This game was different for the Seahawks. Their customary story arc of a slow start and sprinting finish never materialized. One could even argue the offense started out sharp, with Russell Wilson completing his first three passes, and the team driving 46 yards on 12 plays on their second drive for a field goal. They were never, though, able to shift into high gear. We may learn in coming weeks that was because this Miami Dolphins defense is much better than advertised. Stuck in low gear, with a hobbled quarterback, the Seahawks offense took on the persona of an aged sprinter on their final drive. Their pace was deliberate, but their minds were certain of their greatness.
I rarely start my game notes with discussion of the opponent, but it feels warranted in this case. The Dolphins defense was significantly better than I expected. The secondary, especially, was sticky, fast and physical. Safety Rashad Jones was everything he has been promised to be, but even he was more physical than I expected and a better playmaker near the line of scrimmage.
Their corners should be a weakness. Instead, they made life very difficult for the Seahawks passing game. Some of that appeared to be a very solid game plan that left Dolphins players in great positions to make plays and rarely surprised by Seahawks play calls.
The front four was supposed to be the strength of that team, but even that group had plenty of naysayers from the Dolphins camp heading into this game. They were tough as nails. More surprising was the play of the linebacker group behind them. Led by Kiko Alonso and Koa Misi, that group consistently knifed through the line to make impressive plays.
Maybe the Seahawks were just rusty. Maybe their offensive line really struggled. Something tells me it was more than that. The Dolphins may not play another defensive game as good as that one all year, or it may be the start of a new identity for that team. Only time will tell. What I can say with certainty for this week is that they played at a very high level throughout.
Seahawks defense even better
That was the best Seahawks defensive performance I have watched in years. Yes, they have shutout teams during that time and generally been the best defense in the NFL. This, though, was as complete a performance as they have put together in a long time. Yes, there were some communication breakdowns that led to a 50 yard play and what should have been a longer touchdown pass. Yes, they gave up the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. I am not blind to those moments or the bevy of missed tackles.
What I am reacting to is seven of the Dolphins’ twelve drives were four plays or less. Twice the Seahawks offense turned the ball over. The defense allowed a total of three points off those turnovers. They were tested on a fourth an inches deep in their territory and dropped Miami for a loss. Their pass pressure was as good as it has been in a long time, and got stronger in the fourth quarter like it used to in the glory days of the 2013 season.
The defensive line faced a better Dolphins offensive line than people realize. That group was physical and made surprisingly few mental errors. Still, Seattle held Arian Foster to 38 yards on 13 carries, and the Dolphins to just 64 yards on the ground. The linebacker play from Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright was fantastic. Both were physical and fast.
DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane were disciplined and made plays when they were tested. Richard Sherman made one of the games great tackles that nobody will remember. Miami running back Damien Williams took the ball to the right side and saw an opening outside that he tried to bounce. Sherman made a form tackle. There was nobody behind him if he came up empty like some of his teammates did early in that game as early season rust shook off. It could have been seven points. That play forced a Dolphins field goal.
Kam Chancellor was back to his old physical self near the line of scrimmage. His battery mate, Earl Thomas, did not have a good day at the office. Anyone who thinks that is anything more than an aberration is wasting their energy.
This group was more connected than the ones we have watched the past two years. They also featured some dynamic young blood. Frank Clark got a sack. Jarran Reed batted down two passes and was stout in the middle. Cassius Marsh registered his first career sack.
People can belittle the performance by pointing at Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins offense. This was Tannehill’s lowest passer rating in his last nine games, and the Seahawks did not even turn him over. He is better than people realize.
The season ahead is long and the path through it is always winding. What I saw from this defense in week one has me feeling like this group could be special.
Special teams were special
Marsh led the way with two crushing tackles on punt coverage and a blocked field goal that essentially won the game. The rest of the crew did a decent job as well. There was one long return on a kickoff, but the coverage teams did pretty well. Tyler Lockett also had what could have been a pivotal punt return in the second half (22 yards) that went for naught as the offense could not convert on fourth down deep in Dolphins territory.
There were a couple costly penalties in the first half on returns, but those disappeared in the second half. Special teams have been one of the chief offenders when it comes to penalties in past seasons, per my research on Seahawks penalty problems. We can hope they are starting to find their discipline.
Struggles on offense
Seattle came out as I expected, spreading the Dolphins defense with empty sets and attacking them with quick passes. It sort of worked, but they never were able to complement that approach with inside runs or double moves to test Miami over the top.
Lost in all the hand wringing about the plodding play were some notable signs of sophistication in the passing game. There were multiple back shoulder throws completed by Wilson, including a long one to Jermaine Kearse and a beautiful timing route to Paul Richardson. Those are single moments, but are important indicators of the types of plays this team can start to make. It is like a young pitcher who is developing his secondary pitches.
Offensive line play can be seen as half full or half empty. I saw a very good Dolphins defense largely be battled to a stalemate. Justin Britt’s play does not appear to be a mirage as he battled Ndamukong Suh and did reasonably well. There were no jailbreak sacks or pass pressures. There was one blitz where there simply was not enough blockers to pick up the blitzer, but that is more a recognition thing than an offensive line performance indicator.
The run game was not great, but they did finish with over 100 yards and Christine Michael average 4.4 yards per rush. That’s not terrific, but it’s certainly not terrible.
The team gave up three sacks, but one came when Wilson thought he saw a crease up the middle and got tackled for no gain. Those three sacks also came on 43 pass attempts, which works out to a 6.7% sack rate. The 2015 Seahawks line had only one game in the first seven where they had a sack rate under 11 percent.
Bradley Sowell had his hands full and was called for a couple of holding penalties. J’Marcus Webb found out he was playing guard a few days before the game. He did reasonably well considering.
Wilson and the offense appeared almost eerily calm on their final drive as they took the ball 75 yards in 14 plays and converted two fourth downs to score the winning touchdown. Doug Baldwin finished with a career high 9 receptions (most by any Seahawks receiver since Wilson came into the league) and yet another touchdown. He now has 12 touchdowns in his last seven games.
These two men are the definition of winners. They rise to the occasion time and again, and the team rises with them. Even Jimmy Graham made his presence felt on the final drive, perhaps foreshadowing things to come.
Word is coming out that Wilson’s injured ankle may jeopardize his availability for the game against the Rams next week. Don’t count on it. He has faced adversity and doubters throughout his life and always seems to find his way through it.
This was a game the Seahawks should have lost. The Dolphins did everything they could have hoped for and more in containing the Seattle attack. It was not enough.
The 2005 season started with an ugly loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road where the team turned the ball over five times and that vaunted offensive line surrendered three sacks. The 2013 season started with an ugly 12-7 win on the road against an unheralded Carolina Panthers team when Wilson threw a late touchdown to Kearse. Fantastic seasons do not always begin fantastically. There was some magic to this victory. Something tells me there is more to come.