As I relax on a beach in Central America drinking local rum, it appears Xmas has arrived: Santa Claus -- the beachy version -- looks like he'd be overheating without that ice cold cerveza, people are giving out candy canes, and there's apparently some sort of rodeo tonight. Oh well...on with the preview!
I rarely use previous-year historical data in these because what matters is the two teams on the field, not their laundry from prior seasons. But I want to start by dispelling a myth about the Rams, namely that they're NFC West killers -- in particular, that they're the bane of the Seahawks existence. Here's a handy chart of meetings between the two teams in the post-Mike Holmgren era:
(The games at St. Louis are marked.) Clearly this "phenomenon" is recent, but when you play a team twice a year, you're likely to lose to them more times than if you play them once a year. Since 2012, Seattle is 4-3 against St. Louis, and each of the losses was the early-season game -- they haven't lost late in the year to the Rams in the Jeff Fisher era. Alternatively, the 'Hawks haven't lost at home to St. Louis in the Jeff Fisher era. Not only that, but they've given up double digit points just once in those contests, and they've lost every time they've allowed more than two touchdowns. Again, lots of meaningless historical data, but it's an unusual stretch. I also find it odd that we're on a 6-season streak with Seattle playing away in its first contest against the Rams.
History aside, this game should sit right in the Seahawks' wheelhouse. St. Louis has won its last two games, a 31-23 hammering of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that was far less close than the final suggests and a slow-and-steady 21-14 win over the Detroit Lions. But like the Cleveland Browns last week, the Rams have had little success against top-tier offensive powers, most recently falling 27-3 to the Cardinals and 31-7 to the Bengals. They also laid an egg in a 16-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens and were shellacked 37-13 by the Bears.
One big problem? The St. Louis offense simply fails to convert first downs. I've published efficiency stats before to show how well teams convert a first down into another set of downs or a touchdown, and the Rams have sat at the bottom of that list the entire year. Here are some updated numbers:
And not by a small margin. The team gets a new set of downs just over half the time, while the rest of the league manages almost 3% better and a majority of the league is 10% better. Oh, and for those of you keeping score at home, that's the Seahawks sitting in the #2 spot, having completely flipped their season from one of relative inefficiency to ridiculous heights of efficiency in the last half dozen games.
As always, we'll start conventional, and conventionally, the Rams are in bad shape: 31st in points scored, 31st in yards, last in yards, and 27th in fumbles lost.
Significantly, these stats are being dragged down by their poor air attack. They've thrown the fewest touchdowns in the league (10 -- yes, that's fewer than Doug Baldwin has caught), have passed the ball just 412 times (31st in the league), and are 30th in net yards per attempt. So not only do they avoid throwing, they also throw poorly when they do.
The injection of Case Keenum into the lineup in place of the poor performance of Nick Foles has improved the team's success, but St. Louis is still having problems passing. Keenum is now 2-1 starting, completing 61.5% of his passes, and already has 3 TDs on the season (Foles played 11 games and threw just 7). Keenum has only thrown 1 interception, but he's fumbled 3 times and is sacked about 50% more often than Foles was when he drops back. Neither QB is particularly reliable in the pocket, and a concentrated Seattle rush should easily disrupt Keenum's play.
Tavon Austin is the team's leading receiver, with 44 catches on 72 targets. Austin is a speedster known for his use on punt returns, in gadget plays, and as a supplementary running back. His 9.1 yards per carry is no fluke: Austin has 43 rushes and 4 rushing touchdowns on the year. Through the air, he's a little more pedestrian (apologies to Doug Baldwin), picking up just 9.7 yards per reception.
Let it not be said that the Rams dislike the long ball, though. Kenny Britt runs deep routes consistently, and his 30 receptions on 63 (!) targets have gone for an 18.4 yards-per-reception average. And that isn't from juking his way past the last man: Britt frequently makes his receptions 15+ yards downfield but has seen the end zone just twice this season; he rarely sees the ball on passes under 10 yards.
