The Seahawks head to Tennessee this weekend looking for a second straight win that would greatly bolster their playoff hopes. Standing in their way is a 5-9 Titans squad that, despite its record, has been competitive all season, as is evident in a recent win over the 10-4 Dolphins, as well as the fact that six of the Titans' nine losses have come by one-score margins.
"I know that Coach (Mike) Vrabel has got a style for his club that is really obvious," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "They're tough, they're physical, they're strong, they're big. They run the heck out of the football; they believe in it. They're really aggressive on defense, and we've got to get ourselves ready to go."
Here are five things to watch when the Seahawks face the Titans on Christmas Eve:
1. Can Geno Smith and the offense pick up where they left off in Dallas?
Geno Smith is expected back this week after missing the past two games with a groin injury, and is coming off what Pete Carroll described as a great week of practice.
"Geno was fantastic, he had a great day today," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Friday. "So he's totally back and primed and all that.
"Geno had a terrific week, he looked great. As good of a Friday as I can remember for a quarterback, he was really sharp. You can tell because he laid off a little bit, he's spunky and strong and in good shape and moving around great. You could tell."
That's good news for the Seahawks, who had one of their best games of the season on offense in Smith's last game, a down-to-the wire loss in Dallas against a very good Cowboys defense. Drew Lock played well in Smith's absence, most notably leading a 92-yard game-winning drive last week, but Smith is the starter for a reason and the Seahawks are hoping he and the offense will pick up where they left off against the Cowboys when they scored five touchdowns, went a season-best 9 for 14 on third down and had 406 yards of offense.
2. Does Julian Love's baby come on time for him to continue his hot streak?
Safety Julian Love missed the entire week of practice, but he had a good excuse; his wife, Julia, gave birth to their son this week. Love didn't fly with the team on Friday, but the plan is to travel separately to Nashville after the baby comes.
But what if the baby doesn't come on time? Asked what happens in that scenario, Carroll said expressed support for whatever decision Love wants to make that's best for his family, saying "Whatever he's got to do, he's got to take care of his wife and family and all that."
If Love indeed does make it for Sunday's game, he should once again have a starting role in Seattle's defense, and based on his recent play, he figures to be in the middle of the action once again.
Last week, Love recorded two fourth-quarter interceptions, including one in the final seconds of the game that clinched a victory, while also recording eight tackles, a performance that earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. The week before that, Love had an interception and a forced fumble, which was recovered by Riq Woolen, giving Love four takeaways in the past two games.
"He really came into his own," defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said. "A lot of early on in the year was him getting comfortable with everything, and obviously you can see he's at that point now. It's no longer making sure he's on the same page with his teammates. Now he knows what's going on, so he can go and let the game come to him. When his opportunity is there to make plays, he can go and take care of that. It's been awesome to see, and I think he's going to continue to ascend the rest of the year."
3. Can the Seahawks keep Derrick Henry contained while also limiting big plays?
Derrick Henry, one of the best running backs of his era, has still been productive in his eighth season, rushing for 884 yards and 10 touchdowns—his sixth straight season with double-digit touchdowns—but the running game has not been effective of late for the Titans. That's not to say it's all on Henry, the line has had its issues as well, but regardless of the reasons, Henry and the running game haven't gotten on track in recent weeks, with the three-time Pro Bowler managing just 43 yards on 33 carries in the past two games following a 102-yard performance in Week 13.
But the Seahawks know that Henry having a couple of quiet games doesn't mean they can let up in their run defense.
"He's a big factor," said linebacker Jordyn Brooks. "One of the best backs in the league. We don't ever really look at, 'Oh, this was his yardage from last week or the week before that.' We know what type of player he is, so everybody's got to be ready tackle, be sound on gaps and be physical."
And for players who were with the team in 2021, it shouldn't be hard to give Henry the attention he deserves despite any recent struggles, because in the most recent meetings between the teams, he piled up 182 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries, adding 55 more yards on six receptions in a Titans victory in Seattle.
Committing too many players to the box to stop the run is always a risky proposition, however, so the Seahawks know they'll need to do what it takes to take care of the running game while also preventing big plays in the passing game.
That's something the Seahawks did very well last week, allowing just five explosive plays to the Eagles, the longest of which was a 20-yard Jalen Hurts run. That followed a rough outing in Santa Clara in which the 49ers had four plays of 44 or more yards, all of which set up or went for touchdowns.
"Very encouraging," defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said of the improvement in limiting explosive plays. "Obviously I spoke to that as something we wanted to do is eliminate explosives. Sometimes to get those things done, there's certain things you have to give up from time to time. I knew going into it that maybe kind of be a little bit more spacey underneath and a lighter box in some of the run game stuff in order to eliminate the big plays to get that done. The guys did a nice job of owning the game plan and getting that accomplished."
4. Can the Seahawks solve the NFL's stingiest red zone defense?
Seattle's offense has lacked consistency in the red zone this season, with the Seahawks finding the end zone on 47.7 of their possessions inside the 20, a success rate that ranks 26th in the league. Yes, scoring outside of the red zone helps mitigate that, which is what Seattle did last week, getting a 23-yard touchdown run out of Kenneth Walker III and a 29-yard game-winning touchdown from Jaxon Smith-Njigba, but against a good defense, capitalizing on more trips in the red zone is important.
And getting that done against the Titans won't be easy. While the Titans aren't where they want to be in the standings, they do have a talented defense, and one that ranks first in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 37.3 of opponents' trips inside the 20.
"They're stout," quarterback Geno Smith said. "They usually hold guys to field goals, not many touchdowns given up. They're great in the run game, they stop the run first, and then they kind of put an umbrella on the defense where you can't really get behind him. You kind of have to dink and dunk and throw in front of them, and then they rally and tackle. For us, it's going to be finding the one-on-one, finding the open guy, got to run the ball down there, and then being efficient and scoring touchdowns and not field goals."
5. Does Seattle's pass rush capitalize on an O-line that has allowed a lot of sacks recently?
The Seahawks pass-rush production has been a bit up and down this season when it comes to sacks, which shows up in a sack total (39) that ranks right in the middle of the league. The Seahawks didn't have a sack last week when the focus was more on containing Jalen Hurts and keeping him from escaping the pocket, while they had seven sacks in the previous two games, and only two in the two before that.
Facing the Titans, the Seahawks could have an opportunity to have another productive day rushing the passer. After allowing seven sacks last week in a loss to Houston, the Titans have given up 50 this season, the fifth most in the NFL and more than they allowed in 17 games a year ago. Tennessee also allowed six sacks three weeks ago in a loss to Indianapolis, so opportunities could be there for the Seahawks pass rush.