To everyone else, it’s Richard Sherman versus Julio Jones, Part 2.
But between those two this week, it’s basically crickets.
Neither have had much to say this week about their latest All-Pro faceoff Saturday when Seattle plays at Atlanta in the NFC divisional playoffs.
“He’s a great player,” Sherman, the Seahawks’ three-time All-Pro cornerback, said flatly of the Falcons’ two-time All-Pro wide receiver. “He’s a worker. He works the whole game. He play hard every snap.”
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Jones told reporters in Georgia on Wednesday: “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.”
Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard isn’t saying much, either. Not about whether Sherman will shadow Jones again Saturday, as he did when these teams played in October.
“It’s tempting,” Richard said, understandably coyly, following Wednesday’s Seahawks practice. “But we’re not too sure.
“It’s a great matchup, there’s no doubt about it. But we still want to go out there and do what we’re accustomed to doing.”
To those guys that need to slow down the NFL’s highest-scoring offense on Saturday in the Georgia Dome to get to the NFC championship game, Saturday will not be primarily about Sherman vs. Jones.
“We’ve got to stop the run,” Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor said.
Chancellor believes Falcons Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are perhaps the most dynamic, dangerous running backs in the league.
Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards (ninth-most in the NFL) and 11 touchdowns (sixth in the league) during the regular season. Coleman rushed for 520 yards and eight touchdowns.
The two backs also combined for 85 receptions from quarterback Matt Ryan. They had nine more scores catching the ball out of the backfield. That’s two more catches and two more touchdowns than Jones had this season.
“They have a great play-action offense. So we have to stop the run to make them one dimensional, so that we don’t see a lot of play-action pass,” Chancellor said.
Freeman and Coleman are just as large of a reason as Jones that Atlanta scored a league-best 540 points.
So while Sherman and Jones continue to get most of the attention, Freeman and Coleman are getting the Seahawks’ attention.
“Oh, they are very unique. They are special, man,” Chancellor said. “They are talented. They run hard. Quick cuts. They are both home-run backs. They can finish runs. Got great hands. You’ve got to keep your eyes on them. And you’ve got to tackle well.”
Chancellor’s praise comes from experience. Saturday, he will extend the Seahawks record he shares with punter Jon Ryan by appearing in his 14th postseason game.
But he didn’t play in Seattle’s 26-24 home win over the Falcons on Oct. 16 at CenturyLink Field. Chancellor was missing the first of four consecutive games with a strained groin.
He watched from the sideline as his Seahawks, with Kelcie McCray at strong safety for him, slowed Freeman and Coleman to a combined 50 yards on 17 carries, plus four catches for 17 yards. Matt Ryan passed for 335 yards, completing seven passes to Jones for 139 yards and a touchdown.
Atlanta rallied from 14 points down to lead 24-17 late in the third quarter.
The Seahawks are getting Chancellor back for this rematch but will still be without All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas, who is out for the season. He broke his tibia colliding with Chancellor Dec. 4 in a win over Carolina.
On Oct. 16, Atlanta blocked an extra-point kick by Steven Hauschka to stay ahead 24-23 in the fourth quarter. Then Jones allowed the ninth pass his way that day to tip off his hands. Sherman tipped the ball back to Thomas for an interception. Thomas called it “one of those ‘Angels-in-the-Outfield’-type plays. You didn’t see the angel — but the ball popped into my hands.”
Thomas was magical throughout that game. His two huge hits in both halves separated Falcons from balls on third downs to end Atlanta drives.
He won’t be there to do that on Saturday. Steven Terrell will make his second career playoff start.
“He’d be a big loss for any football team not to have. He’s ours,” Richard said. “We haven’t been playing with him for the past few weeks, and we got guys out there that can get the job done. What we call upon our guys to do, we fully anticipate them to go out there and execute our plan to the fullest T.”
Tight ends are another reason the Sherman-Jones matchup is only part of Saturday’s story. Tight ends have been an issue for years for Seattle’s secondary, even when Thomas and Chancellor have been in there together. And in October, Atlanta exposed the Seahawks’ coverages with formations with three tight ends split out wide and Jones mingling between them.
In the third quarter of that game, 6-foot-3 Austin Hooper lined up outside with Sherman on him and Jones inside in the slot. Hooper ran an inside route. Sherman followed him, as if in man coverage. The rest of Seattle’s secondary played zone. When Jones ran from inside to outside, where Sherman’s zone would have been, no one was there. McCray and Sherman were both on Hooper inside. That resulted in Jones’ easy, 36-yard touchdown.
Sherman erupted on the sideline at Richard. Afterward, they blamed miscommunication. Sherman mentioned McCray’s inexperience and Chancellor not being in there.
Later that quarter, Atlanta went into another three tight-end set. Jones split wide left. Sherman lined head up on him. Levine Toilolo, the Falcons’ 6-8 tight end, was a wing on the left side next to tight end Jacob Tamme (now on injured reserve). Toilolo ran a route out to the left sideline then up. Sherman followed Jones’ hard inside route short, again as if in man coverage. The rest of the Seahawks were again in zone. Touchdown Toilolo, 46 yards. Atlanta had their third touchdown of the quarter and the lead.
As that one period proved, no coach in the NFL knows the weaknesses of Seattle’s defense better than Atlanta’s Dan Quinn. No coach is better equipped to exploit them, and Thomas’ absence, than Quinn. The Falcons’ head man is Richard’s predecessor. Quinn ran the Seahawks defense until February 2015.
“You have to be prepared every time they put those big guys out there, they’re looking to throw the football deep,” Richard said of Atlanta’s three tight ends. “Typically, they want you to run more big guys out there. Hunker down, run the ball, 3 yards and a cloud of dust. And that’s not the case.
“Same idea, when they get to empty, they empty out the backfield, better be prepared for seams (inside, down the hash marks). They put three tight ends out there, you better be prepared for seams.”
That may have to do with Julio Jones and Richard Sherman on Saturday.
Or, it absolutely might not.
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle