The Houston Texans and Seahawks face similar problems this week as they prepare to play each other in a fairly significant test for each team -- one that Texans safety Ed Reed even calls a possible Super Bowl preview.
The problem: Both have injury issues on their offensive lines -- specifically at left tackle -- as they prepare to face havoc-wreaking defensive fronts that have keyed the two best defenses (and passing defenses) in the league.
The Seahawks are without Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung (and have some other injury concerns) and the Texans could be without Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown again. Coincidentally, both tackles have toe injuries.
That leaves both offenses to figure out how to deal with the defensive pressure. And it raises the question about which is harder for a line to prepare for: one superstar pass rusher or a wave of good ones?
The Seahawks have to contend with J.J. Watt, the 2012 defensive player of the year who is off to a stellar start in 2013 as well. After leading the NFL with 20.5 sacks last season, he has three sacks, four tackles for loss, three batted passes and 17 tackles in the first three games.
"He’s a fantastic football player," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "He just causes so many problems. He plays with incredible effort in intensity and consistency. So we really have to pay attention."
Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who played quarterback at Wisconsin and coaches a quarterback who played at Wisconsin (Russell Wilson), said of their fellow alum, Watt: “He’s a badger. Got to love those badgers, don’t you?
"Yeah, he’s a star player. I mean, he really does a great job; he’s tenacious, he works hard, he’s long, he creates a lot of issues. So he’s definitely someone that we have to account for and make sure that he doesn’t wreck the whole day for us.”
Carroll also said, "The thing that also makes him good is the guys around him. (Brian) Cushing does a lot of stuff, is right behind him all the time. … Between those two guys, they really cause a lot of issues for us. So it’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Cushing, who played for Carroll at USC before being drafted in the first round in 2009, leads Houston with 24 tackles. He returned an interception for a touchdown in Week 1 against San Diego, and he had 1.5 sacks against Tennessee's Jake Locker.
The Seahawks already have juggled their line to account for Okung's absence, and they might have to do it again if right tackle Breno Giacomini (knee) cannot play.
That job would go to rookies Michael Bowie and Alvin Bailey. They both got to play in the blowout against Jacksonville last Sunday, and assistant head coach Tom Cable was impressed.
“Some really cool stuff,” he told reporters. “I’m really excited about their future, our future. I thought both of those kids went in there and knocked people off the ball, protected really well. They got comfortable really quick, which was a huge moment of growth that they are OK and can handle it in a regular NFL game. So very pleased with what we saw.”
Cable said the game experience was “like gold. Now you feel like you are not just starting over if you have to do it. They have been there and done it.”
Wilson is confident the offense can handle Watt and company.
“I think that we will do a great job," he said. "Coach Cable has the offensive line prepared for their defense and what they’re going to do to. They are a very, very talented defense obviously, and it all starts with J.J. and his ability to get to the quarterback and make plays. It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be one of those games that we’re going to have to play our best football."
Of course, so are the Texans, as they face Seattle's swarming, top-ranked defense, which unveiled its new Alpha Line last Sunday.
“We have so much talent on this team, so many guys versatile guys that can play so many different positions, our defensive coaches have to have fun with it as far as putting together packages,” O'Brien Schofield, one of the Alphas, told Seahawks.com. “When you’ve got pass-rush specialist, guys that have proven they can get sacks and get pressure, it makes your job so much easier.
“When you can rush as a group, that’s when it gets vicious. But when you see certain teams or certain systems were you’ve got one good pass rusher and everyone else is OK, you don’t see a camaraderie of guys getting after the quarterback. Playing us, you don’t know who’s going to hit you. You don’t know who’s going to win. That’s how we rush.”
Houston coach Gary Kubiak is aware of it, telling Seattle reporters: “I think their speed is No. 1; they’re very active. They fly to the ball and don’t give up big plays. Obviously their two corners are great players and can lock people down, but I just think their overall effort and speed and the way they rally to the football, it’s a big, big challenge for us.”
That would seem to make the running attacks a huge key to this game. They both run the same zone scheme, so it will come down to which defense is better prepared to stop it.
"They have been for years in terms of the zone attack that they use," Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. "Real similar to the approach that we do, in terms of the outside stretch zone and things like that. So that’s where it begins with us, and they've got a number of playmakers and certainly the two runners (Arian Foster and Ben Tate) that can take it the distance on their one-cut scheme.”
Carroll said quarterback Matt Schaub is most dangerous off play action when the running game is working.
“They are such a committed run team that their passing game is huge and they know to try and strike you dead when they get into the play action of the offense," Carroll said. "He’s really a pinpoint guy against tight coverage, like the really good guys are. You can be all over a guy and he can put the ball where the receiver's the only guy who can get it -- and he does that a lot."
Schaub is a very accurate passer but also has had some struggles in the first three games. He has thrown an interception in each contest and is coming off a 30-9 loss to Baltimore in which he averaged just 5.54 yards per attempt.
Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison told the Houston Chronicle that Schaub has made "bad decisions."
"It's a focal point. He's got to get better," Dennison said. "He's got to be very sound with the ball. So, that's a thing that we keep pressing. We hope he can take care of the ball for us."
And there it is: The key to any road victory. The Seahawks are 20-3 under Carroll when they win the turnover battle. Seattle has 10 takeaways and a plus-six differential, while Houston has one takeaway and a minus-three differential.
"We just want the ball all of the time," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "Every play is an opportunity to go after the ball."
OTHER HAWK TALK
Andre Johnson has a shin injury and is expected to play, although he officially will be a game-time decision. "He’s a fantastic football player," Carroll said. "The fact that they’ve targeted him over 10 times a game, that’s a big statement that they’re making about him. We’re counting on him playing and if he isn’t then we’ll just adjust, but we think he’s going to be out there, and we need to do some stuff to make sure we know where he is at all times. They really rely on him. And they have other good players too. Owen Daniels is really good, and (rookie) DeAndre Hopkins is doing a good job. So they have good players to go to, but he’s just their favorite, so we need to acknowledge that.”
Sacked: Watt is the only one of the NFL's top four sackers last season who is in action. San Francisco's Aldon Smith (19.5) checked into rehab this week, Denver's Von Miller (18.5) is suspended for six games and Miami's Cameron Wake (15) is questionable with a knee injury this week.
Streakers: The Seahawks have won eight in a row, by an average score of 35-11. The Texans have won five of the last six home games in September.
Seattle rookie TE Luke Willson pointed out on 710 ESPN this week that he played at Rice with Kubiak's son, Klein Kubiak. Klein is a senior this season. Willson is coming off a five-catch game in the 45-17 win over Jacksonville.