Analysis: Key Matchups to Watch as Seahawks Kickoff Season vs. Russell Wilson, Broncos – Sports Illustrated

After months of anticipation, the Seahawks will finally welcome quarterback Russell Wilson back to Lumen Field in a matter of days when they face the Broncos in a must-see Monday Night Football battle to kick off the 2022 season.
But while all eyes will understandably be on Wilson in his homecoming, both Seattle and Denver have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball away from the quarterback position, adding further intrigue to one of the most hyped regular season openers in recent memory.
With both franchises looking to get off to a fast start, which matchups will dictate who snags a season-opening victory in prime time?
After earning starting jobs with an excellent training camp and preseason, Cross and Lucas will become only the third pair of rookie tackles to start in Week 1 since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger. The two rookies came into the league with great proficiency in pass protection starring in Air Raid and Run N' Shoot offenses and those skills showed up in exhibition season with the two combining to allow zero sacks and six total pressures in three games. But both players will face a far more difficult challenge on Monday night in their first regular season action against Chubb and Gregory, two experienced pass rushers boasting different strengths and playing styles.
Injuries hindered Chubb a year ago and he didn't record any sacks in seven games playing far below 100 percent, but he racked up 12.5 sacks as a rookie and 7.5 sacks in 2020 and the former top-five pick has been a force winning with speed and power when healthy. As for Gregory, with a bevy of off field issues seemingly behind him, the immensely talented edge defender produced 6.0 sacks and 17 quarterback hits for the Cowboys last year, showcasing an explosive first step and elite bending ability turning the corner on tackles. This isn't an ideal draw for rookie tackles right off the bat and it's a great first litmus test for Cross and Lucas.
Few quarterbacks have been more productive in prime time games than Wilson, who posted a 19-4 record in 23 night games at Lumen Field and a 29-11-1 record overall with the Seahawks. Much of that success has been achieved behind Wilson's throwing theatrics, as he has tossed 78 touchdown passes and posted a 102.1 passer rating in those 41 contests. As expected, he's also been a thorn in the side of opponents as a runner, producing 1,443 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
But Wilson won't be the only player on the field who has thrived under the lights suiting up on Monday night. Coming off two Pro Bowl seasons, Diggs has been at his best patrolling center field in prime time, intercepting eight passes and scoring a pair of defensive touchdowns in 22 night games. Most of that production has happened since he arrived in Seattle midway through the 2019 season, as he has averaged more than half a pick per game (seven interceptions) in 13 prime time contests since the trade. Two of those came against former teammate Matthew Stafford in losses to the Rams a year ago and Diggs would love to have similar results against another quarterback he played several seasons with in Wilson.
While Diggs roams the back half of the Seahawks' defense, Adams will also be critical to the team's chances of slowing down their former star signal caller. Back healthy after shoulder surgery, his presence as a pass rushing safety who can rush from anywhere on the field needs to be utilized as a weapon and he also has the athletic ability to be used as a spy to chase Wilson down when he attempts to scramble from the pocket. Selectively mixing in blitzes, including an occasional delayed pressure that has caused the quarterback problems in the past, should be a key ingredient in the game plan.
Breaking into the league with lofty expectations as a top-10 pick and the son of a former All-Pro cornerback, Surtain didn't disappoint as a rookie for the Broncos. Quickly finding his way into the starting lineup, the 6-foot-2, 202-pound defender amassed 58 tackles, four interceptions, 10 pass breakups, and returned a pick for a score while earning All-Rookie Team honors from the Pro Football Writers Association. He also didn't allow many explosives, yielding just three passes in coverage for more than 30 yards to lead one of the best defenses in the NFL limiting air yardage.
While Surtain didn't get beat over the top often a year ago, he will have to prove himself all over again against Metcalf, one of the game's premier deep threats. Since arriving as a second-round pick in 2019, his six receptions of 50-plus yards ranks tied for fourth in the league and per Pro Football Focus, his 11 receiving touchdowns of 20-plus yards ranks second in the NFL during that span. Built like a tank at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he's also a nightmare to bring down after the catch, as evidenced by his 35 broken tackles and 532 yards after contact.
