In going to Arizona and coming out victorious—and healthy—the Seahawks were able to ward off demons of the past. On a short week, they’ll try to replicate a similar sense of relief by ending the three game losing skid they’re currently on against the L.A. Rams. To do so, Seattle’s going to need to stop a facet of the Rams’ offense that’s operated with ease against them previously, and contain a local product.
Here are the matchups to watch on Thursday Night Football:
K.J. Wright and Mychal Kendricks vs Cooper Kupp
As they were marching towards the Super Bowl last season, the Rams were dealt a blow in losing Kupp to a torn ACL in early November. Kupp’s ability to create separation from the slot and tight to the formation was key to L.A.’s prolific passing attack, and they were unable to replace his production over the rest of the season. In 2019, Kupp has come back better than ever, and through four weeks, has staked his claim as the Rams’ best receiver. He’s pacing the team in every major receiving category, and is one of just six receivers in the league to see a minimum of 20 percent of his team’s targets in every game this season.
In Kupp’s return from injury, his utilization hasn’t changed: He thrives over the middle, and like any good slot receiver, turns separation before the catch into yardage after the catch. In 2018, over 50 percent of his receiving yards came after the reception; so far in 2019, no receiver has more yards after contact in the NFL.
Pete Carroll’s determination to keep all three of his linebackers on the field will again be tested this week, against a receiver in Kupp who’s quickly making a case as the best slot receiver in the NFL. With the way Kupp is targeted, Kendricks and Wright should be able to survive in coverage against him. The large majority of Kupp’s targets come within 10-15 yards of the line of scrimmage, and so Wright and Kendricks should be able to keep the slot maestro in front of them. However, the key will be to limit what he can do after the catch. As long as they can prevent Kupp from breaking into the secondary, Carroll’s incredible job on the defensive side will continue to buck trends and further his legacy.
Seahawks’ offensive line vs Aaron Donald
There are two main factors that make it impossible to put Donald into a one-on-one matchup: The first is that he’s used all over the defensive line, from 1-tech to 5-tech. The second is that so far this season, he just hasn’t seen all that many one-on-one matchups. In four games, Donald has been double-teamed an incredible 82 times. Much has been made of his relatively quiet production through the first quarter of the season, but the reigning Defensive Player of the Year still boasts 18 pressures, six hurries and a sack on the year. Though he’s still wreaking havoc, Seattle would be wise to follow the Rams’ previous opponents’ plans of doubling Donald, and not allow him to completely wreck the Seahawks’ offense, as he has in the past. (That’s quite literal, too. In 10 games against Seattle, Donald has 17 tackles for loss, 28 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and 10.5 sacks.)
The way teams are selling out to prevent Donald from doing, well, Aaron Donald things, has proven beneficial for those around him. Dante Fowler has two sacks, four tackles for loss and 17 pressures, while Clay Matthews has turned back the clock to post five sacks, six tackles for loss and 16 pressures. Such a fearsome front isn’t ideal for a Seahawks offensive line that has struggled in pass protection all season, winning just over half of the time according to ESPN’s pass block win rate metric.
However, as Russell Wilson and the offense have proved, they can mitigate a dreadful performance up front—Matthews and Fowler can make an impact and Seattle can still win. What Donald has proved, however, is the Seahawks can’t recover from one of his signature, dominant games. The priority must be on continuing to limit the best player in the NFL’s impact.
Seahawks’ defensive line vs Rams’ outside zone running game
Just as Donald has killed Seattle’s offense on numerous occasions, since Sean McVay took over, L.A.’s outside zone running game has had a tremendous amount of joy against Seattle. In 2018, Todd Gurley’s yards per carry against the Seahawks on outside runs was 6.1—for as strong of linebacker play as Seattle has had, Gurley has been able to get to the corner with ease against the Seahawks. Though he’s clearly being managed differently in 2019, Gurley is still the dangerous, home-run threat he always has been—particularly to the right side—he’s just getting fewer opportunities. A lot fewer. Through four games in 2018, Gurley had 94 touches; so far this season, he has just 50.
With the obvious change being Gurley’s workload, Seattle has an important difference this time around, too: Jadeveon Clowney. The game-changer came to the Seahawks an elite run defender, and so far in 2019, he’s maintained that standard. Clowney’s immovable presence on the edge will be key to slowing down the Rams’ outside running game, as he’ll play strong at the point of attack and allow the linebackers to flow cleanly to the running back.
Helping Clowney’s effort will be the two stalwarts in the middle, Poona Ford and Al Woods. Both players move laterally with ease for their size, and have proved to be more than just space-eaters in the middle.
Funny how Poona Ford signed with the Seahawks as a UDFA and it was like, yup he'll make the 53. And every. single. week. since. he has proven he belongs. Just a bizarre, inexplicable pre-draft process for him pic.twitter.com/cMJ5rALI93— Alistair Corp (@byAlistairCorp) September 24, 2019
Jared Goff has gotten off to a rough start, and if Seattle can takeaway what Los Angeles does best—run to the perimeter—the onus will be on the struggling signal-caller. Making the Rams one dimensional will go a long way towards winning a crucial NFC West matchup.