With the Seahawks becoming increasingly comfortable with Richard Sherman shadowing the other team’s best receiver, Falcons wideout Julio Jones might be in for a serious test on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
RENTON — Pete Carroll hopes to keep Julio Jones a little closer at hand Sunday than he was able to a few years ago.
As a senior at Foley (Ala.) High in the fall of 2007, Jones was considered the No. 1 high school receiver in the nation, which enticed the Carroll-led Trojans to make a trip to the town of roughly 15,000 (also the home of Hall of Fame QB Ken Stabler) to try to interest him in coming to USC.
“We went down to Alabama to go visit him and see if we could have a chance to get recruiting on him,” Carroll recalled Wednesday. “We had a chance to see him in the parking lot, and some people from the school grabbed him and took him into the back room, and before you know it there was the Alabama coach on the way to the campus and we couldn’t even get near the guy at the time.”
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones is now in his sixth year with the Falcons and no easier to corral.
Jones ranks third in the NFL in receiving yards with 517 and second in yards per catch at a whopping 21.5 as one of the key cogs of an Atlanta offense that leads the NFL in total yards (457.4 per game), passing (333.4) and points per game (35).
“He’s been a great player for a long time,” Carroll said.
What Jones has never done, though, is what he may do Sunday — spend the afternoon trying to beat Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.
The Seahawks have become increasingly comfortable moving Sherman around to cover a specific receiver rather than sticking to just the left side (or, to the right-hand side of the opposing quarterback).
Sherman covered Brandon Marshall of the Jets in a 27-17 win on Oct. 2, picking off two passes in the fourth quarter, and also trailed San Francisco’s Torrey Smith for much of Seattle’s win over the 49ers the week before.
Carroll and Sherman each danced around whether Sherman will — or whether Sherman expects — to cover Jones on Sunday.
But it will be no surprise if he does, and probably a disappointment to Sherman if he doesn’t.
“It’s some selfishness to that, that as a competitor you love the challenge,” Sherman said.
Jones has faced Seattle twice since Sherman joined the Seahawks in 2011. But when he caught 11 passes for 127 yards in a 30-28 Atlanta win at CenturyLink Field in 2011, Sherman was just four games into his career and not a starter.
The two faced off a few times when Atlanta beat Seattle by the same 30-28 score in a divisional playoff game in January 2013, but Sherman did not trail Jones in that game, when the Seahawks had Brandon Browner stationed on the other side.
For most of Sherman’s career, that’s how it was — he stayed on the left side and Browner (or Byron Maxwell, etc.) stayed on the right. One reason is the Seahawks liked keeping everyone in comfortable spots. Another is that moving Sherman to cover a specific receiver also means other players in the secondary have to move (DeShawn Shead, for instance, would have to switch sides).
“It’s not just him,” Carroll said. “It has to do with the other guys, the other player is flipping as part of that variable.” But Carroll said he feels good enough with Shead and Jeremy Lane to perform well on either side that “we are at a point where we can do whatever we need to now.”
That he hasn’t always been asked to move around has sometimes been used against Sherman by football analysts when judging cornerbacks, something Sherman again railed against.
“People are like, ‘Oh you’re not following him, you’re scared of him,’ ” Sherman said. “It’s like, ‘I don’t call the defense, I don’t call the plays or anything.’ They call the plays and I do what they tell me to do. … People need to understand that, but obviously it makes for great talking points for people that don’t know football.”
Carroll interestingly said that one of the bigger challenges for cornerbacks in changing sides is tracking deep passes. Sherman, though, said the biggest difference in moving is that “the footwork is different from side to side.”
But he’s gotten used to it as the Seahawks have increasingly asked him to vary positions. Last year, Sherman was asked several times to take on individual receivers, memorably holding Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown to 51 yards on six catches in a 39-30 Seattle win.
Afterward, Sherman said he knew some think he couldn’t guard smaller receivers such as Brown and that Brown must have “just dropped a bunch of balls.”
Sherman has as much reverence for Jones as he can have for any opposing receiver, though. The two became friends while attending events together before the Super Bowl in 2013.
“We had some great conversations, he and I and (Houston receiver DeAndre) Hopkins sat down and had a pretty good chat,” he said. “Just about ball and growing and life. He’s a fascinating dude.”
One he’ll try not to let out of his sights Sunday.