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 Seattle's 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 RB Bryce Brown vs. Cleveland Browns ILBs Christian Kirksey, Karlos Dansby
The dominant storyline of the week for the Seahawks has been the revolving door at running back - and for good reason as Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell both confirmed that the team remains committed to the ground game even with Thomas Rawls now on Injured Reserve. Brown is expected to earn the start and he possesses the talent to take full advantage of Cleveland's 29th ranked run defense.
Kirksey and Dansby haven't received the help up front from rookie nose guard Danny Shelton that the Browns expected when making him the No. 12 overall pick of the 2015 draft. Shelton, however, will be extra motivated with likely a large group of family and friends attending the game. As such, it could be up to Brown (or Seattle's other runners) to run through would-be tackles from Cleveland's inside linebackers - each of whom rely more on athleticism than anchoring - to earn their NFL paychecks.
With a healthy Marshawn Lynch or Rawls, these Seahawks would probably opt to try and simply run down Cleveland's throat even with Wilson putting up MVP caliber numbers lately. To take this tact against the Browns Sunday, however, Brown - as well as Derrick Coleman, Fred Jackson and perhaps even Christine Michael must continue the tackle-breaking ways Carroll and Co. have grown accustomed to seeing from their backs.
Matchup No. 2: Seahawks OLB Bruce Irvin vs. Browns LT Joe Thomas, QB Johnny Manziel
Quietly, Irvin is in the midst of his best overall season in the NFL and he's certain to generate lots of attention on the open market when his contract comes up at the end of the year. The maneuverability of Manziel and brilliant pass blocking from Thomas, however, presents a multi-tiered matchup for Irvin and the Seahawks aggressive front seven.
Given the huge plays Seattle has allowed to opposing tight ends this season, the Seahawks will certainly keep an eye on Cleveland's Gary Barnidge, who is enjoying a breakout season of his own. Irvin will likely team with fellow outside linebacker K.J. Wright and strong safety Kelcie McCray (who is expected to start his first game as a member of the Seahawks over the injured Kam Chancellor) to slow down Barnidge but that might be the just the start of his responsibilities Sunday.
Few quarterbacks in the NFL (other than Seattle's Wilson, that is) possess Manziel's elusiveness and vision. He's a Houdini-like escape artist and isn't afraid to take chances downfield in the passing game after he's bought extra time scrambling. Irvin has the burst off the edge and length to be effective in chasing down Manziel as a pass rusher as well as the closing speed and underrated hands to steal an interception should Cleveland's quarterback try to fit passes in the direction of Seattle's most versatile defender. What Irvin and the rest of Seattle's aggressive rushers can't afford to do against Manziel is lose contain. Manziel is fast enough to gain yardage in chunks if he breaks past Seattle's initial wave of rushers, as well as the vision and velocity to take advantage of late-breaking receivers if Seattle's defensive backs feel they have to come up to stop the scrambling quarterback. Manziel's frenetic play could result in turnovers and make this game a laugher. It could also result in big plays for the Browns, giving Cleveland a legitimate puncher's chance in this game.
Even amongst Seattle's highly competitive defenders, Irvin seems to live for the opportunity to play against high profile players like Manziel. Don't be surprised if he somehow makes an impact play against the former Heisman Trophy winner.
Matchup No. 3: Seahawks CB DeShawn Shead vs. Browns WR Travis Benjamin
While Manziel is certain to draw all of the attention, the Seahawks' top priority defensively should be to slow down a Cleveland running attack which generated 230 yards and two touchdowns in last week's win over the 49ers.
Seattle's front sevens slowing down Cleveland's shifty duo of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson is key because Shead (or his replacement, should Shead be unable to play through an ankle injury) may need help in deep coverage against the speedy Benjamin, a legitimate 4.3 guy out of Miami.
Shead's greatest attributes are his length and physicality. He does not, however, possess the straight-line speed to run with Benjamin, who may be called on even more in this contest with the Browns' most dependable receiver to this point - Brian Hartline - now out with a broken collarbone. How reliant on the duo of Barnidge and Benjamin have the Browns become? For the year, 26 of the team's 42 receptions for 20+ yards have come from these two players.
Manziel possesses the vision, arm strength (and guts) to take shots deep downfield if he sees Earl Thomas(or McCray) fail to help Shead deep. Allowing a deep completion to Benjamin will only open up the middle for Barnidge and Cleveland's backs to exploit.
If Seattle remains disciplined on the outside against Benjamin, however, the defense could swarm Manziel and the Browns, turning this game into the two touchdown advantage laugher for the Seahawks Vegas and others are predicting.null