The Seattle Seahawks were victorious in Week 8, rolling into Detroit fresh off their bye week and cruising through four quarters. In Week 9, they will face an L.A. Chargers team in an identical situation, having played in London in Week 7 before having their bye in Week 8.
The Chargers are in an unusually good position for their standards at this point of the season—rather than falling behind the pack early through devastating losses, they’re 5-2 and cruising to the AFC’s top wildcard spot. Now, they head to Seattle to take on a Seahawks team that is entirely comfortable at home, and in the middle of wildcard contention themselves.
Offensive and Defensive Primers
Despite both head coach Anthony Lynn and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt returning for another season in 2018, L.A.’s offense is considerably different. In Lynn’s first year at the helm in 2017, the Chargers’ run game—Lynn’s background and strength—was putrid, finishing 27th in DVOA (while their passing game finished 2nd).
In 2018, Lynn’s offense has modernized rapidly. Suddenly, they are an offense that resembles those taking the league by storm. Jet sweeps are a heavy feature of Los Angeles’ offense, and their receivers are aligning tight, forcing cornerbacks into traffic in a similar fashion to Sean McVay and the Rams across town.
As they have modernized, the Chargers’ running game has been revived, as well. L.A. is tremendously balanced in 2018, currently ranking 10th in both passing and rushing yards per game. In DVOA, their passing game sits second, while their running game is ninth.
On defense, Gus Bradley remains in place, as does the cover-3 scheme we’ve seen in Seattle over the past eight-and-a-half seasons under Pete Carroll.
Numbers that Matter
81.7: In his 2018 debut last week, K.J. Wright was simply fantastic. The most underrated member of one of the greatest defenses of all-time stepped back into the lineup and didn’t miss a beat. Perhaps most impressively, having last played in the second week of the preseason, Wright played 85% of the defense’s snaps. He has missed two days of practice this week, however that sounds like something that was planned.
Wright’s strong return to action earned him the highest grade among Seahawks defenders, at 81.7 per Pro Football Focus. Whether you are a fan of PFF’s grades or not is irrelevant—Wright impacted the game against both the run and pass.
With L.A. coming to town, Wright is coming back at just the right time. One of the biggest reasons for the Chargers’ passing attack improvement in 2018 is the way they’ve utilized their running backs. Despite missing a game, Melvin Gordon (who should return this week) is the team’s second most targeted receiver—13 targets ahead of Mike Williams, who is third. Austin Ekeler, a dangerous pass-catching back who moonlighted as a starting runner in Week 7, is fifth on the team in targets.
So far in 2018, 33.33% of L.A.’s passes have gone to running backs. That’s the second highest total in the league and nearly 10% above the league average. Wright, a maestro in coverage, will be depended upon to slow down such a vital part of the Chargers’ offense.
91.4: Seemingly every year, Philip Rivers is rightfully showered with praise just in time for another crushing collapse by his team. This year feels different. They haven’t been shooting themselves in the foot nearly as often as past editions, and their kicking game has at least been respectable.
The biggest difference, however, has been Rivers. The Bolo Brett Favre has taken a step forward in his age 37 season, going from an underappreciated great quarterback to a properly appreciated MVP candidate. Los Angeles, thriving in empty sets with Gordon or Ekeler split wide, have needed Rivers to maintain a high level among a logjam of bodies, and he has. Rivers is the league’s second highest rated passer when pressured in 2018, at 91.4. If he’s allowed to get out the pocket and load up that bizarre release of his, he can still hurt you: Rivers is the league’s best passer outside the pocket, with a stunning rating of 140.2.
Seattle’s pass rush has heated up in recent weeks, but it may not matter on Sunday if the back end doesn’t hold up against a loaded offense, and a gunslinger all too happy to stand tall and deliver accurate strikes.
6.7: Last week, I wrote about the Lions’ dreadful play in base defense, as they’d allowed 1.5 yards more per play in base than their season-long average. The Chargers suffer from a similar drop off: On the year, their defense is allowing 5.8 yards per play, but in base, it climbs to 6.7 yards per play. When L.A. is able to get into their nickel packages, their yards allowed drops to just five yards per play.
Though the Seahawks didn’t force Detroit to stay in base by utilizing two natural tight ends, they did play George Fant as an eligible receiver on a season-high 24 snaps. As a result, the Lions had to maintain their front seven, and were stretched by an electric Seattle offense.
