The Seahawks are coming off of back-to-back wins, and head coach Pete Carroll has seen "marked improvement" out of his team following an 0-2 start.
"We're finding ourselves, we're finding our way to play the game," Carroll said earlier this week. "Offense and defense fitting together very well, the kicking game continues to be solid. We have a chance to continue to improve. I think we're just getting rolling."
If the Seahawks are going to keep rolling Sunday, they're going to need to be on top of their game, because coming to town this weekend are the NFC West-leading Los Angeles Rams, one of only two undefeated NFL teams along with Kansas City.
Here are three key matchups that could make the difference when the Seahawks host the Rams at CenturyLink Field Sunday:
1. The Seahawks' offensive line vs. Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and company.
The Seahawks have seen some very encouraging signs of growth from their offensive line, ranging from a dramatic drop in sacks—12 through two games; four in the past two—to increased productivity in the running game, with the Seahawks averaging 5.0 yards per carry last week.
"I think it's really worth noting that the offensive line continues to improve," Carroll said earlier this week. "When you look at the first couple of weeks when we had all the sacks, the last couple of weeks we just haven't. Way better pass protection-wise, and also the running game has really come to life. Running the ball over thirty times the last couple of games is really a message that we are trying to project that this is how we want to play these football games. That was good stuff. Justin Britt played really good coming back. He played well with D.J. (Fluker) and with (J.R. Sweezy) on the other side of him, so that just looked good, looked strong."
This week, Seattle's line will get a very good indicator of just how far it has come while facing what is arguably the most talented defensive line in the NFL, a group that features reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, as well as free-agent addition Ndamukong Suh, a five-time Pro-Bowler.
With those two anchoring the line, the Rams are allowing just 86 rushing yards per game, the fifth-lowest total in the league. And while the Rams' sack total of eight isn't exactly eye-catching, they have the league's best "pressure rate" according to Pro Football Focus, meaning they're affecting quarterbacks even when they're not recording sacks.
"Obviously, Aaron Donald is of the best defensive linemen—one of the best players in football across the board," quarterback Russell Wilson said. "He's physical, he's fast, he's quick, he knows how to get to the quarterback, he's got great timing. He's a superstar. To be able to play against guys like that, it's always great just because those are great moments and memories and everything else. He's just a tremendous football player. I think with Suh, the addition of Suh, he's been one of the best football players in the game for a long time and he's just as physical as can be. He knows how to get to the quarterback. He has great timing, as well. Suh will go outside sometimes even and play on the edge and rush the quarterback. He's made a few plays rushing from defensive end. Most people think of him as a big nose tackle or whatever, but he's quick as can be and he can go outside and play end to make some plays and cause some havoc. You've always got to have great awareness for where those guys are. I mean, they're true playmakers, as good as it gets. Got a lot of respect for them."
2. Rams running back Todd Gurley vs. Seattle's run defense.
The Rams feature one of the most prolific passing attacks in the NFL, led by former No. 1 pick Jared Goff, but they're far from one dimensional. And as explosive as that passing game is, one of their biggest threats remains running back Todd Gurley, last year's NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
"Gurley is a really good running back," Carroll said. "He's as good as you can find in football, and it's not just because he's in a good offense. It's because he's a hell of a player running with the ball in the open field, running up inside, catching the ball out of the backfield. He's just a great player, so it will call for us to really tackle well."
While it's oversimplifying things to say the Rams offense goes as Gurley goes, it's not a coincidence either that the Seahawks beat the Rams in Week 5 of last year when they held Gurley to 50 total yards, and lost to L.A. later in the season when Gurley averaged 7.2 yards-per-carry and had 180 total yards and four touchdowns. And Gurley is off to another strong start, with 338 rushing yards, 194 receiving yards and six total touchdowns through four games.
"You've seen the film, he's special," defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. "He's a receiver, he's a runner, he's powerful, he's explosive, he has great vision. Anytime you watch all the really good backs over the years, he has all those attributes that the good backs have."
3. Pete Carroll vs. Sean McVay: the battle of wits between two of the best at what they do.
Carroll coaching against McVay isn't an interesting matchup just because they are the oldest and youngest head coaches in the NFL; it's also an intriguing matchup between a coach who has long been known as one of the best defensive minds in football and a young coach who rapidly worked his way up the ranks because of his innovative offenses.
The Seahawks haven't been perfect on defense by any means, but they're still a top-10 defense through four games in terms of points and yards allowed despite some significant injuries and some big offseason departures. Seattle also has nine takeaways, the sixth most in the league. That defensive success despite some obstacles is a credit not just to the players on the field, but to the coaching of Carroll, Norton and the rest of the defensive staff.
"That's a thing that's been consistent with any type of Pete Carroll-led defense, is they talk about their football philosophies and it starts with 'it's all about the ball,' and you see guys violently go for it and attack it," McVay said on a conference call with Seattle area-media. "When they get those tips and overthrows, they typically turn them into interceptions. They've got guys on the back end with great ball skills. I think Bobby Wagner is a phenomenal football player that has a great understanding about what they're trying to get done, what the intent of the calls are and is somebody that's displayed a mastery of that system for a while, playing at an All-Pro level. I think Frank Clark has really shown in a variety of ways, whether it be the run or the pass. They move him around in some of those situational pass rush spots and they've got some young corners that are playing really well. I think (Bradley) McDougald is a guy that's done a nice job at the safety position and it's something that we've got to be ready for but you see a really tough defensive unit. They play sound fundamentals, they tackle well, they swarm to the football and they make you earn every single yard."
The Rams, meanwhile, will bring to Seattle an offense that ranks first in the NFL in total yards, second in passing yards and second in scoring, and have not been held under 30 points yet this season. Goff is off to an outstanding start, throwing 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions to post a league-best 127.3 passer rating. And while Goff deserves a ton of credit for his play, McVay has also had a big hand in the Rams becoming one of the league's top offensive teams over the past two seasons. L.A.'s innovative offense will be a test for Seattle, but it's a challenge Carroll looks forward to.
"I really have enjoyed this process, and I hope we'll play well," Carroll said. "Really, it's out of respect for what they've done that they challenge us in trying to put together a plan that gives us something that will give us a chance to slow them down. Nobody has even slowed them down yet, so we'll see how it goes. They're really loaded and they're hitting on all cylinders and they're healthy and everything else, so they're as tough as you can get."
Particularly important for Seattle's defense will be limiting explosive plays, which have been a staple of the Rams offense this season. The Rams' 41 explosive plays (16-plus-yard pass, 12-plus-yard run) are tied for second most in the league, and their 34 explosive passes are tied for first.
"We're not going to change the formula of what we believe in, in playing good defense, and that starts with playing up front and then you've got to stay on top and then you work from there," Carroll said. "They have really been bombing people and have made a lot of big plays, in particular last week, you saw them just striking. We can't let that happen. You can never let that happen if you're going to play good defense, but it starts right up front, right in the middle, and we've got to play good run defense from the beginning and then work our way to taking care of them and try to squeeze it to the middle if we can do that."
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.