Sunday’s game pits two of the hottest teams in the NFL. The Chargers will present the best test yet for Seattle’s defense other than the Rams. And like that game, it won’t be a surprise if this one is high-scoring.
Here’s our preview of the Seahawks’ 1:05 p.m. game at CenturyLink Field against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Like last week’s game against Detroit, this is a matchup of two teams on the rise — Seattle has won four of its last five and the Chargers five of their last six. Neither, though, has beaten a team that currently has a winning record, Seattle’s four wins coming against teams that are 9-20 and the Chargers’ five wins coming against teams that are 9-28-1. So for each, a win would not only help their playoff positioning (both teams are in tough sledding to win their divisions, Seattle 3.5 back of the Rams and the Chargers 1.5 back of the Chiefs) but also give some added credibility to their recent success. This is also the first regular season visit by the Chargers to Seattle since 2010, a 27-20 Seahawks win in what was the third game of the Pete Carroll era.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Chargers QB Philip Rivers against the Seahawks’ pass rush.
I could also say Rivers against the Seattle secondary – or maybe just the entire defense. But it feels like the real key here is Seattle getting consistent pressure to at least force Rivers out of his comfort zone more often than not, though that’s really hard to do — good protection and Rivers’ ability to get rid of the ball quickly has resulted in him being sacked just nine times in seven games this season. Rivers may be 36 now but he is in the midst of one of his best seasons, with a 17-3 TD-to-interception ratio and completing 69.1 percent of his passes. There may be no quarterback in the NFL who draws more praise from Carroll than Rivers. “This is a really difficult challenge with a great quarterback,’’ Carroll said this week. “I can’t say enough about how good this guy is.’’ Seattle really needs the likes of edge rushers Frank Clark, Dion Jordan — and maybe rookie Jacob Martin, who has been seeing increasing playing time — to come up big.
PLAYER TO WATCH
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Safety Bradley McDougald.
One huge reason Seattle’s defense has so far not dropped off the way many expected it might after the loss of so many big-name vets has been the play of McDougald filling in for Kam Chancellor at strong safety, while also used in a variety of other ways. Pro Football Focus noted that with K.J. Wright back at weakside linebacker against Detroit, McDougald played far less in the box or on the line than he had been – just 18 snaps compared to an average of 33 in the first six games. That means McDougald is back to pretty much just being a safety, assuming he can make it through the game. McDougald missed a few snaps last week due to a stinger and was listed as questionable for Sunday’s game with a knee injury, though he is expected to play. Whether it’s McDougald or backup Delano Hill (or Shalom Luani), that’ll be a big role against the Chargers, not only having to cover the intermediate routes that the Chargers like to run so well but also helping to keep running back Melvin Gordon — averaging 5.1 yards per carry and also with 30 receptions — in check.
COACHING DECISION TO WATCH
Will the Seahawks stick with the run if they fall behind?
Seattle’s new-found commitment to the running game has been made easier by the fact that the Seahawks have almost never been behind in their last five games. Even including their 33-31 loss to the Rams, in which Seattle was ahead or tied for most of it, the Seahawks have trailed for just 14 minutes and 53 seconds in their last five games — which encompasses 300 minutes of playing time. Much was made of Seattle’s 42-17 run-pass ratio last week. And no doubt the Seahawks want to run it as often as they can. But it also helped being ahead — the Seahawks ran it on 23 of 28 plays in the second half during which time they always had at least a 14-point lead, the classic Carroll formula. But that commitment could be challenged this week if the Chargers are able to move the ball and score some points and turn the game into a track meet, ala the Rams game. It will be interesting to see how the Seahawks react offensively the first time they fall behind by any margin, be it Sunday or in the future.
Receiver Doug Baldwin.
Can a team’s number one receiver really be an X-factor, a phrase that usually implies someone unexpected stepping forward? He can be in this case. As Russell Wilson noted this week, the Seahawks have thrived of late without getting a really significant contribution from Baldwin, who missed two games earlier this year with a knee injury. Baldwin had just two catches last week for 26 yards (though it’s worth noting he usually seem to draw one of Detroit’s top two cornerbacks to defend him, leaving the struggling Teez Tabor to defend David Moore, who feasted with four receptions for 97 yards). “The great thing is we haven’t really even gotten him quite fully going yet,’’ Wilson said. “When we get him going, I’m excited about that part of it, too. I always go back to 2015 when Doug and I got into a hot streak so I always say ‘why not?’ That might happen soon.”
WILD CARD PLAYER WHO COULD SURPRISE
Defensive end Dion Jordan.
As noted above, the Seahawks are going to need a consistent pass rush against Rivers. And they’ll need it from more than just Frank Clark. Maybe this can be Jordan’s true breakout game as he appears back to full health after struggling with injuries earlier this year — Jordan played 27 snaps against Detroit and earned the top grade of any Seattle defensive lineman from Pro Football Focus and ranked fourth among all edge defenders with three hurries and one QB hit on 22 pass rush snaps.
Those are the yards per play averages for the Chargers — which ranks first in the NFL — and the Seahawks, which ranks 28th, numbers that could prove pivotal Sunday. The Seahawks talk often of staying on schedule on offense, which means doing enough on first and second downs to have manageable third downs. Seattle has overcome its relative lack of success on first down plays to be the best team in the NFL the last three games in converting third down at 59.46 percent. The Chargers, oddly, are near the bottom in third-down conversion percentage at 37.18 for the season, 23rd in the NFL (Seattle is 15th at 40.91). So maybe first-down success is overrated. But the hunch here is Seattle would have a tough time overcoming being outgained by three yards on every first-down play all game.
THE FINAL WORD
Seahawks 27, Chargers 23
The Chargers will present the best test yet for Seattle’s defense other than the Rams. And like that game, it won’t be a surprise if this one is high-scoring — these are two really similar defenses in terms of schemes and there won’t be a lot of fooling anybody going on out there. But the Seahawks seem to be finding their formula for success, one that is always that much more potent at home, and in front of what figures to be a crowd pretty fired-up by their first chance to cheer for their team in almost a month during which time Seattle won its last two games by a combined 55-17). This will also be the first home game since the death of owner Paul Allen, which could lead to some heightened emotion for the Seahawks.