The Seahawks (6-5) head to Los Angeles this weekend looking to snap a two-game skid, while the Rams are trying to recover from a 3-8 start that includes five consecutive losses. Despite the Rams' struggles and significant injuries, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows his team can't afford to take the defending champs lightly, "Because they are so well coached. Schematically, since Sean (McVay) went there, they have done so many good things. That's what I am talking about to the team today and introducing the team to them, how well coached they are, how smart they are, and how they look the same as they always look. They have adjusted some things as everybody does, but they do it well. When they are in those uniforms coming out of the locker room, those guys play good football."
Here are five things to watch in Sunday's NFC West showdown at SoFi Stadium:
1. Will the Seahawks clean things up in the running game on both sides of the ball?
The Seahawks played very good defense across the board during a four game winning streak, but one of the biggest culprits in their two recent losses has been a run defense that has not played up to the defense's standards. In Munich, the Buccaneers rushed for 161 yards, more than 100 over their average coming into the game, contributing to a big day on third down and a Tampa Bay win. Last week, Josh Jacobs rushed for 229 yards, the most ever by a Seahawks opponent, including an 86-yard touchdown in overtime that ended the game.
"Obviously, there are still some of the ugly things that got us in trouble in the early part of the year," defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said. "Those showed back up again, obviously, when it comes to the run fit issues that we talk about. The tackling woes, that's the part that is the most frustrating, obviously.
"It's just having the consistency in the play. If there is a bad play or if there is a bad drive, you have to be able to put it behind you and move onto the next one. That is not what we are handling very well right now, is when you have a negative play or a negative drive, you have to be able to put it behind you and move on because there is a lot of football left to be played."
Carroll expressed optimism that the Seahawks can clean things up on defense, in part because they already made one in-season turnaround this year, but they need to show they can make those improvements quickly to stay in contention in the NFC West, starting with Sunday's game.
On the other side of the ball, the Seahawks have struggled to run the ball in each of the past two weeks. While Kenneth Walker III had two very impressive touchdown runs last weekend, that was about all the damage the Seahawks were able to do on the ground, save for a couple of Geno Smith scrambles. Smith and his weapons in the passing game have been good enough for the Seahawks to still score points the past two weeks without a productive ground game, but for the Seahawks offense to be at its best, they'll need to be able to get Walker and company going again, which will be no easy task against a Rams defense that allows the fourth fewest rushing yards per game in the NFL.
"This is a really good defense," Carroll said. "This is a defense that just doesn't give you anything. Runs and passes, they are leading the NFL in the fewest explosions. That's a huge accomplishment. They have their own style and their own way of doing it, they don't necessarily crowd you around the line of scrimmage, but they know what they're doing. Their secondary is really, really well coached. They are really good at getting guys on the ground, they tackle really well. They'll minimize your gains and we are going to have to work really hard on run after catch, blocking down field, and getting through the line of scrimmage with the running back."
The Rams won't have All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, but they still have plenty of dangerous players on defense, including one the Seahawks know very well.
2. Bobby Wagner vs. his former team.
After a decade in Seattle in which he became one of the greatest players in franchise history, Wagner was released in March, eventually signing with the Rams. In facing Wagner, the Seahawks know they are facing not just a very talented athlete, but also one of the smartest players in the game, and one who will know his opponent incredibly well.
"Bobby has that great propensity to really understand everything that is going on, on every snap of each game he is playing in," offensive coordinator Shane Waldron said. "That's what has made him such a special player over the course of his career with his preparation. It's really more of understanding his ability and where he is at, knowing that he is going to be quick to read and diagnose almost every scheme that he goes against. It's being aware of that and knowing how to handle him."
Wagner told reporters in L.A. that he's not treating this any differently than any other game—an approach, he acknowledged, that comes from Carroll—but even putting any extra emotions aside, the Seahawks know they have to be ready when facing a “unique, one of a kind” player.
3. Can Geno Smith and company keep it up against a tough Rams defense?
Geno Smith has been remarkably consistent leading the Seahawks offense this season. The NFC's leading Pro-Bowl vote getter at his position, Smith leads the NFL in completion percentage, ranks second in passer rating, and in a sign of his consistency, he has more games with a 100 or better passer rating (8) than any quarterback in the league.
Continuing to put up those numbers this week won't be easy, however, against a dangerous Rams defense that is difficult to both run against and also to challenge downfield in the passing game.
The Seahawks rank third in the NFL in explosive play percentage, getting an explosive (12-plus run, 16-plus pass) on 14 percent of their plays, but the Rams rank first in that category defensively, allowing explosives on only 7.8 percent of opponent's plays. Yes, Smith has two of the game's best deep threats in Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, but this could end up being a game where the Seahawks need to do their damage underneath.
"They are number one in the league in giving up the least amount of explosive runs and passes," Waldron said. "They do a great job of keeping everything in front of them. I think with Taylor Rapp, Nick Scott, and the secondary along with those linebackers, they are a great group of tacklers, so they do a good job of getting the ball carrier in that vice tackle position where they are closing in and not giving up any extra yards on plays. They might give up some stuff underneath, but they are going to rally around the ball and then once they do get to the football, they are punching at the ball and looking to create those turnovers. They have done a really good job on defense of keeping those explosives to a minimum."
4. Can Seattle's defense keep playing takeaway.
While it's been an up and down year for the Seahawks defense, one thing they've done well all season is create turnovers. The Seahawks are tied for fourth in the NFL with 19 takeaways, and they have nine games with multiple takeaways. The Rams, meanwhile, have committed 17 turnovers, tied for fourth most in the NFL. With backup quarterback John Wolford expected to start in place of an injured Matthew Stafford, the Seahawks will try to add another multi-turnover game to their defensive resume.
On the flip side of that, Seattle's offense is looking to clean things up after committing a pair of costly turnovers in last week's loss to the Raiders. The Seahawks have only three multi-turnover games, including last week's loss, but have yet to have a turnover free game, something Carroll takes a lot of pride in when the offense is able to accomplish that feat.
5. Can the pass rush get back on track.
During Seattle's four-game winning streak, the pass rush caught fire, producing 19 sacks. In the two losses that have followed, however, the Seahawks have just one sack. Tom Brady has been hard to sack throughout his Hall of Fame career, so a quiet outing in that game might have been expected—playing from behind most of the game didn't help either—and the Raiders ran the ball a lot, creating fewer chances at sacks, but regardless of the reasons, the Seahawks know they need to start getting to the quarterback more often.
While players winning their battles more consistently will help improve the pass rush, Hurtt noted it's also on the coaching staff to make life easier on those players, saying they need to "continue to find ways to get those guys free in that schematically, and keep working on edges and using your tips and tendencies and things of that nature. On third down, we've just got to get better. We have been off; just rushing together as a unit and guys winning one-on-ones. We've got to do those. The coaches will help those guys out."
The Seahawks were hard at work on Thursday at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center in preparation for Week 13 vs. the Rams. Seahawks practice photos are presented by Gatorade.