If Adam Gase was looking for a litmus test for his Miami Dolphins out of the gate, the first-year head coach couldn't have asked for a much more difficult test than traveling to face the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field at 4:05 ET on Sunday.
The Pacific Northwest destination is the furthest stop from South Florida on the NFL map, although the Dolphins will surely welcome a forecast that calls for kickoff temperatures in the mid-70s.
Of far more concern is the Seahawks' vaunted defense, which led the league in points allowed each of the past two seasons. Gase has a history of elevating the play of various quarterbacks, and embattled Ryan Tannehill looked mostly comfortable running the no-huddle offense during the preseason.
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However, questions remain along the offensive line, in the backfield and with Tannehill's ability to be productive in the red zone. Answering all of those in one of the league's most notoriously loud stadiums in a season opener against a stout defense will be a challenge.
“The percentages say if you go on the road in the NFL, it's hard to win,” Gase said. “No matter how good you are, wherever you're ranked, it doesn't matter. Every stadium you go into, it's tough to play on the road. When you do get a win on the road, it's a big win, no matter where it's at.
“Being able to handle adversity, that's the hardest thing to do. When things don't go right, how do you respond?”
The Dolphins expect to start veteran Arian Foster in the backfield, and his versatility as a receiver will be a bonus. But Seattle also led the league in run defense last season, so the onus will fall on Tannehill to run Gase's attack efficiently in the face of a strong pass rush and the Seahawks' “Legion of Boom” secondary.
“We just have to keep plugging away,” Tannehill said. “We're on the right track. We just have to keep taking advantage of every day, every practice, pushing ourselves (and) making ourselves get better on the little things. We're in good shape.”
The Dolphins aren't certain if wide receiver DeVante Parker will be able to play due to a hamstring injury, but have a pair of threats in possession receiver Jarvis Landry and deep threat Kenny Stills in combination with tight end Jordan Cameron. Covering tight ends was a particular vulnerability for the Seahawks last season, but Seattle head coach Pete Carroll relies heavily on the veterans he has in charge of the unit.
“We can recall experiences that have happened,” Carroll said Wednesday. “I was talking to (cornerback Richard) Sherman about something that happened three years ago this morning, a play. We were talking about something that would apply now.
“That fluid interaction is really valuable. The clearer they are, the better they can communicate, the faster they can play. We're dedicated to playing fast and committed to keeping our guys at the edge of their ability level, and that communication is hugely valuable. We're as good as we have ever been in that regard and we're banking on it.”
Seattle will bank of veterans on the other side of the ball, too, but more so out of necessity. Gone is power running back Marshawn Lynch, nicknamed “Beast Mode.” He retired and handed the reins to Thomas Rawls and Co. Gone, too, are three starters from last season's offensive line. If Garry Gilliam starts over J'Marcus Webb at right tackle Sunday as expected, he will be the only lineman from last season to begin the 2016 campaign in the same spot.
The offensive line performed surprisingly well during the preseason, but is still considered one of the most vulnerable blocking units in the league. And that vulnerability can be quickly exposed when facing the likes of Dolphins defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh, Cam Wake and offseason addition Mario Williams.
“It's time to go play and see if we can just play each play, in each series, in each quarter of each game,” said Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable, whose unit will feature a converted tight end (Gilliam), a rookie (right guard Germain Ifedi), a former second-round pick starting at his third position in as many seasons (center Justin Britt), a first-year starter (left guard Mark Glowinski) and a journeyman left tackle (Bradley Sowell) who was an afterthought as an offseason acquisition.
“Then go into the next one and continue to grow. I really like where we've started and where we're at and all the work in-between. Now can we continue it, that's really the challenge now.”
The Seahawks' 2015 season shifted when offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell moved quarterback Russell Wilson out from under center primarily, allowing him to see the pass rush coming at him and distribute the ball to an array of playmakers.
Miami was vulnerable to big plays in the running and passing games last season, with missed assignments and gap-fitting a constant source of frustration. There were still signs of similar issues during the preseason, and Wilson's ability to keep plays alive with his feet puts an enormous amount of pressure on the defense.
“Russell, he has great feet,” Suh said. “He can run the ball and be a threat in that respect — so just be aware of it.
“I would never be scared of it or anything of that nature, but just be aware of it and cognizant and just go out there and play your game.”
Rawls is coming off a season-ending ankle injury last season and will play a limited amount of snaps. Veteran Christine Michael will split the duty, with rookies C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins potentially fitting into the mix as well.
With the offensive line concerns, however, the Seahawks' offense is likely to operate primarily through Wilson. Tight end Jimmy Graham has a chance to play as he returns from knee surgery, but even without him Seattle sports a deep group of experienced receivers including Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Tyler Lockett.
Wilson will take aim at a secondary slated to start former Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell opposite rookie Xavien Howard.
It adds up to a compelling matchup between the unknown commodity of Gase's Dolphins and Carroll's veteran-laden bunch eyeing another Super Bowl run.
“It's nice to be home, sure,” Carroll said. “We love to be able to open up against someone here at home and have the 12s ready to go. Like the week leading up to it, we just get that sense of digging in a little bit so that's always nice, but in another year when we're on the road and you ask me the same question, I'll say it's no big deal.”
Maxwell shadowing elite receivers, playing in an off-man zone scheme that didn't suite his style, and the 28-year-old struggled.
Maxwell, who had 64 tackles, two interceptions and forced two fumbles in the 14 games he played for the Eagles last season, allowed opposing quarterbacks to produce a 100.7 passer rating when they targeted receivers he was defending.