The Seahawks (3-1) are home in Week 5 and are hosting the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams (3-1) on Thursday Night Football. The Seahawks are 26-5-1 in primetime games under Pete Carroll, including a 17-2 record at CenturyLink Field, but maintaining that level of success won't be an easy task against the Rams, who are looking to bounce back from their first loss of the season.
If the Seahawks are going to end a three-game losing streak against the Rams and get a valuable game up on them in the division standings, these are three key matchups that could make the difference in Thursday night's game:
1. Aaron Donald vs. Seattle's offensive line.
Why yes, you're right, Aaron Donald was one of our three key matchups the last time these teams played… and the time before that… and the time before… and the time before that as well. And guess what, he'll almost certainly be listed here again when these teams play again in L.A. in Week 14.
Donald, the winner of the past two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, is just that good, and if the Seahawks don't account for him and at least minimize the damage, he can wreck an offensive game plan single-handedly. In the past three games against Seattle, Donald has 6.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits, and he can be equally menacing in the running game.
"He's as dominant a factor as you can get," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's right in the middle of the formation, he can make plays in the run and the pass. His explosive style, he's so much faster than almost anybody. It shows up in the explosive quickness that he uses, and he knows all of the tricks too. He's an extraordinary factor, and we have to pay full attention to him."
For Seattle's offensive line, dealing with Donald will be a group effort, not just because Donald will be double-teamed at times, but also because it will take good communication to make sure everyone is on the same page play after play.
"He's the best defensive lineman in the league," said center Justin Britt. "You've got to game plan for him, you've got to prepare for him. It's not like going against any other D-lineman in the league, really. He definitely draws your attention on every play, and you've just got to know where he's at."
Donald, who had 20.5 sacks last year, has just one through four games, and the Seahawks will do everything in their power to make sure this isn't the game that gets him back on track.
2. The Seahawks run game vs. the Rams' run defense.
While the Seahawks weren't quite able to finish and get the win in either of last year's games against the Rams, one of the big reasons why Seattle had offensive success and nearly kept up with Los Angeles' high-powered offense was a running game that was dominant. On the way to leading the NFL in rushing last year, the Seahawks rushed for a season-high 273 yards in one game against the Rams, doing so without an injured Chris Carson—Seattle got a combined 200 yards from Rashaad Penny and Russell Wilson—and they rushed for 190 in the other game with Carson going for 116 yards.
It's far from a given that Seattle will be able to repeat that success, however. After allowing an NFL worst 5.1 rushing yards per carry in 2018, the Rams have improved their run defense this year, cutting that number to 3.8 yards per carry. The Rams are also giving up 91.8 rushing yards per game, down from 122.3 last year.
With Carson coming off of his best game of the year, and with Penny back from injury, the Seahawks will look to get their running game going once again against a talented Rams front.
"We're going to run the football," Carroll said. "We plan to do it every time we go out. That's how we play. I did like the balance last week… We're counting on it. We're counting on the running game."
3. Rams receiver Cooper Kupp vs. Seattle's secondary.
As always, the Seahawks need to contend with Rams running back Todd Gurley, who had two touchdowns last week, but this season Los Angeles' most prolific offensive weapon thus far has been receiver Cooper Kupp, a Yakima native who played at Eastern Washington University.
Kupp unfortunately tore in ACL in last year's Week 10 game against Seattle, but has bounced back from that injury in a big way, gaining more than 100 yards in each of his past three games. For the season, Kupp has 32 catches for 388 yards and three touchdowns.
"He's just doing everything," Carroll said. "He's just a fantastic player, he just is. You guys might not recognize how much he blocks, and what a contributor he is in other ways to go along with the catches, and the catch and run. He's a fantastic player; touchdowns, most catches, and all that stuff. He's always on the field, he's always out there somewhere doing something, and you have to always be wary of him because he just seems to have the knack for getting things done. They know it, and they use the heck out of him."
The Seahawks will counter with a secondary and pass defense that has steadily improved as the season has gone along.
After giving up 395 passing yards in Week 1, Seahawks opponents are averaging 187.7 passing yards per game over the past three games. Last week Arizona's top two receivers, Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald, were held to a combined 84 yards on 9 catches and neither had a gain longer than 18 yards. Since that big passing performance by the Bengals, the Seahawks have allowed just nine explosive passes (16 or more yards) in the past three games, third fewest in the league among teams that have not yet had a bye. Leading the way has been cornerback Shaquill Griffin, who is off to a great start after what he deemed to be a subpar 2018 season.
"He looks good," Carroll said. "He looks really active; he has made consistent plays. You've seen him knock balls down kind of in consistent fashion almost week in and week out. Doing a good job on top, on the deep balls. He's playing great football I think, he's doing great."