Let’s see how far they’ve come.
Fourteen games ago, the Seahawks’ offensive linemen got run over in the season opener by a pack of rampaging Rams. The swarming St. Louis defensive front led by tackle extraordinaire Aaron Donald sacked Russell Wilson six times. And when the Seattle needed just a single yard on fourth down in overtime, the O-line with new starters at three positions couldn’t push the Rams back enough for Marshawn Lynch to extend the game. That’s how the Seahawks lost.
It was the beginning of seven games in which Wilson got dumped an NFL-high 31 times, new center Drew Nowak got demoted all the way down the practice squad in favor of Patrick Lewis and the two-time defending NFC champions were wallowing under .500.
How far have those linemen come since then?
“Well, a long way,” Seahawks veteran line coach Tom Cable said entering Sunday’s rematch of the now-soaring Seahawks (9-5) and the Rams (6-8) at CenturyLink Field. “But they’ve improved in a lot of areas, too.
“This is really a cool matchup.”
Cool in that it will truly determine how much better Seattle’s line has gotten. For those blockers, this is a measuring-stick game two weeks before the playoffs begin.
“Sure it is,” coach Pete Carroll said. “It’s an attacking front, pressure-wise, scheme-wise. The mixed fronts that they do cause problems.”
Lewis, flanked by left tackle Russell Okung (questionable to play Sunday because of a strained calf; Alvin Bailey would start instead), left guard Justin Britt, right guard J.R. Sweezy and right tackle Garry Gilliam, form a unit that’s allowed just 10 sacks in the last seven games. With Wilson following a November bye-week mandate from Carroll and Cable to get the ball out more quickly, the blockers have provided a consistent passing pocket the quarterback finally can trust.
“Ultimately, (it comes down to) trusting in that,” Wilson said, “and having the trust in the guys you have around you.”
This is what trust has spawned: ESPN Stats and Information details Wilson’s passer rating is 119.5 passing from the pocket this season, the best in the league. In the last half-dozen seasons the only QB to be better from the pocket is Aaron Rodgers in 2011.
Last week in Seattle’s fifth consecutive victory, 30-13 over Cleveland to clinch a playoff spot, Wilson completed 19 of 25 passes from the pocket for 226 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That was a passer rating of 142.7 — because his line allowed no sacks for the second time this season.
This streak of line play that has transformed Seattle’s season began Nov. 1 at Dallas. The Cowboys the lowest blitzing rates in the league, and that day in Arlington they blitzed the Seahawks just 9 percent of the time. That’s despite the fact the Rams set the blueprint in that opener Sept. 13 for how to overwhelming Seattle’s line and offense by blitzing linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties — everyone except team trainers.
That Rams scheme presents the biggest challenge to Seattle’s offense and to Wilson, who has thrown 19 touchdown passes and zero interceptions during the Seahawks’ five-game winning streak.
“They are very creative,” Cable said of St. Louis’ front seven. “I would say between them and Arizona are probably the most creative pressure defenses we face.”
Donald’s 11 sacks are most in the league among interior defensive linemen. He has four sacks in three career games against Seattle, after he got Wilson twice in that opener.
“He is a special, special player,” Cable said of the second-year tackle from Pittsburgh. “You turn the film on and it doesn’t matter who he is playing against, he’s consistently dominant. … He’s going to be really good. Consistently really good.
“Think about it: There’s no one as good as him. You have to go back to the guys like Warren Sapp and those kind of people…”
That’s high praise. And a tall task for Sweezy and Britt, and for Lewis, who didn’t get a chance against Donald in September.
As Cable bluntly acknowledged, Donald mostly mauled Seattle’s guards three months ago.
It’s not just Donald who’s disruptive on the St. Louis defense, which is 12th in points allowed (21 per game). Versatile safety Mark Barron is fifth in the NFC with 105 tackles.
“They have really interesting personnel,” Carroll said. “What they’re doing with Mark Barron is a really cool thing. It’s exciting to figure out. We’ve got to come up with a plan, because he’s a fantastic athlete playing linebacker, much like we see at the Cardinals.
