The Seahawks host the Houston Texans Sunday in what on paper appears to be a strength-on-strength matchup. The Seahawks currently have the league's best scoring defense, allowing 15.7 points per game, and the Texans owning the league's No. 3 scoring offense (29.5) after scoring at least 30 points in four straight games.
In addition to the big-picture, offense vs. defense battle, here are three key matchups that could make the difference if the Seahawks are going to extend their winning streak to four games and stay unbeaten at home:
1. Rookie Deshaun Watson vs. Seattle's defense… and fans.
The last rookie quarterback to win a game at CenturyLink Field was Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, who helped lead the Bengals to victory over Seattle midway through the 2011 season. For a little perspective on how long ago that was, consider that that game was Richard Sherman's first of 106 consecutive starts, postseason included. Other than that game, rookie QBs are 0-7 in Seattle since Pete Carroll took over as Seattle's head coach, both because the Seahawks have been one of the best defensive teams in football for most of that time, and also because CenturyLink Field represents one of football's most hostile environments.
"Every offense's goal is to go on a roll and try and shut the crowd out and quiet them," Watson told reporters in Houston this week. "But it's going to be a tough task, and we understand that. We respect the Seattle environment and their defense. We've just got to go up there and focus on our job and try to do that."
Watson played well in plenty of big games and hostile environments during his career at Clemson, but he and his team know facing a loaded Seahawks defense presents an entirely different challenge, regardless of venue.
"It's hard," Texans coach Bill O'Brien told reporters when asked about facing Seattle's defense. "It's really hard. It's all three levels. There's really no weakness to their defense. It's (Michael) Bennett, it's (Frank) Clark up front. Now they just signed (Dwight) Freeney, and then you have the second level where you have Bobby Wagner in the middle and then obviously in the secondary with (Kam) Chancellor and Earl (Thomas) and Richard Sherman. I mean, those guys are playing at a high level and it's going to be hard. I know this sounds cliché, but it's not—it's one play at a time. It's focusing on your job, trying to eliminate distractions and just keep it simple. Keep it simple in your mind and try to play fast and play smart and that's what we have to do. We have to try to string plays together, which is hard to do against their defense but that's what we have to do."
But while Watson and the Texans have their hands full, he appears to be as well-equipped as any rookie can be to take on a loaded defense in a tough venue. Since taking over the starting job, Watson has a 101.1 passer rating and has thrown 15 touchdown passes with five interceptions. He's also a running threat, having scored twice on the ground and averaging 7.2 yards per carry.
"It doesn't take long to see how versatile he is, the dynamic player that he is," Carroll said. "He's rushing for over 7 yards a carry. His efficiency's rated a hundred and something, you know, 15 and 5 with touchdowns and picks, and he's doing great. There's nothing he can't do. He's doing it all and he's making marvelous throws and these tight-window throws. All across the board from the top down, he can do it all, so they've got to be just thrilled they have him."
And it's not just Watson's physical talents that have impressed the Seahawks.
"He looks really good," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "The biggest thing that stands out to me is his composure. If he gets sacked it doesn't affect him… His composure is what stands out to me the most."
2. Doug Baldwin vs. Houston's pass defense, especially on third down.
Six games into the season, Doug Baldwin is what he has been for most of his career, one of Seattle's best and most reliable offensive weapons. Coming off a nine-catch, 92-yard game with a touchdown, Baldwin showed again last week, and particularly on third downs, how big of a factor he can be in game. Baldwin is also a big reason why the Seahawks, for all their offensive inconsistencies, have been one of the league's better third-down teams, converting 43.3 percent of their third-down chances, which ranks eighth in the league. Over the past three games, the Seahawks are second best in the NFL on third down at 53.3 percent.
"I don't think anybody can cover him," Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said of Baldwin. "He's so fast, he's so quick, he's explosive, he can get down the field, there's a lot of things that he can do. I think that he's a competitor; third-down is about competing and finding a way to make a play, and that's usually the case. Doug is a guy that you rely on, you know that you can trust, and he's going to do it right, and he's going to get open fast and he's going to make a play."
The Texans, meanwhile, are strong across the board on defense, even minus two of their best defensive players, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. And on third down, the Texans are allowing teams to convert only 34.6 percent of their chances, which ranks eighth in the league. Houston is also expecting to get cornerback Kevin Johnson, a former first-round pick, back after a four-game injury absence, making their pass defense even better.
3. Houston's red-zone threats vs. Seattle's pass defense.
One of the big reasons why the Seahawks have the league's top scoring defenses is that they've allowed touchdowns on only 28.6 percent of opponents' red zone possessions, the best mark in the league. Conversely, the Texans are one of the NFL's highest scoring teams because they're scoring touchdowns on 65 percent of red zone trips, which ranks fourth in the NFL and first in the AFC.
In addition to Watson's strong overall play, one of the biggest reasons for Houston's red zone success has been the play of receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller V, who have combined for 11 touchdown receptions. Hopkins is Watson's top target with 37 catches for 382 yards and six touchdowns. Injuries have limited Fuller to three games and he has just eight catches this season, but the speedy 2016 first-round pick has scored five touchdowns on those eight catches and is averaging 19.3 yards per reception.
"DeAndre has great hands, he's strong at the point of attack," Sherman said. "Will Fuller has tremendous speed, and the quarterback has a big enough arm to get the ball to him, so you've always got to be aware of where he is. DeAndre's a bigtime third-down threat, especially on the back side, single receiver side, they're going to look to get him the ball."
Take a look back through history at the Seahawks' matchups against the Texans as the two teams ready to face off during Week 8 at CenturyLink Field.