Of course, Metcalf won't be the only receiver the Broncos will have to worry about in the opener and if Surtain covers him, Lockett will be pitted one-on-one against Darby. Like his star companion, the veteran has been one of the most prolific deep ball threats in the game for half a decade and he's as savvy of a route runner as you will find in the league. His ability to get cornerbacks twisted up in knots on double moves is well-documented and Darby has been susceptible to such moves in the past, so this particular matchup could favor the Seahawks if Geno Smith has time to throw.
Viewed as a question mark before the season, cornerback has been one of the pleasant surprises for Seattle over the past month thanks to an intriguing group blending seasoned veterans with upstart rookies. Now in his second season with the team, Jones got off to a fast start in camp before suffering a concussion and while Carroll has said he's ready to go, it remains to be seen if he or Jackson will start the opener. One thing that does appear certain, however, is that Woolen will be thrown into the starter as an immediate starter on the right side and his first test could be a daunting one.
Possessing a rare blend of size, length, and speed, Woolen has been a pass breakup machine in camp and the preseason, exceeding all expectations coming into the league with only two years of college experience at the position. But the 6-foot-4 Sutton offers the physical traits and big play ability to match with his counterpart and when healthy, he's been quite productive despite subpar quarterbacks throwing to him. Back in 2019, he amassed north of 1,100 receiving yards and six touchdowns and putting up better numbers with Wilson under center would be a wise bet.
Meanwhile, regardless of who lines up at the other cornerback spot, Jones or Jackson will have their hands full too with the rest of Wilson's skill weaponry. A former first-round pick from Alabama, Jeudy has speed to burn as a vertical threat, has made strides as a route runner, and can create yards in bunches with his quickness and slippery nature after the catch, making him a threat in the short game as well. K.J. Hamler also has the breakaway speed to torch a secondary from the outside or in the slot, though drops have been a persistent issue for him and he's coming off a torn ACL.
One of the best defenses in the NFL a year ago, the Broncos don't have many flaws on that side of the ball from a personnel standpoint. But if there's a position group that could be exploitable, the team does have questions in the middle of the unit at linebacker. Josey Jewell stands out as the crown jewel of the group after racking up 113 tackles and a pair of sacks in 2020, but he won't play on Monday due to a calf injury, forcing Singleton into the starting lineup. The former Montana State star has produced more than 120 tackles each of the past two years in Philadelphia, but he has been a major coverage liability allowing nine touchdowns in that span. Third-year defender Jonas Griffith played well in four starts late last season, but he's inexperienced and dislocated his elbow in the preseason.
Considering the aforementioned concerns at linebacker for Denver, offensive coordinator Shane Waldron should be aiming to get his running backs involved early and often both as runners and pass catchers. Penny looked every bit as spry in camp as he did during his six-game surge to close out last season and his combination of size and explosiveness could be a major problem for the opposition if he gets the second level pitted against Jewell or Griffith. Meanwhile, Dallas and Homer have extensive backgrounds as pass catchers out of the backfield, creating an opportunity to further stress those linebackers horizontally as well as running routes into the middle of the field and each should be a factor in this contest.
When it comes to applying pressure on Wilson, a delicate balance must be achieved. As Seahawks fans know all too well, his uncanny ability to evade and spin away from oncoming pass rushers and extend plays often leads to explosive passes downfield. Even with his mobility declining with age, he's also a threat to tuck and run on any play, whether scrambling outside the pocket or stepping up in the pocket to capitalize on over-aggressive edge rushers getting upfield.
But at the same time, Wilson's propensity for holding onto the football an extended amount of time seeking out a deep ball and trying to make magic happen gets him into trouble as well. This puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line, particularly the tackles blocking off the edge. Bolles has been one of the better left tackles in the game in recent seasons, but he still allowed five sacks a year ago and Nwosu's blend of quickness and physicality could pose a problem. On the other side, Turner has been dealing with a knee injury and surrendered north of 30 pressures last year with the Packers, creating an advantageous matchup for Taylor to exploit with his elite burst and flexibility bending the corner at full speed.
Playing in his first NFL game, Mafe will be the wild card. Boasting elite physical and athletic traits, the rookie from Minnesota won't start and will primarily be used in obvious pass rushing situations, but his talent is undeniable and he produced a pair of sacks in his first preseason game. Getting him in one-on-one matchups flying off the edge on second and third-and-long scenarios could bear fruit for Seattle and help put the squeeze on Wilson in his homecoming.
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