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3 Key Matchups: Seahawks at Titans

The Seahawks travel to Nashville this weekend for what should be a tough test against the Tennessee Titans, a young and talented team looking to end an eight-year playoff drought.

“This is a really good looking team,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “The Titans have all kinds of fire power… This is a really good, tough matchup. We’re going to have to play really good football if we want a chance against these guys. It’s a good challenge for us this time of year.”

If the Seahawks are going to improve to 2-1 and earn their first road victory of the season, here are three key matchups that could make the difference Sunday:

1. Seattle’s pass protection vs. Tennessee’s pressure and a coaching legend.

When it comes to pass protection, the Seahawks took a step forward from Week 1 to Week 2, but if the offense is going to continue that progress Sunday, they’ll have to be on top of their game against an aggressive defense that is led by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a coaching legend who has been in the Hall of Fame since 2010 and who has more than 40 years of coaching experience under his belt.

LeBeau’s defenses are known not just for bringing pressure, but for doing so in creative ways, which means Seattle’s linemen, as well as quarterback Russell Wilson, will have their hands full.

“When you have Dick LeBeau on your side, you’ve got defensive scheme that doesn’t end,” Carroll said. “… He has evolved. He has never gotten stagnant. He continues to add stuff. I’ve seen it for so many years and studied it for so many years. He is doing new things, and you don’t know what he is going to do, you just have to wait until game time and adjust during game time. He makes it very difficult.”

Extra rushers will put a strain on the linemen, tight ends and backs who have to handle those pass-rushers, but equally important is what goes on between Wilson and center Justin Britt before the play begins. If those two can properly diagnose what the defense is doing, then the Seahawks offense has a good chance to function well, but get it wrong pre-snap, and plays can be ruined before they ever get going.

“That is the burden of really Justin Britt and Russell to figure that out as they identify stuff,” Carroll said. “First of all, that is what starts. Then from there, to know what the weaknesses of our protection or the advantage they may have, maybe a hot guy, so he knows where to go with the football. That gives him the best chance to get started. But most of all, is to be poised and to be calm under pressure, when you know it’s happening, so you can execute really well and you can physically do what you need to do. Throw the ball like you need to, move your feet like you need to, read the coverage and the routes like you need to, so there is a whole sequence of things.”

Of course, there’s plenty to get done after the snap as well, especially for a quarterback who knows that pressure is coming but still has to stay calm and execute a play.

“If you are not poised after the snap and you can stay calm about it and deal with it, then it doesn’t matter if you make the right call or not, you are going to misfire,” Carroll said. “There is a lot to it. It is an incredible part of the game that it is hard to really appreciate for people that watch, how much is going on and how difficult it is for a guy to execute under those circumstances. So it is a magnificent part of the game and the challenge that the quarterbacks have every week.”

2. The turnover battle.

The Titans have gone from one of the league’s worst teams in 2014 and 2015 to playoff contender for a lot of reasons. There have been changes at the top, with Jon Robinson taking over as general manager and Mike Mularkey getting the head coaching gig; the roster is drastically different; and third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota is one of the game’s more exciting young talents. But if you’re looking for one number that demonstrates the turnaround, look no further than the Titans’ turnover differential.

While winning just five games combined in 2014 and 2015, the Titans had a minus-24 turnover differential, and they were again in the red during the first half of last season. But over the final seven games of 2016, five of them victories, the Titans had a plus-6 differential, and they are again in the positive this year at plus-2.

“Well it cost us games, especially early on,” Mularkey said on a conference call with Seattle-area media. “Our opener last year, we lost because of two turnovers for touchdowns. That is the one thing we are trying to minimize. We had multiple turnovers for touchdowns last year and that is difficult to overcome, typically your percentage of winning aren’t very good. So a big emphasis on that started in April and our guys are buying into it and we work on it every day.”

The Seahawks, meanwhile, have lived by Carroll’s “it’s all about the ball” mantra for years, and are looking to be more dominant in that category this season having finished at plus-1 in turnover differential last season after being a Top 5 team in that category each of the previous four seasons.

If the Seahawks, who have two takeaways, both interceptions, are going to add to that total, they’ll need to force Mariota to make a rare mistake. Mariota has a 46 to 20 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a very solid number for a third-year quarterback, but even more impressively, Mariota has never thrown a red zone interception in his career while passing for 33 touchdowns.

“The guy has a great conscience, a great awareness, in the most difficult area to throw the football, he is really good at it,” Carroll said. “He is really efficient, so I think it bodes really well for him.”

3. Tennessee’s running game vs. Seattle’s run defense.

One of the reasons Mariota and the Titans have done well in the red zone is that the Titans have a balanced offense, taking pressure off of the passing game. Through two games, the Titans have rushed for 137 yards per game, which ranks sixth in the league, and they did their most of their damage last week without starting running back DeMarco Murray, who left the game with a hamstring injury. Between Murray, whose status for this week remains unknown, former Heisman winner Derrick Henry, who is coming off a career-best game, and Mariota, a dangerous dual-threat quarterback, the Titans have plenty of options in the running game.

“It’s hard, it’s very challenging,” Carroll said of Tennessee’s run game. “Those guys are both terrific runners; they can run inside and outside, they’re physical runners, they have style, they make big runs and all of that. With Mariota’s ability to add to that, it makes it as complex as you can get. It’s a big challenge for our guys to play right, they’re working really hard this whole week to be disciplined and really on point, so we’re making all of our fits right and all of that. Those guys make it very difficult.”

The Titans also have one of the league’s better offensive lines, which will be tested facing a loaded Seahawks front-seven. The Seahawks allowed the fewest rushing yards per carry in the league last year, and other than a pair of big runs given up last week, they have been stout in that department again this year.

“It’s definitely going to test our discipline, because they’ve got a lot of moving parts, a lot of motions, a lot of, you could call it trickiness to their offense,” said Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner. “It kind of reminds me of the (Colin) Kaepernick days where they’d pull guys to the left but run to the right. But we’ve seen it before, we’ve just got to be disciplined.”

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