Seattle Seahawks 2009 Preview
Forget the term “bouncing back”. It doesn’t apply here. For, to talk about this Seattle Seahawks team “bouncing back” is to give relevance to last season’s 4-12 disaster. And last season really isn’t relevant. An epidemic of injuries ruined everything. Last season, Seattle’s quarterback battled a bulging disk in his lower back.
The receiving corps was more depleted than Michael Richards’s fan base; at one point, the top six wideouts were all hurt. By the time the leaves had fallen, Seattle’s offensive line was without its starting left tackle and both guards. And the defense had lost its top pass-rusher.
The only bright spot about 2008 for head coach Mike Holmgren was that it validated the wisdom behind his decision to take a sabbatical. Now, per owner Paul Allen and GM Tim Ruskell’s original plan, secondary coach Jim Mora, Jr. assumes Holmgren’s top position. Mora has been in this position before. In 2004, he took over a talented Falcons team that had fallen flat on its face the previous year due to a rash of injuries (most notably a broken leg to quarterback Michael Vick). Mora led those Falcons to an 11-5 record and the NFC Title Game. Of course, he also limped to a 15-17 record over the following two seasons and was fired.
There are plenty of critics who foresee that same kind of mediocrity happening here. They might question the creativeness of Mora’s top assistants. Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp is installing a West Coast system that was productive in San Francisco but, more recently, yielded middling results in Atlanta and Oakland. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is implementing a fairly straightforward Cover 2. Then there are those who look at Mora himself and note that, under his direction, Seattle’s secondary last season gave up the most passing yards in all of football. That’s tough to do when your team’s offense almost never forced opponents to play from behind.
But most schemes, especially traditional ones like those found here, are as effective as the players executing them. And, unlike last season, Seattle actually has respectable players this year. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck once again has a strong lower back. At 34 (in September), he remains in his prime. Hasselbeck has receiving options, too. Nate Burleson is back from a torn ACL, and Deion Branch’s Achilles heel problems are a thing of the past. On top of those two, Ruskell shelled out $15 million in guarantees to lure accomplished possession receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Plus, he spent a third-round pick on Penn State receiver Deon Butler, who is expected to fill the slot as Bobby Engram 2.0 (Engram, Hasselbeck’s favorite target, went to Kansas City to finish out his career).
The health of the offensive line is less certain. All-World left tackle Walter Jones is 35 and coming off December microfracture surgery. But the interior of the line is healthy and stabilized with the addition of second-round rookie Max Unger.
All-in-all, the Seahawks have an offense respectable enough to take the stress off a defense that, with the return of end Patrick Kerney, plus the additions of Cory Redding and Colin Cole, should be better on the front line. Also augmenting the front seven is the ostensible development of young defensive linemen Brandon Mebane, Baraka Atkins and Lawrence Jackson, and the arrival of No. 4 overall pick Aaron Curry (strongside linebacker).
In short, this Seahawks team is no less talented than the ones that made up the franchise’s five-year playoff streak (’03-’07). (And that might even include the NFC Champion ’05 squad.) But no one seems to recognize this. Preseason prognosticators are drinking the Cardinal Kool-Aid. League and television executives scheduled zero primetime games for Seattle––something that hasn’t happened since 1983. Fans in the Pacific Northwest are showing cautious optimism––almost as if the Twelfth Man has become the Eleventh-and-a-Half Man.
That’s understandable. After all, this club is talented, but it’s also capable of laying another egg in ’09. If injuries persist or key players fail to regain their edge––or if Mora simply can’t maintain Holmgren’s level of excellence––the organization will find itself neck-deep in a rebuilding effort it wasn’t prepared for. This means the future remains Now for the Seahawks.
Make no mistake––Matt Hasselbeck must be on the field if the Seahawks are to succeed. Athletic seventh-year backup Seneca Wallace can keep the wheels turning in short intervals, but he doesn’t have the accuracy, arm strength or pocket dexterity to commandeer the offense fulltime. For some reason, fans have recently decided that, at nearly 34, Hasselbeck is old. If he were a running back, wideout or dating Demi Moore, this would be valid. But 34 is still a prime age for an NFL quarterback––especially a smart pocket passer.
If it’s not the baldness influencing fans’ perception of Hasselbeck, perhaps it’s the quarterback’s recent history of back trouble. A bad back can be enigmatic and debilitating, though in this case, the problem (a bulging disk) is correctable. Judging by Hasselbeck’s full offseason of workouts, this one seems to have been corrected. Thus, his biggest challenge for 2009 becomes learning the nuances of Greg Knapp’s West Coast offense.
The most drastic alteration brought forth in the new system is a shift to a zone-blocking approach on the ground. The hope with this finesse-oriented scheme is to aid underachieving veteran running backs Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett, both of whom will be asked to make one cut and fire upfield. Neither has proven to have the wherewithal to do this. Jones is somewhat of a soft runner who, because he takes circuitous angles to his spots, needs plenty of space in order to operate. (This is why he’s a hundred times better on draws and delays than when he has a fullback in front of him.) The 254-pound Duckett, who can be a steamroller when momentum is in his favor, is eager to prove that he’s more than just a short-yardage back. However, there’s a reason Atlanta’s former first-rounder has only topped 130 carries and 509 yards rushing just once in his seven-year career.
With Maurice Morris gone, the backfield’s ancillary ball-handling options are limited to nimble fullback Justin Griffith (who, having played for Knapp in Atlanta and Oakland, is an ace in this system) and shifty but untested second-year man Justin Forsett.
