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.
The anticipated showdown between All-Pros Richard Sherman and Dez Bryant is sure to get plenty of attention but this is the critical matchup of this game. As of Sunday morning, the Seahawks weren't sure if Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung would be able to play through a sore foot, which would push Alvin Bailey into this spot. Hardy regularly lines up at right defensive end (and therefore opposite the left tackle) but also switches to the left side often enough that Seattle's right tackle Garry Gilliam should be on watch for the player nicknamed The Kraken.
Put simply, Hardy (on or off the field) is a terror. The 6-5, 280 pound Hardy is the total package, blending burst and coordination off the edge with power. He has made an already underrated Dallas defensive line one of the league's toughest to match up with, greatly enhancing the effectiveness of rookie Randy Gregory, recently re-signed defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford and speedy edge rusher Demarcus Lawrence. While Seattle has shown signs of improving in pass protection over the past few games, with Hardy on the field, the Cowboys are as gifted up front as any team the Seahawks have faced since Week One and the St. Louis Rams.
Bailey has performed well when pressed into duty before. While shorter than Okung, he possesses relatively long arms and plays with the nastiness to respond to the challenge Hardy presents. Gilliam has the agility to handle Hardy (and Dallas' other quick edge rushers) but has proven vulnerable to the bull rush. The Seahawks could be forced to keep Lynch and Jimmy Graham (among others) in to help block, which obviously would keep them from releasing as weapons in the passing game.
The key to minimizing Dallas' rush will be to run the ball. And run it again. And again. This game looks like a low-scoring slugfest and one that the Seahawks will be fortunate to win and keep Wilson intact.
Every Seahawks fan by now knows full well Seattle's struggles at defending opposing tight ends. In the four games in which the Seahawks have allowed an offensive touchdown, the Seahawks have surrendered five scores to this position.
Witten, a nine-time Pro Bowler, isn't as fast or strong as he used to be but he's a terrific route-runner, using subtle fakes and varied gaits to lull opponents to sleep. With Bryant sidelined he was clearly Dallas' top target. Assuming that Sherman is able to contain Bryant Sunday, the Seahawks may want to approach this game as if Witten is Dallas' top target again, while keeping an eye on the Cowboys' "other" tight end, Gavin Escobar, a 6-6, 260 pound red zone specialist.
Typically Seattle switches up its coverage of tight ends, often sliding linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright towards opponents. Given how often Dallas will likely attempt to run the football behind its terrific offensive line and the short passes to running backs that played a role in last year's Cowboys' win in CenturyLink, Seattle's linebackers could be pretty busy, leaving coverage duties to the hard-hitting and opportunistic Chancellor.
Matchup No. 3: Seahawks KR/PR/WR Tyler Lockett vs. Dallas Special Teams Coverage
The obvious reason for the Cowboys' current four game slide is the injury to star quarterback Tony Romo but don't pin all of the blame on Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden. Dallas' special teams coverage units have been leaky, as well, including allowing a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to the NY Giants' Dwayne Harris (a former Cowboy) last week in a 27-20 loss. Harris went untouched on the play.
Besides the remarkable vision, agility and acceleration Lockett has shown thus far in 2015, perhaps his most impressive attribute has been his ability to respond in critical moments. From the four touchdowns on special teams he's already posted in the 11 combined preseason and regular season games of his career to the surprising rapport he's developed with Wilson, Lockett has proven to be one of Seattle's more clutch players.
Back in Big 12 country under the big lights of AT&T Stadium and with fellow speedster Paul Richardson chomping at the bit to get onto the field, don't be surprised if Seattle's splashiest play Sunday comes via the speedy legs of its rookie.