The Seahawks travel to Los Angeles this weekend looking to bounce back from a tough Week 9 loss to the Chargers, but they know that doing so will be a challenge against the 8-1 Los Angeles Rams, who before losing in New Orleans last week, were the league's last unbeaten team. When these two teams met earlier this season at CenturyLink Field, the Rams narrowly escaped with a 33-31 victory after the Seahawks' final drive came up just short of field-goal range, and the Seahawks will head to L.A. respecting the quality of their opponent while also confident they have what it takes to beat them.
Here are three key matchups that could help decide Sunday's game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum:
1. Seattle's offensive line vs. Aaron Donald and company.
For several years the Seahawks offense, even in victories, has struggled when facing a Rams defensive line led by Aaron Donald, last year's NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a three-time first-team All-Pro. In last month's meeting, however, the Seahawks offensive line didn't just hold its own against Donald, Ndamukong Suh and company, it got the better of that group for much of the afternoon. The Seahawks lost that Week 5 meeting, but the offensive line gained a lot of confidence, paving the way for a 190-yard rushing performance while also keeping Russell Wilson clean for most of the game, with the Rams recording two sacks and three quarterback hits, a significant upgrade from recent games against the Rams.
"We played well; we didn't play well enough to win the game," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "I thought the running game started off really good against them. We did some really good things with that regard—we hit some big plays, but the ultimate goal is to win. That's the main thing, we didn't do that. We need to be better and it will be another great challenge going against them."
The Seahawks know it'll be difficult to have that kind of success against the Rams again, especially with running back Chris Carson (hip) and guard D.J. Fluker (calf) both questionable to play due to injuries, but they also know that being one-dimensional against the Rams and Donald, who has 10 sacks in the past six games, is a dangerous way to play.
"Aaron Donald's one of the best football players I've ever played against," Wilson said. "He's got great quickness, great understanding of the game, plays the game the right way, he's tough. Obviously, he can make all the plays. When you're going up against guys like Aaron, you really appreciate the game, just because I love playing against some of the best players in the world. I've been able to play some great players—guys like Aaron Donald, Von Miller. There's a lot of other guys I've been fortunate to play against, and Aaron's definitely one of the guys you think about, maybe a Hall of Fame player for sure. He's got great talent, can do all the things. Now, I don't like when he's going after me, but he's a special player. You've got to slow him down, you're not going to stop him. You've got to slow him down as much as you can and make the smart decisions when he's around you and getting the ball out of your hand – just making the smart plays."
2. Two explosive passing games vs. defenses hoping to prevent big plays.
While both teams have dangerous running attacks and will try to use them, a big reason they combined to score 63 points in Week 5 was the ability of both quarterbacks to move the ball in big chunks.
Wilson, who averaged 9.4 yards per passing attempt in that game, completed four passes of 30 or more yards, including touchdown passes of 30 and 39 yards. And as talented as Los Angeles' defense has been, it has been susceptible to big plays this season, giving up 49 explosive passing plays (16 or more yards), tied for 10th most in the league. The Seahawks have fared a little better in that department, allowing 40, which is tied for sixth fewest, but against the Rams, Seattle gave up five completions of 20 or more yards while Jared Goff averaged 10 yards per attempt. Particularly troubling for Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was that three of those five big plays came on relatively short passes that turned into big gains, either because a player had a ton of room to run after catching the ball, or because of a missed tackle.
"We have to work with the under coverage better than we did last game," Carroll said. "We gave up some stuff that they dumped off and made a lot of yards after the catch. A couple of those were tackles, but just deployment and stuff. We just need to work better with our guys. We rushed quite a bit with five guys last time we played them and when that happens, you just have to cover down a little bit better than we did. We have to clean that up."
One player who could be a big help with those short and intermediate passes in the middle of the field is linebacker K.J. Wright, who missed the previous game while recovering from knee surgery. Wright is listed as questionable for the game, but he did practice Friday and Carroll sounded optimistic about Wright's chances of playing.
"There's no question he's going to help us," Carroll said. "He just understands the principles that are necessary in this game because of the play passes and the things they do. He's extraordinarily equipped to take care of some of those players a lot of players aren't able to make, so we're hoping that that will come through for us and he'll be a big factor."
3. Rams running back Todd Gurley vs. Seattle's run (and pass) defense.
It's rare in today's pass-happy NFL for a running back to earn serious consideration for an MVP award, but midway through the season, it's not crazy to put Todd Gurley in that conversation. Gurley not only leads the NFL in rushing yards with 868, he also has 362 receiving yards, and he has scored 16 total touchdowns (12 rushing, four receiving).
On one hand, the Seahawks did a pretty good job against Gurley, holding him to 77 yards on 22 carries, giving him his second worst yards-per-carry average of the season, but on the other hand, Gurley scored three short touchdowns, part of his 12-game streak of scoring at least one touchdown.
For the Seahawks cleaning up big plays, whether by Gurley or anyone else, is a key on run defense. Seattle has kept some very good backs in check this year, but the overall run-defense numbers don't look very good because opponents have been able to hit enough big plays to skew the numbers.
"I always tell you about the running game, it's always about discipline and it's always about being really strictly fitted together, and we misfit some stuff and anticipation of some other things," Carroll said after the Chargers hit some big runs against Seattle last week. "We just needed to clean it up."
The Seahawks and Rams will meet for the 42nd time in the regular season this Sunday in Seattle. Take a look back at photos from past games played between the two teams.