Friday, September 8, 2006

2006 NFL Preview: Seattle Seahawks

By Dave Golokhov

Last Year

The overlooked team from the Northwest finally received national attention as the Seattle Seahawks represented the NFC in the Super Bowl. Even though the officiating took the steam out of their sails, the Seahawks still did not execute well enough to win the big game. Nonetheless, they return a unit that is stronger than last season's, and even though many opponents will be gunning for them, they will likely make another quiet run to the championship game.

What We Learned From Last Year

There were few question marks surrounding the Seahawks offense that finished eighth overall in the 2004 season. Rather it was the defense, which was starting as many as seven new players that generated some anxiety.

But surprisingly, it turned out to have few weaknesses.

For starters, they were able to get to opposing quarterbacks on a consistent basis. And when there is a lot of uncertainty with an influx of new starters, one way to ease the learning curve is to pressure the passer.

The Seahawks did exactly that, leading the NFL with 50 sacks.

Defensive end Bryce Fisher, one of the new starters who arrived from St. Louis, was an excellent complement to Grant Wistrom, who coincidentally also arrived from St. Louis the previous year. The tandem combined for 13 sacks off the edge.

But the biggest surprise was in the center of the line, where Rocky Bernard, Marcus Tubbs, Chartric Darby, and Craig Terrill formed an excellent rotation. Bernard finished with 8.5 sacks, second only to Atlanta's Rod Coleman among defensive tackles. Tubbs was also a two-way threat in his second season, while Darby continued to outperform his measurables.

Behind the front lines, the linebackers were supposed to be anchored by the signing of veteran Jamie Sharper, but he only lasted eight games. Rookies LeRoy Hill and Lofa Tatupu stepped in and turned into immediate playmakers. Tatupu quickly became the leader of the defense, making big plays all over the field. He finished first on the team in tackles, with 104, and added 4 sacks, 3 interceptions, and a touchdown.

The cornerbacks were helped by a potent pass rush, but if there was one weak area, it was here. Marcus Trufant quietly developed into a solid number one corner, but Andre Dyson and Kelly Herndon were mediocre as follow ups.

At the back end, safety Michael Boulware was very solid and teamed with Ken Hamlin as one of the best safety duos until Hamlin was lost to injury because of an off-field incident six games into the season.

On offense, everything the Seahawks accomplished was facilitated by a premier offensive line. Tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson anchored the best left side tandem in football and the Seahawks often ran to their side when they needed a money play.

Shaun Alexander broke the rushing touchdown record and, quite clearly, was on top of his game.

Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was very efficient picking apart defenses in Mike Holmgren's West Coast Offense, completing a career-best 65.5 of his passes while throwing only 9 interceptions. What made the feat more impressive was that he spent chunks of the season without his best wide receiver.

Darrell Jackson, who caught 87 passes and 1,199 yards just one season before, was limited to only six regular season games. Bobby Engram, who has the knowledge to start at several wide receiver positions in this offense, filled in admirably and led Seattle with 67 receptions. Hasselbeck also developed a good rapport with his tall target Joe Jurevicius, who caught a team-best 10 touchdowns.

The Seahawks fell just short of the Holy Grail last season and although Philadelphia, Dallas, Washington, and Carolina will all challenge them, they now have the experience to return to the Super Bowl. They also have a better team.

This Year

Thanks to some creative contract work by the Minnesota Vikings, the Seahawks offensive line will be minus All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson this season.

But the Seahawks should still be fine among the front five.

Walter Jones is among the best left tackles in the game, which eases the burden off of Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack, who will be starting right next to him and filling Hutchinson's void. As Tim Ryan said on Sirius NFL Radio, if you've got a nickname like 'Pork Chop,' you better be able to play football.

With Sean Locklear as a constant on the right side, and Tom Ashworth for depth, the tackle positions are fine. The other two interior positions are manned by veterans Chris Gray and Robbie Tobeck, who are being pushed by youngsters Chris Spencer and Rob Sims.

