The Seahawks head to Miami looking to start their season 4-0 for just the second time in franchise history, having last done so in 2013. Standing in the way of another victory is a Miami Dolphins squad that looks to be much improved from last season despite a 1-2 record. The Dolphins are coming off of their first win of the season in Jacksonville, a game that followed a pair of losses to New England and Buffalo, teams with a combined 5-1 record.
"It's a really nice job that (Miami coach Brian Flores) is doing with these guys to turn this thing this fast," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "You can see them playing sharp and playing well, and they're smart. That's a good club, so it's good challenge for us."
If the Seahawks are going earn yet another road victory—they're 8-1 away from CenturyLink Field dating back to the start of last season—these are three key matchups that could make the difference on Sunday:
1. Tyler Lockett & DK Metcalf vs. Miami's secondary.
Yes, Russell Wilson is off to an MVP-caliber start because he is a great player, but the Seahawks quarterback is also off to such a fast start because he's throwing to a great pass-catching group that includes the most productive receiver duo in the league this season.
Through three games, Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf have combined for 36 receptions for 556 yards and seven touchdowns, the most yards and touchdowns by a receiver duo in the league through three games.
Talking to the media this week, Lockett said he and his teammates take the field "trying to put fear into the people we play against."
And the Dolphins have reason to be concerned at the very least, if not downright scared. The Dolphins so far have played man coverage at one of the highest rates in the league, and if they do so again Sunday, they'll be asking a lot of their defensive backs who are trying to contain Lockett, Metcalf and the rest of Seattle's pass-catchers. Making things worse for Miami, starting cornerback Byron Jones is listed as doubtful due to groin and Achilles injuries. Whether or not he plays, the Seahawks will no doubt be looking for Wilson and his playmakers to take their shots down the field.
"What the entire offense over there is doing is really creating big and explosive plays on a consistent basis," Jones told reporters in Miami earlier this week. "That's a challenge for us, but that's an exciting challenge. You're really going against one of the best in the league at this point. It's a really good measuring stick as to where our secondary and where our defense is going to be going forward."
2. Fitzmagic vs. Seattle's pass defense.
Ryan Fitzpatrick's journeyman career has seen him play for eight teams over the past 16 seasons, and at 37, he's playing arguably as well as he ever has. In last week's win over Jacksonville, Fitzpatrick completed 90 percent of his passes, threw for two touchdowns and rushed for one more.
"It's really something to watch him play right now. He is on it. This is as good as he has ever looked to me. He looks like he's playing with house money. He's just going for it, in all phases, all aspects of his play. He's running well, he's challenging the line of scrimmage—trying to make first downs. His helmet got knocked off a bit ago, and he got up laughing and smiling and all fired up. He's making great throws, his receivers are doing a fantastic job. Very gutsy, just true veteran savvy working for him. And it looks like—I don't know if this is what it's like on their end—but it looks like everything kind of revolves around his play."
And "playing with house money" is great way to describe Fitzpatrick's game, because he's never been shy about trying make things happen, which can lead to big games, but also some mistakes. Over the course of his career, Fitzpatrick has 25 games with three or more touchdown passes, but he also has 18 games with three or more interceptions. For some perspective, Russell Wilson, who has started only 11 fewer games over his career, has only three games with three or more interceptions against 34 games with three or more touchdowns.
Slowing down Fitzpatrick and the Miami passing game will be an even bigger challenge for the Seahawks because they will be without starting safety Jamal Adams and starting cornerback Quinton Dunbar, who were both ruled out Friday due to injuries. But short-handed or not, the Seahawks know they need to clean up a pass defense that has given up too many big plays this season.
Through three games, the Seahawks have given up 33 explosive passes (16-plus yards), the most in the NFL, a total that includes three touchdowns of 40 or more yards last week. The Seahawks have been playing from ahead in all three games, so allowing a lot of passing yards is somewhat expected, but what Carroll isn't OK with are those big plays that allow teams to score quickly.
"Sometimes we look like we haven't been practicing a whole lot on the back end; we have been," Carroll said. "So we just have to do better. I really can't imagine that we're not going to do this a whole lot better here in the coming weeks."
3. Seattle's pass rush vs. Miami's pass protection.
The Seahawks have five sacks this season, and two of them have come on Jamal Adams blitzes. If they're going to try to keep Fitzpatrick from getting hot on Sunday, they'll need to affect him with the pass rush, and with Adams ruled out, they'll need more of that pressure to come from the defensive line.
Getting to Fitzpatrick isn't easy—he has been sacked five times, tied for eighth fewest in the league—but the Seahawks will be counting on players like L.J. Collier, Benson Mayowa and Alton Robinson to make that happen. Collier and Mayowa have both been getting pressure on quarterbacks, but so far have only one sack between them to show for it, while Robinson showed potential in his first game, recording a sack late in last week's win over Dallas.
The Seahawks have also seen the likes of Jarran Reed, Bryan Mone and Poona Ford get penetration from the interior line, including a sack/forced fumble by Reed last week, so there have been encouraging signs, but against a good quarterback and without Adams' blitzing ability, this would be a great week for Seattle's pass rush to come alive.
The Seattle Seahawks have faced the Miami Dolphins 15 times dating back to 1977, going 4-8 in the regular season and 1-2 in the postseason. They'll look to add another win this Sunday, October 4 at 10 a.m. PT at Hard Rock Stadium.