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Another week, another challenge

Posted Sep 29, 2011

Coming off a successful second half against the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald, the Seahawks’ pass defense now faces a three-headed, six-handed ‘monster’ against the Falcons this Sunday.

Pete Carroll was asked if Brandon Browner’s matchup with Larry Fitzgerald in the home opener was a good test for what awaits him and the rest of the Seahawks’ defensive backs this week.

“Think of it,” the Seahawks’ second-year coach said, “every week it’s monster players.”

That it is, and has been – from the 49ers’ Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree in the season opener; to the Steelers’ Mike Wallace in Week 2; to the monstrously talented Fitzgerald last Sunday.

But this week’s monster of a challenge has three heads, six hands and six legs.

That would be the collection of receivers Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan will be throwing to in Sunday’s game at CenturyLink Field: Tony Gonzalez, who has caught more passes (1,069) for more yards (12,463) and more touchdowns (88) than any tight end in league history; Roddy White, the Falcons’ first-round draft choice in 2005 who has been voted to three consecutive Pro Bowls and averaged 93 receptions the past four seasons; and Julio Jones, the Falcons’ freakishly talented first-round pick this year who is averaging 16.5 yards on his first 13 receptions in the NFL.

“Last week, we just had to really worry about the one big receiver they had,” free safety Earl Thomas said. “This week, they’ve got two guys, plus a tight end.

“It’s a lot of firepower, but we’ve just got to control it and do what we do. Don’t let the game be bigger than what it is and go out there and play ball.”

What the Seahawks’ defense has done to this point – aside from on third downs in the loss to the Steelers – has been pretty impressive. The Seahawks rank No. 10 in total defense, and also are 10th against the pass. They limited the 49ers to a 1-of-12 showing on third downs and the Cardinals to a 3-of-14 performance.

It hasn’t, however, been all about the defensive backs. As former coach Chuck Knox used to say, pass defense is rush plus coverage. Against the Cardinals, the Chris Clemons-led pass-rush helped the Seahawks force the issue, especially in the second half.

After Sunday’s game, when Fitzgerald did not catch a pass in the second half, cornerback Marcus Trufant put it this way: “If the quarterback doesn’t have time to get him the ball, that’s the best coverage.”

Ryan was sacked 26 times last season, but already has gone down 13 times in three games – a situation that has Falcons coach Mike Smith contemplating changes on the offensive line.

“If you give him time, he’ll pick you apart,” Thomas said of Ryan, who threw for three TDs in the Falcons’ 34-18 victory in Seattle last season. “We’ve got to pressure him, try to confuse him and make him throw it blind.”

And even that doesn’t always work, because of the guys Ryan is throwing the ball to.

Starting with Gonzalez, who has the hands of a wide receiver and a tight end’s body (6 feet 5, 247 pounds).

“He’s crafty. Obviously he’s been playing a lot of ball, so he knows how to get open,” Thomas said. “He’s not the fastest guy, but on film he shows up time and time again of always finding a hole in the defense and getting open.”

With Gonzalez, getting open is just the first part of the productive equation.

“He’s an amazing player,” Carroll said. “There’s a guy that has an unbelievable catching range from the tight end position. He has extraordinary ability to catch the ball with almost not even seeing it coming. I mean, he can get his head around and the ball is there and he can just find a way to make the grab – just uncanny knack.”

Then there’s Jones, who is 6-3 and weighs 220 pounds, but ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds and had a 40-inch vertical leap at the scouting combine in February – with a stress fracture in his left foot that required surgery.

“He just adds more to the deep threat,” Thomas said. “That’s why we’ve got to have great middle-field safety play and keep everything in front of us.”

Added Carroll: “Julio is a great player. The only reason Julio isn’t as big-time notoriety in the league is because he’s only played three games. Give him a season or two and everybody will know he’s a great player.”

But the main man remains White, who caught 115 passes last season and has had double-digit TD totals in each of the past two seasons. White had seven catches and a TD against the Seahawks in Week 15 last season. He also leads the Falcons this season with 20 receptions – six more than Gonzalez and seven more than Jones.

“Every week it seems like they get bigger and faster,” said Trufant, who’s in his ninth season. “They already had Gonzalez and Roddy, now they’ve added Julio Jones to the mix. They’ve got a lot of weapons. But I still think it all starts with Roddy.”

As Ryan put it when asked about adding Jones to go with White, “He’s another threat on the outside in addition to Roddy. I think both guys have the ability to kind of take over games.”

Trufant and Thomas already have faced two-thirds of this monster that awaits the Seahawks. Browner hasn’t, because the starting cornerback opposite Trufant spent the past four seasons playing in the CFL.

“We’ve just got to do what we do,” Browner said. “We’re going to have challenges week in and week out.”

Monstrous challenges.