The Seahawks head to Pittsburgh this week for their preseason opener, a game that will represent an important piece in the evaluation process at several positions where the competition is on for starting jobs. The game also represents, for every play, the first chance since last season to experience true game action with tackling and full-speed hits.
"It's the first chance for us to go live now," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said before the team left for the airport Thursday. "We understand that we go through camp and practice, that we get great tempo and speed, but it's not the same thing when you finally crank it up and go. We have to make that next step, introduce our guys to full speed football, the young guys getting on an NFL field and realizing that it's just football. There is a lot of stuff that we have to accomplish that has nothing to do with how we play. It's getting through the process and all. Traveling is really important, teaching them how to travel. This West Coast to East Coast trip has been something that we have really taken a lot of consideration in how we do it and we have been successful at it. I think that there is a lot to understanding the rhythms and all of that, so we are going to practice it. That's why we are leaving early, and we want to be right when the time comes."
Even if the final score of a preseason game might not matter much in the grand scheme of things, plenty of important things taking place in Saturday night's game. Here are five things to watch when the Seahawks take on the Steelers at the newly rechristened Acrisure Stadium:
1. The quarterback competition, of course.
Until the Seahawks name a starting quarterback, the battle between Geno Smith and Drew Lock for that job will be the No. 1 storyline surrounding the team, and Saturday night will give both players a chance, in live game action, to state their case for the job. Carroll said this week that Smith, who has been getting most of the work with the No. 1 offense in camp so far, will start, but said Thursday that both quarterbacks "will play quite a bit" in Pittsburgh as the evaluation of the two continues.
"We would love to see the guys execute," Carroll said. "They have done really well on the practice field, and we would love to see it carry over. At the quarterback position there are opportunities and if the opportunities are there, how do they seize them? Do they come through and make the play? Do they come through and make the big throw in the red zone, or maybe it's on a third down or whatever it is. Maybe it's hitting someone that is open deep, we just have to wait and see. Then we will add them up."
Both quarterbacks have enjoyed strong weeks of practice dating back to last weekend's mock game, and Saturday night will represent their best chance yet to show their coaches what they can do.
2. Do the rookie corners continue to play at a high level?
One of the bright spots early in camp has been the play of Seattle's two rookie cornerbacks, fourth-round pick Coby Bryant and fifth-rounder Tariq Woolen. Both have been making plays on the ball almost daily and it has been very rare to see either get beat over the top, which is priority No. 1 for a Carroll-coached cornerback. With Artie Burns and Sidney Jones IV both expected to miss the game due to injury, Woolen and Bryant will likely start and get a lot of playing time.
"As much as any position on the team, I'm excited to see those two guys go," Carroll said. "They're going to get a lot of play time. They've done a lot of cool stuff. Coby's really been a gamer. He's proven that over the years. This is a big step for Tariq. If he does like he has been practicing, he's going to be fine."
That Bryant is playing well in his first camp is hardly a surprise, he did win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back, after all. What was harder to predict, however, was how quickly Woolen, a receiver convert who looked raw coming out of UTSA, has looked like he too might be NFL ready as a rookie.
"What's happened here is he's taken to the approach that we coach him on the technique stuff," Carroll said. "He's cleaned his game up so his consistency has been outstanding. In college, he was a little all over the place. At times, you can see him press and see him do the things he does at the line of scrimmage and there was a lot of other stuff that showed up too. But now, he's just taken to the coaching and Karl's (Scott) got him going. He seems to be really comfortable going against Tyler (Lockett) and DK (Metcalf) and that's a big step. It's a great challenge every day when these guys go against our guys. He's taken it in stride so far, so we'll see. We'll see how it goes."
3. The rookie tackles and the competition at right tackle.
The Seahawks selected two tackles in the first three rounds of the 2022 draft, picking Charles Cross in the first round and Abraham Lucas in the third. The game will be an important early test for both, though the stakes are a bit different for each player. Cross has been the No. 1 left tackle throughout camp and seems all but a lock to hold that job when the season starts. Lucas, meanwhile, is in a wide-open competition for the starting job on the right side of the line, battling with Jake Curhan, who started five games there as a rookie, and Stone Forsythe, a 2020 sixth-round pick.
