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Three Key Matchups: Seahawks at Lions

The Seahawks have won three of four and feel like they’ve turned their season around following a slow start, but on Sunday they’ll be facing a team feeling the exact same way, as the Lions too have climbed to 3-3 after losing their first two games under first-year head coach Matt Patricia. Not only do the Seahawks and Lions have identical records having taken a similar path to get there, they’ve also followed a similar formula to get on track, most notably by running the ball and winning the turnover battle.

In short, whichever team is able to successfully play the type of football it has been playing for the better part of the last month has a good shot to come out ahead in Sunday’s game, but to look at some more specifics, here are three key matchups that could make the difference at Ford Field.

1. A surging Seahawks running game vs. a Detroit run defense looking to improve.

The Seahawks currently rank a respectable seventh in the NFL in rushing yards per game, but that doesn’t fully illustrate how well they’ve run the ball of late. In their first two games, a pair of road losses, the Seahawks rushed for a combined 138 yards, then in their past four have averaged 157.3 yards per game, including 155 or more yards in each of the past three games.

And it’s hardly a coincidence that the Seahawks’ overall offensive play has improved along with the running game. The Seahawks have been good on third down of late, Russell Wilson has been more efficient, throwing eight touchdowns and just one interception in the last four games, and the Seahawks now lead the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage at 73.3 percent.

“The ability to run it,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said when asked about that red-zone success. “… I’d start with the running game. I’d say that’s probably the first thing. We’ve been running it well, we’ve been moving people down there, we actually overcame some penalties against Oakland, which was cool to see, and then obviously his ability to make plays. We’re winning some one-on-one’s. That’s been good.”

The Lions, meanwhile, have so far been statistically one of the NFL’s worst teams against the run, giving up 139.3 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 30th, and allowing opponents to average a league-high 5.3 yards per carry. Those numbers could be a bit misleading, however, as the Lions have been perhaps more inconsistent than outright bad against the run, holding three opponents to 107, 98 and 89 rushing yards, while allowing their other three to rush for 169, 190 and 183 yards. And the Lions also made a big move this week to bolster their run defense, acquiring All-Pro defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison in a trade.

“I think the statistics are misleading,” Schottenheimer said. “If you watch this film, you would not think that, that’s not what you see on film. I think there’s been a couple big runs that maybe have gotten out that maybe tilt the stats, but this is a really good run defense. They’ve obviously added the ‘Snacks’ young man from the Giants. When you watch this film, they’re a really good run defense I think. Matt Patricia is a heck of a coach, (Lions defensive line coach) Paul Pasqualoni—it’s a really good scheme, having played the Patriots for all those years when I was with the Jets, they do a good job. They try to find single blocks and things like that. I am surprised that the number is what is, but I think that stats can be misleading—and in this case, I think that they are.”

For the Seahawks, establishing the run will also be key in trying to slow down a dangerous Lions pass rush, which has recorded 21 sacks this season, the fourth most in the NFL, and has produced at least three sacks in every game.

And the running game matchup will be significant when the Lions are on offense as well. For years, the Lions offense has relied heavily on its passing game, with Matthew Stafford putting up big numbers while the running game ranked at or near the bottom of the league. A few key draft picks and a coaching change have caused a big shift in Detroit’s offense, however, with the Lions now averaging 122.3 rushing yards per game, including a 248-yard rushing performance last week. Rookie running back Kerryon Johnson is leading the way with 444 rushing yards, and is averaging an impressive 6.4 yards per carry.

“Detroit has been really special in the running game,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “I think once they get the running game started, you see the whole offense really light up. They’ve been very effective, and it really turns a lot of things on as far as the offense really helps the quarterback. It’s exciting to see for them that the running game is something that we certainly have to pay a lot of attention to. When they run the ball, they’re successful. When we stop the run, we’re really successful. So, it’s their strength versus our strength, so it should be a really good challenge.”

2. Matthew Stafford & his weapons vs. Seattle’s stingy and opportunistic pass defense.

As much as the running game has added to Detroit’s offense, Stafford and the passing game are still hugely important to what the Lions want to do. And of late, Stafford is playing some of the best football of his career, having posted a passer rating over 100 in five straight games, the longest such streak of his 10-year career.

And part of what makes Detroit’s passing game so potent is the number of targets Stafford is using, including former Seahawk Golden Tate. Tate, who is averaging 77.8 receiving yards per game, and Kenny Golladay (77.5) are one of four receiving duos in the NFL to average better than 77 yards per game. Add to the mix Marvin Jones Jr. who has 270 receiving yards and three touchdowns, and a potent rushing attack, and it’s easy to understand why the Lions have the attention of Seattle’s defense.

“Matthew Stafford has always been a great football player,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “We’ve had great respect for his ability to throw the ball and he’s been a guy that has, over the years, relied on big passing days, big passing games, big emphasis that way. And coming off this game last week, where they just tore it up on the ground, it really makes it difficult to figure out what to do against them. He’s playing really efficiently, he’s really sharp, you can’t sack him, his numbers are great, his completion numbers are up—he’s doing everything well. It’s a very difficult style to play against. We’re going to crank it up and see if we can get it done.”

The Seahawks will counter with a pass defense that ranks third in yards allowed (206 per game) and third in opponent passer rating (79.9), and that has recorded nine interceptions.

3. The turnover battle.

The Seahawks come into this game with a plus-seven turnover ratio, which is tied for the second best number in the league. Not only has the defense been opportunistic, forcing 13 turnovers, but the offense has taken care of the ball, especially of late with just one turnover in the past four games.

The Lions are minus-one in turnover differential this season, but plus-two since a disastrous season-opener, and while the defense hasn’t forced a ton of turnovers, Stafford and the offense have been very good at taking care of the ball. Since turning the ball over once in a win over the Patriots, the Lions have not committed a turnover in their past three games.

So as cliché as it might sound, the winner of the turnover battle has a really good chance to come out on top on Sunday.

“If they’re not turning the ball over, that means it must be high value to them,” Norton Jr. said. “At the same time, getting the ball is high value to us, so it should be a clash of two important philosophies as far as protecting the ball and taking it away. So, it should be interesting how that turns out.”

The Seahawks and Lions will meet for the 14th time in the regular season this Sunday in Detroit. Take a look back at photos from past games played between the two teams.

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