Seahawks encouraged but miss defensive stars on critical plays in loss vs. Falcons

Seattle played without Richard Shermand and Kam Chancellor, and the Falcons took advantage in a 34-31 win that moved them back into playoff position.

Hands often tucked inside his navy blue jacket, Richard Sherman occasionally rose to stand on his good leg — the one without the torn Achilles’ tendon — to lean over and chat with teammates or to clap his hands after a big defensive play. But largely, and uncharacteristically, Sherman was silent.

This was all so unfamiliar, for Sherman and for the Seahawks, who haven’t played a game without their star cornerback in the starting lineup since Oct. 23, 2011, a span of 117 games, including the postseason. Sherman’s season-ending injury, suffered in Seattle’s last game 11 days earlier, was devastating.

Somehow, their first game without him seemed less so.

“His presence is still very real,” quarterback Russell Wilson said.

As Seahawks players left CenturyLink Field late Monday night, many seemed encouraged by their play without both Sherman and safety Kam Chancellor, a fellow founding member of the Legion of Boom who is out indefinitely with a neck injury.

The Seahawks, who trailed by 11 points in the third quarter, rallied late in the fourth before Blair Walsh’s 52-yard field goal attempt that would have tied the game at the end of regulation fell short.

“Early on, we were trying to get it together, but we settled down,” safety Earl Thomas said. “The thing I took from it is that no matter who was out there, we always have a chance to win.”

Seattle’s defense indeed struggled early, and the Seahawks quickly fell behind 14-0. The Falcons moved the ball easily in the first quarter and showed some creative play-calling (like a wildcat play to receiver Mohamed Sanu for a third-down conversion, or using defensive tackle Dontari Poe at tight end in a jumbo goal-line package).

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Atlanta’s defense helped, too, with an interception by cornerback Desmond Trufant in the first quarter, and a strip sack by Takkarist McKinley and Courtney Upshaw that Adrian Clayborn returned for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan finished the game with just 195 passing yards, but he threw a pair of touchdowns, one each to Sanu and tight end Levine Toilolo, and the Falcons converted nine-of-14 third-down attempts.

Those critical plays may have been where the Seahawks missed Sherman most.

“The world doesn’t stop. It was hard to not play with them, but we have full confidence in the guys that are stepping in their place,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “We just have to make sure we communicate a little bit more, because there’s communication that happens when you play with somebody for five years. I felt like our communication was good, we just have to make plays to get off the field.”

Wagner said the Seahawks made no schematic changes to account for the absence of both Sherman and Chancellor, but acknowledged that the Falcons (and likely future opponents) will concoct different game plans now that the Legion of Boom has been largely replaced.

“They’re still going to be relentless though. It’s the makeup of the team,” Falcons receiver Julio Jones said. “You can’t take it for granted, like, ‘Oh these guys aren’t playing, we’re going to run over them,’ or things like that. They have a great front seven.”

But none of Seattle’s remaining cornerbacks — Jeremy Lane, Shaquille Griffin (who left the game in the first quarter after suffering a concussion), Byron Maxwell (the former Seahawks starter who re-signed with the team last week) or Justin Coleman — can shadow a No. 1 receiver like Sherman can, or keep a quarterback from throwing to the right side of the field like Sherman does.

And backup safety Bradley McDougald isn’t the same intimidating enforcer as Chancellor.

Of course, the Seahawks aren’t asking these new players to emulate the Pro Bowlers they are replacing. They just need to figure out a way to survive. That didn’t quite happen Monday, as Seattle fell to 6-4 and, for now, out of a playoff spot and still one game behind the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West.

“We really didn’t have a chance to really see ourselves in live action as far as everybody, the whole new group,” Thomas said. “All we can do is get better.”

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Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.

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