last week, the Rams
take on the surprising Seattle Seahawks
I write "surprising" because the Seahawks find themselves at 2-1 on the season and well ahead of the pack in the NFC West thanks to the disastrous start of the preseason favorite 49ers
. Even better (from a Seattle perspective, anyhow), the Seahawks have looked good doing it, with Matt Hasselbeck
doing his best to turn back the clock to 2006.
The Rams have lost ten straight matchups against the Seahawks, their last win coming in dramatic fashion in the 2004 playoffs, the year the Rams beat Seattle three times. Since then it's been all Seahawks, all the time. And if Steve Spagnuolo's boys want to change that this year, they're going to have to play their best football of the season to do it.
1. Seahawks Receivers vs. Rams Secondary
As successful as the Seahawks have been early this season throwing the ball and moving it down the field, they are lacking in top-end receiver talent. (Actually a little bit like the Rams, come to think of it.) Deion Branch and Mike Williams are both solid receivers, but neither is a true number one. (Again, much like the Rams and Mark Clayton. He's very good, but is cast much better as a number two than the top target.) Golden Tate, the rookie receiver out of Notre Dame, has been solid on special teams and looks to have a bright future, but is still just four games into his professional career.
The Rams' secondary has had an up-and-down season so far, looking solid at times and allowing big gains at others. The leg injury still plaguing Oshiomogho Atogwe could loom large, as without Atogwe in the game the Rams lose one of the more skilled center fielders in the NFL. If he's healthy and ready to play, Atogwe could be in a good position to add to his already impressive interception totals. The cornerbacks for the Rams will have their work cut out for them as well, as Hasselbeck is skilled at fitting the ball into relatively small windows. The coverage will need to be extra tight to prevent the Seahawks from having a big day through the air.
2. The Seahawk Offensive Line
The Seattle offensive line has been hit hard with injuries already this season, and the Seahawks have had to scramble to try and fill in the holes. They currently have five players on their roster who play O-line that were not on the team at the beginning of the season. Just three games in, that's a mighty impressive number. Russell Okung, the sixth overall pick in this year's NFL draft, has been out since preseason with a high ankle sprain, but looks to be nearing a return. If he's back Sunday, we'll get a look at the most talented lineman coming into the league this year.
Regardless of who exactly plays for Seattle, this is a group that has been largely unsettled the whole season so far, and it will fall on the Rams' defense to try and exploit that. Chris Long has been very good this year, and he should be able to get pressure on the quarterback again this Sunday. Hasselbeck is not as mobile as he once was, so forcing the pocket to collapse will be of huge importance for the Rams. I look for George Selvie, the Rams' sixth-round pick this year, to get into some game action and use his talent for speed-rushing off the edge to help pressure Hasselbeck.
3. Rams' Running Game
Okay, let's face it: Going into an important game (against a divisional rival who looks to be on the upswing) without your best player is never an ideal situation. When that player just happens to be your running back, and you don't have an adequate Plan B at that position, it's even worse. Unfortunately, that's the situation the Rams find themselves in as Steven Jackson tries to recuperate from a groin injury.
Last week against Washington, the Rams' offensive line did their best work in god only knows how long in opening up holes for Kenneth Darby to run through after Jackson went out of the game. If they can do the same again this week the Rams may have a shot, but the Seahawks' run defense has been one of the stingiest in the NFL, allowing just 67.7 yards on the ground through their first three games. If ever the Rams could use Steven Jackson to have a big game, this is it. Unfortunately, Jackson didn't practice at all this week and likely would be at far less than full strength even if available to play. Without him, it could be tough sledding for the Rams trying to move the ball on the ground.
4. Special Teams
This is a pretty big deal, as the Seahawks' return game has been, quite possibly, the best in football to this point. Leon Washington, their running back slash kickoff return specialist, has proven to be extraordinarily dangerous, giving Seattle excellent field position more often than not. Golden Tate has shown the ability to return punts remarkably well, leading the NFL with a 25.3 yard per return average. The Rams' coverage unit has been very good this season, but they will be operating without Dominique Curry, one of their most talented gunners, putting them at a disadvantage. David Vobora has also been slowed by injury, leaving them without another solid contributor on special teams.
The Rams' return game will need to be better than it's been of late, especially since teams have almost completely stopped kicking the ball to Danny Amendola. If they continue to struggle in bringing the ball out, the Rams are going to have a vicious time on Sunday trying to win the field position battle.
5. Sam Bradford and the Tight End Injury Bug
Given that the Rams may very well be playing without much of a running game, it would be nice to look around at the passing game and see everyone healthy and ready to rumble against the Seattle secondary. Unfortunately, that's not the case, as Sam Bradford will have to try and make do with a receiving corps missing a couple big targets.
The Rams' tight end group has been especially hard hit with injuries this season, as both Billy Bajema and Daniel Fells, the Rams' top two at the position, are dealing with physical limitations. Fells has been on the field still, but hasn't been at his best due to a balky knee. Bajema is out completely at the moment as he deals with a knee injury of his own. Both Fells and Bajema would ordinarily represent solid checkdown options in the passing game, which is even more important than usual if the Rams are going to be playing without their top ground threat. If the Seahawks decide to just ignore the Rams' running game and make an all-out press to put pressure on Bradford, he'll need to be able to use those checkdowns effectively to avoid taking sacks all day long. Without his top two big targets, either the younger tight ends, Mike Hoomanawanui and Fendi Onobun, are going to have to step up, or the Rams are going to have to get creative with another option either coming out of the backfield or the slot position.
In the end, without their top runner and short options in the passing game, the Rams are going to have to be creative to move the ball on Sunday, and they're going to have to put a tremendous amount of trust in the right arm of their talented young quarterback. If they can stretch the field early and force the Seahawks to stay home instead of just pinning their ears back and rushing in, the offense just might be able to create enough space to be successful. If not, it could end up being a very long day at the dome for the Rams.
After their inspiring, exciting win over the