The Seahawks can move into first place in the NFC West with a victory on Sunday, but that won't be an easy task with the 9-4 Los Angeles Rams coming to town. The Seahawks held on for a 16-10 victory when these teams met in Los Angeles earlier this season, but they know they'll have their hands full if they're going to sweep the season series.
"These guys are great in special teams, they're playing terrific defense, and their offense is way out there, averaging over 30 points a game," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "We just have to do everything right to have a chance, and that's what we're preparing to do."
If the Seahawks are going to come away victorious against the Rams, these are three key matchups that could make the difference Sunday afternoon:
1. Rams RB Todd Gurley vs. Seattle's Front Seven
The Rams have plenty of weapons on offense and a second-year quarterback, Jared Goff, who is playing very well, but no one on that side of the ball for Los Angeles is more dangerous than Todd Gurley, who leads the NFL with 13 touchdowns and has rushed for 1,035 yards while adding 602 receiving yards, giving him the second most yards from scrimmage in the league this season.
"The offense I think is clearly built around his ability and the dynamics of what he offers," Carroll said. "He's a terrific outside runner and inside runner, he's great with the ball in his hands coming out of the backfield, and he can do everything, and the remarkable thing about Todd is that he's so durable and so consistent. He's given them a real, obvious positive factor throughout, and they know it. They're going to him, coaches talk about it, and it's in the stats. There's no denying it. He's really the centerpiece."
The Seahawks more than held their own against Gurley in Week 5, limiting him to 50 total yards (43 rushing, 7 receiving), which was a big reason why Seattle held the Rams to just 10 points, their second-lowest point total of the season. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, their defense doesn't have the same personnel available now as it did in Week 5. Since that game, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman have been lost to season-ending injuries, and perhaps more significant when it comes to stopping a dual-threat running back, linebacker Bobby Wagner is listed as questionable for Sunday's game with a hamstring injury, while fellow Pro-Bowl linebacker K.J. Wright is doubtful because of a concussion.
Regardless of who is playing linebacker, the key when it comes to stopping a good running back is always the same.
"It's tackling," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "It's being consistent in our fits, understanding, essentially how they are going to try to attack us with their run scheme, and then being consistent with tackling."
2. An Improving Seahawks O-Line vs. Aaron Donald And Company
The Seahawks have seen pretty noticeable growth in the play of their offensive line in the second half of this season, both because of the addition of a very good player, left tackle Duane Brown, and also because of the continuity that unit is starting to build over the past month. Barring something unexpected taking place, the Seahawks will start the same five linemen—Brown, Luke Joeckel, Justin Britt, Ethan Pocic and Germain Ifedi—for the fourth straight game, something that has not yet happened this season.
"I think we are seeing it," offensive line coach/assistant head coach Tom Cable said of the line's growth. "The cohesiveness part of it is in play, so our communication has been really good against pressure, against the stunts, and the running game showed up a little bit. I think you are seeing the jelling happen, which is the best time for this to be going on because we really need it here down the stretch obviously. I think it's just showing up in their play."
Cable mentions that this is a good time for the line to be coming together not just because the Seahawks are heading into a very important stretch of games, but also because of who they're facing this week. The Rams have made things difficult on Seattle's offense over the years for a lot of reasons, but central to their disruptiveness is a defensive line led by All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson called "the best defensive player I've ever played against."
Donald has a team-best 8.0 sacks, a big number for an interior lineman, but he's much more than just a dangerous pass rusher. Take, for example, Seattle's first two possessions against the Rams earlier this season, both of which were derailed by Donald tackles for loss on first-down runs.
"That's Aaron's game," Cable said. "He's a disruptive guy, he has been disruptive, it doesn't matter who they play, so you want to minimize that as best you can. That's your target, is to try and not have those negative plays."
3. Special Teams
Seahawks fans probably don't need reminding of how dangerous the Rams can be on special teams—the recent history between the teams is littered with memorable trick plays the Rams have used against Seattle. But Los Angeles isn't dangerous in that phase just because special teams coordinator John Fassel is willing to take risks; the Rams are also just really talented and well-coached in that part of the game.
The Seahawks have also been very strong on special teams over the years under Carroll and special teams coordinator Brian Schneider, but they know they'll have to be at their best to prevent the Rams from making big plays in that phase on Sunday. So far this season, the Rams have scored three touchdowns on special teams, two on blocked punts and one kick return, and they've blocked three kicks—a punt, a field goal attempt and an extra point—in the past two games. They also have two of the best in the business at their positions in punter Johnny Hekker, a Bothell High School product, and kicker Greg Zuerlein.
"They're really good at it," Carroll said of L.A.'s special teams play. "They've always been really good, and Fassel does a great job coaching these guys. We've had great respect for all of the stuff that he's been able to do over the years, and fortunately, Brian Schneider has gone against him and he used to work with Brian, so we know them and they know us. Scheme, aggressive mentality, good players at the right spots, their special teams with the kicker, the punter, the returners, and (returner) Pharoh (Cooper) is going great on the back end. It's just a well-oiled group and they really challenge us."