It'll be interesting to see how much Richard Sherman will shadow Atlanta receiver Julio Jones Saturday. For now, no one is telling.
What is one of the most intriguing questions leading into Saturday’s Seattle-Atlanta divisional playoff game — how much will Richard Sherman shadow Julio Jones? — is one that the principal players are avoiding answering for now.
That’s probably to be expected, of course, that the Seahawks aren’t going to want to tip their hand on how much Sherman would cover Jones. But the Seahawks barely raised it, let alone tip it, when the topic arose this week.
“It’s tempting, but we’re not too sure,’’ defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. “We want to make sure we stay locked in. Obviously it’s still a great matchup, there’s no doubt about it, but we want to just go out there and do what we’re accustomed to doing.”
What’s not in question is that it is a classic matchup of a perennial Pro Bowl cornerback and perennial Pro Bowl receiver, and a rematch of one of the most, well, interesting games of the 2016 season, Seattle’s 26-24 win over the Falcons on Oct. 16.
In that game Sherman shadowed Jones as much as he has in any receiver this season, even if it’s not true he was on him every play, which sometimes seemed forgotten in the coverage.
Jones caught seven passes for 139 yards and a touchdown which led to a national perception that Jones had gotten the better of Sherman.
But a review of the film showed that Jones caught just three passes for 40 yards when guarded specifically by Sherman.
Jones was also targeted two other times when covered by Sherman which resulted in incompletions (or more accurately, in one case a tipped pass and a Seattle interception).
Jones did the rest of his damage — four catches for 99 yards — either against other defenders or against a zone defense (by my estimation, one catch for 24 yards against DeShawn Shead and the rest against zones). According to ESPN.com, Sherman was officially on Jones on 30 of 46 pass plays.
As I wrote at the time, it appeared that Sherman covered Jones almost every time Jones lined up wide on either side of the field (recall that Sherman has typically lined up on Seattle’s left side of the field when not assigned a specific receiver but against players such as Jones and New York’s Brandon Marshall, to name two, will move around more).
When Jones was in the slot, Sherman typically appeared to then cover the outside receiver to that side (one thing Atlanta did a few times was send a receiver in motion outside of Jones, which then forced Sherman to move off Jones to take the outside receiver)
One exception? It appeared Sherman several times on third downs moved inside to cover Jones.
So might the Seahawks change things up now to try to get Sherman on Jones more?
One potential factor that is hard to read in that regard is that Steven Terrell is now playing free safety in place of Earl Thomas.
Thomas had one of his best games in the first meeting with Atlanta, with the interception off the tip that led to Seattle’s go-ahead points, and then teaming with Sherman to breakup a final fourth-down pass to Jones.
Would Seattle want to play more zone to protect the back end more?
Another factor is how little the Seahawks played nickel the first time — roughly 38 percent, the least of any game this season.
Seattle did that to keep its base defense on the field more to contend with Atlanta’s running game. That worked, with the Seahawks holding the Falcons to 52 yards rushing on 18 carries — the second-lowest rushing total of the season for Atlanta.
It was a miscommunication that led to a 36-yard touchdown pass to Jones in the third quarter that set Sherman off on a sideline tirade that seemed to distract the defense for the first of that quarter — in which the Falcons scored 21 points on drives of 75, 79 and 97 yards.
The Seahawks rallied, though, to take the lead and then stop Atlanta on the fourth down pass from the Atlanta 25, a play on which many on the Falcons’ side thought Sherman should have been called for pass interference.
Jones, who led the NFL this season with an average of 100.6 yards receiving per game this year, told ESPN.com that he would “alert’’ the officials if he feels he is being interfered.
But he also told Atlanta reporters when asked about the ending of the first game that “I ain’t here to talk to refs about this and that. That’s their job. They call what they call. If they see it, they call it. If they don’t, they don’t.”
He also told Atlanta reporters he isn’t looking for revenge specifically against Sherman (the two are actually good friends off the field, each represented by the same agency).
“I don’t feel like I’m the center of attention at all,’’ Jones said. “This is not about me. It’s about the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks. For me, I’m just getting ready like any other week. I don’t have any grudges against Sherman or nothing like that. I’m here to play ball. What happened then was then; this is now.’’
Sherman was even more tight-lipped on the topic. Asked, for instance, what he learned in the first meeting about Jones he said simply “nothing that I didn’t know. He’s a great player.”
Not that anyone questioned that. More interesting answers will come Saturday.