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Seahawks’ 2 biggest challenges vs Rams (plus a wild card)

The Seahawks have a chance to pull ahead of the Rams in the NFC West. (Getty)

Are the Seahawks ready to compete for NFC West supremacy, or are they a team that’s benefited from wins over struggling opponents?

Moore: Can Hawks beat Rams and change NFC West pecking order?

The Seahawks’ Thursday night matchup against the Los Angeles Rams isn’t just one of the most important games on Seattle’s schedule – it also serves as a measure of this year’s team. The defending NFC champion Rams have won the last three meetings: the first was a 42-7 blowout win at CenturyLink in December 2017, and last season it was two closer contests, 33-31 in October and 36-31 in November.

Here are two of the biggest challenges Seattle faces in Week 5, plus a wild card:

Locking down the Rams’ receivers

A year ago, the biggest hurdle for Seattle would have been to stop Todd Gurley, who averaged 89 rushing yards per game in 2018 and finished with a career-high 21 combined touchdowns. But Gurley has seen a decline in his snap counts this season (more on that later).

Instead, the Rams have leaned into the pass – which has worked out just fine because they also boast one of the NFL’s best wide receiver corps (some teams just have it all). Cooper Kupp, who plays primarily in the slot, ranks second league-wide with 32 receptions for 388 yards and three touchdowns. Robert Woods has 26 catches for 307 yards, while Brandin Cooks has 296 yards on 19 receptions.

Seattle’s defensive backs have faced a few tests already this season: They held Larry Fitzgerald to 47 yards in a Week 4 win over the Cardinals and limited Michael Thomas to 54 yards in a Week 3 loss to the Saints. But they’ve also allowed some explosive plays, most notably a 55-yard touchdown pass from Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to John Ross in Week 1. Ross finished that game with 158 yards and two touchdowns.

Despite those slip-ups, starting left cornerback Shaquill Griffin has bounced back from a tough sophomore season to post one of the 10 best cornerback grades through five weeks from Pro Football Focus. Griffin – along with cornerback Tre Flowers and safeties Tedric Thompson and Bradley McDougald – will face his greatest test yet Thursday night.

It won’t just be up to the secondary (including nickel Jamar Taylor) to lock down the Rams’ receivers, though. The Seahawks have kept all three linebackers on the field for nearly half of their defensive snaps, meaning Bobby Wagner, Mychal Kendricks, and K.J. Wright will also have their work cut out to limit L.A.’s passing attack.

Seahawks O-line vs Aaron Donald (and Clay Matthews!)

The biggest challenge for Seattle – and any offensive line – is to keep Aaron Donald at bay. There’s a reason the Rams star has been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year each of the past two seasons. Donald led the league in sacks (20.5), tackles for loss (30), and quarterback hits (41) last year while also being double-teamed more than any other defender. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson called Donald arguably one of the best players he’s faced.

“I think that you always have to have an eye on him because he’s Aaron Donald,” Wilson said Tuesday. “He can make a lot of plays. It’s like when you watch basketball. You see certain guys. You see (the) Lebron James of the world, Steph Currys of the world. He’s one of those players. You see [Kawhi] Leonard, you know? Certain guys, you’ve got know where they are and what they’re doing and how they’re playing. He’s one of those, that’s for sure.”

But the Rams have several playmakers in the front seven, and one beneficiary of increased attention on Donald has been ex-Packers star Clay Matthews, who in his first year with the Rams already has five sacks through four games. He also has 14 tackles (including eight for loss), two forced fumbles and one pass defensed.

Pick your poison, I guess.

But what about Todd Gurley?

Who would have thought Gurley would be the wild card here?

Both the Seahawks and Rams rank surprisingly low in rushing offense. The Seahawks are 16th (111.5 rushing yards per game) and the Rams 22nd (99.8). Last year they finished first (160 YPG) and third (139.4), respectively.

Gurley has 219 rushing yards, but his yards and carries have been declining week over week. He opened the season with a strong performance – 97 yards on 14 carries – but had just five touches for 16 yards in a Week 4 loss to the Buccaneers. According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, Gurley has seen a decline in snap counts this year (71%) compared to 2018 (84%) and 2017 (81%). Also making this interesting is Seattle’s tendency this year to stick with its base defense. The Seahawks have been mostly effective at stopping the run (with the exception of a stellar performance by Alvin Kamara and the Saints in a Week 3 loss). Seattle is sixth in rushing defense, allowing an average of 79.5 yards per game.

Still, Seattle isn’t ruling Gurley out as a difference-maker.

“He looks the same to me,” Wagner said Tuesday. “He looks pretty good. Looks explosive. He may not be getting as many opportunities as he normally gets, but, I wouldn’t be surprised if this game changes that.”

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Stacy Rost on Twitter.

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