The Seahawks head to Jacksonville this weekend for a showdown between two 8-4 teams looking to improve their playoff chances as the NFL season winds down. Seattle is coming off of its most impressive victory of the season, a 24-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, and is now an NFL best 20-5 in December and January regular-season games dating back to 2012. The Jaguars, meanwhile, are having their best season in a decade, led by a young, talented defense that has been the best in the NFL this season by nearly every measure.
If the Seahawks are going to beat the Jaguars for a fifth consecutive road victory, these are three key matchups that could make the difference Sunday afternoon:
1. Jaguars DE Calais Campbell & The "Sacksonville" Pass Rush vs. Seattle's Offensive Line.
The Seahawks haven't played the Jaguars since 2013, but they're all too familiar with one of Jacksonville's top defensive players, 31-year-old defensive end Calais Campbell. For the first nine seasons of his career, Campbell played in Arizona, meaning two meetings per season with Seattle, and quite often Campbell made life difficult on the Seahawks in previous matchups.
Of Campbell's 69 career sacks, 11.5 have come against Seattle, his most against any opponent, and no quarterback has been sacked more by Campbell than Russell Wilson, who has been taken down 5.5 times behind the line of scrimmage by the big defensive end. This season, Campbell has a career-high 12.5 sacks, but is far from being the only player on Jacksonville's defensive line the Seahawks need to worry about. Second-year defensive end Yannick Ngakoue has 10 sacks, third-year defensive end Dante Fowler has 6.5, and veteran defensive tackle Malik Jackson has added 6.0. As a team, the Jaguars have a league-best 45 sacks, earning them the "Sacksonville" nickname.
That pass rush has helped make an already talented secondary even more dangerous, and is a big reason why the Jaguars have 27 takeaways, the second most in the NFL.
"Well they are the best in the NFL, by a pretty good margin here in scoring and all that," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the Jaguars defense. "It starts up front for them. They have a big rotation of guys, a big variety of guys that they can throw at you, their linebackers can fly, and the secondary are a bunch of ball hawks back there. They cause you all kinds of problems. Forty-five sacks tells you the story and all the turnovers and the turnover ratio tells you the story."
The Seahawks are facing a tough pass rush for the second straight week, and hope to build off of what has been a few weeks of growth when it comes to pass protection. The addition of left tackle Duane Brown has certainly helped in that department, as has Luke Joeckel's return from a five-game absence following knee surgery.
"They're kind of doing what we set out to do; see if we can keep getting better," offensive line coach/assistant head coach Tom Cable said. "If we can consistently improve—we're doing that, but we have some real challenges ahead though. That group last week really put it to us, so it showed what we can be capable of going forward, and then we have another group this week. Aren't they (Jacksonville) leading the whole thing in sacks and all of that kind of stuff? It's a tremendous challenge; they're really, really good up front, so we look forward to the challenge again and see if we can get better."
2. Jaguars RB Leonard Fournette vs. A Stingy Seahawks Run Defense.
While a dominant defense has been a big part of Jacksonville's success, so too has its running game, which is averaging a league-best 149.4 rushing yards per game. The Jaguars rushing attack is led by rookie Leonard Fournette, a first-round pick out of LSU who has rushed for 822 yards and seven touchdowns in 10 games this season.
"He's a really big back, he has really good speed, really good size, and he has the vision," Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "He has the agility, and we just know that we're going to have to bring all 11 hats to the party each and every single time that we are going to tackle. That's it. It is going to come down to tackling. We know we are going to have to make sure we wrap him up and get him down consistently."
Fournette hasn't been as effective since returning from a two-game absence caused by an ankle injury, averaging fewer than 3 yards per carry in three of his last four games, but the Jaguars will still try to get him going, as was evident from his 20 carry, 57-yard game last week. Even with limited production, Fournette still has Seattle's attention and they know he is a big-play threat—he has scored 75 and 90-yard touchdowns this season—and stopping that running game will be priority No. 1 for a defense that will try to force Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles to try to win the game with his arm. And the Seahawks have been very good against the run for most of this season, bouncing back from a couple of tough games early. Since allowing big rushing performances in back-to-back games early in the season, the Seahawks are allowing a league-low 3.3 yards per rush in their last nine games, and have not allowed an opposing running back to gain more than 54 yards in a game during that stretch.
3. Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin vs. Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey
In what could very well be a low-scoring, defensive battle, one or two big plays could make the difference, and when Russell Wilson and the Seahawks need a clutch play late in a game or on third down, no player is better at delivering those moments than Doug Baldwin.
"I think a lot of it is the experience of playing with one another," said Wilson. "We have that chemistry in terms of Doug and I. And then also, he is hard to cover and he is really quick and really fast. He knows the game. He studies the game. He is passionate about the game and he is a great competitor. He is going to compete at the highest, highest level, and all he wants to do is win. And he will do that at all costs and so that is why I love having a guy like that I can throw too."
Standing in the way of Baldwin and a big game could be second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who has already established himself as one of the league's best cornerbacks. Ramsey, who Jacksonville listed as questionable for Sunday's game with a hamstring injury, probably won't shadow Baldwin the entire game if he plays, but the Jaguars will move him around some for various matchups, so those two could see quite a bit of each other. Ramsey, whose 16 passes defensed are the second most in the league, has also developed a reputation for using some smack talk to get into the heads of opposing receivers, not unlike a certain All-Pro teammate of Baldwin's. And maybe it's a decade of playing against Richard Sherman in practice and hearing the best Sherman has to offer, or maybe it's just Baldwin's demeanor, but the receivers says he won't let any talk get to him in this game.
"Honestly, when I go in the games, it doesn't really matter who I am playing against, I am really focused on me," he said. "I have to, that is the only way I know how to do it, so focused on my details and my assignment and then we will see what happens. I know that he is a very talented player. He's been in some situations, but I think that is just the competitive nature. When you have an extremely competitive guy, he is going to try to find whatever edge he can. I tip my hat to him in that regard. From that standpoint, I got to focus on me and my preparation for this week."
Take a look back through history at the Seahawks' matchups against the Jaguars as the two teams get ready to face off during Week 8 at Lumen Field.