Earl Thomas III scored his first touchdown of the year on Sunday, but it wasn’t enough to push the Seattle Seahawks to their fifth win of the season.
Earl kicked off the scoring in New Orleans with an electric 34-yard fumble return scoop and score in the first quarter, but the Seahawks (4-2-1) fell short against the Saints (3-4), 25-20. It was the second consecutive game without a win for Seattle, who tied the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday night to snap a three-game winning streak.
“We had our shots to win this football game. We did all of the things that we wanted to do in terms of playing hard and playing tough and never letting up and giving us a chance to win in the fourth quarter,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said afterward. “This is the kind of game that reminds you how difficult it is to win in the NFL, and how you cherish the wins that you have and the ones that you can get. Very difficult day for us.”
Sunday’s contest didn’t seem to be trending that way in the early going, however. In fact, Seattle opened up a double-digit lead in the first half. And it all started with Earl. The Seahawks defense was stout from the jump, forcing a quick punt just three minutes into the game, but it wasn’t long before they were back on the field, following a quick and fruitless drive for the offense.
On the second play of the ensuing Saints drive, the defense took matters into their own hands. After a pass play that gained 12 yards on first down, New Orleans went to the ground with running back Mark Ingram, but a host of Hawks defenders met Ingram in the backfield and defensive end Cliff Avril yanked the ball out. The fumble ricocheted right into Earl’s hands and he used his breakaway speed to take it to the house.
“As soon as I got the ball, I felt like I had a chance,” Earl said of scoring the touchdown. “[The ball] just came right to me. I was running to the ball trying to clean up on the trash and it just came right to me and I took off…I just put my head up and took off running. I think Bobby [Wagner] had a great block also, to kind of spring me free.”
For No. 29, a native of Orange, Texas, which sits just a short drive west of New Orleans, it was a magical moment to score his second career touchdown in front of so many friends and family. So after the exciting score and a small celebration with his teammates, the All-Pro safety went out of his way to hug one of the officials. Although he was flagged for making contact with the official, Earl was in good spirits after the game saying it was all in good fun.
“Having fun, bro,” Thomas said of the celebratory embrace. “Just excited about the moment. I only live like three hours away from here. I’m just thinking like, ‘Man, everybody back home just saw me score.’ You never know what happens when you go into these games, then the ball kind of goes your way.”
Avril, who finished with four tackles, a sack, a pass defensed and the forced fumble, also joked about the celebration after the game, citing Earl’s unstoppable passion and excitement.
“I’ve seen him try to [fist] pound the ref before, I’ve seen him try to get a high-five. He’s just into the game,” Avril said. “I didn’t even know that was a penalty, honestly. But that’s just Earl. He’s so passionate about the game.”
The score staked Seattle to an early 7-0 lead and after a New Orleans field goal early in the second quarter, the Seahawks offense got going on the ensuing drive to extend the advantage.
It took Seattle just four plays to march down the field and extend their lead, highlighted by a nifty 43-yard catch-and-run by C.J. Prosise on a trick play.
On the play, Wilson threw a quick screen to Tanner McEvoy, who then threw across the field to Prosise and the running back nearly got to the end zone before being wrestled down at the New Orleans two-yard-line. That setup Christine Michael for a short TD run to make it 14-3.
It appeared from there like Seattle had seized control, but New Orleans came to life shortly thereafter and scored on back-to-back drives, aided by a Seahawks turnover. After Michael extended the Seattle lead, the Saints came away with a 53-yard field goal on their ensuing possession to make it an eight-point game. Then, on the second play of the Hawks’ next drive, quarterback Russell Wilson was intercepted in Seattle territory and New Orleans took full advantage of the short field.
Quarterback Drew Brees orchestrated a nine-play drive and after Seattle shut the door twice at the one-yard-line, the All-Pro signal caller called his own number, leaping over the Hawks defense to stretch the ball across the goal line for a one-yard touchdown to bring the Saints within one with just 50 seconds remaining in the first half.
The score stood there at the break, and on the opening drive of the third quarter, Seattle went back up by four, 17-13, when Steven Hauschka nailed a 44-yard field goal. The Legion of Boom then came up big on the following New Orleans drive with a timely goal-line stand.
The Saints once again had a first-and-goal on the 1 after Brees connected with tight end Coby Fleener for a gain that got them right to the goal line but left them short. However this time, the Seahawks defense refused to break, stuffing running back Tim Hightower on two runs, sandwiched around an incomplete pass. New Orleans had to settle for a chip-shot field goal to make it 17-16.
“Unbelievable stands,” Carroll said of his team’s goal-line defense. “That’s just a great statement of these guys fighting and clawing and scratching.”
But the Saints finally pulled ahead and then away in the fourth quarter. After a quick three-and-out by the Seattle offense, Brees orchestrated another long drive that stretched from late in the third into the fourth and he capped the nine-play, 71-yard trip with a two-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandin Cooks for a 2-yard touchdown that gave New Orleans its first lead of the game. A failed two-point conversion attempt left the New Orleans lead at five.
Seattle responded with a lengthy 13-play drive of their own, and got all the way to the Saints five-yard-line, for a first-and-goal of their own, but a false start penalty on second down set them back and they could only get back to the three-yard-line before settling for a chip shot of their own to pull back within two, 22-20, with 6:41 remaining. On the ensuing series, the Hawks defense kept the Saints out of the end zone, but Lutz’s 43-yard field goal made it a five-point game once again with 1:57 remaining in the game.
Seattle had a chance to win with a touchdown and again marched into the red zone, all the way down to the Saints 10-yard line despite being without the benefit of a timeout. But the Seahawks ultimately fell just shy of the game-winning score. On the final play of the game, Wilson and Jermaine Kearse come close to stealing the win, but the throw to the back corner of the end zone was high and despite making the catch, the Seattle receiver couldn’t keep his feet inbounds.
Despite the result, Earl wasn’t discouraged with the effort put forth by his team on the road.
“I was just happy that we had a chance at the end,” he said afterward. “I believe in [Russell Wilson], I understand what he’s capable of. He’s done it so many times and I was just believing that we were going to pull it out. We almost did.”
After two straight on the road, ET III and the Hawks will be back at home in front of the 12’s at CenturyLink Field for a Week 9 tilt with the Buffalo Bills (4-4) on Monday Night Football.
The matchup will be the first of back-to-back games for the Seahawks against AFC East opponents, as they are slated to travel to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots the in Week 10.
The Bills are depleted on offense with star receiver Sammy Watkins sidelined and running back LeSean McCoy hobbled with a hamstring injury. Robert Woods and Walter Powell will be running the routes for Buffalo, and depending on whether not McCoy plays, Mike Gillislee and Reggie Bush will be part of the rushing attack.
Monday’s game will kick off at 5:30 p.m. PT from CenturyLink Field and will be aired on ESPN.