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, listing Russell Wilson as the Seattle Seahawks primary player to watch could be called a key to 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 CBs vs. Steelers WRs
Normally, I try to specify the individual players to focus in on but Sunday's matchup is unique with the Steelers three-headed monster of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton each a significant concern and Seattle's cornerbacks largely a question mark outside of All-Pro Richard Sherman.
Jeremy Lane will be making his 2015 regular season debut and how he fares early in this game will dictate how much he's likely to play and who he will draw. In the past, Seattle has primarily used him at nickel back and because of his combination of agility (at least prior to a tearing his ACL) and toughness, he'd ideally line up against the ultra-quick Brown, who currently ranks second in the NFL in receptions and receiving yards. That's quite a lot to ask of Lane in his first game back, however.
I expect the Seahawks to try to match up Lane with Brown when he's in the slot and for Sherman to draw Bryant on the outside. Again, this is the ideal scenario for Seattle because Sherman has the height, long arms and underrated speed to potentially limit Pittsburgh's ability to attack deep. When Brown lines up outside, Sherman may draw him. The key for Seattle will be to mix up coverages and be quite physical with Brown, whose rapport with Ben Roethlisberger make the duo arguably the league's most difficult to defend.
While I wasn't there to gauge how DeShawn Shead and Cary Williams fared in practice this week, Shead has been the steadier player during games this season and deserved to take over as the starting corner opposite Sherman. His size and physicality contrast sharply with Williams' fluidity. Frankly, Williams should be the better matchup against Pittsburgh's athletic receivers but he's proven prone to mental errors and could get exposed, including by Wheaton.
Matchup No. 2: Seahawks DTs vs. Steelers OGs
While Pittsburgh's wide receiver corps may be the NFL's best, its offensive line has been besieged with injuries. Most have focused on left tackle, where Pittsburgh will be starting former defensive end Alejandro Villanueva but given how often Roethlisberger steps up in the pocket, attacking from the inside-out may be even more important.
Pittsburgh right guard David DeCastro has emerged as the steadying force expect of a first round pick but left guard Ramon Foster and center Cody Wallace (formerly with the 49ers) aren't quick enough to handle the defensive tackles Seattle uses in nickel packages - normal defensive end Michael Bennett, Jordan Hill and even rookie Frank Clark.
Bennett and fellow defensive end Cliff Avril have unquestionably been Seattle's primary rushers this season but blindly rushing upfield from the perimeter won't do much good against Roethlisberger, who steps up in the pocket and keeps his eyes downfield as well as anyone in the league. Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard spoke specifically about how important it is to get Roethlisberger down this week. Seattle's edge rushers can't lose contain. Instead, they must remain disciplined on the outside and push Roethlisberger into the waiting arms of its defensive tackles. If Seattle doesn't get consistent pressure from its defensive tackles (or linebackers coming up the middle on blitzes) against Roethlisberger, it could be a long day.
Matchup No. 3: Seattle's OTs vs. Pittsburgh's OLBs
The Steelers' defensive philosophy hasn't changed much with Keith Butler taking over for the legendary Dick LeBeau as coordinator. Powerful defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt remain largely block-eaters designed to free up their pass-rushing outside linebackers, of which Pittsburgh boasts several, including former first round picks Jarvis Jones and Alvin "Bud" Dupree, underrated former Buffalo Bills standout and Arthur Moats, of course, the ageless James Harrison, arguably the baddest man on the planet.
Of course, Seattle has plenty of experience defending against the 3-4 and the offensive line has quietly done a solid job in pass protection against these clubs this season. At 6-4, 270 pounds and lightning quick, Dupree is the freakiest athlete of Pittsburgh's OLBs but it is the power that Moats and Harrison use on bull rushes that could give Seattle's tackles - especially right tackle Garry Gilliam - the most trouble.
Seattle's tackles could be especially taxed in this game because of the loss of Marshawn Lynch, who, of course, is out following abdominal surgery. Thomas Rawls has been dynamic as a rusher but he isn't as reliable in pass protection. Chipping Pittsburgh's outside linebackers is one area in which too few realize the drop-off Seattle will have with Lynch out.
Fortunately, if Seattle can protect Wilson, there are holes in Pittsburgh's secondary to exploit, making this potentially a very entertaining game and one in which Seattle can win.