1. Wrangling Wilson
THE KEY: Since the Rams and Seahawks first met way back on Sept. 30, both teams have grown leaps and bounds. As two of the youngest teams in the league, it was expected that both would be much better near the end of the season than at the beginning.
No player has better exemplified that improvement than Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, a rookie who has played like a 10-year veteran in recent weeks as the Seahawks have averaged 50 points per game in the past three weeks.
Eliminating mistakes and taking more chances, Wilson has found himself among the NFL’s best since week 5. In that time, Wilson ranks second in the NFL in quarterback rating at 106.9 with 21 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
Wilson’s 25 touchdown passes this season place him only behind Peyton Manning’s 26 for the most by a rookie quarterback in league history.
And Wilson isn’t just getting it done in the passing game. He also poses a major threat to opponents with his ability to run, posting 431 yards on 84 carries, both franchise records for a quarterback.
“First year players improve when they play all year – we’ve got some that’s evidence – but that’s what he’s done,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s just gotten better and better. They’re doing more things. He’s much more comfortable. He’s extending plays. He’s pulling the ball down and running for 15, 20, 30-yard touchdowns and just breaking tackles. He’s throwing with accuracy and they’re not turning the football over.”
To get a win in Seattle, the Rams must find a way to slow down the red-hot Wilson.
THE ANSWER: The Rams got to Wilson early and often for six sacks but he seemed to slip away at the right times, including a game-winning 1-yard touchdown run. He finished with 250 yards on 15-of-19 passing with a touchdown for a rating of 136.3 and 58 yards on 10 carries.
2. Slowing Lynch
THE KEY: The Seahawks make no secret of who or what they want to be offensively. With a rookie in Wilson, Seattle has been one of the league’s pre-eminent grind it out on the ground running teams.
Carrying the freight is veteran running back Marshawn Lynch, who through 15 games sits second in the NFL with 1,490 yards on 297 carries. Lynch has become the focal point of the offense and his combination of speed and power makes him one of the league’s elite running backs.
The Rams had a strong performance against the run last week in Tampa Bay, limiting a Bucs team with a similar offensive philosophy to 3.6 yards per attempt on 22 carries.
This week, the run defense will again take precedence as the Rams face another top-notch rushing attack. Seattle is second in the league in rushing offense, averaging 161.7 yards per contest.
In the first meeting, the Rams struggled to contain Lynch, who rushed for 118 yards on 20 carries and scored a touchdown. In fact, the Seahawks rolled up 179 yards on the ground in that game.
Regardless of how they do it, slowing down Lynch is the key to slowing down Seattle’s offense.
“I think it starts in the backfield,” Rams end Chris Long said. “They have, obviously, one of the best backs in the game in Marshawn. He’s very well respected in everybody’s locker room. He runs so hard; he’s an emotional leader on the field. I think you can tell that from watching him play.”
THE ANSWER: Lynch again was a thorn in the Rams’ side, as he posted 100 yards on 18 carries and two catches for 14 yards. He did cough up a key late fumble but the Rams were unable to come up with it.
3. Touting Turnovers
THE KEY: The very nature of the way the Rams and Seahawks approach the game would seem to point all signs toward a slugfest in which points will be at a premium. At least, that’s how the first meeting played out.
The Seahawks have one of the league’s best defenses and the Rams have one that’s quickly emerging as one of the better groups around.
That means a lot of knock down, drag out type of games similar to what both teams have regularly encountered in the NFC West this year.
Winning the turnover battle is an obvious key to any victory but when it’s difficult to score points; generating offense via the defense might be the best way to get on the board.
Through 15 games, Seattle sits plus-12 in turnovers, which is tied for sixth in the league. The Rams are at an even 0, which is tied for 18th in the league. The Rams had five interceptions last week and had three against Seattle in the first meeting.
The Rams were able to bait Wilson into some mistakes in the first meeting but he’s made some major strides since.
On the flip side, Bradford and the Rams must take care of the ball. Seattle’s secondary is full of ballhawks and the pass rush can come up with strip sacks at a moment’s notice.
Turnovers are always important but in games like this, they take on even more meaning.
“You’re going to have to get turnovers and score points and play perfect in all three phases probably,” Fisher said. “They’re a very, very good football team right now.”
THE ANSWER: There were no turnovers until the game’s second to last play as Bradford’s last gasp attempt on fourth and 10 was picked off by Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. Aside from that, the Rams missed a golden chance for a fumble recovery but both teams protected the ball.
4. Getting Loud
THE KEY: Some might hear all of the talk about how loud CenturyLink Field is and how the Seahawks create an obscene homefield advantage that makes them almost unbeatable at home and dismiss it as hyperbole.
But there’s actually plenty of truth to it.
This season, Seattle is a perfect 7-0 at home and its notorious 12th man has created enough noise on a consistent basis to make life difficult for all that visit. Since 2002, the Seahawks have the second best home record in the league, going 58-29.
Seattle fans have become known for their ability to wreak havoc on opposing offenses by causing them to jump offsides and wrack up the penalties. In fact, since 2005, the Seahawks have drawn the most opponent false start penalties in the league with 119, an average of nearly two per game.
The Rams have been better at cutting down on false starts and silly offensive penalties in recent weeks, particularly in the red zone, which has allowed them to score touchdowns in seven of their past eight chances inside the opponent’s 20.
“It’s loud,” Bradford said. “I think it’s a great, great atmosphere to play in. You know their fans are going to be into it. It’s going to be a challenge for us. We had to work a couple of whisper cadences at practice today. Just getting everyone used to not being able to hear the cadence. But, I think everyone in this locker room looks at it as a great challenge for us to go up and get another road win, and a big road win at that.”
THE ANSWER: This was not one of the Rams better games in this regard. They had two false starts and two delay of game penalties on offense and jumped offsides defensively on three occasions.
5. On the Run
THE KEY: Rams running back Steven Jackson is within 10 yards of becoming the sixth player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in eight consecutive seasons. While Jackson will almost certainly hit that number, the Rams need Jackson to perform well in much the same way the Seahawks need Lynch.
Jackson not only provides the Rams their most established runner but he also is by far the team’s most reliable pass protector among its running backs.
Of course, revving up the run game will be an even more difficult task considering the opponent. Seattle is 11th in the league against the run, allowing 104.7 yards per game on the ground, a number that has actually increased considerably since the first meeting.
While the likes of ends Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin generating pass rush up front, defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and end Red Bryant are two of the league’s most formidable run stuffers. Linebackers Leroy Hill, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are also stout against the run.
With the Seahawks boasting one of the league’s best secondaries and a defense ranked fifth in the league in pass defense, it’s important to stick to the run.
“Seattle is built on speed,” Jackson said. “They are doing an excellent job so far this season. They have established that they are going to come after the quarterback and we are going to have to protect Sam. In the running game we are going to have to make sure that we get our reads right and we get a man on a man and take advantage of the creases that are going to be there. If not, we have to establish the run so we can keep them off balance.”
THE ANSWER: Jackson got his 1,000 yards with a 14-yard dash up the middle in the second quarter and finished with a solid 52 yards on 11 carries, an average of 4.7 per attempt. The Rams would have liked to stick with the run a bit more but some of the aforementioned penalties made that difficult.