The Seahawks make another cross-country trip this weekend to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that is currently playing a lot better than its 5-5 record might indicate. The Buccaneers have won four of six, including two straight, since opening the season with a 1-3 record, and the improvements have come on both sides of the ball, with the Buccaneers defense becoming one of the best in the league at forcing turnovers, and their offense averaging 28.2 points and 396.2 yards per game in five games since their bye.
Here are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game:
1. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman vs. Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans.
There are no guarantees that Sherman will spend the entire afternoon shadowing Tampa Bay's top receiver, but based on what the Seahawks have done the past two seasons with Sherman, there's a good chance the All-Pro corner will see Evans plenty on Sunday. And if that does happen, it will be a thrilling matchup to watch. Evans currently ranks third in the NFL with 916 receiving yards, fifth in receptions (65) and second in receiving touchdowns (8). Sherman has had a lot of success covering top receivers over the past two seasons, ranging from A.J. Green to Dez Bryant to Antonio Brown to Brandon Marshall, and covering the 6-foot-5, 231-pound Evans would be another unique challenge.
"It's going to be a great matchup," Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said. "We have a lot of respect for the talent the Seahawks have in their secondary. I would imagine that he'll get matched by Richard Sherman—that will be a heck of a matchup for people to watch on Sunday."
And with Evan's unique combination of size and skill, Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston doesn't hesitate to throw his direction.
"Unfortunately for us, they have a great chemistry," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He might have had 100 targets already, I think it might have been something like that, to get him 65 catches. They really go to him and they do because he can make all of the plays. He can make them in tight quarters, he can get deep, he can get open in the third-and-mediums, the third-and-6s and things like that, he can be a guy to go to. He's got quick burst, he's got great catching range, come through guy. He's really tough and a great player."
Of course there is a lot more to stopping Winston and the Buccaneers passing game than just taking away Evans. Even if Sherman is able to neutralize Evans, the Bucs have other weapons, and Winston isn't afraid to take chances. And Winston's willingness to sling it could be even more relevant this week because of the injuries in Seattle's secondary. The Seahawks have long been one of the best teams in the NFL at eliminating the deep ball, but a big part of that has been the play of free safety Earl Thomas, who will miss the first game of his career because of a hamstring injury. With starting cornerback DeShawn Shead also questionable with a hamstring injury, Seattle's secondary depth could be tested by an offense and quarterback who have shown a willingness to make high-risk, high-reward plays.
"He is an extremely talented individual, he has a powerful arm, he has good body strength, he's fearless and he's a really awesome competitor," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "He's a guy who goes out there and he's willing to take it as far as he possibly can on each and every single play. He's a guy that we know we're going to have to contain and keep him in the pocket. He's a pocket passer, so it's kind of pick your poison with him. We certainly want to keep him bottled up because he's a guy that can certainly make plays with his feet, but he's got a powerful enough arm and faith in his receivers where he's going try to put the ball in, whether they're covered or not."
2. Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy vs. Seattle's interior line.
The Seahawks offensive line has taken a big step forward in recent weeks, most notably by paving the way for a season-best 152-yard rushing performance in last week's win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The line has also been giving Russell Wilson time to operate, as is evident in the big number he has put over the past three games.
"I thought the whole group played well," Carroll said. "I thought they played maybe the most physical game we've had. Consistent again… We went against a terrific front, one of the best in the NFL, and I thought the guys held up well."
Building off of that performance won't be easy against a talented Buccaneers front seven, and in particular against four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. McCoy who is disruptive both against the run and as a pass rusher, has 4.5 sacks and two forced fumble this season, and dating back to 2013, his 31 sacks are the most by a defensive tackle in that time.
McCoy stands out so much on Tampa Bay's defense that even receiver Doug Baldwin points out a defensive tackle—a player he'll never match up against—when asked about the Buccaneers defense.
"Gerald McCoy, he's fantastic," Baldwin said. "He's an elite player at his position."
Further complicating matters for Seattle is that center Justin Britt is going to be a game-day decision after not practicing all week. If Britt can't play, rookie Joey Hunt would make his first start.
3. The turnover battle.
Carroll has long stated, and for good reason, that there is no stat more telling than turnover differential, so it's hardly a surprise that the Seahawks, who have the best turnover ratio in the NFL dating back to 2012, have again been on the right side of that stat (plus-5) this season as they have built a 7-2-1 record.
Staying in the positive in turnover differential won't be easy against the Buccaneers, however. While Tampa Bay is plus-1 for the season, the Bucs are plus-10 in that category over their past six games after being a league-worst minus-9 four games into the season.
In particular, it will be interesting to see what happens when the Seahawks are on offense. The Seahawks have committed a league-low six turnovers this season, and have just one in their past seven games. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has forced 15 turnovers in six games dating back to its Week 5 win at Carolina, the most in the NFL in that time.
"They're running and hitting," Carroll said of Tampa's defense. "They're a very physical team. Multiple scheme and all, but they just come after you. The whole football plays really tough. Dirk's got a really physical football team playing."
In their all-time regular-season series, the Seahawks and Buccaneers have faced off 12 times with the Seahawks leading the series 8-4. The two teams will play again this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.