Earl Thomas headed back to the locker room after the Seattle Seahawks’ tough victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday with blood, grass and dirt caked on his wolf grey No. 29 uniform, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I got dirty today,” he said, “but that’s how I like it.”
After the last two meetings between the Hawks and the Panthers, ET III entered Sunday more than ready for a physically taxing battle. The past two times the Hawks had traveled to Charlotte to face off against the Panthers, the games resulted in tight, defensive battles that came down to the wire. Sunday afternoon was no different.
Although this time ET III and the Seahawks (4-3) had to come from behind to win 13-9 and secure their third victory at Bank of America Stadium in as many years, they did it, as always, on the strength of their defense, aided by some clutch play in the fourth quarter by the offense.
No. 29 had his strongest performance of the season to date, notching a team-high nine tackles, including one for a loss. His efforts helped the defense keep Carolina out of the end zone and limit them to just 266 total yards.
The dominant day by the Seattle defense also set up a game-winning drive from Russell Wilson and the Hawks offense.
Trailing 9-6 late in the fourth quarter, Wilson marched down the field and connected with tight end Luke Willson for a 23-yard touchdown reception with 47 seconds remaining to complete the comeback.
Before heading to Carolina, the Seahawks had dropped two close contests in which they had chances to steal the game, but fell short. As such, Sunday’s winning performance brought on a huge expulsion of relief from the Seattle coaches and players, including ET III.
“The good thing is that we got the job done,” Earl said. “This was the main objective for the week. Every game is a championship game and we’ve got to get back to that mind frame.”
From start to finish, ET III and the Seahawks brought the heat against Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, which forced the dual threat quarterback to abandon his running game and throw in the face of pressure. As a result, Newton had his worst performance of the season, completing just 12 of his 22 pass attempts for 171 yards, including an interception. He was also sacked three times for a loss of 19 yards.
“We did a great job scheme-wise to make sure it didn’t come easy for them,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “Sometimes their plays are so easy because there is so much space around the quarterback when he’s making his reads. But our guys stayed with it. We kept him under wraps because they couldn’t do (much) consistently.”
In applying that pressure, the Seahawks were able to shut down Carolina’s running game. The prolific Newton was limited to 24 yards on 12 rushes, while Panthers lead back Jonathan Stewart picked up just 79 yards on the ground.
“It felt good for us to make a team one-dimensional and understand how we can attack teams,” ET III said. “When we make teams one-dimensional and we stop the run, now guys can pin their ears back and do what they’re special at. We have great pass rushers, but we have to stop the run and we did that.”
Right from the opening kickoff, the game proved to be a defensive battle.
Seattle received the ball first, but the offense could not move far enough to pick up a first down and the Hawks were forced to punt. On the subsequent drive, the Panthers moved the ball well down the field, but Earl showcased the kind of aggressiveness that has made him a three-time All-Pro selection.
No. 29 made three key tackles on the possession that helped stall the drive on the doorstep of the end zone and force a field goal from the home team.
Early in the drive, after back-to-back first down plays by Newton, ET III combined with Cliff Avril to stop a Stewart run on 1st-and-10. However, Carolina continued to move the ball and reached the red zone in just six plays. That’s where No. 29 stood tall. On 1st-and-10 from the Seattle 15-yard line Earl went straight for Newton, knocking him down for a loss of seven yards.
Then on 3rd-and-11, No. 29 pushed Newton out of bounds to deny him a first down and force a field goal that limited Carolina’s early advantage to three points.
Despite falling behind, the Seattle offense was still unable to convert a first down on their next drive and after another punt, Newton and the Panthers started their ensuing drive with excellent field position at their own 46. They needed just one play to get back into Seattle territory and from there, Carolina again threatened to score, advancing all the way to the 1-yard line.
There, on 3rd-and-goal, Earl made his presence felt once again, combining with Tony McDaniel on a tackle that dropped Stewart for a loss of seven yards and resulted in another short field goal from the Panthers.
Hawks rookie Paul Richardson then ran the Carolina kickoff from the goal line to almost the midfield mark, setting up the Seattle offense for success. Wilson and Co. couldn’t take full advantage, but advanced to the Carolina 40-yard line, allowing Steven Hauschka to boot a 58-yard field goal that cut the Panthers’ lead to 6-3.
On the next Panthers possession, the home team once again crept dangerously close to Seattle’s endzone, but for a third time Earl came up big to stop them.
