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Seahawks-Washington preview: Seattle’s running game and other things to watch for

Seattle Seahawks v Washington Redskins

The 5-2 Seattle Seahawks, winners of four straight, will welcome a hobbled Washington team into CenturyLink Field on Sunday. The Seahawks are fresh off one of the wildest games in team history, and an all-time great performance from Russell Wilson. Washington, on the other hand, are coming off a 33-19 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

It will be the first game for Seattle’s new left tackle Duane Brown, oddly playing his second consecutive week at CenturyLink, but in a different uniform. The Seahawks are relatively healthy entering week nine, especially compared to this week’s opponent, who as of Monday are expected to have as many as 13 players listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Washington’s long injury list contributes to things to watch for in week nine:

Duane Brown’s immediate impact

Seattle’s All-Pro left tackle(!) will slide right into the blindside on the Seahawks’ offensive line, displacing the much maligned Rees Odhiambo. The acquisition of Brown moves Seattle that much closer to having an offensive line that’s not just able to protect, but actually be above average. Brown brings pedigree and an immediate improvement at left tackle. He’s given up nearly half as many pressures since 2016 as the Seahawks’ left tackles have over that span. In Brown’s Seattle debut, he’ll have a chance to make an immediate difference.

In last week’s defeat to the Cowboys, Washington edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan tallied two sacks and a couple pressures, lining up on both sides of the defensive line. On the right side, he was consistently stymied by All-World left tackle Tyron Smith. On the left side, he beat La’el Collins repeatedly. Across from the right tackle is where Kerrigan found both sacks last Sunday, and it’s where he lines up 82-percent of the time on passing downs. If Brown can settle in immediately and win against Preston Smith on an island, it will allow the Seahawks to give Germain Ifedi help on the right side - be it with a tight end staying in to block, or the running back chipping him - and slow down Kerrigan.

Washington enters Sunday on a ridiculous 31-game streak with a sack, while neither Ifedi or Brown have given up a sack yet this season. They’re still not completely healthy up-front, but Sunday will provide Seattle’s new-look offensive line a good test.

Is this the week for the Seahawks’ running game

After posting a laughable stat line of six carries for 0 yards last Sunday, Eddie Lacy has apparently earned the next crack at taking hold of the Seattle’s run game, with Pete Carroll saying Wednesday we’re “Going to see a lot of Eddie” this week. That’s perhaps the most uninspiring update on the Seahawks’ running back group, seeing as Lacy is averaging 2.6 yards a carry this season, while looking like the slowest ‘back on the roster by a fair amount. However, along with the addition of Brown up-front, there is a reason to be hopeful for the running game on Sunday.

After starting hot, Washington’s defense has cooled off considerably in recent weeks. Injuries began mounting - losing starters Mason Foster and Jonathan Allen in a short span - and they’ve been trending downwards ever since. It got worse on Sunday, when they lost Matt Ioannidis to a hand injury. Early in the season, the combination of Allen and Ioannidis were incredibly stout against the run, combining with perennially underrated linebacker Zach Brown to form one of the league’s most surprising run defenses. Without either defensive tackle on Sunday they looked like a different team, getting gashed inside by Ezekiel Elliott repeatedly.

A shorthanded Washington defense will face Seattle in a vulnerable position, and if the Seahawks still bear any resemblance to the running team they once were, and frustratingly still want to be, it should begin to show up this week.

Combating Jamison Crowder

For most of the season, Washington’s offense has lacked an identity. Gone was the physicality and reliability of Pierre Garcon, as was the game-breaking speed of DeSean Jackson. With the addition of Terrelle Pryor and a healthy Josh Doctson, one would’ve thought the transition would be seamless. It hasn’t been. Pryor has disappeared after a slow start, watching his job get taken by Doctson and his snaps go to Ryan Grant. Doctson remains a tantalizing prospect, the best receiver in the 2016 class yet to reach his potential. The one constant in a tumultuous receiving core is the versatile Crowder. While Washington’s other wide receivers continued to disappoint, Crowder had his best game of the season last week, catching nine of 13 targets for 123 yards.

In his two-and-a-half seasons in Washington, Crowder has been a consistent playmaker inside. With great change of direction and speed in the open field, Washington loves to send Crowder up the seam, or get him moving horizontally, dumping the ball off to him and allowing him to separate after the catch. Justin Coleman will likely remain as Seattle’s nickel corner this week, and he will face a huge test against Crowder. Washington’s offense is going to do everything possible to get him chasing, so there will be a lot of Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright flying into the flats to stop him from turning the corner after a short catch and run.

Coleman came away from the Houston game relatively unscathed compared to the rest of the scorched secondary, but it’s more than likely he’ll be at the focal point of everything Washington wants to do on Sunday.

