The Seahawks travel to Denver this weekend for their 2018 regular-season opener, a clash of former AFC West rivals whose history includes Seattle's 43-8 Super Bowl XLVIII victory. Both teams have undergone plenty of change since that memorable meeting in New Jersey, and for the Seahawks, this game will provide a good early test for a team that made some significant changes this offseason, both in terms of the roster and also Pete Carroll's coaching staff. The Broncos, meanwhile, are hoping their changes, most notably one at quarterback—they signed former Vikings starter Case Keenum this offseason—will help them bounce back from a 5-11 campaign in 2017.
1. Von Miller and the Broncos pass rush vs. an improved Seahawks offensive line.
Of all the encouraging signs shown by the Seahawks leading up to this season, the growth of the offensive line might be one of the most important. That's not to say the line has been perfect or will be on Sunday, but that unit, which prior to a hamstring injury to D.J. Fluker had used the same starting five throughout training camp and the preseason, has looked like one of the team's most improved position groups. Even with Fluker out this week, the Seahawks can plug in J.R. Sweezy, a longtime starter both in Seattle and Tampa Bay, and feel good about their line.
And for the offense to get the job done this week, the Seahawks will need that line to hold up well as they face the likes of All-Pro pass-rusher Von Miller and 2018 first-round pick Bradley Chubb.
"They've done a really nice job," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the offensive line. "(Russell Wilson) has had a really good feel for our guys, he's moved in the pocket really well. You've seen him so many times in this preseason stepping up in the pocket with space and room. He's still going to take off and do things because that's what Russell can do. The guys have been really sharp and it's a great challenge this week. (The Broncos) got guys all over the board who can bring it, so it's going to be a real nice challenge for us. All in all we are much further along than we've been. We're just more experienced, Duane (Brown) has been a big element of that. (Justin) Britt being through all of these years now, he's there. (Germain) Ifedi's coming back with the most experience he's ever had. The guys that are playing now with D.J. (Fluker) and Sweez (J.R. Sweezy) and those guys. That leaves just (Ethan) Pocic as the young guy, so there's one guy in the mix that's a young guy, and he's really an astute football player. He knows his stuff, he can hold up his own. It's been a really good group. (Tight end Will) Dissly's been a part of that too, he's helped us out as well."
All of that being said, the Broncos pass rush, and Miller in particular, could be a handful. Miller, the MVP of Denver's Super Bowl 50 victory over Carolina, is a six-time All-Pro and six-time Pro-Bowler, and has 83.5 career sacks in seven NFL seasons. Miller has recorded double-digit sacks every year except 2013, when he played just nine games.
"He's really, really talented," Carroll said. "He's got a great knack, and they've played him well and he's got all the physicals that you need. More than that, he's got the right competitive mind to be a great one."
Added Wilson, "Well, you always try to know where Von Miller is when you got a guy like that. He's pretty special. He's going to be a Hall of Fame guy. He's a guy that can make every play, can do everything, it's a tough matchup. You look forward to those moments where you get to play some of the best players in the game, that's what you put the uniform on (for), you get excited about those times. I was telling their (Denver Broncos) media, it's like having LeBron James or Steph (Stephen) Curry on the court, you got to know where he is. He's a great player for sure."
But as much as the Seahawks know they'll have their hands full with Miller, the All-Pro pass-rusher knows he and the Broncos defense also have their work cut out for them when it comes to dealing with Wilson.
"Oh, man, I'll tell you what, I don't think any pass rusher likes going against Russell Wilson," Miller said on a conference call with Seattle-area media. "He's just a handful. He's elusive, he makes plays with his feet, arm, everything. I'm sure that if you did a poll around the league right now, if you asked how many guys would want to go against Russell Wilson, nobody would raise their hand. He's just a tough cookie, an elite player, Seattle's all-everything quarterback."
2. Seahawks running game vs Denver's front seven.
If Von Miller is Denver's most dangerous player, then the Seahawks' best way of containing him might be their running game more so than anything they can do in pass protection. A credible threat in the ground game not only keeps pass rushers from being aggressive, it also limits the chances Miller and company have to get after the quarterback if the Seahawks are finding success in the running game.
