When the Seahawks host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, they won't just be battling a good opponent, they'll also be looking to conquer what has been one of their toughest foes this season: themselves.
There is talent on Seattle's roster, lots of it, and on any given week, or within any given game, the Seahawks have very much looked like a team that is coming off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. The Seahawks have been in every game this season, holding a fourth-quarter lead in all 10 games, yet they have a 5-5 record, not just because they've played some very good teams, but because they've been unable to be at their best for four quarters in many of those games.
There's plenty of time for the Seahawks to make this another successful season, but to do that, they'll need to, as head coach Pete Carroll put it, "find the constancy that gives you a chance to make some noise later on." Which brings us to our three key matchups for Sunday's game against the Steelers:
1. Seahawks vs. their search for consistency.
There have been different culprits in different Seahawks losses, whether it was an offensive line trying to find its way early on, or a pass defense allowing big plays late in game, or any other number of breakdowns, but the one common theme Carroll sees in his teams struggles has been an inability to finish games playing as well as they're capable of doing, as well as they have shown they can play in victories an even for large stretches in losses. For the Seahawks, it's not so much about being better down the stretch, Carroll says, as it is mainlining the high level of play they've demonstrated at times, but with enough consistency.
"There's a lot of football to be played," Carroll said after last week's win over the 49ers. "We like what we're seeing right now, so we'll see if we can build on it. We have a chance to have a good team, we still do. We have always had that opportunity to play real well. We've seen enough good play throughout the season to know that. It's the consistency that needs to come to the front, and the ability to close out the wins."
Of course, finding consistency is easier said than done. It's not as if the Seahawks haven't been trying to be a consistently good team up to this point. So what needs to happen going forward?
"We have to keep coming back and doing it again," Carroll said. "The fact that we've played OK this week, and there's been some steady improvement showing up in the areas that we need, that just needs to continue. The last game's already done, so we've got to do it again. And then you look back and you say OK, we're on a little bit of a direction here that we like. So it's hard to tell that right now, but it feels like we're making a good move in the right direction, and we've got to get going. There's not that many games left now when you look at it."
2. Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Seahawks CB Richard Sherman (or whoever is covering him).
For obvious reasons, the Seahawks haven't tipped their hand on whether or not Richard Sherman will spend his day shadowing Steelers No. 1 receiver Antonio Brown, who ranks second in the NFL with 1,141 receiving yards. But whether it's Sherman or any other defensive back, keeping Brown in check will be a big priority for Seattle's defense.
"He has been so productive," Carroll said. "He's got 80 catches right now, way out there numbers-wise and all. They've made him by their commitment to him and his consistency and all, they've made him a great player. He's fantastic. He's a big a threat as there is in the league.
"He does everything. He's really fast. He plays fast on the field. He accelerates to the ball with great confidence. He makes plays on the sidelines. He makes plays in the back of the end zone. He's a tough guy inside. They put the ball on the perimeter to him on the screen stuff so he can catch and run. He's a punt returner too when they want to use him back there. He's got all those skills. He's just as natural, and fast, and then he's got Ben (Roethlisberger), who knows him and believes in him, and the coaching staff and all that. So he's just an extraordinary threat."
After spending most of his career sticking to left cornerback in Seattle's defense, Sherman has spent more time shadowing opposing teams' top receivers this season, and has had a lot of success limiting the production of players like Dallas' Dez Bryant, Cincinnati's A.J. Green and San Francisco's Torrey Smith. If Sherman does end up on Brown, it will definitely be a fun battle to watch, but he maintains that, just like every week, that will be strictly up to his coaches, and that he won't be lobbying to cover any one player.
"I go out there and do my job, whatever they ask me to do," Sherman said. "I don't change that for anybody because I think that's when you get caught up looking forward to things, and get caught up in the peaks and the valleys of a season—I'm going to get up for this guy, I'm not going to get up for this guy, we don't have to worry about these guys. You've got to worry about them all."
Of course, there's more to stopping the Steelers, or any offense, than shutting down a No. 1 receiver. Other than Arizona's duo of Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald, few receivers have had success against Seattle this year; instead it has been opposing tight ends doing the damage. Carroll is willing to live with tight ends or backs catching short passes—that's what comes with an emphasis on taking away big plays—but the Seahawks do need to keep those tight ends from making big plays, in particular long touchdown catches.
"Somebody's going to catch the ball," Carroll said. "It just depends. As long as we're controlling it, we're OK. I don't really care about the numbers. A guy catches eight balls or something, I don't care. It just on what happens in the game and do we control the game and all. We play a lot of zone, so there's some space for those guys to work it. When we let them up top and they make big plays, then that's really a bad play for us, and that stuff is not what I'm talking about. But if they're in the controlled part of it, that's going to happen some. That's happened for a lot of years, that's not a new experience for me."
3. Thomas Rawls and the league's No. 1 rushing offense vs. the Steelers run defense.
With Marshawn Lynch sidelined following surgery, rookie Thomas Rawls will again get the start at running back, and he and the rest of the offense will be looking to build off a huge performance in which Rawls rushed for 209 yards and the Seahawks gained 255 on the ground, helping them take over the league lead in rushing at 148.6 yards per game.
To have another big game rushing the ball, the Seahawks will have to get the job done against a very good Steelers defense, which allows just 93 rushing yards per game. Since giving up a season-worst 191 rushing yards to Baltimore early this season, the Steelers have held four of their last six opponents to 78 or fewer yards, including last week's game in which they allowed just 15 rushing yards to Cleveland. And when the Steelers do stop the run and put opponents in obvious passing situations, they're known for bringing pressure, which is all the more reason why the Seahawks need to get the ground game going.
"(They are) a 3-4 team moving everybody all around, different guys coming at you," Carroll said. "Every angle that you can pressure from they do it, and they do it a lot. They give up some yards sometimes on plays, but they're really good scoring-wise. They're tough against the run. They're just a really hard group to go against."