A confused Seahawks defense that once prided itself on finishing games fails to close another victory, says columnist Larry Stone. Welcome to the new normal.

Share story

On a fourth-and-one play late in the first half, Seattle free safety Earl Thomas broke up a long pass to Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, and then sprinted straight to the Seahawks sideline in jubilation.

Thomas ran down the gauntlet of his teammates, exhorting them to keep up the pressure.

It was befitting of a game in which the Seahawks seemed inspired to rise above their past breakdowns. They engaged in chippy exchanges with the Panthers and celebrated each of their successes with renewed vigor.

But still, the last image of the game for the Seahawks will not soon be forgotten: Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman staring at each other in disbelief after Olsen got open behind them for a crushing, game-losing 26-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton.


Photo gallery

Full coverage

Thomas and Sherman could be seen animatedly talking to each other — not finger-pointing or sniping, but trying to figure out how such a monumental defensive breakdown could occur at such a vital moment in the game.

It soon became clear: Each one thought a different defensive signal had been called.

“We were playing two different plays at the same time,’’ Sherman said.

“Anytime you’re doing that, it’s not going to work out well.”

How such a vital miscommunication — a “disconnect,’’ in Sherman’s words — occurred at absolute crunch time, leading to yet another Seahawks lead squandered in their 27-23 loss to the Panthers, will be dissected and debated.

But the result of that play — confusion and frustration — was symbolic of a defense that has not been able to match its lofty performance from the past two Super Bowl seasons.

The same elite players are there, and they’ve shown flashes of high-level performances. And they did Sunday, too. Thomas and Kam Chancellor at times were dazzling, and the pass rush from Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Bruce Irvin and others was frenetic at times.

“We don’t suck,’’ said Thomas, almost beseechingly.

But the Seahawks still found themselves lamenting another blown fourth-quarter lead, as they have in all four of their losses this season. Which left Thomas nearly speechless while being pushed about the vital miscommunication.

“I don’t know, bro,’’ Thomas said. “I want to say a lot of things, but I can’t. I’m at a loss of words. This game is so beautiful, but it’s so ugly.”

It has been getting even uglier for the Seahawks in the fourth quarter, which they once owned. But their lease has expired: Seattle is being outscored 61-27 in the fourth quarter and overtime this year, 40-3 in the past three games.

All week, the Seahawks’ defense stressed the importance of finishing. And then, once again, they ended with a retreat rather than a flourish.

“We just need to learn to finish,” said Avril, who seemed to recognize the astonishing nature of that statement. The Seahawks rode their killer instinct to two Super Bowl appearances. Their defense had entered the conversation as one of the best units in history. And now they have to re-learn the most basic tenet of a feared unit: Putting teams away?

“We have to get back to who we are, and that’s what we do: Finish games,’’ Avril said. “We take pride in that, and we have to get back to that.”

The company line, at least the one put forward in the locker room after the game, is that it is not panic time for the Seahawks’ defense even though the standings might point to a different conclusion.

“It’s not like we’re getting blown out,’’ Bennett said. “It’s not like it’s 50-0. It’s tight games, and we’ve just got to get the ball to roll our way in the tight games.”

Sherman sounded the same, almost passive, tone. He talked, as he had after the Cincinnati game — a blown 24-7 lead in the fourth quarter — about the ball not bouncing the Seahawks’ way. When asked what was wrong with the Seattle defense, Sherman replied. “Nothing much.”

He pointed to the two turnovers they caused, and the multiple stops before the one big breakdown at the end.

“Obviously, there were mistakes, a few missed tackles, but everything’s correctable, as always,’’ Sherman said. “I thought we played a good game, overall. We gave ourselves a chance to win.”

But now those chances to win have been disintegrating into avenues for defeat. Bennett says the key now is to tune out all the angst about the Seahawks’ defense and Seattle’s finishing troubles before the players start to internalize it.

“Propaganda and perception is everything,’’ he said.

“Once people start believing in what you guys are saying, then doubts start to creep in. You’ve got to keep believing and make sure you have the right mindset. Once you start believing in the nonsense, you start thinking you’re like that.’’

Is it nonsense when a team keeps letting late leads slip out of their hands? I would say it’s less propaganda than a reflection of the new normal. It’s up to the Seahawks to change the perception, and there’s only one way to do that.

“It’s obvious: We’ve got to finish,’’ Thomas said. “That’s what we’ve got to fix. If we don’t finish, we’re not going to fix it.”

Someone pointed out to Thomas how hard it is to fathom this, considering the Seahawks used to be noted for the very thing that now is their biggest concern.

“Well, it’s a different year,’’ he replied. “It’s a different year.”

Thar she blows
The Seahawks have lost second-half leads in all four losses this season:
Date, opponent Lead, quarter Final score
Sept. 13 @ Rams 31-24, 4th L, 34-31 (OT)
Sept. 20 @ Packers 17-13, 3rd L, 27-17
Oct. 11 @ Bengals 24-7, 4th L, 27-24 (OT)
Oct. 18 vs. Panthers 20-7, 3rd L, 27-23