Houston can make a legitimate case for having three players–Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, J.J. Watt–that are the best, or second-best, at their position in the NFL. They are well coached, and rival Seattle for the most balanced offense in football. Even with the blowout loss last week, they are 2-1, with a more-impressive-by-the-week road win in San Diego. Yet, they are not favored to win this game at home. If you click here for NFL lines, you will see the odds favor Seattle by three points. Home teams typically get three points, so this works out to Vegas seeing the Seahawks as six points better than Houston on a neutral field. If I was setting the odds, Houston would be even or slightly favored.
The Texans pose two major challenges for the Seahawks. First, they are fifth in the NFL at 4.9 yards per carry. As good as the Seahawks defense has been this year, they are 17th in opponent yards per carry at 4.1. The Texans are 15-5 when averaging over 4.5 yards per carry and rushing for more than 110 yards since 2010, but just 4-13 when falling short of both marks. Five opponents reached those levels against the Seahawks defense last season, including Atlanta in the playoffs. Carolina did it in the season opener this year. Five of those six games were on the road. The good news for Seattle is their run defense has been markedly improved the last two weeks, and Schaub is not a threat to run, which gives Dan Quinn more weapons to dedicate to helping. The return of Clinton McDonald and the addition of Tony McDaniel have been major stories in the run defense, and that needs to continue.
FACT: Take away the rush totals of Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton, and Seattle has allowed 153 yards on 53 carries to running backs, for an average of 2.9 YPC.
The second major challenge is Watt. Football is the ultimate team sport, but he could single-handedly win this game for the Texans. There may not be an NFL lineman that can block him effectively, and Seattle rolls into Texas without their best tackle. Even when Watt is blocked occasionally, his 6’5″ frame makes him the ultimate test of Russell Wilson’s height. Quarterbacks of all sizes get their passes batted down by Watt, but he presents a unique challenge for Wilson. Houston throws in more height across the line as everyone is at least 6’3″. Throw in 6’4″ Brooks Reed at linebacker, and throwing lanes will be tight. There is a reason Houston is second in the NFL in opponent passing yards at 157.7 per game behind the 146.7 Seattle surrenders. The Seahawks are 28th in the NFL in sack percentage, meaning Wilson gets sacked at a very high rate as a percentage of times he attempts a pass. The odds of winning this game drop precipitously for Seattle if they need to rely on the pass. A repeat of Carolina, where Wilson overcame a nonexistent running game, is highly unlikely.
Seattle’s rushing efficiency has improved each week, going from 2.7 YPC to 3.7 to 4.3 last week. Houston is fifth in the NFL in holding teams to 3.3 YPC. Seattle is 19-7 since 2010 when reaching 120 yards rushing, but just 9-16 when failing to get there. It is worth noting that seven of those nine losses when rushing over 120 yards came on the road. A good rushing game does not guarantee victory this week, but a poor one very likely equals a loss.
All the talk about Houston being underwhelming thus far is overblown, but there are a few key areas where they have really struggled. The two more important ones are turnovers and defensive performance in the red zone. This talented Texans defense has forced only one turnover in three games, compared to nine for Seattle. That ranks 31st in the NFL. Seattle is 11th in the NFL in limiting giveaways, with only four through three games. That is actually a higher rate than they registered in 2012, so there is reason to expect Seattle to protect the ball even better going forward. What is interesting is that takeaways seem to be a far better indicator of winning for Seattle than giveaways. The Seahawks are 2-13 since 2010 when forcing one turnover or less, but 7-3 when getting two or more. They are 2-3 when they have protected the ball to the point of zero giveaways in that same time. Houston is tied with Seattle, having turned the ball over four times thus far.
The Texans have dominated most of the field on defense, but have been a disaster in the red zone, allowing an NFL-worst 87.5% of opponent red zone possession to result in a touchdown. Seattle’s defense, by comparison, checks in at 7th with a 37.5% rate. More to the point, the Seattle offense has improved from 0-3 in week one to 3-6 in week two to 4-5 in week three in their red zone chances. They shined in this area at the end of last season, and need to come away with touchdowns, not field goals, when opportunity knocks.
Two other areas that bode well for the Seahawks are the Texans slow starts on offense, and the Seahawks stingy first half defense. Houston is 25th in the NFL in first half scoring at only 7.7 points per first half. Seattle’s defense has yet to allow any points in the first quarter, and is giving up just 2.3 points per first half. The Seahawks had been 1-12 in the Carroll era when trailing at half on the road, before winning the season opener. Getting out to a lead will be especially important against a team that relies so heavily on the run to setup their pass attack.
Schaub continues to be a polarizing figure in Houston, and he is under pressure on the field, as much as off. He has been pressured on 43.7% of his dropbacks this year, according to ProFootballFocus.com. That is up from 29.5% last year. Their left tackle, Duane Brown missed a game last week, and is a question mark for Sunday. The Seahawks have nearly all of their pass rushers back on the field, and have been terrorizing quarterbacks the last two weeks.
The recipe for a Seahawks victory likely includes an effective pass rush that leads to a couple of takeaways, and a rush defense that holds the Texans under 120 yards on the ground. Seattle’s offense needs to get off to a faster start, and has to establish a running game. All of this is possible, but far from certain.