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Rost: Seahawks finally get glimpse of the defense their title hopes need

Rookie DE Alton Robinson had one of the Seahawks' three sacks of Jimmy Garoppolo. (Getty)

The Seattle Seahawks’ defense has fallen a long way from where it was in 2013. I don’t know how many fans still need to hear that, but if you’re sorely disappointed by their performance on Sunday, you can count yourself among them.

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There are no moral victories in football – certainly not in the NFL – but Sunday’s defensive performance against the San Francisco 49ers is about as close as you can get to one. Luckily for Seattle, that showing was accompanied by a very real 37-27 victory over a division foe.

We’ll get to that fourth quarter, but simply put, Sunday was the best game of the season for the Seahawks’ defense. A unit that was allowing a league-high 479.1 yards per game (which is on pace to break an NFL record) limited the 49ers to just 125 net yards through three quarters of play.

Last week, frustrated defensive team captain Bobby Wagner told reporters that when it comes to improving, “it’s either we do it or we don’t.” They did just that this week. Wagner led the charge with a game-high 11 tackles and two sacks. Rookie edge rusher Alton Robinson added a third sack, and defensive back D.J. Reed nabbed an interception in his first game of the season.

It was the Seahawks, not the No. 5-ranked 49ers’ defense, who were the aggressors Sunday.

Of course, that effort didn’t make it through four quarters. When quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo limped to the locker room at the close of the third quarter, it looked like a potential nail in the coffin for an already short-handed 49ers team. Also gone at this point was running back Tevin Coleman and tight end George Kittle, the latter the team’s leading receiver and best offensive weapon.

Turns out it didn’t matter much at all. In one quarter of play, Mullens threw for 238 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Jerrick McKinnon added another score, and in just three drives the 49ers narrowed Seattle’s lead to 10.

Unlike last week’s uncharacteristically slow fourth quarter, the Seahawks still managed to score late, which kept their lead comfortable. A 1-yard touchdown run by rookie running back DeeJay Dallas surely made it easier for fans to stomach a 49ers touchdown in the final two minutes, but it didn’t make Seattle’s fourth quarter any less queasy.

The Seahawks were less aggressive late in the game, which led to a few big completions by Mullens (seven of San Francisco’s 10 longest plays came in the fourth). Head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. will surely field questions about that decision this week. But that late version of Seattle’s defense is the one fans have already been seeing throughout most of the season. It’s a defense with encouraging individual performances (chief among them may be linebacker K.J. Wright) and timely big plays, but they’ve also been giving up nearly 500 yards per game.

The Seahawks have gradually allowed more yards per game year over year since that championship season. And while that doesn’t say anything about its biggest stars, it does call for fans to adjust the bar. The good news is that the offense has taken strides forward since then, too. This team is leading the league in points and yards per game. Russell Wilson is playing like the MVP favorite, and Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf look like one of the best receiver duos in football.

But through the first six weeks, it felt inconceivable that the Seahawks would be able to win a Super Bowl while also allowing opponents to move down the field so consistently. Seattle’s offense is clearly explosive enough to punch a ticket to Tampa. The same couldn’t be said for the other side of the ball.

But this week, the defense took a step forward. Wagner played like the league’s best linebacker. The secondary limited the Seahawks’ opponent’s best weapons. The fourth quarter wasn’t pretty, but the first three saw a much-improved unit. And with the way Wilson has been playing, that might just be good enough.

“We’re getting there, and we’re going to keep getting better,” Carroll said postgame. “I know I keep saying that to you, but it’s because it’s going to happen.”

Bolstering Carroll’s confidence is the expected return of safety Jamal Adams from injury and the debut of pass rusher Carlos Dunlap, who was acquired in a trade with Cincinnati, next week against Buffalo. Defensive tackle Damon Harrison also appears close to playing.

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