Russell vs. Muscle: Why Seahawks are set up to conquer their biggest challenge yet

It wasn't all that long ago that the Seattle Seahawks offense looked like it was in a world of trouble. In the five games prior to their Week 6 bye, the Seahawks averaged just 22 points per game against a group of opponents that otherwise allowed 26.8 points per game to their non-Seahawks opponents. At the time, the Seahawks had scored 16 or fewer points in three of their five games, failed to crack 250 total yards twice and had scored fewer points than their opponents had given up on average in their other contests against every team except the Colts

The team ranked just 16th in yards per game, 15th in points per game and 18th in offensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which adjusts performance for down, distance and opponent). The Seahawks didn't fare much better when you looked at per-play and per-drive efficiency metrics, ranking 18th in yards per play and 19th in both points per drive and score rate (touchdowns plus field goals divided by total drives). 

It seemed ludicrous to suggest that they were about to go on a run, given the state of their offense and the decrepit quality of both their run game and their offensive line, but that's exactly what I did prior to their Week 7 game against the New York Giants. I used this space to suggest that, based on their prior history of slow starts before ramping things up in November and December, the Seahawks could use the game against a Giants team with whom they matched up well as a springboard to offensive success over the latter half of the season. After all, they'd done it before.

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via Pro-Football-Reference

Sure enough, that's exactly what's happened over the last several weeks. Seattle's running game has been stuck in the muck, but Russell Wilson is playing out of his hand and has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate. His completion rate has stayed static since returning from the bye, but he's doing a whole lot more with his throws -- averaging nearly a full yard more per attempt and raising his touchdown rate from 4.5 percent to 6.8 percent. 

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Pro-Football-Reference

The Seahawks have even given him better protection over the last few weeks, allowing two or fewer sacks in five of the last seven games after doing so only once over the first five. His pressure rate has dropped from 43.5 percent (second-highest in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus) to a more manageable 37.3 percent (ninth) during that time as well.

The Seahawks' biggest test yet

Naturally, all of this improvement is about to face its biggest test of the season this coming Sunday. The Jacksonville Jaguars have the best pass defense in football, ranking first in the NFL in nearly every statistical category of pass defense: yards per attempt, where the difference between them and second-place Philadelphia is the same as the difference between second and 13th; passer rating; touchdowns allowed; sacks; quarterback hits; they're 0.5 percent behind the lead in completion percentage and rank second in interceptions. 

They're first by a mile in Football Outsiders' pass defense DVOA. They first against No. 1 receivers, 11th against No. 2s and third against the slot. They're second on passes to the left, first on passes to the middle, first on deep passes, and fourth on short passes. They allow the fewest touchdowns per drive, they force the most punts, and they're the sixth-best team at making opponents go three-and-out.

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Calais Campbell and the Jags defense have been teeing off on quarterbacks all season.  USATSI

They have three legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidates in defensive lineman Calais Campbell and cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. Bouye leads all cornerbacks in passer rating against on throws in his direction. Ramsey ranks seventh. They've allowed a combined one touchdown and they have seven interceptions between them. Quarterbacks are averaging -- I swear this is true -- 5.5 yards per attempt when throwing at one of those two corners. That's like being Chris Weinke on every throw. 

Campbell would be my current DPOY pick, and two of us even had him in our top five of the MVP vote earlier this week. He has 12.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 55 quarterback pressures, 31 run stops, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and a touchdown. He plays all over the line of scrimmage and he simply cannot be blocked.

How the Seahawks overcome the challenge

Much of Sunday's matchup between these two teams will come down to whether Seattle's offensive line can hold up long enough to let Wilson challenge the back half of the Jaguars defense. Again, they've been much improved lately, but there's a difference between keeping Wilson clean against, say, the 49ers and doing so against the Jags. The right side of Seattle's offensive line is still a problem, and both Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue line up over the right side of the line the majority of the time they rush the passer. Add Malik Jackson's pressure up the middle and Dante Fowler off the opposite edge, and it's very difficult to keep the Jacksonville rush at bay. Nobody in the league is better than Wilson at creating plays despite heavy pressure, but we've also seen quick pressure and sacks undermine the Seahawks at times this season. 

If the line can give him any measure of time to throw, the Seahawks are one of the few teams in the league that actually has some plus passing game matchups against the Jaguars. Wilson's primary pass-catchers are Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham. Baldwin runs 69 percent of his routes from the slot -- away from Ramsey and Bouye, who rarely play there. Instead, he'll likely spend most of the game tangling with Aaron Colvin, who is a solid slot corner but not nearly as good as either player the Jags use on the outside. Ramsey and Bouye will spend much of their day covering Paul Richardson, Tyler Lockett and Tanner McAvoy. That's not exactly the best use of resources. 

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Doug Baldwin and Russell Wilson could do some damage with Baldwin working out of the slot.  USATSI

Meanwhile, Graham is a tight end and seems unlikely to match up with either of the elite corners very often either. He runs 40 percent of his routes as an inline tight end and 34 percent from the slot. He's rarely lined up out wide, and when he is, he mostly gets a safety or a linebacker in coverage. Most corners aren't big enough to match up with him physically. Barry Church, Tashaun Gipson, and/or Telvin Smith might be more up to the challenge, but Graham has become damn near unstoppable when the Seahawks line him up out wide near the end zone.

He has 37 catches over Seattle's last eight games, nine of which are touchdowns. All but one of them came in the red zone, and six of the eight red zone scores came on plays that started inside the 10-yard line. Most of them look exactly the same. Graham is isolated to one side of the field by himself, and Wilson simply throws it up and lets him box out the defender for a score. 

Because they run that back-shoulder fade so often, they can also have Graham act like he's running it before snapping off the route and breaking back to the inside on a slant: 

Now that they've shown that look, any Jaguar that lines up across from Graham near the goal line will have to respect it, giving Wilson even more room to hit the fade. 

Jacksonville, though, is as tough to score on from in close as any team in football. Only 36.8 percent of red-zone possessions against the Jaguars have ended in touchdowns. That's the lowest rate in the league, as is their 3.84 points allowed per red zone possession. Because of the amount of pressure they can get with their front four, they can play seven guys in coverage and take away every available throwing lane. That calculus changes when Graham is matched up one-on-one, though, so look for the Seahawks to go to that look whenever they get a chance. 

Given the respective quality of the Jacksonville offense and Seattle defense, it's possible the Seahawks may only need a couple scores to win this game. Graham provides them with a huge matchup advantage, and the fact that their best receiver (Baldwin) will rarely face the Jaguars' best corners works in their favor as well. So long as the line holds up, this all sets up well for Wilson and his offense to continue on their current hot streak. 

CBS Sports Writer

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He joined CBSSports.com in 2014 and has since spent far too much of his time watching film and working in spreadsheets. Full Bio

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