The Seattle Seahawks are riding a five-game winning streak, and the last three of those games have seen them go on a tear of a magnitude unprecedented in NFL history. Through a combination of offensive firepower and defensive opportunity, Pete Carroll's team has amassed 150 points in their last three contests. Joked Jeff Fisher in a pregame press conference: "So if we hold them under 50, that's good?"
December has seen the Rams go on a mini-tear of their own, winning three games in the month for the first time since 2006, and doing so against teams like themselves on the fringes of playoff contention. Now, though, they face a higher caliber opponent.
In fact, when you combine the formidable road environment, the roll that the Seahawks are on right now, and the stakes they are playing for (a win could give Seattle the division title and possibly, with a Packers loss, a playoff bye), this could be the single toughest game on the Rams schedule.
That said, it's a game the Rams can win. But these five things must happen first:
1. Get pressure (and keep containment) with four rushers
In Seattle's last four games, they've played four teams who should have a capable pass rush: the Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers. But of those teams, the only one to get consistent pressure with just four rushers was Chicago. And that game was the only one of the four that Seattle did not run away with.
In particular, defensive tackle Henry Melton played a key role in that Chicago game, collapsing the pocket from the inside and taking away Russell Wilson's ability to step forward out of pressure.
Michael Brockers, who was not even close to healthy when the Rams and Seahawks first met, will play a key role. So will Eugene Sims and William Hayes, the Rams' backup DEs who help form an all-DE front on obvious passing downs. Both have been playing very well down the stretch.
Sims is also better than Robert Quinn at keeping containment as an edge rusher, which played a huge role in limiting the mobility of Colin Kaepernick, another dangerous run-pass QB commodity.
Of course, the Rams can and should be mixing blitzes into their pass rushes, something they have done very well of late, particularly with Quintin Mikell playing the Roman Harper role in this defense. But they shouldn't have to rely on it to disrupt the pocket on a regular basis.
2. Make Russell Wilson think twice about running the read-option
Yes, game-planning for Russell Wilson requires two separate points of my five key points. He is a double-threat, after all. Pete Carroll and Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell have been maximizing Wilson's escapability in recent weeks by incorporating the patented RG3 pistol-set read-option into their offense.
It's an offense that can hog-tie opposing defenses, who have to worry about covering both off-tackle running lanes (one for Marshawn Lynch running right, the other for Wilson running left), while still maintaining coverage downfield.
However, defenses only have to respect all three options if Wilson actually runs the keeper from time to time. And that's where he -- and any other mobile QB -- opens the door for big (and 100% legal) hits from the defense.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar, sir, that is your cue. Bring the lumber early and often.
3. Don't abandon the run
Seattle has a strong run defense in terms of yards per game (104.7, 11th in the NFL), but not in terms of yards per carry. That's because they have jumped out to so many early leads, that opponents are rushing the ball only 23 times per game, second-fewest in the NFL.
In their ill-fated rematch on Seattle's turf, San Francisco tried to go pass-wacky early on with Colin Kaepernick, leaving Frank Gore as a decoy. Gore ran the ball only five times in the first half, and San Francisco found itself down 28-6 as a result.
While the Rams have to respect Seattle's point-scoring ability, and I expect them to launch a few balls downfield, they can't lose their balance or their identity on offense in the process. I don't expect this to be an issue with Steven Jackson having been a focal point of the last seven weeks, and having a milestone right in front of him, but it bears underlining.
4. Receivers must make the big catches
The unfortunate side effect of sticking with the run is that Sam Bradford will be left to make up some third-and-longs. Bradford had success here in the first Rams-Seahawks game, largely because his receivers ran aggressive routes into the intermediate spaces, and made the catches when the pass came their way.
The whole team practiced on Friday, which is a rare hallmark of health in an NFL season (particularly in a Rams season), but that isn't the same as saying that everyone is "healthy." Danny Amendola still looks hobbled by his heel issue, and Chris Givens got knocked out of the game twice against Minnesota on what looks like a tender ankle. These two players in particular need to answer the bell to convert big third downs.
5. Greg Zuerlein must convert his opportunities
The Rams' rookie kicker has had a strange season -- really, three seasons in one. In his first act, the man called Legatron was an unstoppable force, making his first 13 NFL kicks from insanely long distances. His two field goals from 58 and 60 yards proved the difference in the Rams' 19-13 win over Seattle in their first meeting.
However, Zuerlein's second act started in a blustery day in Miami, where he lost his footing and his touch. He made only five of his next eight kicks, and appeared to have lost his mojo.
He found his range again at a crucial time against San Francisco, driving home the game-tying and game-winning points in a week 13 win. But in this third act, Greg the Leg has sat on the sidelines.
Counting those two kicks in week 13, Zuerlein has only made four field goals since the bye week. He's only had one field goal attempt in the last three weeks, as Sam Bradford has suddenly uncorked a red zone hot streak. While the Rams have converted 7 of their last 8 red zone trips for touchdowns, Zuerlein has been on the bench.
No NFL team can sustain an 87% red zone conversion rate, especially facing a defensive secondary as tough as Seattle's. Zuerlein's name will be called on Sunday, and whether he delivers or not could be the difference in the game.