What to watch for in Seahawks vs. Steelers: Will Richard Sherman follow Antonio Brown?

Nov 28, 2015, 10:18 AM | Updated: 10:23 am
As the dynamics of the Seahawks' secondary has shifted, the team has been more willing to have Richard Sherman move away from his usual left cornerback post. (AP)
(AP)

RENTON – One of the NFL’s best cornerbacks will face off against one of the league’s top wide receivers when Seattle hosts Pittsburgh.

But whether or not Richard Sherman will spend the entirety of Sunday’s game trailing Antonio Brown is a question, one that coach Pete Carroll was predictably coy in answering.

“I don’t know about that,” Carroll said earlier this week when asked if he’s tempted to assign Sherman to Brown full-time on Sunday. “I’ll have to gauge my temptations.”

What has become a common question for the Seahawks was once not much of a consideration. It used to be that Sherman pretty much stayed put. There were a few exceptions over his first four seasons as a starter, but he almost exclusively stuck to the same side of Seattle’s defense regardless of where the opponent’s top receiver lined up.

But as the dynamics in the Seahawks’ secondary have changed this season, so has their willingness to move Sherman from his usual post at left cornerback. He covered the slot in Week 1 and has since spent most if not the entirety of some games shadowing a single receiver. First it was Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, whom Sherman slowed down after Cary Williams couldn’t. He pitched a shutout in the first meeting against San Francisco’s Torrey Smith then held him to one catch for 16 yards in the rematch. Dallas’ Dez Bryant didn’t fare much better with two catches for 12 yards.

The Seahawks’ increasing willingness to move Sherman around could be a product of some of the changes in their secondary, where Williams has started – and struggled – at the opposite cornerback spot while DeShawn Shead and Marcus Burley have shared nickelback duties in Jeremy Lane’s absence. Lane is expected to make his debut Sunday while Shead could start in place of Williams, who was benched last week.

That doesn’t make it any easier to project whether or not Seattle plans to stick Sherman on Brown, who is second in the NFL this season in receptions and receiving yards after finishing first in both last year. In just 10 games, he’s already topped 1,000 yards for the fourth time in six seasons.

“We would expect that matchup,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “It’s such a challenge, and I think one that Antonio’s excited for.”

Given the threat that Brown poses and how effectively Sherman has stuck with some of the game’s other top receivers this season, it very well could be Seattle’s plan and not just a temptation to have him do so again on Sunday.

Here are a few more things to watch for Sunday:

Who starts at cornerback? Williams’ benching in the third quarter against San Francisco wasn’t necessarily indicative of a permanent move as Carroll said the starting cornerback job opposite Sherman is open for competition. But signs point to Shead at least getting another shot on Sunday to take over full-time. That would open the door for Lane to slide into the slot, where he was Seattle’s starter before he was injured in last season’s Super Bowl.

Defending Miller. When the Seahawks allowed a combined 100 yards and a touchdown last week to San Francisco’s Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek, it continued a season-long trend of difficulties in defending opposing tight ends – not all of which have been Williams’ fault. According to the analytics website FootballOutsiders.com, Seattle’s defense is 31st in the league at defending tight ends this season based on the metric Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). The 70.1 yards per game that Seattle has allowed to opposing tight ends are the fourth-most in the league, per the website. Heath Miller doesn’t pose as much of a threat as some of the other tight ends Seattle has struggled defending this season, but he’s second among Steelers pass-catchers in targets and receptions.

Can Wilson stay hot? Russell Wilson’s 138.5 quarterback rating last week provided some statistical support to what seemed apparent while watching him against San Francisco, which was that he played as well as he has all season. Wilson’s accuracy was an issue the week before, but his 82.5 percent completion rate (24 of 29) against San Francisco was a career-high, and only one of his five incompletions was the result of a poor pass; two were clear throw-aways, another appeared to be and one slightly high throw was catchable but dropped. One area in which Wilson was particularly effective was against the blitz. He was 11 for 11 for 136 yards and all three of his touchdowns when San Francisco sent an extra rusher. He should get tested in that way against a Steelers defense that has remained aggressive under new coordinator Keith Butler.

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What to watch for in Seahawks vs. Steelers: Will Richard Sherman follow Antonio Brown?