"They are going to play a lot this game and get a lot of air time, and they've really been battling," Carroll said of Cross and Lucas. "I don't know how they are going to take the game other than I would predict they are going to do just fine because of what they've done. We've thrown everything at them that we can to try to accelerate the process. Speed rushers, big rushers, a combination of stuff. All kinds of stuff and they are making good progress, but this is a big step for them."
4. Kenneth Walker III's debut.
Sticking with the theme of rookies making their preseason debut, another player who should have a chance to shine on Saturday is running back Kenneth Walker III, a second-round pick out of Michigan State. Walker has looked explosive throughout camp, and just as importantly for his chances of earning playing time as a rookie, he is also showing he can handle the pass-blocking element of that position. With Rashaad Penny dealing with a minor groin injury, Walker very well could start on Saturday night and will get plenty of chances to show what he can do.
"I'm surprised he's so well-rounded," Carroll said. "Runner, he's blocking—his pass protection stuff, he has just turned the page. I mean, he was not very good in college as a pass protector, and we didn't know. But Chad's (Morton) done a great job with him and Amanda (Ruller), they've worked really hard with him, so it's important. But I think for this kid, everything is important. He wants to be great, and he's not going to let any stone be unturned. So, I'm really excited to see how he goes. He's going to get some good playing time in this game and get him comfortable with the speed of the game and all of that. I expect him to do well."
5. The new-look defense.
Saturday's game will be the first for the Seahawks under new defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt, as well as associate head coach-defense Sean Desai and defensive passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach Karl Scott. Under Hurtt, the Seahawks are switching to a 3-4 base defense (three down linemen, four linebackers), and as Carroll and Hurtt have said, they plan on having varied coverage looks on the back end of the defense.
Now, it's worth remembering that teams tend to play pretty vanilla in the preseason, and that's especially true for a team making significant changes on either side of the ball, so as to keep the element of surprise alive. But even keeping that caveat in mind, this will be a chance to get at least some idea of how the defense will look with outside linebackers like Uchenna Nwosu, Darrell Taylor and Boye Mafe rushing off the edge.
"To get started, I want to see the communication sharp, so that what we have done on the field, it goes to the game," Carroll said of the team's new-look defensive front. "Do we make the transition? That is what we are really looking for. That's calls, adjustments, the alerts, and all of that kind of stuff. I would like to see if we made good progress and can carry it to the game. That is what we will evaluate in that regard."
While teams don't have to put out official injury reports or provide game-status designations in the preseason, Carroll did provide several injury updates following Thursday's practice. And seeing that this is the preseason, the Seahawks will surely err on the side of caution with even minor injuries that a player might be able to play through in a regular season game.
Running back Rashaad Penny, who up to Thursday had not missed much of anything through two weeks of camp, is dealing with a minor groin injury.
"Feeling a little bit of groin tightness, so we're just taking care of him," Carroll said.
On Artie Burns, who left practice earlier this week with a groin injury, Carroll said, "It's going to be a couple of days, he's not ready to go yet."
Receiver Marquise Goodwin was out for the second day in a row, and Carroll said, "He felt his hamstring a little bit. He has a little something, so we are taking really good care of it. This time of the year when the guys are running so much, they get loaded up, so we are pretty sensitive to taking care of them as soon as we can."
Fellow receiver Freddie Swain is dealing with back tightness, Carroll said, but "he made it through and he's going to go on the trip, but he has a little bit of tightness."
Cornerback Sidney Jones IV, who has been out with a concussion dating back to last week, was able to take part in Thursday's walkthrough practice, but won't play.
"He's making progress," Carroll said. "He won't play in this game, but he got to run around a little bit today and handled it yesterday, so he's making progress to get back. I don't know about Thursday, but we will see."
Linebacker Jordyn Brooks (hamstring) is "doing a lot of stuff," Carroll said. "He's really close." Carroll did add, however, that Brooks has not practice yet, which this time of year would likely be reason enough to keep him out of a game.
On defensive end L.J. Collier, who injured his elbow in last weekend's mock game, Carroll said, "He sprained his elbow, and I think we said if he was a pitcher, we would thinking about the Tommy John stuff. He's not a pitcher and he doesn't throw the ball very well either, so we are not concerned about that, but it's going to be a little bit probably about another week, but it shouldn't be a long thing. He's not getting operated on or anything like that."
The Seahawks took to the practice field for Training Camp practice #11 as they gear up for their first preseason game against the Steelers.