Seahawks-Rams preview: 2 teams rejoice as they’re free from Fisherball

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The revamped, NFC West-leading L.A. Rams play host to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in what will be another massive test for Sean McVay’s team. The Rams are coming off a huge statement win, going into Dallas and beating the Cowboys 35-30. The Seahawks meanwhile are coming off a win of their own, a two-quarter dominance against the Indianapolis Colts.

It’s Seattle’s first game against the exciting, refreshing Los Angeles team — and frankly the first compelling Seahawks-Rams game since 2010. That’s right, Jeff Fisher-led teams were so boring that for six years I longed for a game like one that Ruvell Martin led in receiving and Will Herring sealed with an interception. But it would be unfair to dwell on the former, has-been head coach when L.A.’s new regime is so fascinating and has ignited so much optimism league-wide. Without further ado, the debrief:

This season, the Rams have looked like…

A contender. It’s been a common refrain this week to point out that at this time last season, L.A. was 3-1. But 2016’s team and 2017’s team are incomparable, and what the Rams have done right out of the gate is remarkable. Well-coached and balanced in all three phases, L.A. has all the makings of a legitimate playoff team.

The offense clicked right away, with Jared Goff playing incredibly well and more importantly, looking comfortable. He’s distributing the ball to a host of weapons, getting the ball out on time and looks like a completely different player from last season.

On the other side of the ball, Wade Phillips’ impact has been felt right away. The defensive line is as deep as ever, Mark Barron’s transition to linebacker continues to be seamless, and Trumaine Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner are playing like Pro-Bowlers in the secondary.

With one of the best special teams coaches in the NFL for six seasons now in John Fassel, the Rams’ strong play in the third phase never wavered even through some shockingly uncompetitive seasons under Fisher. They sit fourth in special teams DVOA through four weeks while getting exceptional production out of both specialists. Punter Johnny Hekker has been outstanding and is second in the NFL in net average at 46.1 yards per attempt, while kicker Greg Zuerlein is perfect on the year and accounted for 23 of L.A.’s 35 points last Sunday.

In this game, Seattle needs to…

Have the offense gameplan around pressure from the Rams’ defensive front. If the Seahawks try to operate like their normal offense in L.A., they’ll be sabotaging themselves. The mismatch between the Rams’ front-seven and Seattle’s offensive line is too great. Instead, the Seahawks should re-hash some good things they did in week two against the San Francisco 49ers: bootlegs, move the pocket, read-option and use designed rollouts. We’ve seen Houston completely revitalize their offense by working around Deshaun Watson’s mobility, and Seattle doing something similar on Sunday will be their best chance to move the ball.

L.A.’s defensive line will attack and get up-field, and like Dak Prescott last week, there’s going to be opportunities for Wilson to hurt the Rams with his legs by escaping up the middle of the pocket. Prescott ended with 25 yards on the ground, and if Wilson can make a couple plays with his legs early it’ll slow down L.A.’s pass rush.

The Rams blitzes more than anyone in the league, so the Seahawks are going to have to keep them honest. Seattle isn’t going to be able to stop Aaron Donald and company, but there’s absolutely things they can do to slow them down.

A critical factor for L.A. will be…

To finish off drives. Last week in Dallas, the Rams had drives stall at the Cowboys’ 12, 10 and 15 yard-line. Despite it being a wholly impressive win, it shouldn’t have been as close as it was. In a home against a division rival those kind of drives have to be capped off, or else they risk letting the Seahawks hang around for another potential late game-tying or game-winning drive.

L.A. possesses the correct recipe to beat Seattle. They can dominate time of possession and have the depth on the defensive line to get after the passer consistently. If the Rams can finish a couple would-be field goal drives with touchdowns, it’s going to be an extremely difficult game for the Seahawks to get back into if they fall behind early.

A critical factor for the Seahawks will be…

The linebackers continuing their dominant play. Bobby Wagner is making a real run at Defensive Player of the Year, K.J. Wright continues to be criminally underrated and Michael Wilhoite has contributed more than Mike Morgan did a year ago. Against the Rams, they’ll face their biggest test.

Dallas desperately missed Sean Lee last week, with Gurley exploiting his matchup in the passing game, catching seven passes for 94 yards – including a 53-yard touchdown catch-and-run. Getting Gurley involved in the passing game this year has been a master stroke by McVay, and Wagner and Wright’s strong play against the pass will be tested.

On the outside, Wilhoite and Kam Chancellor will be crucial in containing Gurley. L.A. runs a ton of outside zone, taking advantage of his sprinter-speed and unforgiving decisiveness. On 38 runs either outside the tackles or to the boundary, Gurley is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Keeping Gurley from working in space will be imperative to Seattle slowing down the Rams’ engine.

Players who have stood out for L.A….

Their entire offense has been something to marvel at. Goff’s progression from one of the worst rookie quarterbacks in NFL history to one of the league’s best facilitators shouldn’t be discounted — it’s an accomplishment that alone will likely win McVay Coach of the Year honors. He’s unlocked Gurley, restoring him to a generational talent at running back and getting him the ball in space as often as possible. And the way they’ve already replicated Kirk Cousins’ weapons in Washington – Robert Woods as Pierre Garcon, Sammy Watkins as DeSean Jackson, Cooper Kupp as Jamison Crowder and Gerald Everett as Jordan Reed – is astonishing.

A reason for optimism…

At the very least, this game is going to be exciting. One of the NFC’s most exciting young teams going against the elder statesmen of their division and conference. Two incredible defenses. Two really well-coached teams. After suffering through years and years of Fisher-ball, it will be exhilarating to have a Seahawks-Rams game that’s worth watching even for neutrals.

Quick Hits…

  • Jeremy Lane looks like he’s on track to miss out on this game with a groin injury, so we’ll get another look at Justin Coleman at slot cornerback. Coleman has made a case to replace Lane in the lineup with strong games against both the Green Bay Packers and the Colts, and now can build on it against Kupp and the Rams. Kupp’s production has slowed down since an electric week one, but Goff has 100-percent trust in him already, and won’t hesitate to go right at Coleman if he struggles.
  • Cliff Avril will also miss Sunday’s game against L.A., so Frank Clark is going to have to step up. He’s going to be run at often, and with Avril’s future murky right now, Clark can do a lot to negate that potentially long-term loss with a disciplined game.
  • Robert Quinn had to be excited after Phillips’ hiring. Under his tutelage, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware became all-time pass rushers, and Quinn has as much talent as either of those two. His 19-sack, DPOY-level season in 2013 long behind him, his career should be re-starting under the Son of Bum. But after a dominant week one against Indianapolis, Quinn has been quiet the last three weeks. A massive breakout game could be on the horizon. And if not him:
  • It’s not often you see the Cowboys’ offensive line get bullied, but they were absolutely bullied last Sunday. Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald combined for eight hurries, a sack and five QB hits playing across from the best center and right guard in the NFL. Luckily, Luke Joeckel is as good as any guard in the league.

And a prediction…

The Seahawks are coming along slowly as they’re wont to do, but Sunday’s game is too difficult of a matchup for Seattle’s current form. L.A.’s defense will hold late and the Rams get back-to-back statement wins, 21-13.

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