The L.A. Rams will head to Seattle to face the Seahawks for the second and final time this regular season, with both teams coming off disappointing losses. Seattle lost the game and subsequently their composure in a grueling fight against the Jacksonville Jaguars, one of the league’s most physically imposing teams.
The Rams, on the other hand, fell short against the Philadelphia Eagles, 43-35. The loss allows the Seahawks the opportunity to retake the NFC West lead on Sunday, as well as win the season series against L.A. and ensure themselves the tiebreaker against the Rams. The division lead, and perhaps title, is on the line on Sunday in Seattle. Here’s what to watch for:
Can the Seahawks’ revitalized line hold up against L.A.?
In the first five years of Russell Wilson’s career, the Rams were an entirely maddening opponent. Under Jeff Fisher, they were noncompetitive and uninspiring, yet they always found a way to play their best football against Seattle. Despite the talent-gap separating the two teams, L.A. was always a tough matchup for the Seahawks. Seattle struggled to protect up-front, and the Rams seemingly only had talent in their defensive front-seven. And so Wilson’s career against L.A. paints an ugly picture: In 11 games, Wilson is 6-5, has turned the ball over nine times, sacked 42 times, and hit 89 times.
In 2017, the outlook has changed for both teams. The Rams are a promising team, full of young talent and innovation on offense. And for the Seahawks, well, they can actually keep their franchise quarterback upright — at least since a mid-season trade for Duane Brown. Since his arrival in Seattle, Brown has allowed just nine total pressures - three hits and six hurries - while not allowing a sack. The nine pressures are the fourth-fewest of all qualifying tackles over that span, and it’s extended across the offensive line. Since week 9, the Seahawks’ pass block efficiency has gone from 30th in the league to 9th. And so now a g..g..good (!?) offensive line faces yet another test, in the shape of Wade Phillips’ L.A. defense.
Against a fearsome Jaguars front, Wilson was pressured on 17 of 35 dropbacks, being sacked just twice. The pressure numbers aren’t great, but a marked improvement from where they were just a couple months ago. And so now they’ll face the opposition who has given Wilson and Seattle more trouble than anyone else over the last five years, in the biggest game of the year.
Can the Seahawks pressure Jared Goff?
Jared Goff is enjoying a career-salvaging season in 2017. Saved by Sean McVay and a fresh set of offensive weapons, his game and numbers have improved in every area. In 2016, Goff was a historically poor rookie quarterback: completing under 55-percent of his passes, finishing with a QBR of 22.2, 34th ranked passer by DYAR, an ANY/A of 2.82 and a passer rating of 63.6. Through 13 games in 2017, his numbers tell a different story: He’s completing 62.2-percent of his passes, has a QBR of 53.6, has the seventh highest DYAR among quarterbacks, an ANY/A of 7.75 and a passer rating of 99.2.
Of all the acquisitions made by the Rams this offseason to aid Goff, none have been more important than the improvements made along the offensive line. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth has been outstanding, as has center John Sullivan. Like Brown in Seattle, their additions have improved the entire unit. Rodger Saffold looks settled at left guard for the first time in his career, and right tackle Rob Havenstein is back on track as one of the game’s premier run blockers after a down year in 2016. If the Seahawks are going to impact the game defensively, they’ll need to win against a strong Rams offensive line and pressure Goff.
Rooted in Goff’s step forward this year is the massive step forward their offensive line has taken, and it’s reflected in his numbers as well. Without pressure this year Goff has excelled, throwing for 16 touchdowns and 2482 yards, with a passer rating of 108.8. Under pressure, his efficiency drops: Just six touchdowns, 901 yards and a passer rating of 68. He’s benefited from great protection, a superstar in the backfield and a host of weapons — L.A. receivers are averaging 7.2 yards after the catch this season, the second best mark in the league, and are dropping the second-lowest percentage of passes. If allowed time, Goff has the ability and the playmakers to pick apart a depleted defense and move his offense. To make up for the missing pieces in the secondary, Seattle’s defensive line is going to need to get home versus the Rams.
