As much as any other professional sport, the NFL is a team game. No one player can be successful without the assistance of others. That said, individual matchups can and do determine winners and losers on a weekly basis.
Sure, superstars Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch could be called keys in every game but let's dig deeper. The goal here is to identify three critical one-on-one matchups (that few others are talking about) which will likely determine whether or not the Seahawks emerge victorious.
Matchup No. 1: Seahawks LG Justin Britt vs. Rams DT Aaron Donald
Seattle's loss in St. Louis a year ago is perhaps best remembered for special teams trickery but don't forget about the spectacular performance Donald enjoyed against then-starting left guard James Carpenter and the Seahawks. The rookie was "only" credited with five tackles and a sack but in reality, he was much more disruptive than that. Stopping Donald from ruining the inside running game and terrorizing Russell Wilson should be Priority No. 1 for the Seahawks.
At "just" 6-1, 285 pounds, Donald is much smaller and quicker than most NFL defensive tackles. This poses a problem for Britt, who whose height at 6-6 makes it difficult for him to win the leverage battle and isn't used to playing in close quarters after spending the past few years at tackle for the Seahawks and previously at Missouri. When Britt is able to latch on, he's generally quite effective. Donald has the burst to penetrate gaps before interior linemen can grab hold of him, however, and he chops his hands, making him a virtual bowling ball of butcher knives.
When combined with former NFL sack leader Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Chris Long and free agent addition Nick Fairley (among others), the Rams boast the fearsome front that can take over this game and steal a victory over the favored Seahawks. Even worse, there is the nightmare scenario in which Wilson, Lynch or someone else in Seattle's backfield gets hurt if the Rams are able to feast on Seattle's inexperienced offensive line.
Matchup No. 2: Seahawks DE Michael Bennett, Frank Clark vs. Rams RT Rob Havenstein
While the Seahawks should be very concerned about its own offensive line, the Rams must be worried about theirs, as well, especially with two rookies expected to start against a Seattle pass rush that looks improved from last year's top-ranked defense. Right tackle Rob Havenstein draws the toughest assignment and isn't helped much by the Rams' relatively immobile quarterback Nick Foles.
Like many of the Wisconsin offensive linemen before him, the 6-7, 321 pound Havenstein is at his best driving defenders off the ball in the running game. He's massive but not particularly strong (20 reps of 225 pounds at his Pro Day after 16 at the Combine) or long (33 3/4" arms), which means that the relatively undersized Bennett and Clark may be able to hold up against him in this regard.
Whether successful containing the run or not, Bennett and Clark should be able to beat Havenstein on passing downs. Each is quicker than Havenstein and possesses the core strength, agility and polished counter-moves to give the rookie nightmares. Havenstein has struggled in the preseason (team-leading two sacks allowed in just 35 snaps in pass protection) and his help at right guard - veteran Rodger Saffold is attempting to come back after missing all but the first series of the preseason after aggravating his surgically-repaired shoulder. St. Louis has another rookie - Jamon Brown - projected to start at left guard, where he too may see more than he'd like of Bennett or Clark when either of them line up at defensive tackle on obvious pass-rushing downs.
Matchup No. 3: Seahawks TE Jimmy Graham vs. Rams OLB Alec Ogletree
St. Louis' defensive line gets all of the attention but the Rams boast one of the more underrated linebacker corps in the NFL, as well. Ogletree is one of the linebackers athletic enough to run with Graham and he's highly physical, as well. Fortunately for Seattle, while athletic, Ogletree hasn't developed into a reliable pass defender. He rated lowest among the Rams linebackers a year ago, according to Pro Football Focus, registering a -6.5 grade in 500 opportunities in coverage.
Of course, the Seahawks made the big trade for Graham exploit precisely these types of matchups. It isn't just his remarkable 4.53 speed Graham possesses but the unique body control that comes with his massive 6-7, 265-pound frame. Even when covered, Graham has already demonstrated the hand-eye coordination, agility and balance to pull down contested grabs. Most of the football-loving world saw the problems the Pittsburgh Steelers had in containing Rob Gronkowski Thursday night in the NFL opener. Graham isn't likely to score three touchdowns in his Seahawks debut, but you can bet that he'll get most of Wilson's looks when throwing near the end zone.