“There’s all kinds of stuff for us, and hopefully we handle it really well.”
They’ve been handling it well enough for seven wins in their last eight games, to propel them into the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season and fifth time in six years since Carroll took over. Though they will have to be on the road this postseason, their quest to become the first team in the 20 years of the current salary-cap era to reach three consecutive Super Bowls remains intact.
How proud is Wilson in this season, in particular?
“We haven’t done anything yet, honestly. That’s just the honesty of it all,” Wilson said. “We haven’t done anything yet, and there’s a lot more to do. We’ve got to take it one game at a time. We’ve got a very, very tough game at home against the Rams this week, that’s all that matters.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
ST. LOUIS RAMS (6-8) at SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (9-5)
1:25 P.M., SUNDAY, CENTURYLINK FIELD
TV: Ch. 13 Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM
Line: Seahawks by 13½.
The series: Seattle leads the regular-season series 21-13. The Rams beat the Seahawks in this season’s opener 34-31 in overtime Sept. 13, after tying the game with 53 seconds of regulation left when fill-in safety Dion Bailey fell down trying cover St. Louis tight end Lance Kendricks on a touchdown. As tough as they’ve been on the Seahawks in St. Louis, the Rams have lost 10 consecutive games at Seattle. Their last win at CenturyLink Field was Jan. 8, 2005, 27-20 in an NFC wild-card game.
SEATTLE’S KEYS TO VICTORY
Prove it: The Seahawks’ offensive line got ransacked by the Rams in the first meeting. St. Louis blitzed from everywhere, sacked Russell Wilson six times and stopped Marshawn Lynch on fourth-and-1 in overtime to win it. That was when Seattle had Drew Nowak making his first career start at center, also-undrafted Garry Gilliam making his first-ever start at right tackle and Justin Britt debuting at left guard. That line has since switched out Nowak with Patrick Lewis — and completely transformed into an effective front wall. We’ll see in this one has far it has come.
Stop Gurley: The Rams have re-dedicated their offense to rookie RB Todd Gurley, who already has 1,023 yards and nine touchdowns, since Rob Boras replaced Frank Cignetti as offensive coordinator three games ago. Boras has had Gurley run 16 and 21 times in the last two weeks, as St. Louis has scored 21 and 31 points. In the last two games before the Rams fired Cignetti, Gurley ran nine and nine times as St. Louis scored 10 points total at Cincinnati and against Arizona. The Seahawks know Gurley is coming right at them — and the league’s No. 3-ranked rush defense has been best this season against teams based on the run.
Sustain: Pete Carroll made it clear on Monday: This is no time for the Seahawks to rest on already having clinched a playoff berth. There’s the No. 5 seed in the NFC to clinch over the next two weeks; doing so would mean a playoff opener at the champion of the NFC East that currently lacks a team with a winning record. And these Seahawks are on their best roll since last winter’s run into the Super Bowl. Keeping that going is the key to advancing through a postseason that this time will be on the road. Seattle has one exactly one road playoff game in 32 years.
Seahawks 28-13. In yet another rugged game with the Rams, the offense keeps rolling — though maybe not as dominantly as in the last two games. And the defense against Gurley is the difference.
54 — Bobby Wagner, LB (6-0, 241, fourth season): When teams have run right at him this season, the All-Pro has been best. Remember Minnesota and Adrian Peterson? 18 yards
89 — Doug Baldwin, WR (5-10, 189, fifth season): Two more touchdowns in this one would give him sole possession of the NFL record of five in a row with two receiving TDs
65 — Patrick Lewis, C (6-1, 311, third season): This time, he’s making the protection calls against all the Rams’ swarming blitzes.
30 — Todd Gurley, RB (6-1, 227, rookie season): Likely rookie of the year is going to be running right at the core of the Seahawks’ defense
99 — Aaron Donald, DT (6-1, 285, second season): Leads NFL DT’s with 11 sacks. Four in three games vs. Seattle. He sacked Russell Wilson twice in September meeting.
11 — Tavon Austin, WR (5-8, 176, third season): Rams always find ways to get the ball to him on splash plays against SEA: end-arounds, fly sweeps, bubble screens.