If you are like me, you used to count the hours until Thursday when sites like ESPN historically made their game previews available. I pay the Insider fee to get the Scouts Inc. content and all the rest. Two years ago, I almost completely stopped reading those previews. Why? I got sick of reading the wrong information. They would talk about how some player would make a difference, when he wasn't even scheduled to suit up. Or they would talk up/down a facet of the Hawks game that simply wasn't accurate. It all added up to finger to the wind predictions based on analysis from someone who was much more interested in meeting a publishing deadline than really providing insight.
I don't claim that my previews will be more "right" than the national ones, but they certainly won't be more wrong.
1. Running game
Those that watched the Cardinals game on Monday night know there was not a lot of offense on either side. I did leave with the impression that the Cards ran the ball pretty well, but the stats don't support that perception. They did run for 161 yards (4.2 ypc) which is nearly double their average from a season ago (83.6 yards/game) when they were the 30th ranked rushing offense. But a closer look shows that Edgerrin James ran for 92 yards (3.5 ypc) with a long run of 9 yards. Leinart got much of the rest (35 yards) scrambling for his life. And even though the 49ers defense looks improved, you can't forget they were in the bottom third of the league in rushing defense last year. Of course, so were the Hawks. :)
The Hawks made a strong opening statement in the running game. Even though they produced fewer total rushing yards (139), Shaun was responsible for almost all of them (105), and had a couple runs of longer than 10 yards.
Looking back at last season, the Hawks did not run well against the Cards. Shaun's best game was 89 yards in Game #2 at Qwest. James had a big game in the second matchup (114 yards 4.4 ypc) when Arizona won.
Both defenses look strong, so this will likely come down to which offensive line is playing better, and with the injury at Center and Right Tackle for the Cards, you'd have to give the significant edge to the Hawks here. Holmgren needs to stay committed to the run in this game to keep the crowd in their seats.
2. Pass protection/Pass Rush
I also had the misperception that the Cards were all over Alex Smith and that Leinart was on his back a bunch. Another look shows 1 sack given up for Arizona and 3 sacks registered against the 49ers. Although sacks are an imperfect measure of pass rush, these are pretty interesting. Giving up only one sack on a road opener to a defense that was blitzing like crazy is impressive. Getting only three sacks is pretty much average.
The Seahawks gave up 2 sacks, but one of them was on the ill-fated flea flicker which is less concerning. I thought the protection was terrific all afternoon. This, though, will be a real test for Chris Spencer. Matt has mentioned numerous times how much prep he needs to do when they play Arizona because of their exotic defense. They have now switched to a 3-4 which adds another twist. Spencer will have to make the correct line calls in a hostile environment against a talented and confusing defense.
The Hawks 5 sacks against Tampa were largely the product of good pass coverage. Having Kerney lineup against a rookie right tackle in Levi Brown bodes well. I'd also expect the loss of their center will make them more susceptible to line stunts, which is the primary way the Hawks like to create pressure up front. If they can get pressure without blitzing, I like our chances. And just in case you were not aware, they are down TWO centers. Their official starter, Nick Leckey went down in the preseason, so this will be their third string center, and he is a rookie. Salivating yet?
In the last game against the Cards, the Hawks got exactly ZERO sacks. That cannot happen if they expect to win this game.
3. Fitzgerald/Boldin vs. Trufant/Jennings
This will continue to be a key to each game until I have reason to believe Jennings has established himself as a starter. Fitzgerald has lit up Trufant in the past, outjumping him for numerous balls. Jennings is smaller than Tru. Catching is one thing, tackling is another. You can't bring down either of these WRs with arm tackles. Tru is an above average tackler for a CB, but I haven't seen Jennings in space enough to know what he's capable of. This may be a place where we see that new "Big Base" defense where Deon Grant lines up at CB.
4. Scoring early
The Hawks could make this an easy game if they get ahead early. The Cards lost a tough one in week one, and have a fanbase that is always poised to jump off the bandwagon.
This game could be the difference between 10-6 and 9-7. I picked the Hawks to win this game before the season began, and I see no reason to change that pick. However, the Cards are a good team playing in their home opener. This would be a big win, and with SF playing STL this week, we have a chance to really establish our place in the division if STL can win at home.
UPDATED: Side Note
Well, it looks like the crap is not so holy. Thanks to RACERX615 for correcting me. At least I don't have to be mad at the Hawks for letting him go undrafted.
Holy crap! I just saw that Patrick Willis was an undrafted free agent!! That guy was a monster out there last week (11 tackles). I expected to see 1st rd pick. Expect to be hearing a lot about that for the next 10 years. He looked a lot like Ray Lewis.