The Seahawks host Washington Sunday in the first meeting between the two NFC foes since a Seahawks road victory in 2014. The Seahawks (5-2) are looking to continue a run of strong play, while Washington (3-4) is hoping to bounce back from consecutive losses while dealing with an unusual number of significant injuries.
If the Seahawks are going to win a fifth straight game to improve their record to 6-2, here are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game:
1. Washington OLB Ryan Kerrigan vs. Seattle's Offensive Tackles.
The Seahawks made a big move this week to upgrade their offensive line, acquiring Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown in a trade with the Houston Texans.
But while Brown is expected to make a difference right away both in pass protection and the running game, the tackle who might be most important in Sunday's game is right tackle Germain Ifedi, because he'll be contending with Washington's Pro-Bowl pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan.
Kerrigan, who has started all 103 games of his career dating back to 2011, piled up 34 sacks over the past three seasons, and is off to a strong start again this year, recording 6.0 sacks through seven games, including at least half a sack in all but one game. Kerrigan does move around some, so Brown and Kerrigan could face off in a battle of Pro-Bowl veterans, but Kerrigan has done most of his damage throughout his career from the left side of the defense, meaning a big test for Ifedi.
"He's a really good football player," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Kerrigan. "He's talented, he's got strength and size and all that stuff, but the best part about him is how hard he plays. He has a tremendous motor and he just won't let up. He is going to break you down in the game, run, pass, run and pass. He has been an excellent player but he just plays with such a high motor that you just have to take care of him play after play after play and he is going to get you some in the game anyway. He is just that good."
The Seahawks have been solid in pass protection of late, but keeping Kerrigan from getting to Wilson, and from disrupting the running game, will be a challenge for the offensive line.
"He's a hard-charging guy," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "He is a really high-effort guy, really does a nice job getting to the quarterback with that effort. No quit in him, so it will be a good challenge."
2. Seattle's Run Game vs Washington's Up-And-Down Run Defense.
In last week's dramatic win over Houston, the Seahawks demonstrated rather emphatically that they can lean on the passing game to win when necessary, but that doesn't mean Carroll wants his offense to be that one-dimensional every week. Ideally, Carroll, Bevell and offensive line coach/assistant head coach Tom Cable want to see a balanced offense capable of making explosive plays on the ground and in the air, and one big goal this week will be to get that running game going again.
"I'm hoping that we'll get in rhythm," Carroll said. "I don't feel like we have been in rhythm; I think I have held them back a little bit by spreading it around quite a bit and trying to figure that out, so as we zero in here, heading into the second half, I'm hoping that we are going to make some real headway."
The bigger issue in the running game struggles, according to coaches, has been the blocking, but as Carroll notes, it might also help to let one running back try to get in a rhythm rather than split the work load pretty evenly between Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls, which is what the Seahawks have done in the past three games since Chris Carson went down with a leg injury. So don't be surprised if the Seahawks go with one lead back in this week's game in an attempt to jumpstart the running game.
"We missed," Cable said of last week's game in which Seattle rushed for 33 yards, 30 of which came on Wilson scrambles. "We targeted right and all, but we just missed blocks. Too many negative plays, so one of the good things about this game, it's a little bit like some businesses; there's always something to work on, something to fix. One aspect is getting better, in terms of protection, and now we seem to be kind of going backwards in the run-game for, really, two weeks here. We just need to clean it up; we need to fit our helmets properly, hit our aiming points, be clean with our hands and our feet, and when that happens, we'll be fine. I think the move towards trying to establish a back, rather than multiple backs, I think that will also help a little bit in terms of seeing it, but we need to be cleaner. It wasn't clean enough on Sunday."
Washington will counter with a run defense that has been really good in some games, but has struggled a bit in others. Through five games, Washington held four of five opponents under 100 rushing yards, but Dallas had 169 rushing yards last week, and Philadelphia had 127 the week before. One reason for that shift has been the quality of opponents over the past two weeks (Dallas and Philadelphia), but injuries are also catching up to Washington's defense.
"I think our front, when we were healthy, we had Ziggy (Hood) and Jonathan Allen and Matt (Ioannidis), and we had a good rotation with Stacy (McGee) and Terrell McClain," Washington coach Jay Gruden said on a conference call. "Now, with Matt and Jonathan out, our guys are going to have to step up. Stacy is going to have to play more, Terrell is going to have to play more, and now we have Arthur Jones in the mix, and obviously Anthony Lanier, so our front has taken a little bit of a hit… Then, obviously losing Mason Foster, Will Compton is a capable linebacker in space, so I think the addition of Zach Brown really helps a lot. Obviously, the addition of Stacy McGee and Jonathan Allen, although they're not here anymore, and Terrell McClain has helped a lot, and our outside linebackers play very, very good against the run. Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith and Ryan Anderson have played very good against the run, and we have good tackling in the secondary."
3. Washington Running Back/Kick Returner Chris Thompson vs. Pretty Much Everyone.
While quarterback Kirk Cousins is the player who makes the Washington offense go, his most dangerous weapon might be running back Chris Thompson, who went from role player early in his career to one of the focal pieces off the offense this season.
"They give this guy the ball a whole lot—screens, treat him like a wide receiver," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "It's fun as a linebacker when you have that matchup. We know that once 25 gets out there, you've got to keep an eye on him, because he's going to be featured."
As Wright notes, Thompson is featured in the passing game as well as in the running game, so much so that he is the team's leading receiver with 442 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 31 catches. Thompson also leads the team in rushing with 231 yards and two scores on 47 carries, and serves as the team's primary kick returner,
"We have to make sure that we have eyes on him at all-times, and then make sure we do a great job with our leverage," Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "… He's shifty, he's fast, he has good hands, but obviously, he has return skills. Out in the open space, he has the ability to make people miss."
An encouraging sign for Seattle is that its defense, and athletic linebackers in particular, have held up well against dual-threat backs, whether that was last year against the Falcons or this season against Los Angeles when the Seahawks held Todd Gurley to 50 total yards.
"The coaches definitely emphasize it—this is what we're going to get, so expect it and handle it," Wright said. "… We've got to take away their best thing."
Take a look back through history at the Seahawks' matchups against the Redskins as the two teams ready to face off during Week 9 at CenturyLink Field.