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Three Key Matchups: Seahawks vs. Bengals

Breaking down three matchups that could make the difference in the Seahawks’ season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. 

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The 2019 NFL season is upon us, and for just the seventh time in the last 20 years, the Seahawks will start their season with a home game, hosting the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at CenturyLink Field.

Since Pete Carroll and John Schneider took over in 2010, the Seahawks are 9-0 in home-openers and 14-0 in September home games, including 3-0 in season-openers at CenturyLink Field. If the Seahawks are going to keep those streaks going, these are three key matchups that could make the difference on Sunday:

1. The Seahawks defense vs. the unknown.

With the addition of Jadeveon Clowney last weekend, and the return of Ziggy Ansah, the Seahawks are feeling really good about their defense heading into the season, and about their front seven in particular. But as good as Seattle's defense has a chance to be, it could take a little time for that group to hit its stride seeing as Clowney just arrived and Ansah only returned to practice last week.

And in this particular game, a big challenge for Seattle's defense will be the fact that it will in all likelihood have to adjust on the fly. With the Bengals turning over nearly their entire coaching staff this offseason, it's impossible for the Seahawks to know what they're going to see, particularly out of head coach Zac Taylor's offense. Taylor spent his last two years with the Rams, so it's expected that Cincinnati will feature elements of that very successful offense, but Taylor is sure to add his own wrinkles, ones the Seahawks won't have film on to study leading up to the game.

"The Bengals are a team, for us, that we have to figure out as the game goes on because they're brand new," Carroll said. "They can do anything offense, defense, and we have some thoughts and all but we won't really know until we get there. So it's a game we have to be ready to adjust and make sure that we stay ahead of it the best we can.

"It's a big challenge and it's a good challenge too because of the style of offense that we have to face in our division as well. There's been a lot that goes into it. If the style is similar, then we know that we have a number of games that will be within the same format so we will really be able to zero in on that thought and see it and we'll see what happens. There's just an unknown. You guys don't know until you get there. All first games are like that because people can change and adjust things. This was a little bit more out there because you haven't seen them. Preseason, I don't think, was much of a tell to what's happening."

At the end of the day, however, it's still football, new offense or not, so the Seahawks are confident that they'll be able to work through any necessary adjustment.

"I'm sure they're saving plays, obviously they didn't show everything in the preseason," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "At the end of the day, it's find the ball and tackle the guy with the ball. We're not going to know all their plays, but you've just got to read your keys. It's just football."

2. Joe Mixon vs. Seattle's run defense.

While talking defensive philosophy earlier this week, Carroll noted that the goal "has always been to stop the run first. Always. That's where we begin." And for most of Carroll's tenure in Seattle, the Seahawks have defended the run very well, ranking in the top 10 in opponent rushing-yards-per carry in six of the last nine seasons, including allowing a league-low 3.4 yards per carry in 2016.

Last year, however, the Seahawks allowed opponents to average 4.9 yards-per-carry, a stat that demonstrated not so much an inability to stop the run play after play, but rather an uncharacteristic amount of big rushing plays allowed. The Seahawks gave up 41 explosive runs (12-plus yards) in 2018, 10 more than in 2017 and well off their 2017 pace when they gave up a league-low 17 explosive runs.

"It's got to be clean," Wright said. "It has to be clean. One big run is too much. If we communicate right, get lined up right, tackle well, then we'll be a sound defense… We've got to get back to that style of stop the run, earn the right to get after them on third-and-long."

Cleaning up the run defense against Cincinnati is no easy challenge, as the Bengals feature running back Joe Mixon, who last year led the AFC with 1,168 rushing yards while averaging 4.9 yards-per-carry.

"Joe is a really good football player; he can do everything," Carroll said. "Run, catch, block. He can do it all. (Running back Giovani Bernard) is a good player too. He's a heck of a player. I've always loved the way that guy plays since his Carolina days."

3. The Seahawks offensive line vs. Cincinnati's D-line.

While the Bengals are facing plenty of question marks coming off a disappointing 2018 campaign that saw them lose seven of their final eight games and make a coaching change, one element of their team that no one is doubting is their defensive line talent. Leading the way are defensive tackle Geno Atkins, a seven-time Pro-Bowler who has 39 sacks over the past four seasons, and defensive end Carlos Dunlap, a two-time Pro-Bowler who has recorded at least 7.5 sacks in six straight seasons.

Seattle's offensive line, which returns four of five starters from last year's team that led the NFL in rushing, comes into the season confident in its ability, and for good reason, but that group will face a very good early test in the Bengals' front.

"They're really good," Carroll said. "Really good. Geno has always been a good player. He can make things happen, run and pass. The big fellow on the edge (Dunlap), man he's hard to deal with. He's big and long and tough and all that. They play him really, kind of in what looks like the right manner. He's a problem. A real problem."

The Seahawks and the Bengals will meet this Sunday in Seattle at CenturyLink Field to open up the 2019 regular season. Take a look back at photos from the past twenty games played between the two teams.

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