With free safety Earl Thomas sidelined, the Seahawks will have to rely more than ever on Richard Sherman, which alternately will allow for Sherman to maybe make a few points of his own.

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It’s always been as difficult for football analysts to poke holes in Richard Sherman’s game as it has been for receivers to find open space when covered by him.

But one thought, if not necessarily a criticism, sometimes sent the Seahawks cornerback’s way is that it’s hard to know just how valuable he is when he might not even be the most valuable player in his own secondary, many wondering if maybe free safety Earl Thomas isn’t really the key to it all.

But for the first time in the Pete Carroll era, the Seahawks won’t have Thomas as the last line of defense for the game Sunday at Tampa Bay, his streak of starting every game since 2010 (106 in the regular season and 118 overall) coming to an end due to a hamstring injury suffered last Sunday against the Eagles.


Seahawks @ Tampa Bay, 1:05 p.m., Ch. 13

Seattle might turn the free-safety duties over to Steven Terrell, who filled in for Thomas last week, giving him the first start of his career. Or Seattle could use Kelcie McCray, who started four earlier games at strong safety in place of Kam Chancellor and who also has been used often in practice at free safety.

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Either way, the Seahawks will have to rely more than ever on Sherman, which alternately will allow for Sherman to maybe make a few points of his own.

Even with Thomas healthy, the Seahawks likely figured to match up Sherman with Tampa Bay standout receiver Mike Evans, a 2014 first-round draft choice out of Texas A&M whose 65 receptions are the fifth-most in the NFL this season and 26 more than any other player on the Bucs’ roster. His 121 targets lead the NFL.

While the Seahawks were somewhat predictably coy on whether Sherman will trail Evans, Tampa Bay fully expects it. Not only is Thomas out but Seattle’s other starting cornerback, DeShawn Shead, is questionable with a hamstring injury. Friday, Carroll indicated Shead has a good chance to play.

But the injuries, plus Evans’ size — he’s 6 feet 5, 231 pounds — point to Sherman getting the nod to follow Evans rather than just stick to the left side.

“I know it’s one he’s (Evans) looking forward to it, as I would guess (Sherman) is,’’ Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Todd Monken said Friday. “If you consider yourself a real competitor, you want to go against the best and see where you stack up. Mike’s at that point. Sherman’s been playing a long time and been considered one of the best, and Mike thinks he is or can be one of the best in this league.’’

Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston spoke more confidently of the prospects of an Evans-Sherman matchup.

“You’ve got to be aware of one of the best corners in the NFL,’’ Winston said. “But I like my guy. I like my guy in that matchup. Mike is having an amazing year and it’s just trust. … At the end of the day, he (Sherman) doesn’t have that connection that me and Mike have. At the end of the day, he still has to stop us and defend everyone.’’

Evans was more measured, saying, “Hopefully he’ll match me. I’m a big fan of his, and I think it will be a fun day.”

Seahawks injury report

Out: DE Michael Bennett (knee), RB C.J. Prosise (shoulder), RB Troymaine Pope (ankle), S Earl Thomas (hamstring)

Doubtful: LB Brock Coyle (foot)

Questionable: C Justin Britt (ankle), WR Tanner McEvoy (WR), DE Damontre Moore (foot), CB DeShawn Shead (hamstring)

If it seems a bit much to put so much importance on one individual matchup, a deeper look at some of Evans’ numbers shows how critical his connection with Winston of late has been.

Tampa Bay has won four of six to get back into playoff contention, including the last two, with Winston throwing for 300 or more yards in each of those victories. It’s the first time he has done that in consecutive games in his NFL career.

Evans, meanwhile, has 23 receptions for 321 yards in the past three games.

A particular key to Tampa Bay’s success has been its ability to convert on third down, which has been a specific Seattle failing of late.

The Bucs have hit on 27 of 45 third downs in their past three games. The Seahawks, meanwhile, improved in that area against the Eagles (6 for 16) but allowed each of the previous three teams to convert 60 percent or better, one of the few areas of real worry for the Seattle defense at any point this season.

Evans, meanwhile, has been Winston’s main target in those situations. His 19 receptions on third down this season are the second-most in the NFC.

Tampa Bay’s defense looks more than penetrable — the Bucs rank 26th in yards allowed (381.7) and 24th in points (25.9). And Tampa Bay’s running game ranks just 16th at 106.0.

Take away, or at least limit, Winston-to-Evans and an eighth Seahawks victory of the year also would figure to make the trip back home from Tampa. With Sherman answering maybe one last question along the way.