By Scott M. Johnson
SEATTLE – The Seattle Seahawks provided Dan Marino with his last great moment.
Eight months later, they gave the Miami Dolphins defense four gift-wrapped interceptions.
The last two times Seattle and the Dolphins have gotten together, the Seahawks seemed to be in a giving mood. In the latest installment of the budding rivalry, which will take place this afternoon beginning at 1:15, Seattle is hoping not to make things quite so easy.
“Last year when we went down there, they absolutely embarrassed us,” Seahawks defensive end Lamar King said. “They ran the ball on us, passed the ball on us, whatever they wanted to do. This year, we’ve got a little aggression we want to take out on those guys. Now they’ve got to come to us. We’re not going to lose in our house.”
Miami ended the Seahawks’ 1999 season with a 20-17 playoff win behind a Marino-led touchdown drive late in the game. The Dolphins followed that up with a 23-0 drubbing in the 2000 season opener. Twice in the past 21 months, they’ve handed Seattle heart-breaking losses.
By most accounts, the two games proved that Miami doesn’t make for a very good matchup with Seattle. But as the two teams prepare for yet another meeting today at Husky Stadium, it’s become apparent that these aren’t the same old Seahawks.
First and foremost, nine of Seattle’s 22 starters weren’t in the lineup for last year’s season opener. Almost the entire offense, except for linemen Walter Jones and Chris Gray, is new. Five of Seattle’s starters have less than a handful of NFL starts to their credit.
Likewise, Miami is missing a key component from their defense. Defensive end Trace Armstrong, who notched 5 1/2 sacks over the past two meetings, is now with the Oakland Raiders.
But personnel isn’t the only difference in these two teams. The Seahawks now feature a style of play that might force Miami’s defense to spend a little extra time in the film room.
Seattle coach Mike Holmgren’s quick-pass offense has evolved into a system that brings back images of Ground Chuck. A combination of pass protection problems and Shaun Alexander’s emergence have led the Seahawks to run the ball a lot more lately than they are used to.
In a 34-21 victory over Denver two weeks ago, the Seahawks ran the ball 40 times – one more time than they had in their last two meetings with Miami combined. Seattle’s total of 76 running plays over the past two games marks its highest back-to-back total since 1996.
Miami’s run defense, which held the Seahawks to less than three yards per carry in the most recent meetings, is giving up five yards per run this season – good for only 18th in the NFL.
Miami’s sacks per game have gone from 3.0 last season to 2.2 this year. And the Dolphins forced 41 turnovers last season, but are on pace to force just 19 this year.
“We want to be more aggressive,” Miami middle linebacker Zach Thomas said. “We’ve just got to get it going. We know that. I think we’ve got to get it going sometime. I’m hoping we get it going this week.”
On the other side of the ball, Seattle is also better-suited to handle Miami. A run defense that gave up 2,454 rushing yards in 2001 – the most by a Seahawks defense in 19 years – now ranks third in the AFC in that category. While Miami’s Lamar Smith ran for 145 yards to become the first of six running backs to go over the 140-yard barrier on the Seattle defense last season, the Seahawks haven’t allowed a single runner over 52 yards this year.
“This is a different Seahawks team,” King said. “Guys on this defense work hard, come to work every day and give maximum work every Sunday. That’s something we didn’t have last year. It’s going to be a different matchup.”
The new Seahawks could make for a refreshing change when it comes to Miami games.
Last year’s loss was so bad that Holmgren admitted earlier this week that watching game film “almost makes me sick. It was just awful.”
Of course, there are no guarantees that this year’s game will be any different. There are still questions for Seattle at quarterback, where Matt Hasselbeck has yet to categorically prove that he’s the man for the job, and at free safety, where Maurice Kelly is expected to make his first NFL start.
Hasselbeck’s performance could be particularly important today, especially if his protection breaks down as it did in his three previous starts.
“He is very anxious to show what he can do and to play again,” Holmgren said.
The new Seahawks might be eager to continue their current two-game winning streak, but some of the players with longer tenures will also have other issues on their mind.
“We’re going to have all the motivation in the world,” Seahawks cornerback Willie Williams said. “Last time we played them, we didn’t even show up. Special teams, offense, defense, it was all the same. But it’s going to be a different ball game when they come in here Sunday. We’re coming in confident; I’m pretty sure they’ll be confident.
It’s going to be a dogfight.”