Burning Questions: Seahawks Vs. Rams
By Corbin Smith
St. Louis entered the season with heightened expectations after landing prized tackle Jake Long in free agency and drafting speedy wideout Tavon Austin, but injuries and inconsistent play on both sides of the ball have prevented the Rams from making strides in the standings. A season-ending knee injury to quarterback Sam Bradford has put the team into a desperate situation, as career backup Kellen Clemens will take the reins against Seattle's vicious defense. The Rams haven't won any of the six games that Bradford has missed since coming into the NFL in 2010.
Despite the obvious mismatch on paper, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson says that the team views every game as a "championship game" and this contest will be no different. St. Louis managed to upset Seattle last year at home, and the Seahawks won't want to see a similar result this season. With potential homefield advantage in the playoffs at stake on a weekly basis, don't expect Seattle to take its opponent lightly this week.
As gameday approaches, here are some key questions that will impact who wins:
1. Will Percy Harvin make his much-anticipated Seattle debut?
Coach Pete Carroll has maintained status quo throughout the week, continually repeating that the team planned to evaluate Harvin day-to-day as he works his way back from hip surgery. Carroll understands fans want to see him in game action as soon as possible, but Seattle should opt to play it safe in this situation. With two games against teams with a combined 3-11 record on the upcoming schedule, there's no reason to rush him back if he's not 100-percent ready to play. Harvin has the tools to be a dynamic playmaker in Darrell Bevell's offense, and his presence will make an already great team even better. The team has to be smart about bringing him back at the right time, and considering that he's only practiced a few times this week. It would be a stunner to see Harvin dressed and active for Monday's game.
If somehow the Seahawks decide that he is indeed ready to play, expect his snaps to be limited, especially if the game gets out of hand early. Coming off a major injury, fans should expect to see a pre-determined snap count for at least the first game or two after he returns. It also wouldn't be surprising if Carroll and his staff decide not to use him on kick returns. Once he's had a few games under his belt, the team will be able to increase his workload.
2. Can the Seahawks provide better protection for Wilson?
Even though the Seahawks have the best record in the NFC, pass protection woes remain troubling. Ever since Russell Okung went down early in the season, Seattle's line has been unable to keep defenders from ambushing Wilson, and youngsters like Michael Bowie have been forced to step in before being ready to start at this level. Carroll has stated that he would like to see Wilson scramble less, but he understands why his quarterback has had to tuck and run so frequently. His legs have saved the Seahawks countless times this season, but how long can he continue to scramble before he suffers an injury?
The Rams have had plenty of problems on defense this year, but the front line could give Seattle fits. At the end spots, Chris Long and Robert Quinn have been strong contributors in recent seasons. While Long only has 2.5 sacks so far, Quinn has came into his own, leading the team with seven sacks and forcing four fumbles in seven games. Paul McQuistan and Bowie could have their hands full trying to keep them out of the backfield and away from Wilson. St. Louis has also seen great growth from defensive tackle Michael Brockers, who has 20 tackles and 3.5 sacks manning the interior for Jeff Fisher's defense.
3. Will the Seahawks' pass-rush give Clemens nightmares?
Based on how often Seattle got its hands on Carson Palmer last Thursday night, the answer could be yes. Carroll has been building a juggernaut on defense since becoming head coach in 2009, but generating a consistent pass-rush has been one area the team has struggled with during his tenure. During his first three seasons as head coach, the Seahawks averaged 35.3 sacks as a team per season, including a 36-sack season in 2012. Carroll wanted to see major improvements in that area this season, and management brought in free agents Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett as reinforcements to add depth at the defensive end positions. With veteran Chris Clemons leading the way, Seattle has already accumulated 23 sacks in seven games, and Carroll believes that the defensive line as a whole still hasn't played at its best. Improved performance from players like linebacker Malcolm Smith have also bolstered the pass-rush, making a great defense even better.
Without Bradford, the Rams will be forced to use Clemens, a pocket passer who has not fared well when called upon to play. His career 19.2 QBR (total quarterback rating) ranks dead last in the league since the statistic became official in 2006, and St. Louis is 0-6 in games he played in the past three seasons. Fisher has spoken confidently about his backup quarterback to the media this week, but the organization clearly thinks otherwise. On Sunday, the team contacted 44-year-old Brett Favre to gauge his interest in making a comeback, but he declined the offer. The desperate move backfired, and the Rams ended up signing free agents Brady Quinn and Austin Davis. After seeing what Seattle has done in recent weeks to opposing quarterbacks, Clemens can't be too overly excited about drawing the Seahawks for his first start of the season.
4. Which players could potentially pose problems for Seattle's defense?
Even with a healthy Bradford, the Rams don't have a lot of weapons on offense. Austin hasn't been near as effective as many anticipated, the rushing attack has been awful until recently, and the offensive line has dealt with a variety of injuries. Seattle shouldn't have too difficult of a time stopping the Rams' offense, especially if the front line rattles Clemens early. Austin has game-changing speed and Chris Givens can be a dangerous weapon on the outside, but trying to complete passes against Seattle's physical secondary has been a problem for great quarterbacks in the past, and it will be a major challenge for Clemens to find success through the air. If the Rams want to have any shot at staying competitive on Monday night, the running game will need to be effective early to give Clemens better opportunities as a passer.
Rookie running back Zac Stacy could be the impact player for St. Louis entering this game. Stacy became the starter a few weeks ago after Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead performed poorly to start the season, and he's done a solid job since taking over the job. In three starts, the Vanderbilt product has rushed for 214 yards and a healthy 4.3 yards per-carry average, but his value could take a major hit without Bradford in the lineup. Prior to becoming the starter, St. Louis lacked offensive balance and became one-dimensional as a pass-heavy team. Thanks to Bradford's injury, the team may now need to lean on the ground game too much. Seattle will need to key on stopping Stacy and force the Rams to pass the football out of necessity. If they're able to do that, look for ball hawks like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas to have monster performances.