when the Seahawks needed it, was an asset a strength — won them the NFC West by the same margin.

Afterward, appearing on a video call, Adams screamed how good it felt, after three seasons with the woeful Jets, to be a division champion. Before lighting up his victory cigar, he offered a prediction, one that could be proven true in a matter of weeks.

“We’re the best defense in the league,” Adams said, “and you can quote that.”

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