By Gregg Bell / The News Tribune
Three weeks ago, Jeremy Lane was unwanted.
The Seahawks already had benched him from two jobs — the starting right-cornerback spot, and the nickel position inside on passing downs. Then on Oct. 30 they traded him and future draft picks to Houston to get three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown.
Lane went to Houston and took his physical examination. By the time he got from the doctors into Texans’ headquarters, Houston general manager Rick Smith was telling Lane he had failed his physical.
“I was like, ‘OK.’… What’s next?”
“Back to Seattle,” Smith told Lane.
“OK, cool,” Lane responded. “Bye.
“It wasn’t even 24 hours. It was the same day!” Lane says of being a Texan then becoming a Seahawk again. “It was ridiculous.”
Lane braced himself for a return to the franchise that drafted him in 2012, signed him to a four-year, $23 million extension before the 2016 season — then discarded him in a trade.”
“When I came in the locker room, I walked in (and) I thought it was going to be awkward at first,” Lane said. “But as soon as I came in, (the locker room) was full and everyone was like …”
Lane clapped. He was imitating the roaring applause he received from his teammates, who made a point to be in the locker room when he returned.
“It was crazy,” Lane said. “It’s hard to explain. It was crazy, an emotional roller coaster, you know? I had to stay mentally strong for it. Other than that, it worked out.
“Opportunity? It’s a blessing. It’s crazy how things worked out. Me being traded, coming back, and getting the opportunity to start now? I’m excited.”
Yes, it is crazy.
No Richard Sherman.
No Kam Chancellor.
No way did Lane or the Seahawks (6-3) think they’d be in this situation for Monday night’s game against reigning NFL MVP Matt Ryan, All-Pro receiver Julio Jones and the defending NFC-champion Atlanta Falcons (5-4).
Eventually, yes. That is why Seattle spent four of its first eight draft choices on defensive backs this past spring.
But playing Monday night’s showcase game at CenturyLink Field, a chance to tie the Los Angeles Rams (7-3) atop the NFC West while holding tie-breaking advantages with their division rivals, without Sherman and Chancellor?
That’s an experience this group of Seahawks has never gone through.
“It’ll be the first of its kind,” defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. “We haven’t been in this territory before.”
The last time the Seahawks did what they are going to do Monday — play a game without Sherman at left cornerback — was Oct. 30, 2011, at home against Cincinnati. The week before, Walter Thurmond cracked his fibula during Seattle’s 6-3 loss at Cleveland. Thurmond was the Seahawks’ plan to replace Marcus Trufant, who had gone on injured reserve that month and was nearing the end of his 10-year career with the team.
Sherman, then the rookie fifth-round draft choice thought to be too slow to stay with outside receivers, replaced Thurmond. He stayed there for the next 98 consecutive regular-season games plus 12 more in the postseason, including Super Bowls 48 and 49.
He earned three All-Pro selections.
Chancellor has made 105 regular-season and playoff starts since the start of that 2011 season, including both Super Bowls with Sherman. He’s been a four-time Pro Bowl strong safety. Even more than that, he’s been the soul of the defense and locker room.
Those two teamed with Earl Thomas, Brandon Browner and then Byron Maxwell to form the famed “Legion of Boom” secondary.
But now it’s suddenly become the “Legion of Backups.”
Sherman, 29, is out for the season following surgery last week to repair the ruptured Achilles’ tendon in his right heel. Chancellor, also 29, is out for at least Monday and seemingly longer with a “stinger” nerve issue he got in his neck late in last week’s win at Arizona.
Lane will start for Sherman.
It’s now a good thing the Seahawks welcomed him back so warmly. They need him.
“It’s still your brother,” All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “He came in, we acted like nothing ever happened. Like he was still here. And he was loved.”
Bradley McDougald will start for Chancellor. McDougald, a first-year Seahawk, has started the past two games at free safety while Thomas was out with a pulled hamstring.
“We trust the guys that we’re going to put out there,” said Richard, who coached Seattle’s secondary until February 2015, when previous Seahawks coordinator Dan Quinn was hired to be the Falcons’ head coach. “These guys battle. They prepare. They prepare as if they’re going to be starters. And it’s the NFL: Everyone is always one play away.
“It behooves you to be prepared.”
They should be prepared to be challenged.
In Seattle’s 26-24 win at CenturyLink Field 13 months ago and Atlanta’s 36-20 home win over the Seahawks in the divisional playoffs in January, the Falcons bunched and criss-crossed Jones and Mohamed Sanu with tight ends Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo. That created confusion and blown coverages in Seattle’s secondary. And that was with Sherman and Chancellor in the lineup.
Think the Falcons and their first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the former University of Washington coach, might do more of that crossing and bunching against this “Legion of Backups”?
“We can’t replace either one of those guys directly,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said of Sherman and Chancellor. “They’ve been here a long time. They’ve done so much, and they stand for so much. Yet, we have guys that have come in.
“The true test is when we come back to play a couple more games and see how’re we’re doing and see how it all holds together like we want. … We’ll see what happens.
“It’s a fantastic group we’re going against. It’s a great quarterback and great wide receivers, as good as you can get. So we’ll see how this challenges our guys.”
Atlanta won its first three games this season after its crushing meltdown late and loss to New England in February’s Super Bowl. Then the Falcons lost three in a row. Their 27-7 win at home over Dallas last week signaled they may be getting right again.
It also signaled Adrian Clayborn is an issue for Seattle. Atlanta’s edge rusher had six sacks against the Cowboys’ second- and third-team left tackles, with starter Tyron Smith out injured.
Brown, entrenched as the Seahawks’ starting left tackle since the trade for Lane that ended up not being for Lane, is questionable to play because of an ankle injury. Matt Tobin practiced all week for him at left tackle. Tobin has been with Seattle only since August, when he came over in a trade with Philadelphia.
If Brown’s not able to play, quarterback Russell Wilson must be a magician — again — for Seattle to win. Wilson’s been the Seahawks’ running game, with a team-leading 290 yards on the ground, 258 from scramble runs on pass calls. He’s also second in the NFL in yards passing per game. Last month, in a win over Houston, he set the Seahawks record with 452 yards passing.
Carroll vows the Seahawks aren’t abandoning handing the ball off to running backs Thomas Rawls, Eddie Lacy and Mike Davis (promoted last week off the practice squad).
“We’re going to run the heck out of it,” Carroll said of Monday’s game, and beyond.
Yet it may take more plays like Wilson’s double-spin away from sacks and off-balance throw to Doug Baldwin for 52 yards that clinched last week’s win at Arizona — plus his six touchdown throws in the red zone to tight end Jimmy Graham in the last five games — for the Seahawks’ offense to keep producing despite the problems with the line and running game.
What is certain: No one knows how this game is going to go without Sherman and Chancellor to defend Ryan, Jones and Co.
“It is,” Richard said, “brand-new territory for us.”