RENTON — Wait, the Seattle Seahawks playing what amounts to the division championship game without Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, K.J. Wright and Cliff Avril?
Seattle’s chances to win the NFC West for the third time in four years — heck, their hopes to just make the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year — depending on Michael Wilhoite, Terence Garvin, D.J. Alexander, Bradley McDougald and Justin Coleman?
What would have been unfathomable for Seattle as recently as last month is reality now. The NFL’s best team in December the past five years has changed from wondering who is going to star next in its annual push to the playoffs to a far more fundamental — and alarming — question.
Who are these guys?
The Seahawks (8-5), who are hosting the Los Angeles Rams (9-4) on Sunday at CenturyLink Field to decide first place in the division with two games after that remaining in the regular season, are not the Seahawks of the past few years. Or of last month. Or even last week.
Sherman, Chancellor and Avril are out for the season. Wagner and Wright are iffy to play against the Rams because of injuries suffered in this past weekend’s loss in Jacksonville. That’s five Pro Bowl and All-Pro members of the defense out of or potentially missing the most important game of the season, by far.
Earl Thomas is one of the few recognizable names remaining.
“We just have to stick together,” the three-time All-Pro safety said. “Situations like this, you see guys show their true colors.”
Even if they were wearing different ones this time last year.
This time last year McDougald was starting for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team on its way to another season of missing the playoffs. Now he’s entrenched as Chancellor’s replacement as the Seahawks’ strong safety.
Coleman was inactive for the final games of the 2016 regular season and all the postseason ones for the New England Patriots. Now he’s the nickel back inside on passing downs for the Seahawks.
Garvin was a special-teams player for the Washington Redskins this time last season who had only one NFL start through four years in the league. Now he could be starting his third game of this season, the de facto division-title game, for Seattle. That is, if Wright can’t start. Jaguars receiver Dede Westbrook got free behind Garvin for his first career touchdown early in the third quarter last weekend. That was at end of the drive on which Wagner got hurt.
In December 2016, Wilhoite was a part-time starter at inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense playing out the string for the woeful San Francisco 49ers. Now he may start for Wagner at middle linebacker. Wilhoite has spent most of this season as the Seahawks’ starting strongside linebacker alongside Wagner and Wright in Seattle’s base 4-3 defense.
Wagner is trying to recover quickly from an escalation of the hamstring injury that’s been keeping him from practicing for a month. The two-time All-Pro angrily left on the first drive after halftime against Jacksonville.
How much did that matter to the Seahawks? The Jaguars scored 27 of their 30 points in the final one-plus quarters that Wagner was out.
Wagner has missed only one game in the past three years. This is as close as he’s been in that span to missing another one.
“We are going to have to wait through the week. It will go all the way through Saturday to see how he does,” coach Pete Carroll said of knowing Wagner’s availability for the Rams game. “Saturday, Sunday … all the way to game day.”
He had the same prognosis for Wright. Wagner’s Pro Bowl partner at outside linebacker also left in the third quarter of the loss to the Jaguars. He got a concussion slamming into a Jacksonville lead blocker head to head.
Carroll sounded more optimistic on Monday about Wright’s chances of playing against Los Angeles.
“K.J. had a good day today, though. He made a good turn,” Carroll said. “That is a positive.”
When Wagner got hurt at Jacksonville, Garvin entered at middle linebacker and Wilhoite stayed at his starting position of strongside linebacker outside in base defense. When Wright joined Wagner in exiting against the Jaguars, Wilhoite moved inside and special-teams player D.J. Alexander replaced Wright at weakside linebacker in base defense. When the Seahawks went to nickel, five defensive backs, Coleman entered as the additional cornerback as usual, and Wilhoite and Garvin were in the roles Wagner and Wright usually have on passing downs.
All this matters so much this week not just because the divisional title is potenitally at stake, but because Wagner and Wright are uniquely skilled at slowing down a key to the Rams’ offense that just scored 35 points on the 11-2 Eagles.
Running back Todd Gurley has burned opponents on runs and on pass routes deep down field for three years. But Wagner and Wright have proven fast enough to stay with Gurley in pass coverage, and strong enough to take on blockers and make tackles near the line of scrimmage against his runs in four games against him.
With Wagner and Wright, the Seahawks have held Gurley to an average of 53.8 yards rushing and 6.2 yards receiving, with only one touchdown in those four meetings. Those are his lowest numbers by far against any team he’s played more than once in his three-year career.
In 38 games against everyone besides Seattle, Gurley has 28 total touchdowns and is averaging 74 yards rushing and 28.6 yards receiving per game.
Gurley has already rushed for 1,035 yards this season, with 10 touchdowns. He’s caught 51 passes for 602 yards and three more scores.
But Gurley had just 43 yards on 14 carries and two inconsequential catches for 7 yards on Oct. 8 against Wagner, Wright and the Seahawks. Seattle held the NFL’s highest-scoring offense to 10 points that day in L.A. while winning by six.
Last weekend in the Rams’ 43-35 home loss to the Philadelphia Eagles that kept the Seahawks squarely in the NFC West race, Gurley ran 13 times for 96 yards. That’s efficiency Rams coach Sean McVay knows he needs to use more.
“However you want to cut it, I’ve got to get him going, give him more opportunities with the way he was running it, and have a better feel for the flow of the game,” McVay told Southern California reporters Monday. “That was something that I didn’t think I did very well (against Philadelphia).
With Wagner and Wright hurting, Los Angeles has even more incentive to feature Gurley this weekend.
“Michael Wilhoite is a good guy to do this. He knows the position well,” Seahawks Carroll said of middle linebacker. “He just hasn’t played there a lot because he’s been the ‘Sam’ (strongside) backer spot.
“Hopefully, he’ll improve as we move forward, depending on what the mix is. I don’t know what is going to happen at this point, but those guys have to step up and be ready to go.”