The Earl Thomas factor

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but Earl Thomas is incredibly important to what the Seahawks do on defense*. Unfortunately, it appears as though he’s set to miss week nine with a hamstring injury he suffered against the Texans. Seattle is in a better position than last year without him, with backup free safety Bradley McDougald talented enough to start elsewhere. However Thomas’s potential absence could change what the team was going to do defensively.

Similarly to Evan Engram and the New York Giants, it would’ve made a lot of sense for the Seahawks to go big nickel to combat Jordan Reed and Washington on Sunday. Reed is as freaky as hybrid tight ends get, and presents a massive matchup nightmare. That plan goes out the window with Thomas injured, but luckily for the Seahawks, Reed is likely to miss out on Sunday’s game with an injury as well. An old friend, Vernon Davis, will start in his place. Although enjoying a second-career in Washington, Davis doesn’t present the same problem Reed does. He doesn’t posses the same explosiveness he did early in his career, and Seattle should be able to contain Davis with a combination of Kam Chancellor, Wagner and Wright.

Both Davis and Crowder, Washington’s two best (non-running back) receivers, will test the Seahawks up the seam. However only Crowder possesses the speed to get over the top of Seattle’s defense, although it will be difficult for Washington to execute slow-developing plays.

*He is also important to my happiness, as Earl Thomas is the love of my life. He is also also important to the safety of the Earth, as I assume he would be deployed to meet any sort of Earth-bound asteroid in space in a doomsday scenario.

It’s time for the Seahawks’ pass rush

Despite losing Cliff Avril for the season, Seattle’s pass rush is in excellent position to come alive during the second-half of the season. They’re coming off a five-sack performance, with Frank Clark putting on the best pass rushing performance of the season per Pro Football Focus. With the emergence of Branden Jackson as a legitimate rotational player, along with the signing of Dwight Freeney, the Seahawks have renewed depth at the position. And on Sunday, they’ll be facing an incredibly depleted opponent.

Left guard Shawn Lauvao and right tackle Morgan Moses were Washington’s only healthy starters heading into last Sunday’s game against Dallas. Lauvao eventually left with an injury, while Moses played through two sprained ankles. The situation won’t improve in time for Sunday, with a real possibility that the Seahawks’ defensive line will be lining up across from four backups. From left to right: Left tackle Trent Williams is out for several weeks, Lauvao didn’t return to the game on Sunday and didn’t practice on Wednesday, center Spencer Long remains out with a knee injury, as does right guard Brandon Scherff, while Moses continues to practice on two sprained ankles.

Three out of five projected starters for Washington would be making their third (or fewer) career start in CenturyLink Field, which is a shockingly unkind thing to ask of anyone. For all the talent Seattle has on the defensive line, they’ve underperformed thus far in 2017. Sunday will give them a chance to pin their ears back and get after the passer, opening the floodgates against opposing quarterbacks the rest of the way.

Quick Hits:

  • In addition to Crowder and Davis, satellite back Chris Thompson has been Mr. Everything for Washington this season. The versatile ‘back leads the team in rushing and receiving yards, as well as receptions. They love getting the ball to him on screen passes and quick swing passes out of the backfield, so look for Wright to have another monster game -- which will then go unmentioned, in true Wright fashion.
  • Josh Norman, like Richard Sherman, plays exclusively on the defensive left. I wouldn’t mind the Seahawks following the Green Bay Packers’ strategy, sacrificing a lesser receiver to his side of the field and allowing Doug Baldwin to work away from Norman’s side. All four of Dez Bryant’s receptions last week came away from Norman, with the All-Pro cornerback being targeted just once.
  • Kirk Cousins went 107 straight passes without being intercepted early this season, but has now thrown one in three straight games.
  • Linebackers Zach Brown and K.J. Wright are going to engage in a battle to see who can have the bigger impact on this game without getting anywhere near the credit they deserve. Brown leads the league in tackles, and over his last 23 starts has 224 tackles. Tackles can be an arbitrary stat, but that is insane. He can be picked on in coverage, but Brown would’ve been one of the league’s stars if he came along 15 years ago.
  • Along with being psychotic and potentially a danger to his opponents, Washington’s safety D.J. Swearinger is having a helluva season. He’s seemingly found somewhere that embraces his playing style and brash personality, and his newfound comfort is apparent. That being said, he was targeted repeatedly against the Philadelphia Eagles two weeks ago and gave up two touchdowns. Another week, another chance for Jimmy Graham to be criticized for two hours only to respond in the best possible way.

After finishing up a two-game home-stand, Seattle will face a short week, heading to Arizona to take on the Cardinals on Thursday Night Football. Set your televisions to black-and-white ahead of time.