The factor that will determine who wins this Sunday will be...
...the pass rush.
In order to win this game, the Rams will have to do two things, in my opinion.
First of all, they will have to protect Marc Bulger and give him the time he needs to go through his progressions and find the open receiver. This is easier said than done against Seattle, who sacked Bulger seven times last they met. I recall reading earlier this week that the Rams have fielded something like eight different offensive line combinations this season. The results of having to do so have been poor, and we saw it as recently as last weekend when Bulger was sacked six times due in part to his own tendency to hold onto the ball but primarily due to inefficiency on the offensive line.
The return of Todd Steussie and the potential return of another starter in Brett Romberg could provide a boost to this line, but frankly I’m skeptical that we’ll see much difference in protection this week as we have in recent weeks. These two returning players won’t change the fact that we’re using two recent addition journeymen at right tackle, nor will it change anything on the left side of this line, where Alex Barron and Milford Brown have been largely inconsistent. But any time you can get Nick Leckey off the field, especially after his embarrassing performance in San Francisco, you’ve done a good job.
Left defensive end Patrick Kerney was on fire for Seattle last weekend, racking up three sacks and a forced fumble against the Bears’ troubled offense. When the Rams played Seattle last, right defense end Daryl Tapp had a monster day with four sacks and a forced fumble of his own. For the rest of the season, Tapp has only registered 2.5 sacks. He’s likely licking his chops at the chance to face St. Louis again, and if the Rams want to notch their third victory of the year, left tackle Alex Barron needs to find some way to shut Tapp down while the right side of the line does their best to contain Patrick Kerney - easier said than done for a unit that looks to be playing either Brandon Gorin or Rob Petitti on the right perimeter.
But perhaps the most dangerous weapon to the Rams’ pass protection is linebacker Julian Peterson, who has come up with eight sacks and four forced fumbles thus far in the year to lead the Seahawks pass rush. Peterson was a big factor when the Rams traveled to Seattle earlier in the year, recording four tackles, a sack, and an interception. Last year in the Edward Jones Dome, Peterson matched those four tackles but registered two sacks.
That leaves three pass rushing weapons that this new version of the St. Louis line will have to contain. Can it be done? Will it? Those are questions that will only be answered on Sunday. But the job would be tough enough with a healthy offensive line, let alone with a patchwork line that has changed eight times over the course of eleven games.
On the flip side, the Rams will have to generate their own pass rush on defense if they stand a chance of slowing this Seattle offense down.
Seattle boasts the seventh best passing offense in the league, achieving 254 passing yards per game. When ranked by QB rating, the ‘Hawks are sixth in the league. Matt Hasselbeck has reemerged under head coach Mike Holmgren’s more pass-happy version of the West Coast offense.
Though Hasselbeck has been sacked 18 times this year, only three of them have come in the last three games and in spite of more passing attempts over that same span. Since the bye four weeks ago, Hasselbeck’s QB rating is a strong 96. In the three games that followed their bye, Hasselbeck has thrown the ball 40+ times; compare that to only once prior to the bye week. Many fans would think that an ineffective Shaun Alexander is a bad thing for the Seahawks, but they’ve shown themselves to be very capable without the former MVP.
If the Rams have any hopes of slowing down the slightly injured Hasselbeck, they’ll need to hit him hard and frequently. That hasn’t been a strength of the Rams’ defense, as they’re currently tied for 25th in the league in sacks with 17. But seven of those have come in the last three games, so perhaps Jim Haslett has found a solution to the Rams’ pass rush woes. With Leonard Little out on injured reserve, expect Haslett to bring the heat with a variety of blitzes from linebackers and occasionally safeties. Linebackers Will Witherspoon and Pisa Tinoisamoa are playing some of the best football of their Ram careers right now; if the Rams defense is going to hold up against Seattle, they’ll need these two playmakers to make plays. That also means the big bodies up front – Carriker, Ryan, Glover, etc – will have to do a good job keeping blockers off of our speedy ‘backers, allowing them to roam around freely.
Ultimately, though wins over the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco ***** were steps in the right direction, one has to face the reality of the situation. The Saints and ***** combine for a record of 6-14; Seattle comes into this game with as many wins as both of those clubs combined.
Simply put, the Seahawks are a tough team. Maybe they’re not in the upper class of the NFL as they were a few years ago when they made their Super Bowl run, but they’re the best in the West and are right there in the second tier of NFC teams behind Green Bay and Dallas.
The Rams, however, have momentum. After an 0-8 start, they’ve returned from their bye week reenergized, with new healthy players returning every week. They’ve won their first two games of the season on the road no less. They’ve shown the ability to fight all the way until the final seconds of the game, doing enough early on to score enough points to win while the defense has prevented late-game heroics by both the Saints and *****. Those kinds of close wins, even against poor competition, are emotional victories that a team can latch onto and use to propel them towards better play.
But will it be enough to stop the Seattle machine, arguably the best teams the Rams have faced since traveling to Dallas in Week Four of the season? This will be a big challenge for this organization. A win at home against Seattle would be a monumental victory for a battered team facing leadership questions at every turn. A loss at home against a bitter NFC West rival would stop the Rams’ winning streak in its tracks and could be as large an emotional loss as the previous two weeks have been an emotional gain.
As always, games are not played on paper, and all questions will be answered on Sunday when these two teams face off. Many factors on both sides of the ball as well as on special teams will contribute to the outcome of this game. But if the Rams have any hope of walking off their home turf with a victory, I believe the pass rush – preventing it on offense while generating it on defense – will be the key to this game.
Re: The factor that will determine who wins this Sunday will be...
I think you're dead on, Nick. Our ability to protect Bulger and put pressure on Hasselbeck will be the deciding factor. Whoever wins in the trenches will win this game.
I'm sure Hasslet will bring the heat. I'm just not as confident in our ability to contain the Seahawks pass rush. Let's hope we can give Bulger time and at least we'll have a chance.