As much as any other professional sport, the NFL is a team game. No one player can be successful without the assistance of others. That said, individual matchups can and do determine winners and losers on a weekly basis.
Sure, superstars Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch could be called keys in every game but let's dig deeper. The goal here is to identify three critical one-on-one matchups (that few others are talking about) which will likely determine whether or not the Seahawks emerge victorious.
Matchup No. 1: Seahawks MLB Bobby Wagner vs. Bears RB Matt Forte
Seattle's secondary has bared the brunt of the wrath for the Seahawks' suddenly leaky defense but some of the blame must be pinned on Wagner, who signed a deal in the offseason that made him the highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL and was named a team captain. Run defense has also been below average from Seattle's standards with the Seahawks surrendering 95 rushing yards in just three quarters to Green Bay's backup James Starks a week ago. That's a huge concern given that Forte enters Week Three ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing yards (202 rushing yards, including a healthy 5.2 yard-per-carry average) and is widely regarded as one of the best receivers out of the backfield.
Wagner and outside linebacker K.J. Wright have each been victimized by play-action passes over the first two weeks, getting sucked in too close to the line of scrimmage and leaving big holes behind them for crossing receivers and backs in the flat to exploit. Wagner, in fact, is the lowest rated of Seattle's defenders over the first two games, according to Pro Football Focus' statistics, grading out at -3.9 overall, including -3.0 in pass coverage (in Week One) and -2.1 overall (including -1.7 in coverage) in Week Two.
With Chicago missing its best receiver in Alshon Jeffery and forced to go with backup quarterback Jimmy Clausen, Forte will be the Bears' primary weapon on offense. As the saying goes, the Seahawks can't fully stop Forte, but they'll need to contain him as the dual-threat back is likely Chicago's best chance at keeping this game close.
Matchup No. 2: Seahawks S Kam Chancellor vs. Bears TE Martellus Bennett
Once Chancellor arrived at the VMAC this week, he virtually guaranteed that he'd be one of the more eagerly watched Seahawks -- even if he simply stood on the sidelines in street clothes. That, of course, won't be the case. Chancellor is expected to log significant time and may even start against the Bears.
The Seahawks had a two week roster exemption when Chancellor ended his holdout but because the All-Pro strong safety reported in such terrific shape, Seattle officially added him to the active roster yesterday, releasing former starter Dion Bailey. This move is an indication that the Seahawks feel that Chancellor is ready for significant action as well as a testament to the faith the club has in versatile defensive back DeShawn Shead.
The Seahawks have given up touchdowns to tight ends Lance Kendricks (Rams) and Richard Rodgers (Packers) over the first two weeks and Bennett is bigger and stronger than either of them, checking in at a rock-solid 6-6, 259 pounds. He's not as fluid as Kendricks or Rodgers but is much stouter as a run blocker and has developed into a savvy route-runner. Chicago has enough firepower at wide receiver in Eddie Royal and Marquess Wilson to generate big gains through the air if Clausen gets time but Bennett ranks behind just Forte among the Bears' most reliable red zone targets.
Matchup No. 3: Seahawks TE Jimmy Graham vs. Bears S Antrel Rolle
The Seahawks enter their home opener as a double-digit favorite over the Bears and if this game goes as Vegas expects, it may provide Russell Wilson and Graham an opportunity to further hone the rapport the duo seemed to develop early in training camp. As was noted by offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell this week, Wilson is still learning that Graham's remarkable catch radius means that he can be thrown open even when covered. The veteran Rolle - Chicago's most reliable defender in a traditionally leaky secondary - is expected to draw most of the coverage duties on Graham with strong safety Adrian Amos and outside linebackers Jared Allen and Pernell McPhee chipping him at the line of scrimmage.
Should Marshawn Lynch either not play or start and be less successful than Seattle would hope, Chicago's defense will tighten down on Graham. If Rolle is a significant part of that clamping down, it should create some tantalizing one-on-one matchups on the outside for Seattle's receivers. Doug Baldwin has been Seattle's most consistent wideout but look for Jermaine Kearse, Tyler Lockett or even Chris Matthews to get deep shot opportunities to keep Chicago spread deep.