By Bob Condotta
The Seattle Times
Can the Seahawks start 4-0 for just the second time in franchise history?
Can Russell Wilson keep on his record-setting pace for touchdown passes?
Can the defense again do just enough to allow the Seahawks to come home with a victory on what will be their longest trip of the season (and first with some fans in attendance — Miami is allowing up to 13,000)?
The answers come Sunday at 10 a.m. in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium.
Let’s take a closer look at the matchup between the Seahawks and Dolphins.
Matchup to watch : Miami cornerbacks vs. Seattle receivers
For as amazing as Wilson has been, what’s also becoming clear is that, in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, he has the best 1-2 receiving duo to target in his career.
Metcalf is third in the NFL in receiving yards per reception (24.8) and third in receiving yards (297), while Lockett is tied for fourth in receptions (24) and tied for first in touchdowns (four). They have simply been unguardable, especially in man coverage situations.
Now comes a Miami team that has played the fifth-most snaps of man coverage so far, according to Pro Football Focus, but has the third-worst grade on those snaps and also has some injury issues in the back end (though it looks like star cornerback Byron Jones, who missed last week, may be able to play). Sounds like a formula for a few more big Seahawks passing plays.
Player to watch : Cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin/Tre Flowers/Quinton Dunbar
There’s lots of blame for Seattle’s pass-defense issues. But a cornerback position that the Seahawks hoped would be a real strength going into the season has to accept its share so far.
Left cornerback Shaquill Griffin has allowed 319 yards, according to Pro Football Reference, the most in the NFL, and was beaten deep for a 52-yard pass against Dallas. Seattle’s two right corners — Tre Flowers (146) and Quinton Dunbar (212) — have combined to allow even more, with Flowers also beaten for a long TD last week. Flowers may have to start again if Dunbar’s knee keeps acting up.
One bright spot in the secondary has been nickel back Ugo Amadi. But Seattle will have a tough matchup inside this week in Miami tight end Mike Gesicki, who has 12 receptions for 175 yards.
Coaching decision to watch: Will Seattle keep with offensive aggression?
Not only are the Seahawks throwing more this season — passing it 59.5% of the time compared to 54.3% a year ago — but they are also doing so more in early downs.
Consider that Wilson has thrown 83 of his 103 passes this year on first and second down (80.5%) compared to 375 of 516 last year (72.6%, all numbers via PFR). Of Wilson’s 14 touchdown passes — the most for any QB in NFL history in the first three games of a season — 12 have come on first or second down. Wilson has been astonishingly good on second down, completing 32 of 37 passes for seven scores and a passer rating of 154.3, with five TDs on plays of second down and from seven-to-nine yards.
No reason not to keep being aggressive early.
The X-factor: A long trip to a hot day
On paper, Seattle has most of the advantages. But any NFL road game is tricky, and this one looms as having a few different obstacles. The 2,724-mile flight for Seattle to Miami is the longest any NFL team will take this year. There is also the prospect of thunderstorms Sunday with a high temperature of 87 degrees.
Every game this season also has a unique atmosphere and Seattle has so far seemed oblivious to the surroundings. But Miami will have some fans, a first for the Seahawks this year, and you never know how that might impact things.
Seattle also has to keep bucking the odds of piling up road wins — the Seahawks are 8-1 in regular-season road games dating to 2018, and 9-2 including playoffs.
Players who could surprise: Safety Ryan Neal, linebacker Cody Barton
The news Friday that Chris Carson should be good to for the Miami game eliminates one big injury worry.
But strong safety Jamal Adams and linebacker Jordyn Brooks will not play meaning there will be two new starters on defense. Barton will fill in for Brooks in the linebacking corps, with K.J. Wright likely to again be the weakside linebacker in the base but Barton stepping in on some packages.
Ryan Neal seems destined to get the start at safety with Adams out and Lano Hill also still laboring with a back injury. Neal had the game-clinching interception last week replacing Adams in the fourth quarter when he suffered a groin injury that will hold him out Sunday.
Key stat: 31-4. That’s Seattle’s record since 2015 when winning the turnover battle, including 2-0 this year (Seattle was plus-two against Dallas).
And OK, it’s not news that winning the turnover battle helps a team win games. Still, it’s pretty stunning how it correlates to winning for Seattle.
Consider that when they don’t win the turnover battle, since 2015, the Seahawks are just 12-19-1. So, don’t turn the ball over much and Seattle has a really good shot of winning Sunday, no matter what else happens.
One reason this so meaningful is because, in Wilson, Seattle has one of the best quarterbacks ever at avoiding turnovers (he’s tied for the third-lowest interception rate in NFL history.) Wilson’s only interception this year bounced through the hands of tight end Greg Olsen.
Via Pro Football Focus, Wilson and Aaron Rodgers are the only two quarterbacks who have not made a turnover-worthy play this season. Last week, Dak Prescott made three for Dallas. Nothing else was a bigger difference in the game.
The Final Word
Seahawks 37, Dolphins 28
The Seahawks, to be sure, have lots of defensive issues — suddenly compounded by a slew of injuries — that make it hard to think any game will be easy, especially on the road. Ryan Fitzpatrick will likely do some damage, and the Dolphins are the kind of young team that is going to rise up and pull an upset or two this season. But with the way Wilson is playing and the passing game is rolling, it’s hard to go against Seattle right now.