Slowing down Gurley despite injuries at linebacker
While it’s still unclear as of Wednesday whether Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright will play on Sunday, the outlook doesn’t look good. Wright remains in concussion protocol, and Wagner is dealing with a hamstring injury that’s different from the one he’s been dealing with for several weeks. Injuries have hit the Seahawks’ second level at just the wrong time, with do-it-all ‘back Todd Gurley coming to town.
Like Goff, Gurley is enjoying a career-salvaging season. He’s trailing Le’Veon Bell by just 47 yards for the league lead in yards from scrimmage, and is leading the league in rushing/receiving touchdowns. His devastating track speed has been on full display this year, averaging just over five yards per carry on outside runs, while averaging a healthy 3.8 yards per carry inside. More importantly the ghosts he was seeing in the backfield and in the hole last year have seemingly vanished; he has the fourth highest success rate by Football Outsiders, and the team’s 4.32 yards per carry on first down is the eighth highest in the NFL..
In addition to his revitalized running, McVay has unlocked the playmaker in the passing game. He’s already surpassed his career highs in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, and he ranks fourth among all ‘backs in yards per route run. McVay and L.A. are getting explosive plays out of their superstar in both the running game and passing game.
Not allowing Gurley to turn the corner on outside runs is imperative to slowing down the big play, and a hampered Wagner makes that task much more difficult. Nobody goes sideline-to-sideline quite like Seattle’s DPOY candidate, and if it’s Michael Wilhoite in his place, they face a serious downgrade. In the passing game, Gurley gets in space via screen passes, and using misdirection with Tavon Austin before releasing into a pass pattern. Wright, like Wagner, excels in coverage against running backs. Both of the Seahawks’ linebackers are crucial against opposing 'backs. Facing one of the best in the league, Seattle could be missing both of them.
Can the Seahawks take advantage of a depleted secondary?
The Rams lost one of their starting cornerbacks for the season last Sunday when Kayvon Webster went down with a torn Achilles. Slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman shifted outside in his place, and the Eagles recognized the change. By the end of the game, Robey-Coleman had been targeted 10 times, allowing seven catches for 81 yards. He’s been having a strong season at the nickel corner spot, but his struggles were apparent after moving outside. Across from Robey-Coleman, Trumaine Johnson suffered a stinger versus Philadelphia. He claims he’s “Good to go,” but Seattle of all teams knows how complicated stingers can get.
Already down a starter and with his replacement perhaps unfit on the outside, the Seahawks would be smart to test Robey-Coleman immediately, and often on Sunday. A mid-game switch isn’t ideal, and it’s possible his play returns to the level it has been at all season with a week of practice under his belt. But it’s also possible he won’t adjust and by testing him early, Seattle could force Phillips’ hand to make another mid-game switch, and put points on the board along the way.
Jimmy Graham back on track and back in the endzone
After a scintillating stretch of games starting with the Seahawks’ first matchup against L.A. in October, Jimmy Graham came rocketing back down to Earth last Sunday. After scoring nine touchdowns in his past 10 games, Graham posted a 0/0/0 stat-line in Jacksonville, his only noteworthy act being a 15-yard penalty following a Wilson interception. It was a disappointing performance, made even worse by the Jaguars’ terrific cornerbacks and the idea that Graham would be able to capitalize against a favorable one-on-one matchup.
Graham will look to return to his touchdown scoring, defender posterizing ways in another favorable matchup. Rams’ rookie safety John Johnson has had a solid year on balance, but is coming off the worst game of his young career. Missing Zach Ertz, the Eagles looked to third-string tight end Trey Burton against the Rams, and Johnson was the victim. If only for a week, Graham’s Elite Touchdown Maker label was transferred to Burton as the fourth-year tight end enjoyed a career day, catching five passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns. He nearly doubled his career touchdowns while exceeding his single-game high in receiving yards, all of which was against Johnson. Seattle likely won’t get a career day from Graham on Sunday, but getting the ball back in his hands and in the paint would go a long way.