Almost as soon as the season ended, Carroll pointed to the running game as one of his biggest offseason priorities, and the Seahawks made a number of moves this offseason looking to bolster that phase of their offense, ranging from coaching changes to free agent signings (guard D.J. Fluker) to draft picks (running back Rashaad Penny and tight end Will Dissly). After being one of the league's top running teams from 2012-2015, the Seahawks struggled in that phase of the game the past two seasons, but the hope is that they can get back to being a balanced, explosive and efficient offense in 2018.
"I think it's the right mindset going in, and we got to stick to it," receiver Doug Baldwin said of Carroll's goal to get the running game back on track. "I know it's counter-intuitive to hear from a wide receiver, but the understanding that I know of winning games, of being a championship-caliber team, is you got to run the ball. You got to dominate the clock on the offensive side of the ball and then you got to stop the other offense from scoring points. Offensively, that's what we're talking about getting back to, and I'm looking forward to it because that's the only way I know how we're going to be successful."
While Penny was a first-round pick and figures to have a big role in the offense, the running back who players can't stop raving about has been second-year back Chris Carson, whose rookie season was cut short by a leg injury after just four games.
"Chris Carson is a beast, let me just say that," Baldwin said. "Chris Carson is a beast. I can't say enough about Chris Carson. The mindset that he has, the ability that he has, he's unbelievable. I want him to reach his full potential because he can be unbelievable. He's unbelievable now. A couple more years under his belt when he gets used to the speed of the game, gets used to his body, Chris Carson is going to be unbelievable."
Carroll is excited about what his team's running game can do this year, not just because of the backs but also because of the aforementioned improvements made by the line, but he also knows that what the offense shows Sunday will not be the finished product.
"We're going to get better, we will," Carroll said. "There hasn't been enough reps, in particular for Rashaad. He just hasn't had enough live turns yet to really get his rhythm going. He has such good experience with stuff that we've run, that we're running, that we know that he's run plays in the same fashion, so there will be carry over there. He's had one game to get a shot at it, I think he's got four (preseason) carries, so he'll get a lot better. Chris seems like the seasoned veteran around here, but Chris will grow too. Mike Davis gives us the ability. C.J. (Prosise) can bring his stuff. It's a good position group for us, we're really excited that we've made it all the way to this time. These guys are intact and they can all compete and battle for us."
3. The turnover battle.
Last season, the Broncos threw 22 interceptions, turned the ball over 34 times and finished with a minus-17 turnover differential. They ranked 31st in the NFL in all three of those categories, leading only the winless Cleveland Browns.
One player can't solve all of those issues, but the Broncos are counting on Case Keenum to be a big part of the solution. While helping the Vikings win their division and reach the NFC championship game last season, Keenum threw just seven interceptions, and he knows ball security is key for him this year as well.
"Being smart, making good decisions," Keenum told the Denver media this week. "Knowing when to try and give your guys a chance to make a play and when you might need to check it down. It's taking into effect the time on the clock that's left, the situation of the game. I think the ball is the most important thing on the field. Touching the ball every play as a quarterback, that's the most important decision you make, whether or not you're taking care of the football."
Carroll, who preaches an "it's all about the ball" philosophy, couldn't agree more with Keenum's assessment that "the ball is the most important thing on the field," which is why he was happy to see the Seahawks rank seventh in the league in turnovers last year with 17. The Seahawks had a very respectable plus-8 turnover differential last year, but one goal stated by coaches and players this summer has been to get that number higher by creating more turnovers on defense.
"Turnovers come in bunches, as you know," defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. "It's a matter of being physical and playing hard and being in the right place. We talk about it, we work on it, so it's a matter of continuing to play. They're going to come, it's just a matter of, now's the time. This is our first game of the season, our first week to really put it all together and we have high expectations about all the situations—red zone, two-minute, backed up and turnovers. That's something that I think once you know the stats of getting turnovers and winning games, you know how important that is to winning and winning is very important to all of us. Turnovers are obviously something we're certainly emphasizing."