RENTON — The Seahawks are one of just 11 NFL teams with a winning record a quarter into the season.
And after an 0-2 start to the 2018 season, few have been better — Seattle is 13-5 since then.
“A solid start,’’ coach Pete Carroll said this week of Seattle’s 3-1 mark heading into October.
But now comes a chance to gain some converts that Seattle is more than just capable of beating the bad teams (the three teams Seattle has beaten are a combined 1-10-1) but can also stand with the best in the NFL.
“They’re as good as we thought,’’ wrote Pro Football Talk in slotting the Seahawks sixth in their weekly power rankings. “And they get a chance to prove it Thursday night.’’
That’s the basic story line for this one as Seattle hosts the defending NFC Conference champs Thursday at 5:20 p.m.
Here’s a deeper look at some keys to the game.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Rams WRs vs. Seahawks secondary AND Seattle interior OL vs. Rams DT Aaron Donald
This game is so big we are giving two matchups to watch.
First, the Rams boast the second-leading receiver in the NFL in terms of yards in former Eastern Washington star Cooper Kupp (388) and two others who rank among the top 24 (Robert Woods, 20th, 307; Brandin Cooks, 24th, 296). Seattle’s secondary seems to be on the upswing, and particularly third-year cornerback Shaquill Griffin. But this will be a far stiffer test of both Seattle’s coverage ability and tackling in space (something the Rams exploited a bit last season).
As for Donald, he is coming off an insane season when he had 20½ quarterback sacks. But through four games he’s been a little muted with just one sack and three quarterback hits. Seattle had success running right at the middle of the Rams’ defense last year with 463 yards in two games and 7.0 per carry and will undoubtedly try that again.
PLAYER TO WATCH
WR DK Metcalf
The rookie receiver appears to be fully becoming the boom-or-bust player many projected he might be in his first season. Metcalf has just three receptions on 10 targets in the last two games, one a 54-yarder on essentially a Hail Mary toss at the end of the first half two weeks ago against the Saints. Take that out and he has two catches for 23 yards on nine other targets the last two weeks. NFL Next Gen stats show that Metcalf has lined up on the left side for all but one route all season, with most “north-south’’ patterns. Indicative of Metcalf’s boom-or-bust nature, he ranks 181st in the NFL out of 190 receivers in catches per target (43.5%) but is 30th in yards per target (9.74).
Seattle could use some boom out of Metcalf this week against a Rams secondary that the Seahawks last year were able to exploit for some big plays out of its play-action package.
COACHING DECISION TO WATCH
Unleashing the linebackers?
The Rams offensive line is struggling this season in the wake of a makeover in which the team didn’t bring back veteran left guard Roger Saffold and center John Sullivan, replacing them with Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen (with the Rams now having the fourth-lowest paid OL in the NFL overall). Pro Football Focus this week graded the Rams as having the worst-performing OL through four games. The Seahawks, meanwhile, will hope for more consistent pressure from ends Ziggy Ansah and Jadeveon Clowney, who will play their third game together Thursday.
But Seattle might also want to wake up a pass rush that has just 14 quarterback hits this season — fewer than all NFL teams other than Washington and Miami — by using its linebackers to blitz more. Mychal Kendricks did that well last week with two sacks (which ties him for the team lead for the season) but maybe Seattle should get Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright into the mix more, as well. Neither has a quarterback hit this season, though Wright’s pressure last week helped on the play in which Clowney had a pick-six. Seattle’s better play in limiting the Rams offense may be getting as much pressure as they can on Jared Goff — who is piling up yards but has thrown six interceptions already.
The Seahawks have been as good as you can be under the lights under Pete Carroll with a 26-5-1 record in night games since 2010. That includes an 8-1 record on Thursday night, including winning each of the last seven. The short week would seem to only emphasize the home-field advantage. But for what it’s worth, the road team has won two of the first three Thursday night games this season.
WILD CARD PLAYER WHO COULD SURPRISE
RB Rashaad Penny
The second-year running back had the best game of his career a year ago against the Rams in Los Angeles with 108 yards on 12 carries — the only 100-yard-plus game of his career.
He has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury but is expected back this week — and that the Seahawks knew they had a game on Thursday night might have influenced the decision to hold him out Sunday against Arizona with Carroll saying “he looked ready to play. He looked like he could have gone.’’ Of all the Seahawks who have to bounce back quickly from Thursday night, tailback Chris Carson might have the toughest challenge after 22 carries and four receptions against the Cardinals. Meaning, the Seahawks may look to spell Carson more than usual with the fresh legs of Penny, especially considering his success against the Rams last season.
No reason to overthink this one. The Rams rank fourth in the NFL with nine lost turnovers this season, seven the last two weeks and four last week against Tampa Bay, as big a factor as any for the Rams’ shocking loss, and are 25th in the NFL with a minus-three turnover ratio. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have lost just four, fewer than all but five other NFL teams, standing tied for eighth in the league in turnover margin at plus-two. And for all the stats that prove meaningful in an NFL season, turnovers are still maybe the biggest when it comes to the Seahawks, especially in recent seasons when their talent edge has lessened out a bit. Seattle is 23-3 since the start of the 2016 season when winning the turnover battle, and 9-16-1 when they are either even or lose the turnover battle.
THE FINAL WORD
This has all the makings of a shootout — remember that the teams combined for 131 points in two games last season, each won by the Rams, 33-31 in Seattle and 36-31 in Los Angeles. Those two games turned the tide in the NFC West. But the Rams don’t appear as stout as last season, and Seattle is at home and on a short week. This feels like another game when Russell Wilson makes a play or two at the end to win it. Seahawks 31, Rams 27.