With Ed Dickson and Nick Vannett another week into their returns, the Seahawks will have the flexibility to run 12 personnel with consistency and keep the Chargers in their base defense. Against a high-flying offense, Seattle needs to manufacture any advantage they can; when their offense is on the field, it will be by forcing Los Angeles’ hand.
Matchups to Watch
Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin versus the Chargers’ cornerbacks: When Lockett caught his sixth touchdown of the year last week in Detroit, I expressed doubt about whether he can maintain his level of production or not. It isn’t due to Lockett’s play; he has justified his extension and is making this writer look foolish. However, he’s also averaging less than five targets per game. Just how sustainable is a pace that’s seen him catch touchdowns of 51, 19, 52, 39, 10 and 24 yards?
That question will be answered over the course of the season, however, on Sunday, it should continue. L.A. has seen their secondary regress from last season, as both Casey Hayward and Trevor Williams have failed to live up to expectations, while sophomore Desmond King started very slowly.
King’s season began to turnaround in the Chargers’ Week 6 win over the Browns, which saw him pick off Baker Mayfield twice. Since then, King has been the league’s highest graded cornerback. In Week 9, King will face an alternating cast of Doug Baldwin and Lockett, though Lockett should be expected to shift outside and continue his tremendous pace.
Over 65% of Baldwin’s snaps have come from the slot since returning, while Lockett’s time inside has gone down to just 51.2%. Baldwin will draw the tougher matchup and Lockett will be afforded the chance to keep up his production:
Russell Wilson when targeting Tyler Lockett:— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) October 29, 2018
25-for-29 394 yards 6 TD
Passer rating of 158.3
Tyrell Williams versus Tedric Thompson and the Seahawks’ deep ball defense: Nobody could blame Thompson if he struggled after being inserted into the lineup; the beginning of 2018 could not have been easy for him. Throughout August, he was—and was spoken about—as the backbone of Seattle’s defense, the presumed starter at free safety. And then Earl Thomas returned.
Instead of starting Week 1, Thompson was back to the bench. When Thomas’s season ended in Arizona, Thompson was again looked to, expected to step into one of the most important roles on the roster. For the most part, Thompson has been solid. Encouragingly, his play speed—perhaps the biggest question mark in his game—hasn’t been an issue. However, against Detroit, Matt Stafford did test him on several occasions by pushing the ball vertically against both cover-2 and single-high looks.
Marvin Jones had touchdown catches of 39 and 19 yards, while a 56-yard defensive pass interference penalty against Bradley McDougald rounded out the damage done against the Seahawks on deep balls. It was a small crack in a defense that’s given up few deep passes all season—Seattle has allowed just five completions of 20+ air yards.
Now, Thompson and the Seahawks secondary come up against a loaded receiving corps (again), and one of the league’s premier deep ball specialists.
Heading into L.A.’s bye week, Williams led the league in yards off deep passes, with 291 of his 428 yards on the season coming on downfield targets. Rivers’ passer rating when targeting Williams on downfield is a ridiculous 134.7, and the deep threat is targeted more vertically than he is within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Taking away the deep ball is a such a large part of Carroll’s defense, and it’s something Thompson must do consistently if he is to be the team’s future at free safety. In Week 9, he will face another stiff test.
Opponent to Know
Isaac Rochell, DE: Joey Bosa is likely still a few weeks away from returning for the Chargers, and that’s a big break for Seattle. Instead Rochell, the second year man from Notre Dame, and Damion Square will continue to fill in for Bosa. Though Square stepped into the starting lineup for Rochell three weeks ago, they’ve maintained close to a 50-50 split.
Square has done a solid job against the run, maintaining the integrity Bosa plays with on the edge. Rochell, meanwhile, has been looked to as a pass rusher opposite Melvin Ingram and has improved since returning to a situational role.
The Seahawks, playing in their first home game since October 7, will be in tough against one of the true contenders in the AFC. However, Seattle is rolling and despite Los Angeles’ talent, have an advantageous matchup. The Seahawks will go as Chris Carson goes, and the Chargers, giving up the 11th most yards per carry, present another opportunity for Seattle to control a game. A win at home to move to 5-3 would be massive for a Seahawks team entering the toughest part of its schedule.