Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith passes against the Rams during the second half of a game Oct. 7 in Seattle. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith passes against the Rams during the second half of a game Oct. 7 in Seattle. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

Minus Wilson, Seahawks set to face Steelers in prime-time

Seattle heads into the Sunday night game with a backup QB and a defense that needs to improve.

By Bob Condotta / The Seattle Times

It’s been almost 10 years since the Seattle Seahawks played a game without Russell Wilson.

And rarely in that time — if ever — have they appeared as desperate for a win as they are Sunday against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Seattle has lost three of four to fall to 2-3 and now faces the prospect of playing at least three games without Wilson, if not more, while also trying to heal on-the-fly an ailing defense.

The combination of those two factors led the betting line to shift from Seattle initially being favored by 2.5 points to the Steelers favored by 5 by the end of the week.

It’s the largest spread against the Seahawks since the 49ers were 6.5-point favorites at home for a Monday night game late in the 2019 season. In the good omen department, the Seahawks won that game 27-24.

Now to try to repeat that feat.

On with our keys to the game:

MATCHUP TO WATCH

Pittsburgh running back Najee Harris vs. Seattle front seven

After the Steelers finished last in the NFL in rushing in 2020, coach Mike Tomlin vowed the running game would get better in 2021. And the Steelers showed they were serious drafting Alabama standout Najee Harris 24th overall last spring. Harris got off to a slow start, not rushing for more than 45 yards or 3.8 yards per carry in the first three games. But he has 184 yards on 38 carries the last two weeks against Green Bay and Denver, 4.8 per carry, allowing the Steelers not to have to rely solely on the aging arm of Ben Roethlisberger. The Seahawks, meanwhile, are allowing 4.5 yards per attempt, 24th in the NFL. Allowing 4.5 or more to Harris could be a death knell for Seattle’s hopes Sunday.

PLAYER TO WATCH

QB Geno Smith

Smith will become the first QB other than Wilson to start a game for Seattle since Tarvaris Jackson in 2011. It will also be Smith’s first start since 2017 and just his third since 2014. Smith at least had the chance to shake off the rust last week, playing the final quarter-and-a-half against the Rams, and provided plenty of reason for optimism that he can run the offense effectively. Still, Wilson’s shoes are big ones to fill. One of the biggest tasks for Smith will be to avoid turnovers while still making big plays — he has a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 30-37. Wilson’s is 277-82. The Steelers have just two picks, tied with Seattle for 23rd in the NFL.

COACHING DECISION TO WATCH

Blitzing Jamal Adams

OK, for one more week we’re going to wonder if this is the week the Seahawks unleash Adams before concluding that maybe that just won’t be that big a part of the game plan this year. Via Pro Football Focus, Adams has been brought on blitzes just 20 times this year, or four per game. He averaged almost nine per game last year. Adams has yet to get a hurry or a quarterback hit, let alone a sack, after setting a record for a defensive back last year with 9.5. Coach Pete Carroll explained this week that it’s been in the plan for Adams to blitz more often but that at times he’s had to drop back into coverage based on what the opponent was showing. Maybe so. But somehow, the Seahawks have to get Adams more involved in the pass rush, and a pretty immobile QB such as Roethlisberger seems like a good place to start.

THE X-FACTOR

Team morale

The Seahawks appear at one of their most fragile states of the Carroll era, and maybe the most since Wilson became QB in 2012. The Seahawks were well on their way to losing against the Rams even before Wilson had to leave the game for good, and defensive players appear visibly frustrated. Now, already three games back of Arizona in the NFC West, the Seahawks have to try to at least tread water without Wilson, and with a defense that doesn’t appear to have any quick or easy fixes. Getting off to a good start feels more vital than ever.

SURPRISE PLAYER

Rush end/LB Darrell Taylor

It’s no longer a surprise when Taylor gets a sack — he has four on the season to lead the Seahawks. But he could be in line to get more as Carroll said this week that Taylor’s production so far. “He’s really ready to be given more opportunities now,” Carroll said. Taylor hasn’t played more than 49% of the snaps in any game and against the Rams last Thursday got just 22 snaps, 33%. But he had Seattle’s only sack in the game and has one sack in four of Seattle’s five games. With Seattle’s pass rush lagging — just four sacks in the last three games, three by Taylor — getting Taylor on the field more seems like a good idea.

KEY STAT

76-34

That’s how much the Seahawks have been outscored by in the second half this season, which includes 23-10 last Thursday by the Rams. Sure, a segment of Seahawks fans have sometimes mocked Carroll’s motto that you can’t win the game in the first three quarters. But that has also symbolized a team that has always played at its best in the second half — the Seahawks have outscored their opponents in the second half of every season since Carroll arrived in 2010, including 245-215 last year. But Seattle has been outscored this year 29-14 in the third quarter and 47-30 in the fourth quarter and OT.

THE PICK

Steelers 31, Seahawks 21

It’s always been really risky to count the Seahawks out when things seem dire. One thing that has defined the Carroll era is an ability to continually pull off wins when least expected. And the view here is that Smith will be more than serviceable at QB. But that won’t matter much if the defense doesn’t get better quickly. Big Ben isn’t what he used to be. But then, neither is the Seattle defense.

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