Here are five critical areas to watch when the St. Louis Rams open their 2015 season at home Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks at the Edward Jones Dome (noon; TV-Fox Channel 2; Radio-WXOS-FM 101.1):
1. How will the Rams’ inexperienced offensive line deal with one of the top defenses in the NFL?
Even without holdout star safety Kam Chancellor, the Seahawks have an aggressive front seven (especially defensive ends Michael Bennett and Frank Clark) that will likely blitz a lot and allow all-world cornerback Richard Sherman to try to shut down whichever receiver Seattle chooses. Look for the Rams to provide extra blocking help with tight ends and use quick drops and short pass patterns, but this is a formidable defense. Rookie right tackle Rob Havenstein will have his hands full.
2. The Rams want to control the ball on the ground with a solid running attack, so how does that happen?
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With rookie Todd Gurley ruled out and Tre Mason (hamstring) a game-time decision, it looks like the job falls to Benny Cunningham and Isaiah Pead. And they will be trying to move the ball behind an offensive line with two rookies and a first-time starter at center against a Seattle defense that has been the NFL’s best in fewest points allowed (15.9 last season) and fewest yards allowed (267.1 yards per game last season) in 2013 and 2014. The Seahawks are the first team since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings to lead the NFL in scoring defense for three consecutive seasons.
3. How will Seattle be able to deal with Rams’ sack demons Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald and a stout front seven?
Don’t overlook the fact that Seattle has two new offensive line starters in left tackle Garry Giliam and center Drew Nowak going up against one of the NFL’s best pass rushes. The attention paid to Rams stars Quinn and Donald helps free each of them up a lot, also creating additional space for more pass rushers and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ exotic blitz packages for linebackers and defensive backs. The Rams have sacked Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson 25 times in six games against them.
4. Can the Rams find a way to corral elusive Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson?
Wilson is at his best when he stretches defenses who have to honor his ability (and that of Marshawn Lynch) to run the football. He has a 100-plus yard rushing day against the Rams, but also has two shiny new offensive weapons in all-pro tight end Jimmy Graham and rookie receiver/return man Tyler Lockett. The Rams must keep constant pressure on Wilson, a tough thing to do when the Seahawks backfield also contains one of the NFL’s best running backs in Marshawn Lynch.
5. How will QB Nick Foles look in his Rams debut?
If Foles wants to quickly win over the fan base, he could start by engineering a head-turning upset over the defending NFC champs. However, he’s also playing behind an extremely untested offensive line with three new starters and two rookies. The Rams have two backups at running back and will be working against a proven “Legion of Boom” defense that is still tough despite not having Chancellor. Just keeping a starting quarterback healthy would be a good start for the Rams.