The Seahawks head to Houston this weekend looking to build off their Week 13 win over the 49ers, and by doing so kick off a strong finish to the season that could keep them in the playoff race. Standing in their way is a struggling Texans squad that has lost 10 of 11 since starting the season with a win, but that has also shown it can be dangerous at times, including three weeks ago when Houston beat the AFC South-leading Titans.
If the Seahawks are going to win a second straight game, these are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game at NRG Stadium:
1. Russell Wilson & his weapons vs. an aggressive Texans secondary.
Houston has struggled on both sides of the ball this season, but one positive that has kept them in some games has been a pass defense that has produced 14 interceptions, tied for the fifth most in NFL. And it isn't a case of Seattle needing to avoid one particular player to take care of the ball, as 10 different players are responsible for those interceptions. Making things more challenging is a pass rush that features second-year defensive end Jonathan Greenard, who has a team-high 8.0 sacks in just nine games.
"Looking at all of their turnovers, they do a little bit of everything well," offensive coordinator Shane Waldron said. "First of all, when you're running with the ball, they're punching at it every chance they get. They're really coming aggressively after the ball, so any loose balls right there, they're coming in fist first. They do a great job of locking it up, whether it's in the open field, or in the core of the line. Anytime that happens, we're ready for that to be part of their plan. Then the secondary and even the linebackers, they do a great job attacking the ball in the air and they've gotten a good amount of picks, 14 of them and a good amount of those has been guys coming down hill and high pointing the football and taking it, not waiting for it to come down to them. Offensively, just that aggressive mindset when the ball's in the air and not let them be the aggressor."
Russell Wilson, meanwhile, has been one of the best in the NFL at taking care of the ball throughout his career, including this season with just four interceptions, a number that would be lower if not for a goal-line interception last week that should have been caught by Gerald Everett. The Seahawks got their offense back on track last week in no small part because of the improved play of Wilson and because of how he got the ball in the hands of playmakers like DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Dee Eskridge, but given how good the Texans are at getting interceptions this season, Wilson and company will have to be careful with how they go about attacking the Texans.
2. Houston WR Brandin Cooks vs. Seattle's pass defense.
One of the few bright spots on the league's 32nd-ranked offense—both in yardage and scoring—has been the play of veteran receiver Brandin Cooks, who leads the team with 742 receiving yards on 65 catches, and is on pace for his sixth 1,000-yard season in the past seven years.
The Seahawks counter with a cornerback duo of D.J. Reed and Sidney Jones IV, both of whom have helped elevate Seattle's cornerback play from early in the season when there were struggles there before Reed moved to the right side, and before Jones, then later Tre Brown—who since suffered a season-ending injury—took over the job on the left side.
"They are playing good football now," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Sidney stepped in and got his chance when Tre (Brown) went down. He played a really good football game last week. Those are really important spots in our evaluation. We love what D.J. has done and Sid has had a heck of a couple games, he's had some really good play for us. Bless Austin has gotten a little bit of playing time too, we are trying to develop some depth there."
3. The turnover battle.
As mentioned earlier, the Texans are good at taking the ball away, not just in their 14 interceptions, but also their 21 total takeaways, which ranks seventh in the NFL. The flip side of that, however, is that the Texans have also turned the ball over a lot, with their 20 turnovers tied for the fifth most in the league. The Texans have committed multiple turnovers in five games this season, and have only three turnover-free games this season, and they've won two of them.
The Seahawks, meanwhile have been one of the best teams in the league at avoiding turnovers, last week's three-turnover game notwithstanding, with only 10 this season, tied for second fewest in the NFL, and they led the league in that category before last week's uncharacteristic bad game for Gerald Everett, who lost two fumbles and had a drop turn into an interception.
Given Houston's propensity for turning the ball over, as well as its ability to create takeaways, there's a very real chance this game could come down to ball security, so the Seahawks know they'll need to come out on top in that all-important statistical category.
"(Defensive coordinator Lovie Smith) has them really flying around," Carroll said. "They have a real attack mode mentality and that always has a chance to be disruptive. The defense starts up front with them and the way they come off of the football and attack the line of scrimmage. Lovie goes all the way back to his Tampa Bay days as I see it. The scheme is similar to where it's always built around the guys up front attacking. They are very aggressive, so they make things happen."