Christian Gin: With Walter Thurmond serving a suspension and Brandon Browner out with an injury, how high are the expectations for Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane through the rest of the regular season?
Chris Cluff: Maxwell and Lane are just the latest players to have to step up for the Hawks this season and they both have played well the past two games without Browner and last Monday without Thurmond. They both got experience last year at this time when Thurmond and Browner were out for other reasons and now they are just a year wiser. With safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor backing them up, the pressure is not as great, but the team is confident in both corners to fill the void. It's quite possible Maxwell remains the starter next season if the Hawks end up not re-signing Thurmond and Browner (or Browner is suspended for a full season).
CG: Many have talked about how the defensive line of the Seahawks is stacked. Do the Seahawks have a rotation and split time among this unit or are there undisputed starters who play most of the game?
CC: The Hawks definitely rotate their line, with seven players getting the bulk of the action. Against the Saints, for example, the snaps breakdown was: DE Chris Clemons 40, DT Clinton McDonald 36, DT Tony McDaniel 35, DL Michael Bennett and DE Cliff Avril 33, DE Red Bryant and DT Brandon Mebane 26. The Hawks intentionally keep the snap counts pretty evenly distributed to keep their linemen fresh. And they all contribute with various skills.
CG: Percy Harvin has been out for most of the season including this Sunday. How vital has it been for the rest of the experienced WRs to step it up?
CC: Doug Baldwin says the Seahawks have the best total receiving corps in the league. That's debatable, but his point is well made: The Hawks certainly have guys they can count on at that position. Baldwin, Golden Tate and Jermaine Kearse all have four touchdown catches. And since Sidney Rice was lost for the season in Week 8, Baldwin and Kearse have really stepped up, with a combined 24 receptions and five touchdowns in four games.
CG: There are several key Seahawks players who will be free agents at the end of the year. Which players do you see being kept and who could walk?
CC: The Seahawks have 15 UFAs and three RFAs after the season and they also will need to broach extensions with FS Earl Thomas, CB Richard Sherman and perhaps LT Russell Okung. They are very likely to release WR Sidney Rice as well as DE Chris Clemons and DE Red Bryant to clear enough salary cap room to try to re-sign the bulk of their free agents. Michael Bennett and Golden Tate are probably the most significant and they also will have to decide what (if anything) to do with Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner. But they likely can keep most of this team intact for the next two years before having to make some more big adjustments in 2016.
I wrote this story a couple of weeks ago detailing that issue.
CG: What is your prediction for Sunday's game and why?
CC: I think the Seahawks are in the proverbial zone right now and are nigh unbeatable. They played their most complete game of the season in the stunning 34-7 blowout of the Saints on Monday, and it is hard to see them losing again this season (unless they play their backups in the finale or something). They have not won in San Francisco since 2008, but they played the 49ers very close last season -- back when quarterback Russell Wilson was just a pup learning his way.
He and the team have developed so much since then, as evidenced by their consecutive blowouts of the 49ers in Seattle (by a combined 71-16 score). The Hawks will be extremely motivated to win the NFC West and claim a first-round bye in San Francisco this week. Pete Carroll has the added motivation of wanting to win in his hometown against his biggest coaching rival, Jim Harbaugh. As much as the 49ers really need this game and figure to give all they have, the Hawks are focused and on fire and will win it. They might win this by two touchdowns, so my pick is Seahawks 31-17.