By Scott M. Johnson
SEATTLE – This is the kind of game Shawn Springs thrives on.
The Denver Broncos are in town, led by the leading receiver in the NFL. If it were Springs’ decision, he’d be responsible for containing Denver wideout Rod Smith all by himself.
But the games between the Seattle Seahawks and Broncos never seem to turn out that way.
“The last eight times we played them, I always matched up on Ed (McCaffrey), and Willie (Williams) always matched up on (Smith),” Springs said. “The last two games I always ended up on a tight end or Travis McGriff. I don’t know how he gets me off the receivers.”
“He” would be Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, whose job it is to creatively get Smith the ball. Unlike past years, when Denver has had other receiving weapons, a season-ending injury to McCaffrey has left the Broncos with a one-dimensional attack.
Opposing defenses know Smith is the main weapon. They game plan to stop Smith. Yet somehow, Smith keeps on catching passes.
“I don’t know how Shanahan does it,” Springs said, “but if he wants to get a guy the ball, he’ll get a guy the ball. If they don’t want him lined up on me, they’ll line him up on the inside. If they don’t want him lined up on Willie, they’ll move him around.”
Springs, who could make his first start of the season today, would love the opportunity to cover Smith one-on-one. Chances are, most of Smith’s action will come across from the right side of Seattle’s defense, where Williams is slated to start. Smith could also line up in the backfield, which happened against the Seahawks last season, and will undoubtedly be in motion a lot.
“Their offense is so great that they put him in places where it’s hard to get to him,” Springs said. “Just when you think you’re going to line up on him, Shanahan will bump you off him.”
Since McCaffrey went down with a broken leg in the season opener, the Broncos have been searching for a complementary receiver opposite Smith. Eddie Kennison is the starter, but he has caught only four passes. Keith Poole and Chris Cole are also being used in that role, but neither one has established himself at practices.
So Denver’s challenge is to find creative ways to keep feeding the ball to Smith.
“We play him in a lot of different positions, so I don’t know how (opponents can) key on him,” Shanahan said. “We move him around quite a bit, so it’s hard to say, ‘Hey, you are going to double this guy wherever he goes.’ Then all of a sudden your run responsibilities get screwed up a little bit.
“I’m sure people will find ways to make it more difficult to get him the ball.”
It hasn’t happened yet.
Smith’s worst game this season was good enough for five receptions and 83 yards. He has surpassed the 100-yard mark in Denver’s other three games, also scoring at least one touchdown in each. On the season, Smith has 36 receptions for 470 yards to lead the NFL in both categories.
Smith caught nine passes for 164 yards in two meetings with the Seahawks last season, and added 83 rushing yards coming out of the backfield. While Springs spent most of the day covering other receivers, Williams often found himself in one-on-one coverage.
“If he’s on my side, I know the ball’s going to him,” Williams said. “There’s no fear there. I’m going to play whoever’s on my side. Anybody that lines up on the right side, I’ll defend him.”
Williams has performed well this season, so much so that he is expected to remain in the starting lineup when Springs fully returns from a hamstring injury. The original plan was for Springs to start opposite either Ike Charlton or Ken Lucas, but Williams has simply out-played his younger counterparts.
“Willie’s playing as well as anybody on the defense,” Springs said. “If he’s not playing, that would be tragic.”
Springs returned to the lineup last week after missing eight weeks with a partially torn left hamstring, but he was used in a reserve role. He had been tentative at the previous week’s practice, and really didn’t have much of an impact on the game.
At the end of last week, Springs said his hamstring problems are behind him. Although no official announcement has been made, Springs could find himself in the starting lineup today.
“Each day my leg improves more,” Springs said Friday. “I’ve been playing pretty well in practice. Last week I was more ginger in practice, nervous that my leg wasn’t strong. But this week if you try me, you’ll get a surprise.”
Expect the Broncos to try Springs and his healing hamstring. But as long as Smith is on the other side, most of the balls will continue to go that direction.