Two of the best teams in the NFL, featuring two of the league’s most exciting quarterbacks, square off when the Seahawks (5-1) host the Baltimore Ravens (4-2).
The backdrop to all of it, of course, is Earl Thomas’ return to CenturyLink Field for the first time in a visitor’s uniform, providing a plethora of storylines to follow Sunday afternoon.
Let’s get to them:
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Seahawks’ defense vs. Ravens’ rushing attack
Pete Carroll has seen this style of offense before — from San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick and Carolina with Cam Newton — but never quite as good as Baltimore is running things with Lamar Jackson.
“He’s as good as we’ve ever seen,” Carroll said. “He’s as fast and as elusive as we’ve seen. … He’s tough, physical, explosive and creative. He’s throwing the ball well, too. It’s a real nightmare.”
Against Cincinnati last week, Jackson rushed for 152 yards on 19 carries and threw for 236 yards, becoming the first QB since Kaepernick in January 2013 (against Green Bay in a playoff game) to run for 150 and throw for 200 in a game.
“He’s one of my favorite players to watch in the NFL,” Russell Wilson said of Jackson.
Jackson’s offensive coordinator in Baltimore is Greg Roman, who was the OC for the 49ers from 2011-14. Naturally, there have been a lot of connections made this week to those great rivalry games between the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense and Kaepernick’s 49ers.
The Ravens lead the NFL in rushing at 205 yards per game, featuring Jackson (and his 6.7 yards per carry) and a Frank Gore-like running back in Mark Ingram (5-9, 210).
“This offense, more than any offense that we’ll face, will demand that we have to do right,” Carroll said. “They tax you to the maximum. It’s all about being really tuned in and being really focused. Every single play you have to do right or the ball will break. It’s a great challenge. It’s exciting for us to try to figure it out and see if we can do it.”
PLAYER TO WATCH
The spotlight on the Ravens’ rushing attack is deserved, but let’s not forget how good Carson has been the past three games. His early-season fumble issues behind him, Carson has three consecutive 100-yard rushing games: a career-high 124 yards at Cleveland; 118 vs. the Rams; and 104 at Arizona — all Seahawks victories. (He also has nine catches for 81 yards and a TD in those three games.) Carson would join exclusive company with another 100-yard performance Sunday. Shaun Alexander (in 2005) and Marshawn Lynch (twice in 2012) are the only Seahawks running backs to have stretches of four consecutive games topping 100 yards.
COACHING DECISION TO WATCH
What happens at safety?
There has been a healthy competition at free safety this year — with Tedric Thompson, Lano Hill and rookie Marquise Blair getting snaps in the win at Cleveland last week — but who will be healthy enough to play Sunday?
Injuries have kept Bradley McDougald (back) and Hill (elbow) out of practice this week. Hill could be out a few weeks. McDougald’s availability hasn’t been announced, which means Blair could get the start.
Thomas’ return to Seattle, in another uniform, heightens some of the uncertainty about his successors in the Seahawks’ secondary, and the mounting injuries further muddle the outlook there.
The Seahawks offensive line
The Seahawks could turn to George Fant and Jamarco Jones for the second consecutive week if veterans Duane Brown (biceps) and D.J. Fluker (hamstring) are unable to go.
Fant and Jones were solid in their first starts of the season in Cleveland last weekend, but Baltimore’s defense puts a unique strain on an offensive line with how often it blitzes — at least half the time, depending on the source. Pro Football Reference calculates the Ravens have blitzed on 49.3% of pass plays this season; Seahawks coaches say it’s actually 60%. Either way, it’s more than anyone else in the NFL — and that will require Wilson and the offensive line to be particularly sharp Sunday afternoon.
WILD-CARD PLAYER WHO COULD SURPRISE
The Seahawks defensive tackle is back from his six-game suspension, and teammates were so happy to see him early this week that he was given a standing ovation in his first team meeting.
“Getting a guy like that back, knowing the impact he has on the game, the impact he has on other players is very strong,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “Getting him back is a really big boost for us.”
The Seahawks have just 10 sacks through six games, and they didn’t have a sack or even a QB hit in Cleveland.
The hope is Reed’s presence will create better rush lanes for the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Ziggy Ansah. Clowney, according to one metric, has been double-teamed on 31% of his snaps this season, more than any other edge rusher in the NFL.
Russell Wilson has zero interceptions this season, and his streak of 207 consecutive pass attempts without a pick is a franchise record.
How effective has Wilson been this season?
During one third-quarter drive against the Browns, the headset in Wilson’s helmet stopped working — shutting down his communication with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for a handful of plays. No worries. Wilson just called his own plays for much of the drive, which ended with his second TD pass of the game to Jaron Brown.
“He did a really good job the whole drive,” Schottenheimer said. “I thought even getting down in the red zone, those are the harder areas to call. He was magnificent in that regard.”
In their second season together, Wilson said he and Schottenheimer have gotten “really, really close.”
“He continues to challenge me every day and I love that. It’s been great,” Wilson said. “He’s a great coach, so I really like him. I really like how he coaches the game and the time that we get to spend together is really cool.”
THE FINAL WORD
Ravens 34, Seahawks 32
While it seems illogical, if not downright insane, to pick against Russell Wilson right now, the Ravens present unique challenges on both sides of the ball — with Lamar Jackson’s ability to break a defense with his arm and his legs, and with Baltimore’s ultra-aggressive pass rush. And Earl Thomas, no doubt, will come in with something to prove, hoping to show the Seahawks that he hasn’t lost his edge.