When Seahawks coach Pete Carroll addressed the media Tuesday, he opened his remarks by deadpanning, “OK, so here’s the starting lineup, here’s how many plays guys are going to play, and when they’re going in and how many times they’re going to throw the ball and run the ball.”
Of course Carroll didn’t actually divulge any of those specifics, though he did later acknowledge what everyone assumes for a preseason opener, which is that the starters “don’t play a whole lot in this game, so we’ll see a lot of young guys throughout the course of this game.”
Yet even if we don’t see a lot of the first-team offense and defense Thursday night, there are plenty of interesting storylines to keep an eye on when the Seahawks host the Indianapolis Colts in their preseason opener.
Here are six things to watch in Thursday’s game:
1. What young players step up?
The Seahawks practice at a very high tempo and simulate a lot of game situations, but there’s still no substitution for game action with full contact, and that especially holds true for rookies and young players trying to make their mark, particularly on defense and special teams.
Inevitably this time of year, some relatively unknown player has a huge play or a big game to boost his chances of landing on the 53-man roster, and seeing those young players emerge can be one of the more exciting parts of games that ultimately don’t count in the standings.
Asked what he wants to see out of the game, Carroll said, “Running and hitting, just the guys getting out there and playing for the first time. That’s the love of the game showing up, because they understand now is the time. We’ve been waiting and holding back. You hold back all offseason. It’s really not a football mentality in the offseason. You have to just hold off and hold back, and now they don’t have to hold back anymore, so I’m looking to see if they can embrace the moment and jump on it and we can play our tail off and run up and down the field on those kickoffs and show what they got and have some fun playing the game.”
Talking about the young players in particular, Carroll noted, “We’re going to find out kind of what their nature is all about. They’ve shown us a lot, but this is the real deal now.”
2. How do the running backs look in a game setting?
Just as games are important for the defense and special teams because there’s no live tackling in practice, the same holds true for running backs, who in games get a chance to show how well they can break tackles, and also how they hold up in pass protection.
Seattle’s running back group has been one of the deepest and most exciting to watch in camp, so this will be a good first look for fans as the team tries to figure out how to distribute playing time and touches once the regular season comes around.
Chris Carson has been one of the early stars of camp, but first-round pick Rashaad Penny has shown plenty to indicate he will be a big part of the offense as well. Add to that the likes of Mike Davis, C.J. Prosise and J.D. McKissic, and running back should be one of the best competitions between now and the start of the season.
3. The new-look defensive line.
One of the Seahawks’ most changed position groups from a year ago is the defensive line. With three starters from 2017 no longer on the team, the Seahawks drafted defensive ends Rasheem Green and Jacob Martin, they signed a pair of veteran defensive tackles, Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson, and are also counting on some young returning players to elevate their games in bigger roles.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised, happy,” defensive line coach Clint Hurtt said of his group. “When I say pleasantly surprised, that really with the young guys like Rasheem Green and Poona Ford. They’ve really come along and progressed from where we were in the spring. Happy overall with the group.”
While the Seahawks obviously hope to be at full strength to start the season, Dion Jordan being out and Frank Clark currently limited in practice has allowed them to take a long look at their pass-rush depth, a group that includes the aforementioned rookies, Branden Jackson, Marcus Smith and Barkevious Mingo.
“Jacob Martin has been progressing to come along on the edge, as is Mingo,” Hurtt said of the pass rush “… They’re both making good progress, and we’ll see what they do in the preseason games and what kind of success they have.”
4. The young DBs.
Because of injuries at cornerback, it’s very possible that rookie Tre Flowers will start at right cornerback Thursday night, and regardless of if he does or not, he’s likely to play a lot as he continues to develop and make the adjustment from safety, his college position, to corner.
At safety, Bradley McDougald is the likely starter at one spot, but there’s a good competition going for the other job, and as of late it has been second-year free safety Tedric Thompson running with the first team. Thompson has shown a knack for being around the ball and making plays in practice, but now is his chance to show he can do that in game action. Delano Hill is still in the mix at safety as well, and will be looking to show what he can do, as will fellow 2017 draft pick Mike Tyson, who has shown versatility in camp playing both safety and corner.
5. How different are kickoffs?
The NFL changed the rules for kickoff this season, and that play has the potential to look quite a bit different. The biggest change for the kicking team is that players can no longer get a 5-yard running start before the ball is kicked, while the returning team has to change the way it sets up, as it is now required to have eight players in the “setup zone,” which on a typical kickoff at the 35-yard line means the area between the kicking team’s 45-yard line and the receiving team’s 40. Having only three players deep means a lot of open space, which combined with the elimination of wedge blocks could mean a change in personnel for return teams, which may now choose to put more skilled players on the field.
“You can only have three guys back from the 40-yard line to the goal line, so there’s a lot of space to cover,” special teams coordinator Brian Schneider said. “We’ve had two (offensive) linemen and two tight ends back there, and a returner. Now, I think you really have to have some more skill guys to make sure you cover the field because there could be a lot of opportunities for balls being around there and 50/50 balls and opportunities for turnovers. I think you’ve really got to cover the field first, and it’s just going to depend on how people play it.”
No one is entirely sure how the new rule will play out, and teams might wait until the regular season to show any new strategies they’ve come up with to try to take advantage of the changes, but these preseason games are the first chance to get at least a feel for how kickoffs might be different in 2018.
“You’re kind of anticipating how guys are going to line up,” Schneider said. “We have to follow certain rules, but with three guys back you don’t know exactly how guys are going to do it, so it’s really going to be interesting. The preseason is going to tell you a lot not only about the kickoff stuff, but more where people are aligned and what schemes they’re running. So we have our own ideas and we try to study it a lot, but preseason is going to be big. Not only for what we’re doing, but for studying other people and seeing kind of what everyone’s doing.
“It’s cool. It’s exciting. We just want to keep the kickoff in the game and make it safer, which I think they’ve done, and so it’s going to be interesting to see if you have more skill out there – because obviously you took the wedge away, so are you going to match that on your kickoff team with more speed and so it’s going to be interesting.”
6. The kicking and punting competitions.
In recent years, the Seahawks had settled on a kicker and punter by this point of the summer, but they’ll head into their first preseason game with two kickers, Sebastian Janikowski and Jason Myers, and two punters, Jon Ryan and Michael Dickson, battling for roster spots.
“It’s just great competition,” Schneider said. “All four are battling and they’re going to work and they just carried over what they were doing in spring. It’s a battle and it’s fun to do.”
Both kickers have shown big and accurate legs throughout camp, while the punting battle is an interesting one between a rookie the Seahawks drafted in the fifth round, and a veteran who is the longest-tenured player on the team. Dickson comes to Seattle as one of the best punting prospects to come out of college in years, but Ryan is ready to put up a good fight, which is what he has been telling his coaches since the day the team drafted Dickson.
“Jon’s been so good for us and I respect him so much, so I actually called him before we drafted (Dickson) and told him we were going to do it,” Schneider said. “It’s exactly what you’d expect. He just said, ‘Hey, it’s going to be hard to beat me out. I’m going to give everything I got and I’m going to compete and let’s go.’ It was always a good competition. You know, it’s hard. You’ve got to fight through that and he hasn’t had a lot of true competition since he’s been here. He’s really performed as good as he ever has so it’s been good for him too.”
First meeting in 1977, the Seahawks and the Colts have faced one another 12 times in the regular season over the years. They will face off this Thursday at CenturyLink Field to open 2018 preseason play.