That’s Running Game Issue Numero Uno. Running Game Issue Numero Dos is whether this offensive line can deliver. Walter Jones is the best run-blocking left tackle in football…when healthy. But very few players make quick recoveries from microfracture surgery, and even fewer do it at age 35. If Jones is unable to go, Seattle will rely on heavy-footed right tackle Sean Locklear to man the left side, which would force underpowered Ray Willis back into Locklear’s spot. Even when they’re not playing out of position, both are mild underachievers.
There’s more promise inside, at least. Athletic center Chris Spencer has ideal attributes for this scheme. Should his injury problems continue, rookie Max Unger––a player Seattle traded up to get in Round Two––will step in. Unger is also capable of playing guard. If gritty 32-year-old Mike Wahle displays his old mobility as expected, Unger will challenge Rob Sims on the right side. Sims has shown decent tools but, before his ’08 pectoral injury, it was apparent that his lateral acumen was lacking. He’s also fairly inexperienced with operating in space.
Realistically, the passing game will have to carry this offense in 2009. Its quick-strike nature will offset some of the short-comings in pass protection and likely lead to a fourth consecutive 90-catch season for T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The ex-Bengal is reliable in every fashion over the middle, but he’s not the type of weapon defenses fear. Nate Burleson may have semi-threatening big-play abilities, though even before his knee injury there were questions about whether he could perform at a high level on a weekly basis.
With Deion Branch being slippery but actually having zero 1,000-yard seasons to his name, and third-round rookie Deon Butler likely needing some time to adjust to the pro game before assuming slot gem Bobby Engram’s old role as Mr. Reliable, Seattle’s most dynamic pass-catching weapon will likely prove to be tight end John Carlson. The athletic 6’5” second-rounder of a year ago has great hands, sharp footwork and good speed––including after the catch. Unless he’s on the move, Carlson isn’t an effective blocker, but the Seahawks can turn to Josh Owens for those services.
The formula for improvement is obvious: stop the pass. This starts with creating pressure up front. Last season, Seattle reached the quarterback 35 times, but 13 of them were against a dreadful 49ers offensive line that gave up a league-worst 55 sacks. After stalwart veteran end Patrick Kerney went down, the edges of opposing offenses’ passing pockets barely trembled.
Kerney is back now, but for any significant improvements to occur, the men around him must play faster. This especially means last year’s first-round pick Lawrence Jackson. With newcomers Cory Redding and Colin Cole joining Craig Terrill and Brandon Mebane at defensive tackle, Jackson can now focus strictly on playing end. He’ll come off the bench behind either Redding or Darryl Tapp, both of whom are energetic, standout run-stoppers when comfortable. Third-year pro Baraka Atkins has the lean 6’4”, 268-pound build to be an edge-rusher, but thus far, the mental taxation of the pro game has robbed him of his aggression.
As for the aforementioned players inside, new defensive line coach Dan Quinn dislikes presnap shifts and gyrations, which means players will now have more rigidly defined roles. The meaty ex-Packer Cole was brought in to execute nose guard duties, a fitting assignment considering his underwhelming initial burst. This pushes third-year pro Brandon Mebane into a more logical three-technique, where, hopefully, his mechanics can start to mature. Redding will play inside on passing downs and share snaps with the high-octane veteran Terrill.
As for the secondary, the expectation is that the return of Ken Lucas will fix the crippling problems caused by the No. 2 cornerback position. Fundamentally-inept former first-round pick Kelly Jennings was absolutely atrocious as a starter last year. His midseason replacement, Josh Wilson, is better but still lacks the necessary speed and acceleration to catch-up to receivers after their second move. Lucas, an aggressive ball-attacker who has always wavered between superb and average, is clearly the best option. Wilson will compete with strong and versatile veteran Jordan Babineaux for nickel responsibilities.
Across the field is borderline shutdown corner Marcus Trufant. Coaches are optimistic that a more conventional Cover 2 scheme will help the 28-year-old recapture his ’07 form (when he posted seven interceptions). Trufant had just one pick last season, and not because teams threw away from him; his technique and awareness were sketchy early on. But for Trufant––or any of these corners––to thrive, safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell must be halfway decent.
Whatever happens with the pass defense, Seattle can be confident in its ability to stop the run in 2009. Fifth-year middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu is looking to rebound from his first non-Pro Bowl season. Tatupu’s lateral speed and block-shedding aptitude make up for his lack of play-reading discipline. Sensational strongside linebacker Leroy Hill was given a long-term contract and moved to the weak side after Aaron Curry was drafted. Curry is aiming to become an occasional pass-rusher, but Seattle drafted him for his dominance in the flats and at the point of attack. The buzz about the No. 4 overall pick is understandable, but given that Curry is young and the man he’s essentially replacing, Julian Peterson, was a star, this overall linebacking core may initially take a half-step back from where it’s been the past few years. Also of concern is the fact that D.D. Lewis is the only experienced backup.
Olindo Mare is a battle-tested kicker with good power and accuracy, but the front office seems to love last year’s seventh-round pick, Brandon Coutu. For Coutu to capture the job now––as opposed to when Mare’s contract expires after the season––he’ll have to improve his depth on kickoffs. (Mare’s one of the best in the business in this realm.)
It’s amazing that a futile offense didn’t exhaust punter Jon Ryan last season. Ryan posted good numbers despite having a mediocre coverage unit. In the return game, Josh Wilson and Nate Burleson are both effective, though Seattle may want to reserve this role for diminutive but speedy running back Justin Forsett.
The various rehab situations and injury concerns make this a difficult team to forecast. If we’re to assume that Seattle will stay relatively healthy in 2009, then we can assume that they’ll make a strong push at recapturing the weak NFC West. Matt Hasselbeck and a good (but not great) passing game can likely overcome an uninspiring rushing attack, while on defense, improvements on the front and back end should allow the linebackers to once again be stars.
Predicted Finish: 1st NFC West
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