On 1st-and-5 from the Seattle 35-yard line, Stewart appeared to have found daylight up the middle. But ET III stood as the last line of defense between the Carolina running back and the endzone, and made another huge tackle to limit Stewart’s gain to just five yards. Newton fumbled on the next play and Avril recovered the loose ball to give Seattle one more possession before the end of the half.
This time, Wilson and the Seattle offense appeared to have found a rhythm and drove to the Panthers’ seven-yard line. However, Wilson then threw an uncharacteristic interception in the end zone, and the teams headed into the locker room with Carolina holding on to a 6-3 lead.
The Panthers opened up the third quarter with a run from Stewart that took them all the way to the Seattle 37-yard line, putting the Hawks defense right back on their heels. But the Legion of Boom was unfazed. They halted Stewart for a gain of just three on the next play, then forced an incompletion from Newton, setting up 3rd-and-7. Newton tried a short shuffle pass out to tight end Greg Olsen to pick up the first down, but Marcus Burley was there to intercept it.
After the game, Earl praised the second year defensive back.
“He’s a great addition to this team,” Earl said of Burley. “He works very hard. He’s always pulling on my coattail and asking me questions. I love guys like that. It’s all about heart. Heart and determination can bring you miles and miles. It can get you closer to your dreams.”
The offense took advantage of the opportunity and earned a field goal on their opening drive of the half to tie the score at 6-6. The Seattle defense then stepped up on the next Carolina drive and denied the Panthers’ offense a first down. The three-and-out was highlighted by Earl’s tackle on Newton on 2nd-and-9.
Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense again appeared to have built momentum, but turned the ball over deep in Carolina territory, this time on a fumble. The turnover kicked off a string of fruitless drives from both sides that kept the score tied at 6-6 deep into the fourth.
Carolina finally broke through midway through the quarter on a drive that started from their own eight. Early in the drive, Seattle was primed to get a quick three-and-out, but Newton connected with rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin for a 51-yard reception on 3rd-and-11 to keep the Panthers alive. On the play, Benjamin found a soft spot in the Seahawks defense between Earl and Richard Sherman, who brought the Carolina rookie down immediately to prevent further damage.
“It was a hell of a catch, and he’s a great player,” Earl said afterward. “He made a great play.”
The completion put the Panthers in business at the Seattle 42 and they made it down to the Hawks 28, but the Seattle defense stiffened there, forcing a long field goal try. Graham Gano connected from 46 yards out to break the tie, giving Carolina a 9-6 lead with 4:41 remaining in the game.
The score put Wilson in yet another pressure situation late in a tight game, but the Seahawks quarterback answered the call by orchestrating the type of clutch drive that 12’s have become accustomed to during his tenure.
Starting at their own 20-yard line, Wilson got the Seattle offense going by beginning the drive with two passes, each resulting in a first down that moved the chains. After a false start penalty, Wilson scrambled for 18 yards for another first down at midfield. He then sandwiched a completion to Richardson between two Marshawn Lynch runs, which advanced the Hawks to the Carolina 35-yard line at the two-minute warning.
After the break, Wilson handed the ball to Lynch for a five-yard gain, then ran for seven yards on the next play to set up a 1st-and-10 at the Carolina 23-yard line with less than a minute remaining. From there, Russell took a shot at the endzone, and Luke Willson came down with the pass to cap off the game’s only touchdown drive.
“Russ is a great quarterback, especially in clutch situations. He never wavers,” Earl said. “That’s what I love about him. He’s determined. The whole offense did a good job.”
Earl and the Seattle defense then locked down late. Bruce Irvin sacked Newton twice on the final Panthers drive to salt away the 13-9 win.
Afterward, ET III attributed the win to Seattle’s increased focus and preparation in practice.
“The whole week you could see it in body language and attention to detail,” Thomas said. “That’s what we’ve got to keep doing. We’ve got to keep growing in that area.”
Earl and the Seahawks will hope to keep up the momentum this weekend when they return to CenturyLink field to face the winless Oakland Raiders (0-7).
Oakland, the only team in the NFL yet to earn a win, ranks last in the league in total offense and has only scored 92 points. Most recently, the Raiders fell to the Cleveland Browns 23-13 on Sunday.
ET III has only played in one regular season matchup between the two sides. In 2010, Earl’s rookie season, Seattle fell 33-3 and Earl had five tackles. However, the Seahawks have evolved into an entirely different franchise since then, and will be looking to conquer the struggling Raiders this time around.
Kickoff from Seattle is set for 1:25 p.m. PDT next Sunday and the game can be seen on CBS.