LOS ANGELES Yes, these Rams are rampaging.
Todd Gurley is second in the NFL in rushing yards. He also leads Los Angeles with 20 receptions. Jared Goff has a higher passer rating than Tom Brady, 112.2. The first-overall pick in the 2016 draft isn’t getting sacked much while leading the league’s highest-scoring offense.
And 31-year-old offensive whiz Sean McVay has the Rams off to a flying, 3-1 start atop the NFC West in his first season as a head coach. Los Angeles leads the NFL in points per game (35.5), after finishing last in 2016 (14 points per game).
The Seahawks have two reasons they think they are uniquely equipped to stop these rolling Rams on Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Bobby Wagner. And K.J. Wright.
"I look forward to matchups like this and going against a good back like Gurley," Wagner said.
"We are ready for him."
Wagner is a two-time All-Pro. He and Wright, his partner at weakside linebacker, have four Pro Bowl selections over the three previous seasons between them.
Those two are why Gurley hasn’t done much of anything in three games against Seattle, not at all what he’s been doing to just about everyone else in the NFL since his wondrous rookie year of 2015.
Gurley has 172 yards total in those three games against Seattle. That average of 57.3 yards rushing per game is his lowest against any opponent he’s played multiple times. He averages 73 yards against everyone else. He has only one of his 20 career rushing touchdowns against the Seahawks.
Gurley also has three receptions on six targets for 24 yards versus Seattle. That’s his fewest catches and lowest catch percentage of any opponent against which Gurley has a reception.
"Man, we just know that whenever we run into a good running back, it’s a linebacker-versus-running-back-type day," Wright said Friday. "We just know that he’s going to get the ball at least 30 times. And we are going to be in his area.
"So it’s up to us to stop him. It’s on us. If he has a good day that means we are having a bad day, pretty much."
Unlike most linebackers, the Seahawks’ two stars never come off the field. Running downs. Passing downs. Emerald Downs. Doesn’t matter against whom, where or when, Wagner and Wright are on the field sprinting down backs, tight ends, even wide receivers.
Much of the Rams’ success with Gurley comes in mismatches: Using formations with three wide receivers to get a linebacker or two off the field and a defense to add defensive backs in "nickel" (five DBs) or "dime" (six) packages. The Los Angeles counters that by running Gurley against those pass defenses.
The Rams have used formations with three wide receivers 155 times in 241 plays this season, 64 percent of the time.
But Seattle can keep their run-stopping linebackers on the field more often than most teams against the Rams’ three wide-receiver sets, because of Wagner’s and Wright’s speed. Thus, Los Angeles doesn’t have the personnel mismatches Gurley can exploit with runs when the situation dictates a pass, or vice versa.
That is part of why most Seahawks-Rams are defense-first slogs. Such as 9-3 the last time these teams met in the Coliseum, in week two of the 2016 season.
The other reason is Los Angeles’ defensive front has dominated these meetings with the Seahawks in recent seasons. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald has made three Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams in his first three years. This season he’s playing outside more in coordinator Wade Phillips’ new 3-4 scheme.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson gushed about Donald, a unique combination of quickness and strength who often dominates games unlike any other interior linemen.
"It seems like he enjoys himself but also has a determination that is relentless. You definitely recognize that," Wilson said.
"You really respect how he plays the game. He is a guy who plays the game the right way. He is going to be a Hall of Famer, I really believe that. You watch him play and the things that he can do. He is really special. You think back to the days where guys like Warren Sapp and certain defensive linemen really changed the game and interior linemen, he is one of those guys."
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has spent much of this week like most while preparing for the Rams: Trying to figure out how to get his struggling offensive line to slow Donald, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and that dynamic front. It will usually rush five or six at Seattle’s five blockers.
"Yeah, he is a really, really problematic. Yeah, there is just nobody like him, quickness-wise," Carroll said of Donald, likening him to Hall of Famer John Randle. "For a guy that doesn’t have a big stature, he’s got extraordinary strength and explosion and ability to disengage and get off. He makes remarkable plays that other guys can’t make. You don’t know when it is going to happen, so he is really a challenge to play against."
The Rams have won three of their last four meetings with the Seahawks, and four in the last six. Seattle has lost its last three road games at the Rams, dating to October 2014 when they were still in St. Louis.
Now they have an offense to match Donald and that defense—thanks to what Gurley and Goff are doing with mismatches against most defenses.
But, the Seahawks believe, not theirs.
Ask Wright about never coming off the field and his eyes light up like he’s just gotten a free shot to hit a ball carrier.
"I love it, man! We should be in base (defense) ALL of the time," Wright said.
"It’s fun, man. The coaches, it’s what we’ve always done here in Seattle. It just hurts my heart when I see ‘dime’ out there. Yeah, man, I can cover tight ends, running backs. It’s just fun to be out there for all three plays. I hate coming out. You get out your groove when you come out of the game."
He’s going to see a better, more confident Goff than the one Richard Sherman knocked out of December’s 24-3 Seahawks win in Seattle with a wicked hit to end the quarterback’s scramble down the sideline.
Goff has been sacked just four times in 122 drop backs this season, after a 2016 season in which he got dumped 26 times in seven starts late in the season. The Rams’ porous offensive line ruined last season. Thanks to upgrades such as free-agent tackle Andrew Whitworth from Cincinnati, Los Angeles’ O-line is an asset now.
But the schemes have helped, both the linemen and quarterback. Goff has thrown seven touchdowns against just one interception using McVay’s schemes that have Goff getting the ball out quickly on short throws. That has allowed Gurley, speed man Tavon Austin and fellow Rams receivers time and space to run after the catch.
"He is really sure of himself," Carroll said of Goff. "The ball is coming out quick. He is utilizing the calls really well and that quick game, ball’s out. He is doing a great job checking the balls down evidence by Todd’s catches. He has 20 catches, leading the team in receptions already. More efficient; they have only been sacked four times.
"He is a quick decision guy. He gets the ball out."
Gurley ran for about 35 of the 55 yards on a key touchdown catch last weekend in the Rams’ 35-30 win at Dallas, when Goff again threw it quickly and Gurley ran right past linebackers not as fast as Wagner and Wright.
"This is a going to be a battle, man," Wright said.
"This team, they’ve always been good. That’s the thing: They’ve always had the talent. And I believe that with their new coach they’ve got a new spark. They’ve got their fire back. But they’ve always been good, in my eyes. But, yeah, with this new coach, you can just see them really come to life.
"So it’s going to be a fun matchup, to go out there with those guys and battle with them."