The Miami Dolphins welcome the Seattle Seahawks to Sun Life Stadium Sunday. The Seahawks are completing the longest road trip in the NFL for this game, and before they arrive, SB Nation's Danny Kelly, the managing editor of Field Gulls, agreed to answer my questions about the team,
Kevin Nogle (KN): Russell Wilson has been a pleasant surprise this year, showing that his early round talent should have outweighed the concerns about his height. What are his strengths, and what concerns still remain about him?
Danny Kelly (DK): Russell has definitely been a pleasant surprise for Seahawks fans. He has done a lot to incrementally improve in most phases of the game over the first 11 weeks -- he's improved his accuracy from where it was in the preseason -- he'd frequently miss his receivers high; he's improved on looking for his receivers over the short middle; he's improved on his penchant to leave the pocket early before plays ca develop and he's learned to step up and climb the pocket instead of bail instantly in the face of pressure; and he's improved chemistry with Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, and Doug Baldwin. There are a lot of things about his game to be encouraged about, in terms of his strong arm, touch on deep passes and seam passes, his ability to pick up the offense quickly, learn how to diagnose defenses quickly, etc. Pete Carroll recently noted that Wilson hadn't missed a run check over the past several games, meaning he's beginning to learn the pre-snap stuff that separates the mediocre quarterbacks from the great ones. Fans appreciate that Wilson has an unmatched work ethic, and a smooth, even-keeled demeanor and unwavering self-confidence that makes him a good candidate as the guy to lead your offense.
That said, there are still times when it's clear that his height limits his vision, and Wilson still makes the 'rookie mistake' a couple of times a game - a fumble or a pick here and there that he'd love to have back. Early in the year, the Seahawks' offense struggled pretty badly on 3rd downs, and that area is still a concern. Wilson still hesitates at times to step up into the pocket rather than moving out of it and running, but in general, he's managed to create plays despite this. In general, for a rookie (a third round pick), he's exceeded expectations, but he still expectedly looks like a rookie sometimes. He's been significantly better at home than on the road, but some could argue that his best game as a pro came a couple of weeks ago, on the road in Detroit. The Hawks lost that game, but not due to Wilson's steady and dynamic play.
KN: Obviously, the strength of the Seahawks is the defense, with the rush defense the 12th ranked unit in the league, and the pass defense the third. What should Miami fans expect to see out of the defense, and, is there a weakness the Dolphins can exploit?
DK: The Seahawks' have a very strong defense, and according to Football Outsiders' current DVOA rankings, the 2nd ranked unit in the NFL, ahead of San Francisco, Houston, Pittsburgh, and Denver, but behind only Chicago. They stop the run well with the beefy but athletic trio of Alan Branch, Red Bryant, and Brandon Mebane up front, and get after the passer in bunches with Chris Clemons, rookie Bruce Irvin, and the underrated nickel DT Jason Jones. Seattle's secondary is one of the best in the NFL, with three Pro Bowlers last year in Brandon Browner, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor, and then rounded out by Richard Sherman, who is legitimately having an All-Pro caliber season and who was recently dubbed 'the league's best shutdown corner right now' by Ron Jaworski.
The Seahawks use their safeties in interesting ways -- Thomas is rangy and instinctive and often patrols the deep middle, limiting opposing offenses' ability to strike downfield. Chancellor is typically an in-the-box enforcer, but is often seen protecting the deep middle as the Seahawks move Earl Thomas around like a chess piece, having him blitz or run in coverage, making things difficult for opposing QBs to diagnose.
Browner and Sherman are long and physical, and collectively do a good job of taking opposing team's top receivers out of the game - Seattle is, currently, #1 in the NFL against both the #1 and #2 receivers of opposing offenses,according to FO.
That leaves the team's other receivers (21st in the league against 'other receivers), and tight ends to have in mind, and in general, I would say that matching up against these types of players remains Seattle's weakness on defense. Right now, veteran Marcus Trufant is the Seahawks' slot nickelback, and he's done an acceptable job with it this season, but shifty, quick receivers are still somewhat a bane to this defense. Titus Young, Wes Welker, these types of guys tend to give Seattle trouble. Tight ends too seem to give the Seahawks fits at times, with rookie Bobby Wagner still learning the game at middle linebacker, but no defense is going to be air tight. These slot receivers and tight ends have done a big part in making Seattle very average to below average on 3rd downs. This is the area I can see the defense really looking to improve on in the final six games.
