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Seahawks-Rams: 3 key matchups to watch in Week 14

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NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

In Week 5, the Seahawks and Rams delivered one of the best games of the season on Thursday Night Football, a 30-29 barn burner. As it came early on in the season, the general public was largely unsure of what to make of either team; since then, the two NFC West foes have taken different roads to meet in a crucial Week 14 game.

What makes the second part of the Seattle-Los Angeles season series in 2019 particularly interesting is recent form: The Seahawks have seen their pass rush come alive and Quandre Diggs do wonders to their secondary, while the Rams may sort their offense out yet, coming off a 549-yard day against the Cardinals in Week 13. The two teams’ revitalized sides of the ball will be the focus of this week’s matchups to watch.

Seahawks’ front 7 vs Todd Gurley

One of the NFL’s great mysteries—what in the world has happened to Todd Gurley?—may be coming to a close, at least temporarily. In two of the past three weeks, L.A.’s running back has topped 19 carries, the only two times this season he has done so. Asked about this sudden uptick on Wednesday, Rams head coach Sean McVay delivered a succinct response:

Well then.

If McVay’s response is even partially truthful, and Gurley returns to his standard workhorse role, it will put a great onus on Seattle’s front seven. Since McVay took the L.A. job, Gurley has averaged just under 20 carries and 116.3 yards in victories over the Seahawks; in losses, it has been 14.5 carries and 47 yards. Gurley’s stat line in Week 5? 15 carries, 51 yards. While Seattle’s defense has improved recently—they are 15th in weighted DVOA—they remain a bottom half defense against the run (18th in DVOA).

Gurley’s largely anonymous 2019 has seemingly been more than usage, though. The track star-speed which was his signature has been missing. Between 2017 and 2018, Gurley averaged 5.9 yards per carry to the outside (and 6.1 against the Seahawks in 2018), but in 2019 that number is at a pedestrian 4.1. In Gurley’s two best games of the year, against Arizona and the Bears, his burst to the outside has seemed to have returned. Fortunately for Seattle, as has the swarming nature of their defensive line.

Ahead of Week 5, I wrote the Seahawks’ front was better equipped to handle the Rams’ outside zone because of how well their defensive line moves laterally. It ended up being a moot point, as Gurley slogged his way to 51 yards. This time around, it could prove crucial as once more, Los Angeles’ offense goes as Gurley goes. Jadeveon Clowney remains an elite run defender, Rasheem Green has popped several times a game against the run in recent weeks, and Poona Ford and Al Woods are space eaters adept at moving down the line. Seattle’s front should be tested in Week 14, and should the defensive line succeed in holding the edge and allowing Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright to flow to the football cleanly, expect Gurley to have another average day, with the Rams’ offense following suit.

Russell Wilson vs Rams’ secondary

A lot can change in a matter of weeks. In Week 5, L.A. came to CenturyLink Field with Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and John Johnson starting in the secondary. It’s Week 14 and Talib is a Dolphin, Peters is a Raven, and Johnson is on injured reserve. Jalen Ramsey has arrived, and Taylor Rapp has entered the lineup for the injured Johnson. Meanwhile, the Seahawks’ offense is largely the same, though Will Dissly has been replaced by Jacob Hollister. The league’s top ranked passing offense in DVOA will take on what is essentially a new secondary.

Despite the Rams’ rotating cast of characters on defense, they remain a top-half unit against both the run and pass. However, Seattle is one of three teams to top 400 total yards (429) against Los Angeles in 2019 (behind the Ravens at 480 and Buccaneers at 464). How might they match up this time around?

Ramsey, as he did in Jacksonville, does not stick to one side, nor the outside; because of his ability to play inside and out, he may draw Tyler Lockett more often than not (though Nickell Robey-Coleman is an excellent nickelback). Troy Hill will be opposite whichever boundary Ramsey plays, and remains the Rams’ weak spot, allowing 12.2 yards per catch on the season. When the requisite shot play to DK Metcalf comes, it should come with Hill opposite him.

The rookie Rapp is the most interesting, though. L.A. lost Johnson, a tremendous safety, and began to see improved play at free safety. Rapp has been fantastic both over the top, underneath in zone and coming up in the box. Since Week 7, Rapp is fifth in combined interceptions and pass breakups with five, third in stops with 20, and has allowed a passer rating of 65.2 in coverage. He’ll be an asset to stopping the Seahawks’ run game, but also in containing Hollister, someone who has quickly become a safety valve for Wilson.

Wilson boasts a strong, deep cast of weapons and he has continued to spread the ball around with tremendous efficiency in 2019. In Week 14, the Rams will be well equipped to try and match Seattle player-for-player.

Seahawks’ pass rush vs Jared Goff

Gurley’s revitalization has been crucial to the Rams’ recent good form, but L.A. floats and sinks with Goff’s pass protection. In their vintage destruction of the Cards, Goff was sacked once as he went 32-of-43 for 424 yards and two touchdowns in three quarters. However, in the two games he has been sacked four times, his completion percentage has dropped below 55; this meshes with a volatile season with five games of a passer rating below 70, and three above 100.

Crucially, the Seahawks’ pass rush has come alive since Week 11 due in large part to uptick in performance from, well, everyone. Over that span, Seattle has 26 QB hits, and are up to 12th in pass rush win rate. The hits are what’s worth putting stock into—as Pete Carroll preaches, it’s about affecting the quarterback. That’s exactly what’s troubled Goff in 2019 and teams have noticed, as he’s being blitzed, on average, four times more per game than in 2018.

Los Angeles does appear to be getting healthy up front, with the return of Rob Havenstein after six dreadful starts from David Edwards at right tackle. Between Jarran Reed on the interior, and Shaquem Griffin and Rasheem Green on the outside, the Seahawks should be able to create some pass rush against a still hobbled Havenstein and rookie Bobby Evans. On the other side, the ageless Andrew Whitworth remains a constant, but as Frank Clark showed between 2017 and ‘18, he is very beatable; Clowney can find joy against him, as can Ezekiel Ansah provided he is healthy after a scare on Monday night.

As Seattle’s shown—in Week 5 and the rest of the season—Wilson and the offense have the firepower to outscore anyone. That shouldn’t change in Week 14, even against a fresh faced defense. For the Seahawks’ defense, it will be a need to continue their recent run, forcing Gurley back into the replacement level form he’s existed in for most of 2019, and causing havoc for Goff in the pocket.