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Seahawks’ depth, mettle will be tested against Texans

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Seattle will have to fend off J.J. Watt and Houston’s pass rush with what may be a depleted offensive line. (AP)

By Danny O’Neil

RENTON – The pressure won’t be a surprise for the Seahawks.

Not in this season that is loaded with championship expectations, and certainly not Sunday in Houston, where Seattle knows exactly what to expect in terms of its opponent’s strategy.

“They are just very, very aggressive on defense,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “They’ll pressure more than anybody that we’ll play all year.”

And that pressure is going to be applied to the most vulnerable spot on Seattle’s roster right now: the offensive line. The Texans ranked No. 5 in the NFL in sacks last year, and they have the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year in J.J. Watt while the Seahawks may be without both their starting tackles. In a league where outcomes are determined by matchups, Seattle’s ability to fend off the Texans’ pass rush is the top concern in Sunday’s game.

“Protection is paramount this week,” said Darrell Bevell, Seattle’s offensive coordinator.

Protection is also a question. The Seahawks are already starting Paul McQuistan at left tackle as Russell Okung will miss at least seven more games because of a toe injury. Now, right tackle Breno Giacomini might be out with a knee injury, leaving seventh-round pick Michael Bowie next in line at that spot with fellow rookie Alvin Bailey also a possibility.

Factor in the reality that center Max Unger is also ailing this week with an arm injury, and the circumstances are hardly ideal for a trip into the heart of Texas to face a team that has made the playoffs in back-to-back years with a defense known for the variety of heavy, snarling pass rushers it will order to chase the opposing quarterback.

710 ESPN Seattle hosts weigh in on Seattle’s Week 4 matchup against Houston, finishing the sentence, “The Seahawks will win if… ”

Bob Stelton: Their O-line can establish a solid day of run blocking and they eliminate drive-killing or drive-sustaining penalties.
Dave Wyman: They can hold the Texans under their average of 128 rushing yards.
Jim Moore: Russell Wilson is sacked two times or fewer.
Michael Grey: Marshawn Lynch carries the ball at least 22 times.
Danny O’Neil: They can force the Texans into committing turnovers.

Watt is 6 feet 5 and had 20.5 sacks last season, the second-highest single-season total of any NFL player over the past decade. Not only that, but Brian Cushing is one of the league’s top pass-rushing linebackers, and a former rookie of the year. Then there’s Wade Phillips, a defensive coordinator known for his willingness to blitz at any time from any angle.

This is precisely the kind of games that even good NFL teams lose, which is exactly why a Seahawks victory would be so very significant.

Last week, the Seahawks did what was expected, routing winless Jacksonville. On Sunday in Houston, they’ll attempt the unprecedented. This franchise has never been 4-0. Not under Chuck Knox when the Seahawks first became a playoff-caliber franchise. Not under Mike Holmgren, who took Seattle to its first Super Bowl.

But the stakes have been raised on this season, something that goes beyond Seattle’s 3-0 start. This is a coach who talks about games as championship opportunities, and this is a team that has expressed the desire to be great. Well, good teams are able to overcome the adversity that is inevitable in a 16-game season and still make the playoffs. Great teams don’t even break stride.

So far, Seattle has yet to stumble. It has weathered Bruce Irvin’s four-game suspension as well as the hamstring injury that kept Brandon Browner out the first two games. Percy Harvin underwent hip surgery before he could even practice with the team in training camp, and he isn’t eligible to start practicing for another three games.

But Sunday’s game in Houston presents the most significant test of both Seattle’s depth and its resolve. Not only have the Seahawks suffered multiple injuries at a specific position, but they’re facing an opponent in Houston poised to exploit that weakness and the pressure is unavoidable.

“You just lock it in and say, ‘Hey, they’re going to come after you 100 percent of the time,’ ” said Tom Cable, Seattle’s offensive line coach. “Whether they do, that’s their call, but we’re just ready for it with every play.”

The pressure will be as unavoidable Sunday in Houston as it is for this season. Now, it’s up to the Seahawks to cope with it.