In general, this is the strongest Seahawks' defense the team has had ... well, since I've been watching the NFL, so though they'll give up some yards at times, I do think they're a talented group.
KN: Marshawn Lynch is already over 1,000 yards on the year, and has broken 100 yards rushing each of the last four games. Clearly, the Seattle offense runs through Lynch, and rightfully so. Is there anything Miami can do to slow down Lynch, or at least disrupt him?
DK: Well, they'll have to win the battle in the trenches, because Lynch has pretty tough for defenses to handle as a runner over the last 16 games or so. I haven't seen the updated numbers in the last few weeks, but since Week 9 last year, Lynch had been the top running back in the NFL in terms of yards gained over that time period, and he's not slowed down much of late so it's probably still close in that regard (Arian Foster and Ray Rice are the two that are challenging him there).
That said -- if Miami's very strong defensive line can disrupt and get penetration into the backfield with consistency and blow up Seattle's staple wide-zone runs, the Seahawks may be forced to go to their pass game more if the rush game isn't clicking. Getting off to a quick lead would certainly help the Dolphins in this area too. Overall, Lynch has been pretty consistent running behind Seattle's zone-blocking scheme over the past year or so, but I do believe the Dolphins will create some issues for him because they're a very talented unit. It will be a very important key to the game to watch.
KN: Other than Wilson, who has been the biggest surprise for the Seahawks this season? The biggest disappointment?
DK: The biggest surprise might be the quality play of rookies Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner. Both have been thrown into the fire early - Wagner is now playing nearly every snap for Seattle on defense, and Irvin has excelled in his limited role as a nickel package pass rusher. Wagner looks like a long-term starter at middle linebacker, and Irvin is doing a lot to dispel the notion that he was a reach as the 15th pick in the NFL Draft, and already has 7.0 sacks on the season.
The biggest disappointment is a hard one to identify. Most players on the Seahawks have played up to expectations - Golden Tate and Sidney Rice are performing how you'd hope, Zach Miller is starting to get more involved in the passing offense, Chris Clemons is still performing at a high level as an every down pass rusher, and Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch are still holding it down on the defensive line. The offensive line is performing well. The linebacker group is doing well.
I'd say if people were disappointed, they might say that DE Red Bryant isn't having the same impact on defense that he did last year, or that Doug Baldwin isn't having the same impact he had last year in the offensive passing game (though in his defense, he's been hurt much of the season). Red received a big, multi-year contract in the off-season but hasn't really had the 'big-play' impact you'd hope for from a 4-3 DE. He's a run-stuffer though, so these types of guys don't tend to get as much recognition. Still, last year he was an every-game 'impact player' and this year hasn't been as exciting for him.
Fans are still disappointed in the defense's inability to get off the field on 3rd downs. Right now it seems to be the thorn in their side, so that's one stat to watch this week.
KN: How has Matt Flynn been this year? Has he caused any drama with coming in to be the starter and getting stuck behind Wilson? How do the Seahawks fans feel about that much money being used to sit on the bench? Will the Seahawks let him go this offseason?
DK: Matt Flynn, from what I can tell, has been a total pro about being the backup to rookie Russell Wilson. Fans were (and some still might be) pining for him to start early in the year and many in the media around here seemingly had the opinion that Pete Carroll and his coaching staff were incompetent for starting Wilson. That patience by this F.O. to let Wilson get his early game jitters and struggles out of the way seems to have paid off with quality, high-level play of late, but in general, the first six to eight games were pretty insufferable with all the quarterback controversy talk, as you could imagine. Whichever side of the argument you were on, QB controversies are annoying.
In general though, most fans, at this point, love having a quality backup in Flynn, and Flynn himself seems to have done everything possible to prepare to be the next guy up if Wilson gets hurt. The money thing really isn't that big of an issue to people at this point, I don't think, though next year will possibly be a different story as his salary goes up substantially.
I would like to thank Kelly for taking the time to answer my questions today. You can read more about the Seahawks, as well as see my answers to his questions about the Dolphins over at Field Gulls.