The Seahawks face a tough challenge Monday night when they host Atlanta, the reigning NFC champion. Seattle (6-3) is looking to improve upon an impressive 21-3-1 primetime record under Pete Carroll, and has won 11 straight on Monday night, but the 5-4 Falcons are coming to town coming off arguably their most impressive performance of the season, a 27-7 win over Dallas.
If the Seahawks are going to continue to thrive under the lights at CenturyLink Field, these are three key matchups that could make the difference in Monday's game:
1. Julio Jones vs. secondary without Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor.
The Seahawks haven't played a game without Richard Sherman in the lineup since he took over a starting job in Week 8 of the 2011 season, but they'll unfortunately have to finish this season without him thanks to the ruptured Achilles he suffered in last week's win at Arizona.
With Sherman out, Jeremy Lane is likely to take over the starting job opposite rookie Shaquill Griffin, and those two, along with nickel corner Justin Coleman, have anything but a soft landing for their first game without Sherman, not with 2016 MVP Matt Ryan and All-Pro receiver Julio Jones coming to town.
Jones' production is down slightly so far this season, but he remains one of the most physically gifted receivers in the game, and is more than capable of a big game on any given day, as was evident two weeks ago when he had six catches for 118 yards against a very good Carolina Panthers defense. In recent meetings, Sherman spent much of the game shadowing Jones, but this will likely be a group effort to try to contain one of the league's premier pass catchers.
Complicating matters further is that strong safety Kam Chancellor is also out this week with a neck injury, meaning the Seahawks will be missing two Pro Bowlers in their secondary, another unfortunate first for this team. Even without both of those key players, the Seahawks are still expecting a high level of play from their secondary and their defense as a whole.
"We haven't been in this territory before, but we're excited to see it," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "We trust the guys that we're going to put out there, these guys battle, they prepare, they prepare as if they're going to be starters, and it's the NFL; everyone is always one play away. It behooves you to be prepared."
Added safety Earl Thomas, who is expected back after missing two games with a hamstring injury, "Obviously we are going to miss Sherm and Kam; you can't replace those guys. But the good thing about those two guys, they've taught the younger guys that are going to be in their spots. I think we are going to be very prepared and I like our chances."
2. Adrian Clayborn, Vic Beasley and Falcons pass rush vs. Seattle's offensive line.
The Seahawks' injury concerns don't end with their secondary, as left tackle Duane Brown is among the players listed as questionable due to an ankle injury. If Brown can't go, Matt Tobin would start in his place, and no matter who is on the field, the Seahawks are facing a tough task in a Falcons pass rush led by Vic Beasley, a first-team All-Pro last season. Beasley is hardly Atlanta's only pass-rush threat, as was very evident last week when Adrian Clayborn piled up six sacks vs. Dallas, doing most of his damage against the left tackle.
"You look at what Clayborn did, it's really good, Beasley is really good, and their inside players are a really good bunch of guys," said offensive line coach/assistant head coach Tom Cable. "… Atlanta is really good that way."
Regardless of who is playing left tackle, the Seahawks know they have to be on their game against Atlanta's pass rush.
"We are going to have to really mix our stuff and really work it with great respect, particularly after watching this past game," Carroll said. "They were flying. We have to mix our stuff meaning all the protections and the actions and everything to keep them slowed down, because they are really determined to cause havoc in the backfield, and we can't let that happen."
3. Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham vs. Atlanta's pass defense.
One of the first things Carroll mentioned when Seattle acquired Jimmy Graham in a 2015 trade was the big tight end's ability to be a weapon in the red zone—he had 46 touchdowns in his previous four seasons with the New Orleans Saints. Graham has done a lot of good things in his tenure with Seattle, but for various reasons, he did not have the red zone production he or Seattle was hoping for during his first two seasons, but that has changed in big way this year, with Graham hauling in six touchdowns, all in the red zone, and all in the past five games.
"It is something that we have obviously worked on for a long time," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "We worked long and hard at it. It's great to see it coming to life. So we need to continue to still get those opportunities and if they are there, we will take them."
Graham is tied for the NFL lead in red zone scores, and his 15 red-zone targets are second most in the league, but building off of that success won't be easy this week. Atlanta's pass defense ranks sixth in the NFL with the Falcons allowing 198.2 passing yards per game, and most notably, the Falcons have given up just one touchdown to a tight end all season. In a battle of strength vs. strength, the Seahawks will hope Graham and Russell Wilson can continue their red-zone chemistry Monday night.
"It has been great," Carroll said of Graham's red-zone production. "It has been great for him. He has been targeted a bunch down there and he's got a bunch of catches down there and six touchdowns already. He's off to really good start for the season. I'm really pleased about him, because it's what we all hoped would happen and we would get it done. It has taken a little time to find the real rhythm of but at the halfway point, we are just trying to utilize for his strengths and hope that we can continue to have some success down there. He is doing a great job, and Russ, you can see them working together. It's really obvious and hopefully we can make it tough on our opponents."