The Seahawks are back home after two straight dominant wins on the road, and are looking to take a step closer to a fourth consecutive playoff berth and fifth in six years under head coach Pete Carroll if they can knock off the Cleveland Browns. While the Browns are in the midst of another tough season, coming into this game with a 3-10 record, they showed in last week's win over the San Francisco 49ers that they're still dangerous on any given Sunday, especially with quarterback Johnny Manziel back in the lineup.
"(Manziel) gives them a really diverse offense that we recognize, with the mobility at the quarterback spot, is very difficult to handle," Carroll said. "They have a lot of speed and they've got players that can make things happen. This was a fine game for them running the football too. Coming off of the San Francisco game, ran for a bunch. We have a lot of respect for what he can do."
Manziel and a couple of his top playmakers lead our key matchups for the Seahawks in their Week 15 clash with the Browns.
1. Johnny Manziel and his top two playmakers, Gary Barnidge and Isaiah Crowell vs. a Seahawks defense that is on a roll.
The Seahawks have had six games this season in which they have kept the opposing offense out of the end zone, including their last two games. To keep that streak alive, or to at least have a successful day, the Seahawks have to worry about three Cleveland players in particular, Manziel, running back Isaiah Crowell and tight end Gary Barnidge.
Manziel, a first-round pick who has been in and out of the lineup during his first two seasons, returned to the starting role last week and helped lead the Browns to one of their best offensive performances of the season in a 24-10 win over the 49ers. But Manziel, whose ability to extend plays with his legs before making big throws down field has led to some comparisons to Russell Wilson, isn't the only player coming off a big game against the 49ers. Crowell, in his second season after going undrafted last year, rushed for a career-high 145 yards and two touchdowns to set the tone.
"They're doing some great things," Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril said. "They're running the ball very well, which takes pressure off the quarterback if you can continue to keep running the ball. Then Manziel is making some great throws down the field as well. They're doing some great things, and they'll try to build on that."
If the Seahawks can again stop the run—they have held four straight opponents under 60 rushing yards—then look for Manziel to lean on Barnidge in the passing game. Barnidge, an eight-year NFL veteran, is enjoying the best season of his career with 65 catches for 901 yards and eight touchdowns.
"That ball's going to go to him," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's got 65 catches, he's had a great season. That's going to be a substantial part of their offense, especially with (receiver Brian) Hartline not being available too. He's been a very good go-to guy as well. We're expecting that to happen."
2. Seattle's red-hot passing game vs. the Browns secondary.
Carroll has made it clear this week that his team plans to stay balanced, but the Seahawks also won't be stubborn to their own detriment, so if a running game missing Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls can't get going, it is possible that Seattle will lean a bit more on the passing game than usual. And given the way Russell Wilson and his receivers are playing, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.
Wilson is enjoying a stretch of historic proportions, becoming just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to have at least three touchdowns without an interception in three straight games, and the only one to do so with a completion percentage of 70 percent or better in those games. With 16 touchdowns in those four games, Wilson has already matched his career high of 26, and has a good chance to break the franchise record for touchdown and passing yards this season.
Of course, Wilson isn't doing this on his own. The line has provided great protection in the past four games, and Wilson's receivers are all playing very well. Doug Baldwin has eight touchdown catches in the past three weeks, but in an example of how well the entire receiving corps has contributed, Baldwin led the Seahawks with three touchdown receptions last week, but Jermaine Kearse led them in receptions (7) while Tyler Lockett had the team high in receiving yards (104).
"He's confident," Browns coach Mike Pettine said of Wilson. "He just seems to be a couple steps ahead from a mental standpoint and very composed. He doesn't flinch when something bad happens. He seems to be in great command of what they're trying to do offensively. I think (offensive coordinator Darrell) Bevell has done an outstanding job of building that offense to take advantage of the skill set of the players that he has available, in particular Russell, and it's showed. They're playing well around him, that's always going to make a quarterback look good when the line's blocking, the run is going, the receivers are catching the ball, and I just think when you look at them it's easy to see why people are saying they're one of the hottest teams in football right now."
3. The Browns pass rush vs. Seattle's much-improved offensive line.
The Seahawks' offensive line has deservedly received a lot of the credit for the improvement Seattle has shown on offense, and in the passing game in particular. After taking 31 sacks in their first seven games, Seahawks quarterbacks have been sacked just eight times in the past six games, including zero last week in Baltimore.
That improved pass protection could be tested on Sunday, however, because the Browns, despite not having big sack totals this season, are capable of productive days getting after the quarterback, as was evident in their nine-sack performance last week.
"They've done some really nice things with their blitz package," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "… There's some really nice pressures that they've done, they've created some confusion. Obviously, there's been some opportunities where they've won one-on-one matchups up front. We'll have to make sure that we're really sound again on protection. That's really usually where we start, but it's going to be an important part of this game."
Wilson, who has made the most of if his improved protection over the past four games, is confident his line will again get the job done against an aggressive defense.
"Obviously they are a very active front," he said. "They do a lot of different things and come from different directions, which is fine, we see that a lot. I think the biggest thing is just making sure that throughout the week we're getting prepared the right way. We're doing a phenomenal job of that so far, and just the meeting with the offensive linemen today this morning, and yesterday some too, as well, just getting prepared. The key is having great practices, and getting prepared for that."