The Seahawks host the Rams on Sunday with a chance to clinch their first NFC West title since 2016, but to win the division, they'll have to improve up their play from when these teams met in Week 10, a game the Rams won 23-16 in L.A. The Seahawks are healthier this time around, particularly at running back, but nothing will come easy against the 9-5 Rams, who feature what Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called "the best defense we will pay." And while a game in which a division title can be clinched may seem like a huge deal, Carroll sees this as a perfect test of his "treat every game like a championship opportunity" approach. Just as a game against the then-winless Jets shouldn't be overlooked, a late-season game against with big postseason implications shouldn't be overhyped.
"This week is what all of that is all about, it's to get to this point," Carroll said. "Being a championship opportunity, continuing to pose each game that we play as a championship opportunity so we're practicing that mentality… This is another opportunity to demonstrate that we get it, and we know what we're doing and philosophically we're tight and connected, and that we can go out perform like we're capable against a really great football team. So nothing changes."
If the Seahawks are going to improve to 11-4 and clinch the NFC West, these are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game at Lumen Field:
1. Aaron Donald vs. Seattle's offensive line.
What's that? You've heard this one a few times over the years? Well, when it comes to facing the Rams, dealing with Donald will be one of the top priorities until the day he retires or moves on to another team. Simply put, Donald is one of the best players of his era and one of the best defensive tackles to ever play the game, and he's showing no signs of slowing down in in his seventh season.
Despite being an interior lineman who regularly faces double teams, Donald has 12.5 sacks through 14 games, just half a sack on T.J. Watt's league-leading total, as well as 25 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles.
"He keeps you up late at night," said offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who held the same role in St. Louis when the Rams drafted Donald. "… It's what we saw in practice the very first day we went against him St. Louis. He can be dominant at times, the way he shoots gaps, the way he penetrates, he's going make his plays. So you find ways to send people at him, but even at that, that does expose other things. The one sack that Leonard (Floyd) got, you're sliding things certain directions, and he gets a free run."
The Seahawks actually managed to keep Donald from recording a sack in the previous meeting, one of only four games this season he's been shut out in that category, but that doesn't mean they kept the L.A. pass-rush in check. As Schottenheimer noted, focusing on Donald can open up opportunities for other players, and lead by Leonard Floyd's three sacks, the Rams sacked Wilson six times, contributing to one of his worst games of the season. So while stopping Donald is always a top priority, slowing the pass rush as a whole could be what matters most for Seattle offense. The Seahawks, who have not allowed a sack in two straight games—a first since Wilson took over the job in 2012—will try to do that not just by winning their one-on-one battles in the trenches, but also by doing thing schematically to help the protection, be it using the quick passing game more often, as was the case against a dangerous Washington pass rush last week, or by leaning more on running game that should be a much bigger factor than it was in the Week 10 game in L.A.
"It keeps you up late and night, but our guys are going battle," Schottenheimer said. "They're going to battle, and we feel we feel good about the matchup. They're terrific but (the Washington Football Team) are too, and we didn't give up any sacks. Still the game comes down to executing, so it'll be a fun area to watch, the front five verse their front four."
Said Carroll when asked about the Seahawks not giving up a sack in the past two games, "I think it's just the combination of guys feeling good about what's going on, rhythm of the passing game, play calling, execution. We've just taken a step forward that was necessary here to finish off this season. We've got to keep it keep it going, we've got to keep it going and keep Russ clean and let him have the freedom to do the things he can do. We're really pleased that know that he hasn't been hit or knocked down in the last couple weeks. That's something that's good for us it's, it's something that hasn't happened a lot, and we're going to see if we can keep it going."
2. A healthy Seahawks running game vs. one of the league's best run defenses.
The Rams rank second in the NFL in run defense, allowing 94.6 rushing yards per game, and are holding opponents to just 3.8 yards per carry, the third lowest mark in the league. And when these teams last met, the Seahawks running game, while not completely shut out, was not a big factor, with the Seahawks rushing for 113 yards on 22 carries.
Then again, the Seahawks played that Week 10 game without Chris Carson, Carlos Hyde and Rashaad Penny, all of whom should be available this week, instead having Alex Collins, who had recently signed to the practice squad, serve as the lead back, rushing for 43 yards on 11 carries.
With Carson and Hyde working their way back from injuries, and with teams devoting more and more energy into stopping Seattle's explosive passing game, the Seahawks have leaned on the running game more of late, rushing for 174 yards two weeks ago and 181 yards last weekend, their second and third highest totals of the season. And as was the case against Washington's loaded pass-rush last week, a balanced attack, along with the quick passing game, could be the key to keeping Wilson upright and keeping the offense moving.
"We certainly have balanced out our attack and what we're trying to do," Carroll said. "We just kind of went into an offshoot direction for a bit—we didn't mean to but we did—but we feel very confident that we're back. So we're hoping that we can continue. We're really pleased that we've been able to run the ball last couple weeks, and it's necessary for us to really feel our style of play. So it's good to have it, it's a good feeling."
But again, getting that running game going, even at full strength, won't be easy against a Rams defense that has held six opponents under 100 yards this season, including five of their last eight, and has not allowed more than 136 rushing yards in a game this season.
3. Jamal Adams, Carlos Dunlap II & the Seahawks pass rush vs. the Rams' pass protection.
With four more sacks this last week, the Seahawks now have 31 sacks over their past eight games, the most in the NFL over that span, after recording only nine in their first six. And no two players have been more central to that turnaround than Jamal Adams and Carlos Dunlap II. Adams has 9.5 sacks in 10 games, including 7.5 in the past seven games, two of which came against the Rams in Week 10. Dunlap, meanwhile, has 4.5 in six games since arriving in a midseason trade.
"Being able to add Dunlap up front and then having Jamal Adams healthy, I think they're getting a good feeling for how to maximize those guys' skillsets," Rams coach Sean McVay told reporters Wednesday "… They're playing as well as any defense in the league."
And if the Seahawks are going to slow down an always-dangerous McVay-coached offense, getting to the quarterback is a great place to start. Because of both good line play and also their offensive scheme, it's not easy to get to Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who has been sacked 20 times this year, but doing so can make a big difference.
While just about every quarterback plays better with a clean pocket compared to being under pressure, the difference with Goff is more considerable than it is with most quarterbacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Goff has a 107.6 passer rating when he isn't pressured, and has thrown 16 touchdowns with six interception in those situations. Under pressure, Goff's rating drops to 46.3 with just four touchdowns and six interceptions.
Go behind the scenes from the Seattle Seahawks' Week 15 game vs. the Washington Football Team at FedExField. Eye on the Hawks is presented by Western Washington Toyota Dealers.