The Seahawks head to Los Angeles this weekend to face the first-place Rams, and based on past history, this figures to be a tough test. The Rams have won three straight home games against Seattle, though none of those by more than a six-point margin, so expect a close, physical game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
If the Seahawks are going to earn their first road victory of the season and improve to 3-2 heading into their bye week, these are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game:
1. Aaron Donald and Rams D-Line vs. Seattle's offensive line.
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but if the Seahawks are going to get going on offense, they need to at least limit the damage done by All-Pro, game-wrecking defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Seattle's line has made considerable progress over the past couple of games, but they'll be facing a huge test not just against Donald, but also the likes of Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers.
"He's really, really problematic," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Donald. "There's just nobody like him, quickness wise. For a guy that doesn't have a big stature, he's got extraordinary strength and explosion and ability to disengage and get off. He makes remarkable plays that other guys can't make. You don't know when it is going to happen, so he is really a challenge to play against… He's a nightmare."
The good news for Seattle is that its line continues to grow, as was demonstrated in last week's game in which Russell Wilson had more time to operate, and the running game got going, producing 194 yards on the ground.
"Consistency with the pass-protection was better there, and the run game was fit up pretty good all game," said offensive line coach/assistant head coach Tom Cable. "And then it kind of got going there with some explosive runs. It's better; and we just have to keep doing that, really. We're really trying to keep developing and keep growing and just see how far we can take it."
2. Seattle's passing game vs. the Rams pass defense.
Yes, the Seahawks most definitely want to establish the run, and the numbers suggest the Rams run defense could be vulnerable—Los Angeles is allowing 151.5 rushing yards per game, third worst in the NFL—but based on the past two weeks of play from Russell Wilson and his weapons, the Seahawks could be poised for a big day through the air as well.
Wilson has thrown for 668 yards and six touchdowns in the past two games, including 558 yards and five scores in the past six quarters. The Rams, meanwhile, have allowed 26.3 points per game, which ranks 28th in the league, and have given up 35 explosive plays (16-plus-yard pass, 12-plus run), tied for third most in the league, including 23 explosive passes. That could be good for an offense that, over the past two weeks, is tied for fourth in explosive plays with 17. If Wilson can be on it early, there should be opportunities for Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Paul Richardson, Jimmy Graham, Luke Willson and the rest of Seattle's weapons to make some big plays. And fortunately for the Seahawks, they'll have a much healthier version of Wilson than they did last time they were in Los Angeles. When the Seahawks played the Rams in Week 2 last season, Wilson was only a week removed from the high ankle sprain he sustained in Seattle's opener, and was far from being his usual, elusive self.
"I moved like a bag of bricks," Wilson said of that game in L.A. "I really couldn't move last time when we played them at the Coliseum. The ankle was pretty bad that day. I taped it up like crazy and I was just hobbling around. We still were able to find a way to get down the field and make some plays; we had a chance to win it, and they have a great football team. Whenever you're playing guys like Aaron Donald and Quinn and all of their linebackers and everybody that they have like [Alec] Ogletree and all of those guys, you have to be able to move every once in a while, because they're going to get there and they're going to make some plays, they have great players. We're looking forward to the challenge, and I'm glad I can be on my feet this time."
3. Rams RB Todd Gurley vs. Seattle's linebackers.
On the flip side of those numbers is the incredible start the Rams have gotten off to on offense. A quarter of the way through the season, the Rams lead the NFL in scoring (35.5 points per game), rank fifth in total offense (383.8 yards per game), and have 38 explosive plays, the second most in the NFL.
Second-year quarterback Jared Goff has improved a ton since the Seahawks saw him last season, and the Rams upgraded some of the talent around their young quarterback, but if there's one player who is capable of doing the most damage Sunday, it might be running back Todd Gurley.
"He is a terrific player," Carroll said. "He really can do everything. He runs good routes. He makes plays down field. He can shake and make you miss in the short routes passing game. He is an in-depth runner. He is tough, he is creative. He is off his feet a lot, jumping over guys and doing a lot of creative stuff. And he is obviously really durable. He is a stud. He can really hang in there and take all the load. He has been playing a lot."
Gurley isn't just the Rams' leading rusher with 362 yards on 86 carries, he also is their leading receiver with 20 catches for 234 yards. Gurley also has seven touchdowns—four rushing, three receiving—to lead the NFL.
"He has always been good, but they're finding ways to utilize him more," said linebacker K.J. Wright. "They're doing some impressive things with him out of the backfield. He's good running the ball and catching it."
Gurley's rushing and receiving ability means a lot will be asked of Seattle's Pro Bowl linebackers Wright and Bobby Wagner. The Seahawks have fared pretty well against dual-threat backs in large part because of their athletic linebackers, who aren't just good against the run, but can also cover.
"You've just got to know where he is at," Wagner said. "They are handing him the ball, and now they are starting to get him out on—I think (Goff) checks down a lot to Gurley and then he runs seams out of the backfield. So you just have to know where he is at. Know that they try and get him the ball. He is a special player, so why wouldn't you?"
"I feel like I always pay attention where the running back is at. But with him, you just have to know what they are trying to do, know how they are trying to attack, there are just some plays where he runs a seam out of the back field, it may not be you. It kind of depends on the defensive call and where you are at and things of that nature. But obviously I look forward to matchups like this and going against a good back like Gurley."