Inside Slant: Surging Seahawks, Lions set to duel in Motown

The winner of Sunday's battle in Detroit will increase playoff chances heading towards the midway point of the season.

With both teams overcoming sluggish starts to claw back to the .500 mark, the surging Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions will collide at Ford Field hoping to stay in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt.

The Seahawks, who spent their bye week basking in a 27-3 win over the Raiders in London, moved within half a game of the NFC’s second wild card spot following their latest victory. As for the Lions, they’ve also turned the corner after starting new coach Matt Patricia’s tenure with an unceremonious 48-17 loss to the Jets, picking up signature wins over the Packers and Patriots along the way.

Seattle and Detroit haven’t simply replicated one another by winning three of their past four games respectively. The two franchises have mirrored one another in terms of how they’ve managed to rebound from difficult starts, leaning on vastly-improved offensive line play, strong running games, and stingy pass defenses to help turn the tide.

After rushing for only 138 combined yards during season-opening losses in Denver and Chicago, Seattle has averaged 157 rushing yards per game over its past four games, with starting running back Chris Carson eclipsing the 100-yard mark twice and reserve Mike Davis accomplishing the feat once. The return of mauling guard D.J. Fluker has brought a physical spirit to the Seahawks’ offensive line, allowing the team to recapture the identity coach Pete Carroll desired.

Detroit has also discovered much-needed offensive balance over the past month, providing a supplementary run game that hasn’t existed for quarterback Matt Stafford during the entirety of his 10-year NFL career.

Since beating the Patriots on September 23, the Lions have averaged nearly 150 rushing yards per game running behind first-round pick Frank Ragnow and an underappreciated offensive line, including rushing for 248 yards in a win over the Dolphins last weekend. Rookie Kerryon Johnson led the way, rushing for 158 yards on only 19 carries, while veteran LeGarrette Blount added 50 yards and a touchdown.

“I think, in the run game, it’s more than just Kerryon Johnson. You’ve got to look at up front first.” Patricia said on Wednesday. “I think it’s the offensive line. I think those guys did a great job with their blocks. Our tight ends were in a bunch of different roles and did a good job, and then the wide receivers out on the perimeter.”

Running the football effectively has taken immense pressure off of Stafford and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who have each thrown eight touchdowns and only one interception over their past four games. Attempting less passes has resulted in improved efficiency and kept both quarterbacks clean, as Wilson has only been sacked seven times during that span and Stafford has been sacked eight times.

Carroll has always held Stafford in high regard, and with the emergence of a reliable ground game, Detroit’s offensive attack will be a handful to contain.

“We’ve had great respect for his ability to throw the ball and he’s been a guy that has, over the years, relied on big passing days, big passing games, big emphasis that way and coming off this game last week, where they just tore it up on the ground, it really makes it difficult to figure out what to do against them.” Carroll said. “He’s playing really efficiently, he’s really sharp, you can’t sack him, his numbers are great, his completion numbers are up – he’s doing everything well.”

On the defensive side of the football, Carroll and Patricia each coach stout pass defenses, as the Seahawks and Lions thrive at limiting explosive plays through the air and rank fifth and seventh overall in passing yards against per game.

Aside from allowing Rams quarterback Jared Goff for 321 yards in a Week 5 loss, the Seahawks have held four of their past five opponents under 200 yards passing, including limiting Raiders quarterback David Carr to 144 yards in London. During that span, Seattle has given up 16.5 points per game, with the lone outlier conceding 33 points to the Rams.

Though some of the names on the uniform have changed, Patricia doesn’t see a difference when watching Seattle’s new-look defense on film.

“To me, it looks aggressive.” Patricia said when asked about Seattle’s scheme. “It looks like they’ve come into kind of their own as far as what they are this year and what they are doing right now in the last several games and I think it’s a real dynamic group, a very dangerous group. They do a great job with the turnovers and that’s the biggest thing, is getting the ball back to the offense and giving them a chance to score. Just a real impressive group from my standpoint.”

Comparatively, the Lions erased their first two games in which they gave up 78 combined points from memory, holding future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady to a meager 120 passing yards in a 26-10 rout in Week 3. For the season, Detroit has held three passers under 200 yards and despite missing star edge rusher Ezekiel Ansah for five games, rank fourth in the league in sacks heading into Week 8.

Ultimately, the team that finds a way to shut down the opposing run game most effectively will have the best chance at victory between two well-coached, evenly-matched playoff contenders. On paper, the Seahawks would seem to have an advantage in this regard facing the 26th ranked run defense in football, but between the lines, Carroll anticipates an incredible challenge from an upstart Lions defense.

“You know, their numbers don’t look great in their average [yards] per rush, but they’re playing good defense and they’re playing good, winning defense…” Carroll said, adding: “They’ve controlled scores and played smart and have given teams problems. They’re still doing that. We have a lot of regard for how they handle their business and how they play their football.”


--WR David Moore: Coming out of Division II East Central University, Moore used his rookie season as a redshirt year while he adjusted to playing against NFL competition. After catching three touchdown passes from Wilson during Seattle’s past two games, Carroll says the rising star is “just getting started” and he’ll continue to be a focal point in the Seahawks passing attack from this point forward.

--RT Germain Ifedi: Playing to his potential, Carroll says Ifedi has blossomed thanks in large part to his relationship with new line coach Mike Solari and the presence of right guard D.J. Fluker beside him on the offensive line. The former first-round pick “sees the game much better than he has at any other time,” which has allowed him to take the next step in his development and become more consistent in pass protection.

--TE Nick Vannett: After missing Seattle’s last game in London, Vannett returned to practice this week as a full-participant. The third-year tight end has battled back problems since entering the league, but following extensive treatment during the bye week, he will be ready to play in Detroit.

--LB K.J. Wright: Sidelined since the final week of the preseason following arthroscopic knee surgery, Wright finally made his much-anticipated return to practice on Monday and made it through the week without a hitch. In "good shape" according to Carroll, he'll be back starting at weakside linebacker against the Lions.

--CB Neiko Thorpe: Seattle will likely be missing one of its special teams cornerstones after Thorpe tweaked his groin during 1-on-1 drills at Thursday's practice. He's listed as doubtful to play in Detroit and Carroll didn't know the severity of the injury when speaking with reporters on Friday.


Seahawks 24, Lions 23

These two evenly-matched teams have been mirror images of one another over the past month, relying on strong run games and creating turnovers to fuel their winning ways. The Lions are well-coached and will be in the mix in the NFC North for the rest of the season, making this a dangerous road game for the Seahawks. Stafford and Wilson will duel in a tight contest, but Seattle's ability to stop the run a bit more effectively on defense will be the difference as they hold Detroit to field goals on a couple of second half scoring drives and win a one-point nail biter.