BRADY HENDERSON

Final thoughts: Seahawks need Steven Terrell at his best vs Falcons

Jan 13, 2017, 6:06 PM
Steven Terrell earned praise last week from Earl Thomas, the player he's filling in for at free saf...
Steven Terrell earned praise last week from Earl Thomas, the player he's filling in for at free safety. (AP)
(AP)

RENTON – After Seattle beat Detroit in the wild-card round last weekend, injured free safety Earl Thomas tweeted out his approval of the way Steven Terrell played in his absence.

The Seahawks had put together one of their most complete defensive performances in recent memory, and aside from holding the Lions to only a pair of field goals, what stood out most was that Seattle allowed a mere 205 passing yards on 32 attempts. As the Seahawks’ last line of defense and the player whose responsibility above all else is to eliminate big passing plays by securing the deep middle of the field, Terrell had done his job.

“You played great bro,” Thomas tweeted at Terrell. “No explosives. Silent killers!!!”

That was against a quarterback in Matthew Stafford who was playing with a busted finger on this throwing hand and a group of pass-catchers who weren’t particularly adept at catching passes.

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It figures to be much harder this week against an Atlanta offense that not only has the best quarterback-wide receiver combo in the NFL this season but also likes to push the ball downfield. Julio Jones was second in the NFL in receiving yards despite missing two games while Matt Ryan is an MVP candidate who averaged a league-best 9.26 yards per attempt, indicative of how explosive the Falcons’ passing game has been.

That makes Terrell a very important player in Saturday’s divisional-round playoff game at Atlanta. He’ll need to play again like he did last week against Detroit and avoid the lapses in coverage like the one that led to an 80-yard touchdown in Seattle’s Week-16 loss to Arizona.

“This is a big challenge,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “These guys really work the field and he’s going to have some opportunities. He’s got to do a great job back there.”

All involved say Terrell has made noticeable strides since taking over at free safety once Thomas went down in Week 13 against Carolina. Before that, he stepped in while Thomas was out with a hamstring injury, which means Terrell has started six games and played extensively in two others.

“He is better,” Carroll said. “He’s much more comfortable and confident in what he’s asked to do and what it takes to get done. He’s played really well. I know there’s a lot of questions, but he’s done a really good job. We’re really happy with the progress he’s made. Everybody is going to give up something every once in a while, but he has not given up very much.”

Nor have the Seahawks taken anything away, at least not in terms of interceptions. Their last one came in that Week-13 game against Carolina, right before Thomas went down with a broken leg. That may not be a coincidence.

“The greatest thing Earl Thomas does for the Seahawks – and I know they played with him for part of the season and they weren’t getting a lot of turnovers with him – but what he does is he allows everybody else to cheat,” ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer told “Brock and Salk” earlier this week. “Turnovers come because you’re fundamentally sound, you know what’s coming and then you take a chance, you react to the out cut a little bit quicker than maybe you would have, you jump on a hook route a little bit quicker than maybe you would have, you come off of a crosser and drop off into the second crosser a little bit quicker because you know Earl’s covering your back.

“I think when they lost him, everybody played more chalk. As you look at it, there’s not as much guessing.”

Atlanta only threw seven interceptions this season, tied for fourth-fewest in the NFL. That means it won’t be easy for the Seahawks to end their interception drought Saturday. If they can, though, it would go a long way toward pulling off an upset.

Here are two more Seahawks who will be key on Saturday:

LB Mike Morgan. As the strong-side linebacker, he starts in Seattle’s base defense and comes off the field when the Seahawks are in nickel, a personnel package that calls for a third cornerback (Jeremy Lane) instead. So his playing time fluctuates game-to-game depending on the opponent. Last week against Detroit, he only played three defensive snaps as the Lions often went with more than two receivers at once. He should be busier Saturday. Atlanta, like Seattle, is one of the few teams that still uses a fullback. The Falcons also like to use two-tight end sets. That will call for Morgan and Seattle’s base defense to be on the field much more than last week. And considering how much Atlanta likes to use its running backs in the passing game – perhaps more than any other team Seattle has faced this season – Morgan will be an important part of Seattle’s defense after hardly playing at all last week.

RT Garry Gilliam. Offensive-line coach Tom Cable said recently that Gilliam has been finishing better and playing with more physicality since he reclaimed his starting job in Week 16. Those are things that, according to Cable, Seattle wasn’t seeing consistently enough in Gilliam earlier this season, which led to his benching for a month in favor of Bradley Sowell. The challenge on Saturday will be matching the speed of Atlanta’s Vic Beasley, a pass-rusher in the Bruce Irvin mold. Beasley led the league this season with 15.5 sacks and he lines up mostly across from the opponent’s right tackle, opposite Dwight Freeney in passing situations. Atlanta wasn’t a particularly good pass-rushing defense as a whole this season, but no one was more productive as an individual than Beasley.

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Final thoughts: Seahawks need Steven Terrell at his best vs Falcons