Friday, December 27, 2013
Double Coverage: Rams at Seahawks
By Terry Blount and Nick Wagoner
The Rams are trying to play the role of spoiler, while the Seahawks are looking to lock up the top seed in the NFC.
This is it, one game left and everything on the line for the Seattle Seahawks' regular-season goals of the NFC West title and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
The Seahawks, 12-3, can reach those goals, no matter what any other team does this weekend, if they defeat the St. Louis Rams on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
Some questions will be answered in this game. Are the Seahawks the team that dominated the New Orleans Saints on a Monday night to go 11-1, or are they the team that has lost two of its past three games and struggled on offense?
St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
And the Rams, 7-8, are a team that did a great job of shutting down the Seattle offense earlier this year in a Monday night game at St. Louis, which the Seahawks pulled out 14-9 with a goal-line stand at the end.
ESPN.com's Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount break down how this game shapes up:
Blount: Everything is on the line this weekend for the Seahawks, Nick, but I know the Rams would love to end the season with a .500 record and knock the Seahawks out of the top spot in the playoffs. CenturyLink will be rocking, to say the least. What will it take for the Rams to win this one?
Wagoner: I don't think the Rams have to stray too far from what they did in the first meeting, a blueprint they've followed in every win they've had since Week 5. That means pound the running game, stop the run, rush the passer and win the turnover battle. That sounds like a lot of steps and many of them won't be easy, especially against the Seahawks, but that's been the formula and nothing is going to change this week.
The Rams gave Seattle all it wanted in that first meeting on a Monday night following that plan and I expect them to do the same on Sunday.
Terry, in the first meeting the Rams kept it close with a dominant pass rush. Obviously, the Seahawks were missing some key pieces in that game but Robert Quinn & Co. have only gotten better. How has Seattle's offensive line come together and has it done enough to make you think it can have more success protecting Russell Wilson this time around?
Blount: They couldn't be much worse than they were that night, Nick, giving up seven sacks. The Seahawks were playing without both starting tackles that night: Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung and right tackle Breno Giacomini. Both will start Sunday, although Okung still has a problem with his toe injury. But even a limited Okung is better than anyone else Seattle could play at left tackle. Also, rookie offensive linemen Michael Bowie and Alvin Bailey have a lot more game experience now and are better prepared to play at a high level. So the answer is, yes, they will be better, but the offensive line remains the weakest area on the team.
Nick, the Rams certainly have played better than most people expected with Kellen Clemens at quarterback. What have they done well that has surprised you?
Rams at Seahawks: Stat of the Week
Number of interceptions for Seattle in the past two games, including four picks by cornerback Richard Sherman.
Wagoner: I have been mildly surprised by how much success they have had running the ball with Clemens at quarterback, especially given that teams are still loading up to stop the run with eight or nine men in the box. What's more, the Rams have had that success running it with a rotation of offensive linemen because of injuries.
Really, though, Clemens himself has surprised me the most. I expected him to be able to manage games and, in a best-case scenario, I figured he'd complete about 50-55 percent of his passes and not turn the ball over. He's been better than that, especially the past two weeks. He isn't afraid to push the ball down the field, but really hasn't made many bad decisions when doing that and he's completing plenty of passes that aren't just checkdowns. I knew he'd be a great leader and influence on his young teammates. I just didn't expect him to be as solid as he's been in the more tangible areas. Clemens struggled in that first meeting but I expect better from him this time since he's now got some games under his belt.
Terry, one thing that jumped out from the Monday night game was the relative ease with which the Rams and Zac Stacy ran the ball. I see the Seahawks' overall run defense has remained in the middle of the pack since. Obviously the dominant pass defense makes the whole thing go, but is the run defense a concern heading toward this game and the postseason?
Blount: As concerns go, this one would be a few rungs down the list. Part of the problem came when middle linebacker Bobby Wagner was out with a high-ankle sprain, then returned too soon and didn't play well for a couple of weeks. Wagner is back playing lights out now, which has helped plug some holes in the run defense, and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane has clogged up the middle. But it's still possible at times to get some yards against Seattle on the ground because the Seahawks put so much emphasis on rushing the passer and often spread the front line out almost to the numbers.
Nick, do you sense the Rams have a bit of a chip on the shoulder about the loss in St. Louis, when the Seahawks escaped with a 14-9 victory that took a goal-line stand at the end?
Wagoner: I think there's a little bit of that but what I sense more is a chip on their shoulder based on their inability to get wins in the NFC West this season. Last year, they were 4-1-1 in the division. This year, they're 1-4 entering this game. Worse, they're assured of finishing last in the division. That's not a good place to be because Seattle and San Francisco don't appear ready to go anywhere and Arizona is clearly a force, as well.
That first meeting is a game the Rams probably should have won and they know that, but I think they like any opportunity they get to beat Seattle. Add the chance to wreck their home-field party plans and the chance to get to .500 for the first time since 2006 and this should be a very motivated team.
One more thing, the Rams have a pretty impressive resume of victories this year, with wins against Arizona, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Chicago. Beating Seattle would be the icing on the cake as they build toward 2014.
Terry, the Rams under coach Jeff Fisher have played Pete Carroll's Seahawks three times, with the largest margin of victory being Seattle's seven-point win in the 2012 season finale. The Rams view Seattle as a tough, division rival. Have they earned similar respect from the Seahawks entering an important game from the Seattle side?
Blount: Absolutely Nick. The Seahawks honestly believe any NFC West opponent is tougher than anyone else they play because the games are more physical than other games. Carroll has the utmost respect for Fisher and his ability to devise defensive schemes to counter what Seattle tries to do on offense. And receiver Golden Tate, of waving bye-bye infamy earlier this year in St. Louis, said both teams love to talk trash to each other and try to out-man the other guy in one-on-one matchups. But Tate said that's a sign of respect for how much the Rams have improved.
The final word on Sunday's matchup at CenturyLink Field:
Nick Wagoner: Part of me is tempted to take the Rams in this one. They're playing well and they have played Seattle close under coach Jeff Fisher. But ultimately, Seattle's desperation factor will be too much to overcome in what should be another NFC West classic. Seahawks 17, Rams 13
Terry Blount: If Seattle can't win this home finale against a 7-8 opponent -- a game with the division title and home-field advantage in the playoffs on the line -- then they aren't the team most people think they are. I believe they still are the dominant team that can make this a championship season. Seahawks 27, St. Louis 13