The Seahawks host the Dallas Cowboys Thursday night in their third game of the preseason, and as is the case with most NFL teams, Seattle is expected to play its starters later into the game than in any of the other three preseason contests. That means this is the final tune-up of any significant length for the starters, most of whom will see much more limited playing time in the preseason finale. So while every preseason game has significant meaning, be it for position battles to play out or for young players to fight for roster spots, this is the game that will provide the best look at what the Seahawks starting units might look like come September.
With that in mind, here are five things to watch when Seattle and Dallas face off Thursday night at CenturyLink Field:
1. How does a "pretty settled" offensive line look playing deeper into the game.
While nothing is set in stone just yet, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll did suggest Wednesday that the starting line might not change much, if at all, before the start of the season.
"We're pretty settled right now, however, we're just allowing the competition to play itself out and we don't want to cut off anybody's opportunities," Carroll said. "It's more likely not to change a lot than it will, but we want to keep the competition open, and the guys are showing that they're worthy of that. So we'll see what happens."
In Seattle's first two preseason games, the starting line, from left to right, has been Bradley Sowell, Mark Glowinski, Justin Britt, Germain Ifedi and Garry Gilliam. That interior line trio of Glowinski, Britt and Ifedi seems unlikely to change, while the tackle situation is a little less clear because of the recent absence of J'Marcus Webb, who recently returned to practice from a knee injury. Webb opened camp as the right tackle in the No. 1 offense, with Gilliam playing on the left side, but now he's fighting to work his way back into the first unit. Webb will play Thursday, Carroll said, and could get mixed in with the No. 1 offense at points during the game, Carroll said.
"He's ready to go," Carroll said of Webb. "He had a couple of really good days, very determined. He didn't like the fact that he lost some of his opportunity there by being out, so he has come back very determined and looked very good in practice. I expect him to play well in this game based on how he practiced."
Whether it's seeing how Webb fits in, or a chance to see Gilliam back at left tackle, or just another game to improve for Ifedi, or another chance for Britt to grow a center, his new position, Thursday night will provide some valuable opportunities for the line to get itself a step closer to regular-season ready.
2. Can the first-team offense get going?
Seattle's starting offense opened the preseason looking like it had picked up where it left off in 2015, with the running game working and with Russell Wilson hitting Doug Baldwin in stride for two big gains. But then Wilson was intercepted in the end zone to end that drive, his only of the game, and in Seattle's second preseason game, the starting offense struggled to get going as penalties and sacks set drives back and put the Seahawks in unfavorable down-and-distance situations.
And while Carroll isn't concerned about his offense—"No. Nope. Preseason game," is how he answered that question—he and his players would like to see the starting offense clean things up in their last lengthy appearance of the preseason.
"We're just giving too many situations away, making it too difficult to keep the kind of rhythm that we like," Carroll said. "So I'd like to see us play a lot sharper and see where that leaves us. Does that allow us to move the football and score some points like we'd like to? I would bet it will."
Like his coach, Wilson wants to see more out of himself and the rest of the offense after struggling to put up points thus far in the preseason.
"We want to play great football all across the board," he said. "We want to be in attack mode, we want to stay on the field. We've had some great drives, we just haven't put the ball in the end zone as much as we want to, but we're going to do that, we're excited about that."
3. Who makes their preseason debuts?
A number of players are expected to play Thursday for the first time this preseason, including safety Kam Chancellor, defensive tackle Jordan Hill, rookie running back C.J. Prosise and Webb. Fullback Will Tukuafu, who just re-signed with Seattle this week, will also be available.
"It's a good group coming back out here," Carroll said.
While someone of Chancellor's stature doesn't have a lot to prove in a preseason game—he'll be looking to knock off some rust and take out a little bit of pent-up aggression—this is a very important game for other players coming back from injuries. Hill, for whom injuries have been the biggest obstacle in his career thus far, needs to prove he can stay healthy first and foremost, but he also is competing for a starting job with Jarran Reed, or at the very least for a significant role in the line rotation. Webb, as mentioned above, is trying to fight his way back into the starting lineup after seeing Sowell move into the No. 1 offense in his absence. And Prosise, a third-round pick the Seahawks hope can be their third-down back, needs to actually show he's ready for that role after missing all of training camp with a hamstring injury.
"It's really important," Carroll said of this game's significance for Prosise. "He looked really good in practice, and everything we've seen of him looks good, we just haven't seen very much. He just needs to get going and get started and get back to getting tackled and taking care of the football and all that kind of stuff."
4. How does running back look as the group approaches full strength?
While Thomas Rawls is on track to play in the season opener, he won't play Thursday, but the rest of Seattle's running backs should be available, giving coaches their best look yet at a position group that has changed greatly since last season.
In addition to getting Prosise back, the Seahawks likely will get more out of fellow rookie Zac Brooks, who returned last week from a hamstring injury. Having those two draft picks do more will give the Seahawks a much more complete look at running back than last week when Troymaine Pope, a rookie signed during camp, and George Farmer, a player recently moved from cornerback, carried a significant portion of the workload after Christine Michael and Alex Collins.
While Rawls and Michael figure to provide what Carroll called a "one-two punch" in the running game this season, the third-down role in particular needs to be sorted out. Prosise is the leading candidate for that job, but needs to show he's actually up to that task now that he's healthy. Brooks is also competing for time in that role, and even Farmer has shown promise there despite being new to the position.
And when it comes to Michael, one of Seattle's best players through two preseason games, the key is just building off of what he has done since returning to Seattle late last season.
"What I'm anxious to see Christine do is just maintain over a long period of time," Carroll said. "He's really found a great consistency and I don't see any reason why he wouldn't. In any role that we want to play him in, he's ready to go, but you've still got to do it and he hasn't had the chance to do that in the NFL yet, so we'll see how he goes week after week after week. It's an endurance race for these guys, and you've got to hang and he hasn't had the opportunity to prove that yet, so that's still out there, but I don't see any reason why he won't."
5. Does the pass rush improve?
Through two preseason games, the Seahawks have recorded only one sack and eight quarterback hits. But before you start to worry about Seattle's pass rush, consider that Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett has played all of two snaps, while Seattle's other top pass rusher, has played only 25. Second-year defensive end Frank Clark, whom Bennett recently described as a "wild dog in a meat house," has shown promise, including Seattle's lone preseason sack, as has Cassius Marsh, who had two QB hits in Kansas City. But presuming Bennett and Avril play a bit more this week, the Seahawks would hope their pass rush is a more productive against the Cowboys than it was in the previous two games.
"It's really just carrying over our game plan, and having a game plan is really what it comes down to and making sure that we capitalize in our one-on-one (matchups)," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said.
Whether it's coming from him or young players trying to prove themselves, Bennett agrees: "I just want to see more pass rush. I think in the run game, it's spectacular. I think the pass rush is where we need to emphasize and get better at, because this league is a passing league, and a lot of teams we play are a passing team, so we have to figure out how to get these guys even better at pass rushing. That's spending more time after practice working with them, or that's working with the offensive line a little bit more, I think that's the steps we've taken and that's what we're trying to do."
The Seahawks hold practice for a final run through before their third preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night.