The Rams like to use their tight ends up the seams as well. Jared Cook is the top dog, his 38 receptions going for an average of 12.5 yards per catch; readers may also remember Lance Kendricks from some previous game perhaps, but Kendricks is far less frequently targeted. (Keenum seems to still be settling in, though: on 17 attempts against the Bucs he angled for Cook 6 times and Kendricks 3 times; on 23 attempts the week before he targeted each just once. The Bucs strategy was far more successful.)
Running backs are also important to watch in this passing game. Benny Cunningham is a solid kick returner and blocker, and he sees significant use on check-downs and broken plays. He has just 32 rushes on the year for a desultory 3.2 ypc, but his 20 receptions have gone for an impressive 202 yards. Todd Gurley is having an impressive rookie season, and he's seeing more use out of the backfield as well (20 catches, 181 yards).
Gurley anchors the ground attack, where the Rams have performed decently this season. Gurley is like Marshawn Lynch, getting yards after contact and wearing down defenses until he can break through them. Overall, he averages 4.9 yards per carry and has 9 rushing touchdowns, but he's managed just 3.5 ypc on 108 1st-half runs; his 101 2nd-half runs have been worth a whopping 6.5 ypc.
Unfortunately for the Rams, the right side of their line has been pretty bad at opening holes. Heading around the right end, Gurley has 63 yards on 23 carries; his 20 rushes for 73 yards toward the right guard include exactly 0 in the 4th quarter of any game; and if not for a 48-yard run against the Browns, he would sport similar numbers to the right tackle. By contrast, heading left the worst he's done is 27 rushes for 148 yards (5.48 ypc) and a pair of scores around the end.
Defensively, St. Louis is solid, slightly more so against the pass than the rush. DVOA puts them 8th overall, just behind the Seahawks. But it's a confusing team to track. The Rams have won games giving up more than 500 yards of offense (Bucs), but they've also lost giving up fewer than 300 total yards while out-gaining their opponents (Vikings).
In the pass rush, Aaron Donald is obviously the guy to fear. His 11 sacks put him at 6th in the league, but he's caused fewer lost yards -- by 10 total -- than every other player with double digit sacks. Donald had help from DE Robert Quinn, but with Quinn now on IR, that threat is no longer present. Linebacker Alec Ogletree, who posted 2 sacks and 27 tackles in just 4 games, is likely not going to make it to CenturyLink this weekend. That leaves James Laurinaitis as the top LB and little more push past Donald up front.
The Rams sport a pair of aggressive safeties in Rodney McLeod and Mark Barron. McLeod in particular manages to contain almost everything in front of him and makes a ton of tackles, but he isn't great in coverage. Sending balls deep is not a great strategy against this team, though, as only a half dozen long passes have been successful this year. The most promising results so far take advantage of poor off-the-line defending: teams are completing 67.6% of passes against St. Louis, who is also worst in the league so far at giving up yards after catch. While Doug Baldwin would have a field day with this setup, if he can't go, quick tosses to Kearse and Lockett should be reasonably effective.
Tight ends are performing reasonably well against the Rams, including Jimmy Graham and his 6-51-1 line in Week 1. But once again, most of their success is after making mid-level receptions -- often in the middle of the field -- and adding YAC. Luke Willson should be up to this task, especially if RW is on his game.
Rushing up the middle is difficult against this St. Louis team. Games where running backs have been successful through the center or by the guards are few and far between -- Adrian Peterson, Jeremy Hill, and the stable of Arizona backs in their second meeting managed it, but teams are overall averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. By the tackles and around the ends, success increases drastically to 4.8 yards per carry average.
Seattle's best play this week will be persistent running to the outside and short, success-driven passes that turn into modest gains. While Russell Wilson should be wary of Aaron Donald blowing up the pocket quickly, he should also be aware that Donald is sporting limited help this week; that should leave plenty of places to step into either to extend pass route development time or to take off.
Ultimately, though, expect the historical trend to continue. The Seahawks are the better team in this matchup and are playing at their peak, while the Rams -- in spite of a couple big wins -- have trouble against quality offenses and have a poor history as Seattle visitors.