There was a lot to unpack from the Seahawks’ absurd, back-and-forth overtime win over the 49ers on Monday Night Football. Featuring game-swinging turnovers, multiple highlight-reel-worthy plays, dropped would-be interceptions, blown calls by the officials―and even a controversial coin toss―the rivalry-renewing NFC West showdown was as ridiculous as it was fun to watch. But while story lines like the emergence of the 49ers’ Nick Bosa–led defensive front, Richard Sherman’s revenge, or Russell Wilson’s burgeoning MVP campaign were supposed to define the game, it was the Seahawks’ previously bad defense that stole the spotlight in prime time. That unit played its best game of the season, with a beastly performance by defensive end Jadeveon Clowney acting as the catalyst.
The Legion of Boom is long gone, but Clowney’s out-of-this-world outing helped the Seahawks defense regain, at least for one night, their once-signature swagger. Seattle entered the game looking like a team that would go only as far as Wilson’s arm could carry it, but the Seahawks came out of it with some much-needed bite on the other side of the ball. That defensive transformation―if it does stick―could make the Seahawks one of the most dangerous teams down the stretch.
Clowney, who was acquired just before the season for a 2020 third-round pick and a couple of reserve linebackers, looked like the best player on the field, bursting into the San Francisco backfield on just about every snap. The 26-year-old edge rusher finished with five tackles, five quarterback hits, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a touchdown. As Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said after the game, “Jadeveon had the best game for us from a guy I’ve seen in a long time.”
The disruption that Clowney created wasn’t completely new; the veteran has played well for the Seahawks this season, and in his first nine games he registered five tackles for a loss, seven QB hits, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and two sacks. But against the 49ers―who got starting offensive tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey back from injury for this game, by the way―something just seemed to click: “He’s been active since we started,” Carroll said in the postgame presser, but “I think he knows where to take advantage of the scheme more so now … he knows better how to use that and make the most of it.”
Clowney was basically unblockable on Monday night, repeatedly wrecking San Francisco’s plays by slicing through the line or forcing 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo off his spot. This tweet from during the game does a pretty good job of capturing the game-wrecking impact he made defending both the run game and passing attack.
This game is going to end with Jadeveon Clowney emerging from a pile with a limb— Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat) November 12, 2019
Even when Garoppolo managed to get throws away, he never really looked comfortable in the pocket, and finished just 1-of-7 passing when Clowney applied pressure.
The former Houston Texans star got his new team out of an early-game hole when he beat Staley to the edge on this second-quarter play. Clowney got himself in position to grab the Jarran Reed–forced fumble, scooped it up, and returned it for a score. That put a big dent in what at the time felt like a commanding 10-0 San Francisco lead, and got Seattle back into the game.
In the third quarter, Clowney was at the center of another game-swinging play. Rushing from the defensive left, Clowney bull-rushed McGlinchey back into the pocket before reaching in and knocking the ball out of Garoppolo’s hands. Seahawks defensive tackle Poona Ford jumped on it, giving Seattle the ball back deep in San Francisco territory. Four plays later, the offense punched the ball into the end zone, giving Seattle a 21-10 lead.
Even when Clowney wasn’t picking up or creating fumbles, he was helping his teammates make plays. There were two Seahawks sacks for which Clowney didn’t get credit on Monday, but he was the reason they happened: On an early third-quarter play, he beat Staley to the edge, forcing Garoppolo to step up and right into Ford and Reed; then, midway through the fourth quarter, he beat McGlinchey off the snap and got his hands up into Garoppolo’s passing lane, forcing the 49ers quarterback to eat the throw and take the Al Woods sack.
Clowney seemed to get stronger as the game progressed. He nearly created what would’ve been a game-winning pick late in the fourth quarter, forcing Garoppolo to rush his throw into tight coverage by Bobby Wagner. (Unfortunately for Seattle, Wagner dropped that pass and the Niners were able to march downfield, kick a field goal, and send the game to overtime.)
Clowney came up big again in the extra frame, helping the Seahawks survive Russell Wilson’s untimely interception on the team’s opening possession. After returning that pick to the Seattle 49-yard line, San Francisco quickly moved deep into Seattle territory. With a second-and-2 on the Seahawks’ 30-yard line, the 49ers seemed to be in control, on track to move farther downfield and, eventually, kick an easy chip-shot field goal for the win. But the Seahawks had other plans: On that second down, Clowney blasted through guard Michael Person’s pulling block attempt on the offensive left, tackling Raheem Mostert at the line of scrimmage. On third down, Clowney lined up on the offensive right, blowing McGlinchey back into the backfield at the snap, pushing the 49ers offensive lineman into the planned run lane, and forcing Mostert back to the middle of the field. He was swallowed up by the rest of the Seahawks line, pushing San Francisco to fourth down.
Instead of pushing deeper down the field to give him an easy chip-shot field goal, Seattle’s defensive stand forced kicker Chase McLaughlin to try a 47-yarder. He missed.
It took the Seahawks another couple of possessions to finally deal the knockout blow, and we don’t have to go punch for punch on how that all played out, but the biggest takeaway from this wacky game was that Clowney put the Seahawks on his back and carried them to a massive road win, boosting the team’s playoff odds by a massive 26 percentage points in the process. The question now, of course, is whether Clowney and the rest of the newly swagtastic Seahawks defense can re-create the magic.
It wouldn’t be terribly surprising if the Seahawks’ defensive performance ends up looking like an extreme outlier this season. Entering the game, Seattle ranked 31st in defensive pressure rate (15.5 percent) and was the owner of the 27th-ranked defense by DVOA. Putting it charitably, before Monday night’s showdown, Seattle hadn’t really been able to stop anyone.
At the same time, there are a few reasons to believe that the Seahawks defense turned a legitimate corner in the 27-24 win. As Carroll noted, Clowney—who’s building his case for a big payday in free agency after the season—has spent the first half of the season figuring out how best to fit into Seattle’s 4-3 scheme. If this game is a sign of things to come, Seattle’s defense could galvanize around its fully activated pass-rushing menace: Clowney’s dominance seemed to boost the team’s playmaking defensive tackles Poona Ford, Jarran Reed, and Al Woods, and Seattle’s once-tepid defensive line suddenly looked as potent as any in the league. The Seahawks held a San Francisco ground attack that had been averaging 171 rushing yards per game to just 87 yards on 27 carries, and pressured Garoppolo on 35.3 percent of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus―a far higher clip than his 26.2 percent pressure rate during the first nine weeks.
That dominance up front paid dividends for the Seahawks coverage unit, which got a lift from recently acquired safety Quandre Diggs. The combination of Seattle’s fearsome pass rush and its surprisingly stingy pass-coverage unit limited Garoppolo to just 3-of-18 passing for 59 yards and an interception on attempts past 10 yards downfield. The typically poised 49ers signal-caller seemed to panic at times, forcing throws into coverage or tossing them up off his back foot. And for the first time in what feels like forever, Seattle had an edge on defense, making life hell for the Niners offensive line up front while flying around in the secondary, delivering big hits, and dislodging the football from opposing receivers. By helping unlock Ford, Reed, Wagner, Diggs, and ascending cornerback Shaquill Griffin, Clowney made the Seahawks defense look like their old selves for the first time all year. Now that unit has to prove Monday night’s performance was no fluke.