RENTON — Perhaps the most hyped matchup in the opening weekend of the NFL playoffs is the one that will take place Sunday when rookie quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III take the field.
Yet as unusual as it is for two rookie quarterbacks to be facing off in the postseason, that very well may not be the most important matchup in Sunday’s game between Washington and Seattle.
As much as both teams have gotten a boost from their perspective quarterbacks, the biggest challenge for both defenses will be stopping two of the NFL’s top running backs. Coming into this season, it was fully expected that the Seahawks to lean on Marshawn Lynch, and he didn’t disappoint, rushing for 1,590 yards, the third highest total in the NFL, and also the third-best rushing total in franchise history.
What hardly anyone was expecting, however, is what Washington got out of rookie Alfred Morris, a sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic. Morris didn’t just come in and win the starting job, he ended up being arguably his team’s most valuable player not named Griffin. He compiled 1,613 rushing yards, the second most in the league behind Adrian Peterson.
Thanks to Morris, as well as Griffin, who rushed for 815 yards of his own, the Redskins led the NFL in rushing (169.3 yards per game), just ahead of Seattle, which was third in the league in rushing at 161.2.
“It’s going to be very, very tough on us,” linebacker Leroy Hill said. “We’ve got to bring our A game, we’ve got to tackle well and we’ve got to minimize mistakes. They’re the No. 1 rushing team in the league, almost 170 a game, so we’ve got our work cut out for us, but we’ll be ready.”
Of course, there is a symbiotic relationship between quarterback and running back with these two teams, more than just about any other. Lynch and Morris have no doubt gained more yards because defenses have to respect the threat of a mobile quarterback, while Griffin and Wilson have found space to run as well as success throwing the play-action pass because teams have focused so much energy on stopping the running backs.
“It reminds me of what we have here,” safety Earl Thomas said. “Marshawn and Russ, I think they’re the two best players on offense, and they’re the two best players on their offense. The ball’s in both of their hands, they play-action off of it, it just creates a lot of game-planning you have to do on defense.”
It would be unfair to what those two quarterbacks have done this year to say that stopping either offense is as simple as stopping the running backs, but making one of these teams one-dimensional would certainly be quite an accomplishment for either defense.
And for the Seahawks in particular, stopping Morris has to be a concern because they have been vulnerable at times in the running game.
Most notably, the Seahawks went through a rough stretch beginning with their Week 7 loss in San Francisco. Up to that point, Seattle had one of the best run defenses in the NFL, but the 49ers gained 175 yards on the ground that night. Two weeks later, Peterson and the Vikings had 243 rushing yards, and two weeks after that, Miami rushed for 189.
The Seahawks think they have fixed their run-D woes, but recent lopsided scores have forced teams to throw to the point that it’s hard to tell how much the decreasing numbers were a result of better play or just game situations. Sunday’s test against the league’s No. 1 rushing attack should show just how much Seattle has improved its run defense in the past few weeks.
“We’ll find out,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “This is the best running team there is. What we have done is that we played really good defense by complementing both sides with the running game and the passing game, and keeping points down, all of that kind of stuff.
“What I’d like to do is just shut it down and do the things we need to do coverage wise and all of that. We haven’t been as dominant, numbers wise; our average per rush against us is higher than it’s been, but I think we’re well away from the first San Francisco game. We made a bunch of errors there, and we’re not doing that kind of stuff now hopefully. This is a whole different offense, a whole different style, and there could be some big spaces out there so hopefully we can keep those things down.”
Of the 22 Seahawks who started Seattle’s season opener in Arizona, 21 are likely to start its playoff opener, and the only change is that Golden Tate, who was injured for the opener, is now available. That’s far from the norm in the NFL, and Pete Carroll realizes how fortunate he is to have nearly everyone at his disposal to kick off a postseason run.
Only running back Marshawn Lynch (back) and cornerback Jeremy Lane (knee) were on the injury report this week, and both are listed as probable. Seattle also got cornerback Brandon Browner back this week from a four-game suspension.
“We’re about as healthy as we could get,” Carroll said. “We have the two guys on the list who ware both probable, and everybody else is going… We’re very, very fortunate. You’re going to look at, I think the same 11 on both sides that started the season, so we’re pretty fortunate there.”
Carroll said rookie J.R. Sweezy will continue to start at right guard ahead of John Moffitt, but said Moffitt could see playing time. Leroy Hill and Malcolm Smith are both expected to share time at weakside linebacker, though Carroll did not say who would start.
Bradley a candidate in Philly?
The Philadelphia Eagles announced Friday that they had received permission to interview Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley for their vacant head coaching position. Carroll acknowledged earlier in the week that with so many openings around the league, some of his assistants may be candidates for jobs, and said he would not stand in the way of a coach leaving for the right position.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.