The Seahawks head to Baltimore this weekend having won three straight and five of six. Their offense is humming, the defense is coming off of a dominant performance, and the feeling among players is that they have found their way after a tough start to the season. The Ravens, meanwhile, are 4-8, they have question marks at quarterback, and they have been hit by a brutal amount of serious injuries, including the loss of starting quarterback Joe Flacco, receiver Steve Smith, running back Justin Forsett, linebacker Terrell Suggs and several other key players. So clearly the Seahawks should cruise to an easy victory in this one, right? Not so fast.
In the NFL, taking any team lightly is a recipe for disaster, and it's especially dangerous on the road against a John Harbaugh-coached team. The Seahawks know they have to be on top of their game to come away with a victory in Baltimore Sunday, which leads off our key matchups for Seattle's Week 14 game against the Ravens.
1. Seahawks "every week is a championship week" approach vs. a stretch of struggling opponents.
Richard Sherman vividly remembers the first time he overlooked what he thought was an inferior opponent.
"Pop-Warner," the Seahawks cornerback said. "We were 9-0, the other team hadn't won a game, and we lost. We lost by quite a bit. That was their first win of the season. We were in junior midget. I remember it vividly… I think ever since then, I've always understood that you take nobody for granted. Especially in this league, everybody's a pro. No matter who's in there, no matter who just stepped in. The next guy that stepped in could be a hall of famer. It's happened before, and it'll happen again."
For defensive end Michael Bennett, that lesson came later in life when his Texas A&M Aggies lost the 2008 season opener to Arkansas State.
"That was a bad loss," Bennett said. "Those first games in college, you usually think those are the easiest games. We didn't respect them the way we should have, and we ended up losing."
The lesson, whether it came in Pop Warner or in college, is that no opponent can be overlooked, and that especially holds true in the NFL, a league set up to foster parity. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll constantly preaches to his team that every week is a championship opportunity, not just because he doesn't want them overhyped for so-called "big games," but also because he knows that being any less prepared for a team with a losing record will lead to trouble. So this week and in the next two (Cleveland is currently 2-10 and St. Louis is 4-8), the Seahawks will need to show they can maintain a high level of play regardless of the opponent's record.
And it's not as if the Ravens are a bad team. Despite what their record says, they still have a lot of talent on their roster, every game has come down to the wire, and they're led by a Super Bowl winner who is one of the best coaches in the league.
"Baltimore's a very tough football team, and very able to do whatever they need to do to get a win on any gameday," Carroll said. "We feel good about where we're going and what we're doing and all, but we do see a very tough opponent coming up here. Just look at the history.
"They have been in very difficult games, and they've won a bunch of close ones. I think we have six games when the clock's run out, and they've won four of those. OT's, and challenges, and come-from-behinds, and all that kind of stuff, so they're really game-ready. They can withstand anything now. We're going to take them as an extremely difficult opponent. We see that on film and that's the way we're going about it."
2. Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and a red-hot passing game vs. Baltimore's pass defense.
Facing the Seahawks has long meant focusing on stopping a potent rushing attack, and that remains the case with Seattle leading the league in rushing at 146.6 yards per game, but now more than ever, stopping the run doesn't guarantee success against the Seahawks offense.
With Russell Wilson playing as well as he ever has—11 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past three games—and with Doug Baldwin on fire, catching 24 passes for 433 yards and six touchdowns over his past four, the Seahawks are showing they are more than capable of carving up an opposing defense that puts too much effort into stopping the run.
"I see a great player," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said on a conference call with Seattle-area reporters when asked about Wilson. "They built the offense around his skills and he's operating it really well. He does everything well, he throws, he runs, he gets into the right place. He does a good job. He's obviously playing at as high of a level as you can play."
Yet Wilson is far from alone in the passing game's resurgence. As mentioned, Baldwin is playing phenomenal football, rookie Tyler Lockett has been a dynamic addition to Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse at receiver, and perhaps most importantly, the pass protection has been much improved in the second half of the season. Add all of that up, and the Seahawks are looking as dangerous on offense as they ever have, but keeping that going against the Ravens won't be easy. Baltimore's defense, and the pass defense in particular, has been very good since the bye, allowing just 164 passing yards per game over the past four weeks.
"They're a very ferocious defense," Wilsons said. "They play with a tenacity that you can definitely notice on film. We have to get ready for that… When you turn on the film, they're playing great football in terms of their defense. Their defense flies around. They make a lot of plays, they get to the football and they play with a certain tenacity as you notice on film."
3. Ravens RB Javorius Allen vs. the Seahawks linebackers
If there's one silver lining in all the injuries that have piled up for the Ravens this season, it has been the emergence of rookie running back Javorius Allen, better known as Buck Allen, a fourth-round pick out of USC who has become a big part of Baltimore's offense in Justin Forsett's absence. In the past three games with Forsett out, Allen has rushed for 185 yards and has 184 receiving yards with two touchdown catches, including 107 yards and a touchdown on 12 catches last week.
Seattle's run defense has been outstanding all season—just ask Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, who had 18 yards against the Seahawks a week ago—but Allen's pass-catching ability could be the bigger challenge. While the Seahawks have been very good at limiting opponents' top outside receiving threats, sometimes teams have been able to exploit holes in their zone defense, which is why Carroll said his team went back to basics after giving up big passing numbers in a win over Pittsburgh. Tight ends and slot receivers have been the issue more than running backs, but a good pass-catching back like Allen could represent matchup problems if the Seahawks aren't on top of their game.
"We went back to fundamentals, yeah we did," Carroll said a day after his team held Minnesota to 125 yards. "We strictly did that. That's the technical part of breaking on the football, and good pass-drops and stuff like that, to ensure that we weren't giving up some loose areas in our zones and things. Guys did an excellent job… Which is absolutely critical to our play and our style of how we play defense. This was the best game that we've had, and most consistent game we've had at doing that. I think last week had an impact on it, everybody drawing back in to going back to basics, and we're going to continue to do that. It's an opportunity for every team to get better fundamentally as the season goes on, that doesn't always happen. That happened yesterday. You saw a shift in really the tightness of our zone play, and the plays that the guys were making coming out of their zones. So that's what happened."
Carroll says facing a pass-catching back like Allen will test those defensive fundamentals.
"It certainly does, because they do go to him," Carroll said. "A lot of the times when you're playing zone, the ball gets dumped off and you've got to do a really efficient job of deploying and tackling and all that. Buck does a nice job. He's good at catching the football and getting his footing right and getting going. So he'll test us."
The Seahawks have faced the Ravens only four times, twice at home and twice in Baltimore with the last meeting there being 12 years ago. This gallery throws you back to each game through photos and scores, right in time for their rubber match this Sunday.