The Seahawks’ defense made big plays at the most opportune times, and then turned up the heat on 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and his receivers in a 31-6 victory on Sunday.
Third-and-goal from the Seahawks’ 6-yard line, and cornerback Kelly Jenningsdropped Frank Gore for a 1-yard gain after the 217-pound running back had taken a pass from Alex Smith.
Third-and-1 from the Seahawks’ 6-yard line, and defensive end Red Bryant and rookie free safety Earl Thomas combined to drop Gore for no gain.
Third-and-goal from the Seahawks’ 2-yard line, and middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and defensive end Chris Clemons stopped fullback Moran Norris for a 1-yard gain.
On each of their first three possessions in Sunday’s season opener at Qwest Field, the San Francisco 49ers were perched near the Seahawks’ goal line. Each time, the Seahawks’ defense was able to slap them down – short of the end zone.
“We just know fourth down, third-and-1, whatever it is, you’re going to have to hold them,” Jennings said. “I never thought it would come back to bite them.”
But bite them the Seahawks did, and the teeth marks were everywhere after the Seahawks had rallied to score 31 unanswered points in, well, biting the 49ers 31-6.
The defense left its bite marks all over this one.
Cornerback Marcus Trufant intercepted a pass and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Nickel back Jordan Babineaux, who was released on last week’s roster cut to 53 players and then re-signed a few days, also had an interception and returned it 20 yards to set the table for the first of Matt Hasselbeck’s two touchdown passes.
Bryant got to Smith for a fumble-forcing sack, and rookie rush-end Dexter Davisgot to him for a good-measure sack in closing seconds. In between, Clemons hit Smith four times; Bryant two other times; and linebacker/rush-end Aaron also had a pair of the 11 hits the defense registered against Smith.
“I thought that the rush was pretty obvious all day long,” coach Pete Carroll said. “And we didn’t have to call blitzes to get that done.
“Obviously, it’s a big deal to see that, because we’ve been looking for it. It’s been an emphasis for us.”
Then, flashing a smile and his sense of humor, Carroll added, “It was hidden very well during preseason.”
When Smith did get his passes off, Trufant had two other breakups to go with his pick as the defense got its hands on seven of Smith’s 45 pass attempts.
“When we did pressure, there was enough stuff happening on the other end that when we forced some bad throws that led to third-down wins,” Carroll said.
Speaking of third downs, the bottom line to all this aggressively annoying work by the Seahawks was the 49ers converting one of their 15 third-down situations.
“That’s a remarkable day by the defense,” Carroll said. “And not to give up a touchdown, I’m really proud of the start, and excited about it.”
But the defense also was around at the finish, as well. After the 49ers drove from their 20-yard line to the Seahawks’ 44 in the fourth quarter, strong safety Lawyer Milloy had tight end Vernon Davis blanketed on a first-down incompletion, Babineaux dropped Davis after a 1-yard gain on second down and Jennings was all over wide receiver Dominique Zeigler on a third-down incompletion.
From beginning to end, the Seahawks seemed to have an answer for whatever the 49ers threw at them – at least in the most crucial situations.
“As you saw in the first half, we were out their fighting,” Babineaux said. “The 49ers had some success. They moved the ball a little bit, converted some downs. When they got to our end of the field, we really stepped up.
“We pressured the quarterback really well up front, forced Alex Smith to make some turnovers. We capitalized on the back end. That was the difference. That was the big momentum swing for us.”
While the effort left defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and Carroll smiling, it had 49ers coach Mike Singletary shifting through what-ifs.
“I thought we had a chance to take them out of their game early on, and we did not,” he said. “When you’re on the road and you have opportunities, you have to capitalize on them and we simply did not.”
Because, more often than not, the Seahawks did.