The Seahawks’ grand gunner is already firing, days before he gets his toughest challenge this season.
How big of a challenge will Ricardo Lockette, Seattle’s Pro Bowl nominee as special-teams ace, have with Philadelphia Eagles return man extraordinaire Darren Sproles on Sunday?
“With who?” the supremely confident — and supremely fast — Lockette said at his locker before Thursday’s practice at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center.
Of course Lockette knows Darren Sproles. He is the slithering, 5-foot-6 dynamo who is the NFL leader with 14,911 all-purpose yards since 2007. Who has two punt returns for touchdowns this season, including one covering 82 yards. Who has five punt-return scores for his 10-year career. Who in his first season with Philadelphia — after beginning his career with San Diego (2005-10) then New Orleans (2011-13) — is 87 yards from Brian Mitchell’s Eagles’ season record of 567 punt-return yards from 2002.
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Isn’t that a, uh, rather sizable challenge?
“Not really,” Lockette said flatly. “He’s just a smaller target.
“My goal is to get there before he takes off. I want to hit him before he gets going. Something went wrong if I get there and he already has taken off running.
“He’s a shifty guy. But I plan on being there before he gets shifty.”
Much of this week’s attention about the showdown between the defending Super Bowl champions and the NFC East leaders at Lincoln Financial Field has been on Philadelphia needing to stop Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson and the NFL’s leading rushing offense. And on Seattle’s resurgent defense needing to contain Eagles explosive runner LeSean McCoy as the thrust of Philadelphia’s offense that is ranked fourth in the league.
Yet how successful Lockette is getting down to Sproles “before he gets shifty” will be a key to field position — and thus key to control of Sunday’s game and each team’s postseason destiny.
Last season, Lockette’s first as the primary gunner on Seahawks punts, Sproles played Seattle twice when he was with the New Orleans Saints. Lockette helped make the explosive Sproles inert in an early December game and again in the divisional playoffs. Sproles fielded three punts in those two games. He had exactly zero yards in returns; Lockette helped force him to fair-catch two of them.
“I think Ricardo is a big factor for us,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Friday afternoon before the team left for its flight to Philadelphia that was due in around midnight Eastern time. “He’s a guy we really count on. He had a good game last week, and we’re really hoping he can continue to be that factor.”
Stopping Sproles is such a key, the Seahawks have spent time this week developing new ways to free Lockette from what are bound to be two and even three Eagles that are going to try to pinball him among them, instead of allowing Lockette to sprint freely at Sproles while Jon Ryan’s punts for Seattle are in flight. Philadelphia has been jamming other teams’ gunners all season; the Eagles are second in the NFL averaging 14.4 yards per punt return.
“We are trying to position so that he can be (that big factor),” Carroll said. “We will spot him around and do some things with him. He’s a dynamic football player. We need him against their really good special teams. We’re going to need some (standout) players, and he could be the one.”
He is the one in Seattle’s punt- and kickoff-coverage game. Lockette is not only perhaps the fastest Seahawk but one of the fastest special-teams players in the league. But instead of returning kicks and punts, the wide receiver blows up returns.
During the exhibition opener Aug. 7 in Denver, Lockette ran his first 40 yards on one kickoff in 3.93 seconds.
Yes, a 3.93 40.
“That’s the fastest I’ve ever had,” Seahawks special-teams coach Brian Schneider said.
Sure, that was with a moving start off a kickoff. But consider the fastest 40-yard dash ever recorded at the NFL combine is 4.24 seconds, by running back Chris Johnson in 2008.
On punts, Lockette excels in one of the sport’s more thankless jobs. He’s near the sideline, usually double-teamed by defenders who are trying to grab and bang and bludgeon him through the nearby benches into Gatorade buckets.
But they can’t hit what they can’t catch.
People still talk about Lockette speeding downfield in a blur, then leveling Justin Veltung of the Saints just as Veltung caught a punt in last January’s divisional playoff game.
A week later, in the NFC Championship game, Lockette sped from the right flank on a diagonal across the field and into the shoulder pads of San Francisco’s LaMichael James. Lockette’s hit knocked off James’ helmet — and knocked James out of the game.
Asked where this wide receiver’s hitting comes from, Lockette smiled at the memory of being back home in Albany, Georgia.
“I played safety in high school (at Monroe High),” he said. “That was pretty much all I did was run around, bang into receivers. I didn’t have that many receptions. But I had a lot of guys that I put out of the game.”
“I take pride in being the first one down there.”
When asked what it is about Sproles or the Philadelphia return game that has allowed it to score two touchdowns on punt returns and two more on kickoff returns — by former Washington Huskies star running back Chris Polk and by Josh Huff, the rookie from Oregon — Lockette said he won’t be focused on Sproles, Polk or Huff on Sunday.
“I’m focused more on the person guarding me,” he said, “because if I get off (the line freely) I know the timing of Jon’s kicks. I have a clock in my mind. And if I get there in time, the punt returner is not even a factor.”
So, no, Lockette said his Sunday won’t be a duel with Sproles as much as “a game between Jon (Ryan) and me.
“It is,” Lockette said, “a game inside a game.”
If he wins it, the Seahawks may win the bigger one.
Center Max Unger is out for the third consecutive game with a high-ankle sprain and twisted knee, though the team is hoping he can practice next week before the home game against San Francisco. … Tight end Cooper Helfet (sprained ankle) is doubtful for Sunday. Nickel defensive back Jeremy Lane (gluteus) is questionable. Carroll said Helfet and Lane will be game-time decisions after each tries to prove to the team’s medical staff Sunday afternoon that they can play. If they don’t, that would mean again prominent roles for Tony Moeaki at tight end and Tharold Simon at cornerback. … Carroll noted how much the team likes the matchup inside of playing usual cornerback Byron Maxwell at nickel and Simon at corner. The way coach Chip Kelly has the Eagles spreading out defenses with multiple wide receivers and LeSean McCoy as the lone running back, the Seahawks could be in nickel plenty again on Sunday. … Maxwell, tailback Marshawn Lynch (back) and defensive end Michael Bennett (toe) are probable. All missed practice time this week in what is becoming a standard of some starters getting rest between games.