The Seahawks head to St. Louis this weekend to open their season in a building that hasn't always been kind to them in recent years. Seattle lost in the Edward Jones Dome 28-26 last year thanks in large part to some big plays on special teams by the Rams, and overall have lost three of five meetings in St. Louis since 2010. And win or lose, those games tend to be low-scoring defensive battles that are usually among of the most physical games either teams play in any given season.
"They're a good team," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "They play us really tough, they play everybody in the division tough. They do a lot of good things and give you a lot of problems. They have made problems for us there, for sure. We're going to have to be ready for a lot of stuff, they've done a great job in the kicking game in years past, and just kind of in general making it hard on us, so we take this matchup very seriously, we respect what they do, their personnel, and (Rams coach Jeff Fisher) does a fantastic job of coaching up this team and we're up against them."
Here are three key matchups that could determine the winner in Seattle's Week 1 game at St. Louis:
1. An inexperienced offensive line vs. a great defensive line.
You'll notice the teams aren't specified above, and that's because this matchup goes both ways. The Seahawks have two new starters on their line—right tackle Garry Gilliam and center Drew Nowak—and a left guard, Justin Britt, who was their right tackle last season. The Seahawks are very confident in this group, which might be as athletic of an offensive line as they have assembled under the current coaching staff, but a talented Rams defensive line still represents a very tough opening test for a new-look line. The Rams have five first-round picks on their defensive line, including Aaron Donald, last year's defensive rookie of the year, and Robert Quinn, who has 40 sacks over the past three seasons. In his six career games against the Rams, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been sacked 25 times.
"Obviously the biggest thing is going to start up front," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "They have a great front four, that's really where their defense starts. We have to make sure that we take care of those guys. They really want to cause pressure with their front four. (Rams defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams has a great blitz package as well, so we'll have to be able to have answers. Protection is really a big key this week, make sure that we handle the front four, but then handle their pressure package as well."
On the other side of the ball, St. Louis' offensive line will have its hands full as well. St. Louis is starting two rookies, left guard Jamon Brown and right tackle Rob Havenstine, as well as a new center, Tim Barnes. Seattle's defensive line doesn't get as much attention as St. Louis', but with pass rushers like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, veteran nose tackle Brandon Mebane and a lot of depth, the Seahawks will present a formidable challenge for the Rams line.
Whichever young offensive line can function best against a very good defense could very well determine the outcome of this game.
2. A new Rams quarterback vs. a new-look L.O.B.
When the Rams picked Sam Bradford with the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 draft, they thought they had a long-term solution at quarterback, but unfortunately for Bradford, injuries kept him from ever getting on track. This offseason the Rams sent Bradford to the Philadelphia Eagles for Nick Foles and draft picks. Foles put up some impressive numbers in parts of three seasons with the Eagles, throwing 46 touchdowns with just 17 interceptions and a passer rating of 94.2. He'll be in a different offense with the Rams, but the hope in St. Louis is that some stability at the position will lead to more consistent offensive performances.
"I'd like to think our quarterback situation has settled down," Fisher said, noting that the Seahawks have faced Shaun Hill, Austin Davis and Kellen Clemens as starting quarterbacks over the past two seasons. "… I think that will help us be a much improved team."
And while the Rams have somebody new to throw the passes, the Seahawks will look different when it comes to defending them. All-Pros Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman are still around, though Thomas didn't play in the preseason, so there's plenty of talent in the back end of Seattle's defense, but with Kam Chancellor having still not reported, Dion Bailey will make his NFL debut as a starter. Byron Maxwell left in free agency, which means another new starter, veteran Cary Williams, who was a starter in both Philadelphia and Baltimore before signing with the Seahawks in free agency. Jeremy Lane, last year's nickel cornerback, is on the physically unable to perform list, so that's another role that needs to be filled, perhaps by Marcus Burley, who played there some last year, or rookie Tye Smith. The Seahawks have confidence in anybody they put on the field, but it will still be interesting to see this new-look secondary play together for the first time.
"We've worked really hard with our guys," Carroll said. "It's great to have Earl back, our depth at corner helps us. Dion Bailey has had a great offseason and camp with us. He's been in the position for quite a while with us; we feel very comfortable. He understands the principles and the fits and all the things he has to do. He's a playmaker and he's a very aggressive tackler so we're going to count on him to do the things that he does well and hopefully fit him in with this group. Really we're moving, we're ready to go, we've had a long time getting ready with him, so we feel comfortable with that."
3. Jimmy Graham vs. whoever is covering him.
The Seahawks showed very little of how they plan to use their newest weapon during their preseason games, but now that the results matter, expect a lot more of Graham in Seattle's passing game. During his time in New Orleans, Graham proved to be one of the most effective red-zone weapons in the NFL thanks to his rare combination of size, athleticism and catching ability, and the Seahawks are expecting Graham to help upgrade their red-zone offense this season.
"He's a dynamic playmaker, without question," Bevell said. "There's going to be situations where he's able to show up big, situational football, where you're talking red zone, third down, where you're hoping you can make that a factor."
As is always the case with a good tight end, the Rams will have different options to cover Graham, none of which are perfect answers—a linebacker who is big enough to be physical with Graham might not be able to keep up with him, while a defensive back who is quick enough to cover Graham probably can't out-muscle him for a jump-ball. The Seahawks' offense, and particularly their rushing attack, further complicates matters for the Rams. If St. Louis double-teams Graham, which teams often did against the Saints, that's one fewer defender to stop a running game that is already more difficult to stop than most because of the threat of a running quarterback. And time and time again when teams loaded the box to stop the run, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse showed they could make plays against one-on-one matchups. Now with Graham and rookie receiver Tyler Lockett in the mix, that makes matchup up with Seattle's offense even more difficult.
"I think it's pretty tough when you get 24, 88, 16, 15 and 89 (on the field)," Bevell said. "I think that's a pretty dynamic package that I think defenses are going to have to worry about."