The Seahawks have shown a lot of improvement in their past two games, beating Chicago and Detroit following an 0-2 start to open the season, but when the Seahawks play at Cincinnati Sunday, it will be a test of just how much they have improved. The Bengals, who are off to a 4-0 start, present tough matchups in all three phases of the game that should test Seattle in a number of ways. Offensively the Bengals have gained the second most yards in the NFL this season and average 30.3 points a game, and on defense they have a dangerous pass rush that has 11 sacks and have forced seven turnovers.
"Boy, we have a heck of a matchup coming up this week," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Looking at Cincinnati and the way they've been playing and all that they're doing and how they're flying right now, it's a terrific looking football team really across the board. As well-balanced a team as we could expect to see. They've got numbers, stats, fast starts, good aspects across the board, like I said. Special teams is really good, defense is really good, and it's going to be a great matchup to go back there and see if we can get them. It's a great challenge for our guys. We've been home for a couple weeks now so it's time to go, time to get on the road again. So we'll go make that trip and see if we can get something done."
Here are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game:
1. Seahawks offensive line vs. the Bengals' pass rush.
Seattle's offensive line has been big topic of discussion this week after Russell Wilson was sacked six times against Detroit, upping Seattle's season total of sacks allowed to 18, which is tied for a league-high. Carroll, offensive line coach Tom Cable and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell have all expressed confidence that their inexperienced line will improve, but things won't get easier this week against a very good Cincinnati front that features All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who has three sacks, and defensive end Carlos Dunbar, who has a team-high 3.5 sacks.
There have been some good moments for Seattle's line—and it's also not fair to put every sack on that group—but for the offense to be at its best, the protection needs to improve.
"Really inconsistent," is how Cable described Monday's performance against Detroit. "I felt like there was some really, really good stuff, and them some inconsistency… We have to be better, that's the bottom line. We have to be better."
Added Carroll: "We had some issues, and it wasn't any one guy. It was just stuff happened, and we needed to help them better. This is the reality of it, there's a lot of things that enter into it, and sometimes it's getting the ball out when we have the chance to before the rush gets there. We missed a couple blocks, we missed a couple looks at stuff, and they did a nice job with the pressures that they brought too. So I'm really thinking about pass protection when I'm saying all that, that we need to get better there, and it's just ongoing and we're going to continue to work at it. But we have some thoughts about some things we adjust a little bit as we go in terms of helping guys and the way that we have to look at the opponent, and how that fits together with our matchups. So we're doing all of that."
Carroll acknowledged Friday that Patrick Lewis could see playing time at center when asked specifically about that position, saying, "Patrick could play. He's ready to go."
2. The L.O.B vs. Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati big-play passing game.
What is perhaps most impressive about the season Dalton is having so far is not that he has completed a league-high 20 passes of 20 or more yards, or that he has thrown nine touchdown passes, but rather that he has done all of that while throwing just one interception.
"He's been playing phenomenal football, so you have to give him all the credit in the world," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "… He's finding his spots, he's hitting his receivers in stride, his receivers are doing a great job of yards after the catch, catching the ball and running and making plays, making things happen. I think he's being smart with his decision. He has great decision making this year, he's not forcing anything. He's taking his chances whenever they're there."
The Seahawks, meanwhile, are back to playing dominant defense, but have not faced a team willing to take shots down the field the way the Bengals do—if, that is, Cincinnati sticks to that game plan. If the Bengals are willing to throw the ball down field, that could mean a busy day for safety Earl Thomas, for whom taking away the big plays is a big part of his job.
"They're going to take shots, we play cover three, I've got to eliminate what I've got to eliminate," Thomas said. "It's going to be the same, but I understand what they're trying to do, and it's exciting for me. I get a chance to try to make a play. I thought I got a try to make a play last week, but you never know. They can change up the game plan."
Thomas and the rest of the secondary are looking end a rare four-game interception drought, something Carroll said "eats at me," and hope an aggressive Bengals offense might take a risk on which the Seahawks can capitalize.
"We're extremely committed to getting the football and taking it away," Carroll said. "But you've seen some games and some ways that people have thrown the ball at us to maintain their possession of it. We had a lot of quick throws last week from a very high-powered offense, and the week before they were very careful with the ball. So when you play here, we've taken the ball off people pretty consistently for years, so it's a good way to try to nullify that factor. So I think it's a combination of stuff, but they're going to come in bunches now though. It's going to happen."
3. The Seahawks rushing game vs. the Bengals front seven.
As mentioned above, the Seahawks need to protect better when the throw the ball, but in addition to blocking better or getting rid of the ball quicker, another way to slow down a pass rush is to have a threat of a rushing attack. Marshawn Lynch will miss a second straight game with a hamstring injury, but even without him, the Seahawks need to have balance on offense to beat a tough team on the road. With Lynch limited two weeks ago, the Seahawks still ran the ball very well, getting a big performance out of rookie Thomas Rawls, but last week the Lions held Seattle to 110 rushing yards and an average of 3.5 yards per carry.
"It hasn't really been the one that we want yet," Carroll said of Seattle's run game. "Russell's doing very well, our receivers are doing well, everybody's catching the ball well and they're getting open and doing nice stuff, but I think (opponents) are hoping they can keep us—we were the most explosive team in the NFL last year on offense and we're not there right now, so I think that they're probably hoping that we're not going to get a whole lot better. I really think we are though. I think we'll improve a tremendous amount here as we get into the second quarter of the season."