One minor concern was the fact that the Seahawks loved to run behind the left side of their line when they needed short yardage. They may not be as stout at the point of attack in those situations this year.

Even so, don't expect the running game to drop-off much this season, but you can expect the passing game to be better. Nate Burleson is a good fit for this West Coast Offense and gives the Seahawks three capable wide receivers.

Bobby Engram is still the most sure-handed, but as long as Darrell Jackson remains healthy, he'll be the top target.

Tight end Jerramy Stevens output his best season as a Pro last year and although he is out for the early part of the season, he should be a Hasselbeck favorite in the red zone.

The Seahawks' defense figures to be much improved overall as they focused both free agency and the draft to add some more playmakers.

Linebacker Julian Peterson, who in the past has played at a league MVP-type level, was signed and figures to take any pressure of a sophomore slump off of LeRoy Hill and Lofa Tatupu. This is a first-rate unit with depth and game-changing ability at all three positions.

While teams like the San Diego Chargers, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Denver Broncos get a ton of credit for shutting down opposing rushing attacks, the Seahawks don't get much attention for the 3.6 yards per carry average they limited opposing running backs to last season.

Believe it or not, with the addition of Peterson, as well as another year of growth for Terrill, Bernard, and Tubbs, the Seahawks' run defense will be even better this year.

One common complaint voiced about the Seahawks' defense in the offseason was is there any depth behind the starting defensive ends Grant Wistrom and Bryce Fisher?

The Seahawks used a second-round pick to address that exact apprehension, selecting pass rushing specialist Darryl Tapp. He will work into the rotation and can handle himself as a temporary fill-in. In an emergency situation, Peterson could also play some end.

Even with the return of Ken Hamlin, the secondary is really the only weakness on the team.

Marcus Trufant is a quality starter, while the other starting spots will be up to Jordan Babineaux and Kelly Herndon in the short term. The Seahawks spent a first-round pick on Kelly Jennings, who will likely battle for the nickel role. Even though Herndon has had a good offseason, the Seahawks will look to the pass rush to hide any shortcomings in coverage.

Ken Hamlin's return was vital, especially after Mike Green suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason and he is going to be counted upon in the early going. Boulware is still bothered by a sore knee from offseason surgery.

The Seahawks have a few minor questions to answer, such as can Darrell Jackson and Michael Boulware get back to full health? Can Kelly Jennings or Kelly Herndon step up as the second cornerback this season? Can the running game be as effective post-Steve Hutchinson? But all of these seem to be minor questions to which we can tentatively answer: yes.

The level of competition in the NFC West is much easier than the South or the East, which means that the Seahawks should be able to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs once again. Nothing the Seahawks do seems to generate any attention — even traveling to the Super Bowl — and most of what they accomplish in the regular season will once again fly under the radar. That's a good thing for Seattle, who is the most dangerous championship threat in the NFC.

Over/Under: 10.5

Arizona, St. Louis, and San Francisco have all improved, but more importantly, so has Seattle's defense. With a stifling run defense and a top-notch pass rush, the 'Hawks will feast on the mediocre offensive lines in this division once again. Qwest field is one of the toughest places to play and 11 wins should be expected. They play: @DET, ARZ, NYG, @CHI, @STL, MIN, @KC, OAK, STL, @SF, GB, @DEN, ARZ, SF, SD, and @TB.

Fantasy Sleeper

Although tight end Jerramy Stevens is out for about four weeks, when he comes back, he figures to be an integral part of the offense. Without Joe Jurevicius, expect Stevens to be the main threat in the red zone. Mike Holmgren's offense puts a premium on using a tight end up the seams and Stevens is the best weapon for that. At this point, he's probably a waiver wire pickup, but he will have value when he returns.

This is the fourth consecutive season of comprehensive NFL previews by Dave Golokhov. Stay tuned as he brings you previews for all 32 NFL teams! He can be reached at [email protected].

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