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Updated Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 08:32 AM

Seahawks defense's inability to finish cost team dearly

By Danny O'Neil
Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seahawks did not come up short this season. Not on offense, anyway.

They scored enough points to reach the NFC Championship Game, only to have the defense that was supposed to be this team's bedrock let that lead — not to mention a few opposing passes — slip through its collective fingers.

Again. Just like that game in Detroit. And in Miami. And nearly in Chicago. Noticing a trend?

"That's an issue," coach Pete Carroll said. "Just finishing it off, that last drive."

So when is Seattle going to have a defense that can close out the games its offense has won?

Sounds weird to say that, doesn't it? It's nothing short of shocking from a big-picture perspective, considering what this team looked like early, scoring fewer than 20 points in four of its first five games. More than three months later, the Seahawks head into this offseason feeling confident about the offense's future but uncertain about just what happened to that defense.

Not just because Seattle scored 150 points in a three-game span in December. Not just because Russell Wilson passed for more yards Sunday than any NFL rookie in a playoff game. Not just because Zach Miller — finally — was featured as a receiving threat with a career-high 142 yards Sunday.

It's because of the way this defense finished. Not only this season, but four different games as it allowed the opponent to score in the final minute to either tie the score or take the lead.

"There's four more games sitting there," Carroll said. "That's a big-time season."

And now it's a big-time question for this defense that is truly puzzling.

You can't say that Seattle's defense was bad this year.

The Seahawks allowed the fewest points in the league. They went two straight road games without allowing the opposing offense to score a touchdown, and they weren't entirely unable to finish out games. The Patriots got the ball back with more than twice as much time as Atlanta had Sunday, and the Seahawks closed Tom Brady and his New England teammates out in four plays. Seattle had strong second-half showings against Minnesota and Buffalo, too.

But those four blown saves were enough to constitute a trend that is fairly alarming. It wasn't just that Seattle allowed points late, but the shockingly improbable ways it found to cough up the lead.

The Seahawks took the lead with 24 seconds left at Chicago on Dec. 3, only to give up a 56-yard pass to Brandon Marshall that allowed the Bears to tie the score. Seattle took the lead with 31 seconds left in Atlanta, only to watch Matt Ryan throw for 41 yards in 12 seconds to put the Falcons in position for the game-winner.

It is exactly opposite of the problem Seattle had a year ago when the Seahawks' persistent inability to register a fourth-quarter comeback undermined the entire season. The Seahawks lost four games at home last season, and in every one of them they had the ball in the final five minutes with a chance to tie or take the lead. Seattle didn't score a point in any of those situations.

"We improved that enormously this year," Carroll said.

The Seahawks most certainly did, whether it was coming back to beat New England with 14 points in the final eight minutes in Week 6 or winning at Chicago in overtime in December or even last week in Atlanta, where Seattle scored 21 consecutive points to take the lead with less than a minute to go.

Now the question is whether Seattle's defense can start pulling its weight at the end.

"I'm not worried about figuring it out," Carroll said. "It's just a snap here or there, but it did happen this year. You can't ignore that."

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @dannyoneil

Closing time

Seattle had four different games this season in which it allowed an opponent to either tie the game or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter:

Week 8 at Detroit, Oct. 28

0:20 Titus Young 1 yard pass from Matthew Stafford (Jason Hanson kick)

Scoring drive: 16 plays, 80 yards, 5:07.

Key play: A third-down play. Any of them as the Lions converted three on the drive, including third-and-10 from the Seattle 12 with 42 seconds left in the game before scoring the game-winning touchdown on third down as well.

Week 12 at Miami, Nov. 25

0:00 Dan Carpenter 43 field goal

Scoring drive: 7 plays, 65 yards, 1:32.

Key play: Either one of Ryan Tannehill's passes to Davone Bess, who was matched up on cornerback Marcus Trufant. One gained 19 yards to kickstart a drive that began on the Miami 10, the other was for 25 yards.

Week 13 at Chicago, Dec. 2

0:00 Robbie Gould 46 field goal

Scoring drive: 3 plays, 58 yards, 0:24.

Key play: A 56-yard pass to Brandon Marshall, the longest reception allowed by Seattle this season.

Division playoffs at Atlanta, Jan. 13

0:08 Matt Bryant 49 field goal

Scoring drive: 2 plays, 41 yards, 0:23.

Key play: It was plays, plural. As in two. The Falcons' offense took the field with 25 seconds to play, and Matt Ryan needed just 12 to put his team in field-goal position.


DAVID GOLDMAN / AP
Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (54) and defensive end Bruce Irvin (51) gather their thoughts in the second half in Atlanta.




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