Sunday, September 6, 2009

Seahawks 2009 Season Preview Part I: 2008 Recap, Off-Season and Offense



A look back at 2008

My mother taught me a long time ago that if I didn't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. That leaves very little to say when it comes to reviewing our 2008 performance. We certainly had more than our share of injuries at specific positions, and that led to people like Kerry Colbert and Charlie Frye getting real playing time.

What gets lost in the evaluation of last season is that the early season injuries were almost exclusively on offense. Yet, our defense was playing horribly. The pass pressure was missing, the tackling was poor and the coverage was horrific. Saying that our defense suffered due to the offensive ineptitude makes a little sense later in the season, but it does nothing to explain how they were getting dominated from the first snap. Of all the problems that need to be solved from last season, this one is the most critical. It's a young group that should be growing and improving together, much the way the offense did under a younger Matt Hasselbeck. Last season was a huge step backwards.

The lone bright spot from 2008 was the play of John Carlson. He set almost every Seahawks TE record in his rookie campaign and established himself as a Pro Bowl-level player for what should be years to come.


2009 Off-season grade – A

This was a franchise-defining off-season. Jim Mora Jr had already been selected as the new coach, but he was able to bring in coordinators like Greg Knapp (Offense), Gus Bradley (Defense) and Dan Quinn (D-Line, Asst Head Coach). Thus far, those new voices appear to be having a positive impact on attitude and performance. It is impossible to judge these guys until they are matching wits with opposing coaches on game day, but the energy and creativity is welcome.

Free agency was handled masterfully. We picked up arguably the top free agent on the market in WR TJ Houshmandzadeh at a key position of need. DT Colin Cole was swept away from Green Bay and showed Ruskell is willing to add players that aren't just undersized overachievers. FB Justin Griffith was brought aboard for chump change, and won the starting FB role. The biggest coup of all, however, came by stopping pursuit of a free agent. When the Seahawks removed the franchise tag from LeRoy Hill, they took a real gamble that they'd lose one of their most talented players. Doing so, allowed them to sign CB Ken Lucas, who is a huge addition to the team. With Lucas in the fold, they went back to Hill and managed to keep him around as well.

Capping off a nearly perfect off-season was a draft class that appears to be the crown jewel of Ruskell's tenure. People say we made the obvious choice of Aaron Curry at the #4 pick. What those people don't acknowledge is that Ruskell helped to drive Curry into our laps by giving the Lions Julian Peterson in a trade. Up until that trade, roughly half the mock drafts had the Lions taking Curry #1. With Peterson in the fold, it made it easier for the Lions to pick a QB that might not contribute right away. Oh, and we got significant return on that trade as well in starting DE Cory Redding. Second round pick C/G Max Unger could be a mainstay on the line for years to come. Third rounder WR Deon Butler may cause Hawks fans to believe in receivers named Deon again. Even late round picks DE Nick Reed and undrafted DE/DT Michael Bennett could contribute this year.

People talk about "fast failures" in business. The speed at which you are able to try something, fail, learn and try again correlates to your ability to adapt and innovate. If you are someone that sticks with something forever, even when it is clearly failing, you are probably too conservative or egotistical to ever be a consistent winner. Ruskell showed some signs this off-season that he can learn and adapt.

Offense – Starters

Matt Hasselbeck – QB

Julius Jones – RB

Justin Griffith* – FB

TJ Houshmandzadeh* – WR

Nate Burleson – WR

John Carlson - TE

Ray Willis* – RT

Max Unger* – RG

Steve Vallos* – C (Chris Spencer will start here when he returns from injury)

Rob Sims* – LG

Sean Locklear* – LT (Walter Jones will start here when he returns from injury)

* New Starter or New Position

** Pro Bowl

Offense – Running Game

Much has been made of Greg Knapp's streak of Top 10 rushing offenses from Oakland to Atlanta. The Seahawks will not be a Top 10 rushing offense this year. They don't really need to be. The thing to look for here is rushing touchdowns and conversions on 3rd and short. Because of the passing attack (which I'll cover in a second), the running game only needs to be enough of a threat to keep teams from leaving their nickel defensive back in there all game. With three extremely hard runners in Julius Jones, Justin Forsett and Edgerrin James, that feels possible. Much will rest on the shoulders of the offensive line. The running game will either be adequate or hold us back. There is not a ton of upside here.

Offense – Passing Game

Fun. This could be really fun. It's amazing to compare this crew to the one analysts described as "punchless" heading into last season. Every facet of the passing attack looks much stronger than last season, and may end up being the most prolific passing offense in franchise history. WR Courtney Taylor, who was our starting Flanker last season, did not even make the 2009 roster. Health and offensive line pass protection will be the biggest influencers here. This is strongest part of the team, with dozens of ways to beat an opponent. It needs to perform at a high level for this team to reach its potential. If our defense is on the field for too long or opponents can stack eight men in the box to stop our running game, something has gone very wrong.


Offense – Quarterback



If the passing game is the strength of the team, Hasselbeck is key to unleashing it. He sputtered to start the pre-season, but came on strong, throwing for over 150 yards in each of the last two halves of football he played. With some of our running yards being traded for screen passes, Matt's yardage numbers could sky rocket. Matt's hunger, focus and health seem to be exactly where we want them to be. He has never had a legitimate #1 receiver or a Pro Bowl-level TE. Don't be shocked if he has an MVP-type season.

Seneca will be on the field this year. There has been a lot of hype around the league about this "wildcat" offense that puts a RB in at QB and allows the RB to operate in a wishbone-style set. Most teams don't really have the personnel to make it work, but Seneca may be the best candidate in the league. He is a legit QB, and certainly has the ability to run. After many seasons of toying with the concept, I expect this to be the season where Seneca plays a meaningful role, regardless of Matt's health.

Mike Teel is a solid rookie QB with a strong arm and real potential. If he enters a game this season, we've likely already lost.

Offense – Offensive Line

There is little debate that the Hawks offensive line is the biggest question mark on the team. Our anchor, Walter Jones, is out for at least a few weeks. The guy who played well next to him last year retired. Our starting center pulled a quad muscle and is out for a while. Our RG is a rookie, and our RT has chronic knee problems. There is limited depth and limited talent. The unit will also be asked to learn a new zone blocking scheme that requires more agility and cut blocking. If I had to choose between pass protection and run blocking, I'd choose pass protection. Thankfully, I believe that this group is better equipped to do that.

Offense – Backfield

The running backs are a mediocre, try-hard group. Second year player, Justin Forsett, should be the starter. He can run between the tackles or outside, has good hands, and is an above average blocker on blitz pickups. I enjoyed watching all 5'8" of him pancake a blitzing KC linebacker in game three of the pre-season. Instead, we'll see Julius Jones get the bulk of the carries. He is an acceptable starter, who could eclipse 1000 yards if the line opens enough holes. His tendency to fumble and his below average hands make him a bit of a liability. Edgerrin James was picked up late in camp and is the best blocking RB in the NFL. He almost becomes a sixth member of the offensive line, and Matt's body guard. He also runs hard. Really hard. He should be every bit as good as Duckett in short yardage and goal line situations.

Justin Griffith looks to have been a good pickup at FB, but I don't expect to see the FB on the field much this season with the emergence of Carlson at TE and the strength of the WR corp.

Offense – Wide Receivers/Tight Ends



TJ Houshmandzadeh is more than any Seahawk fan could have hoped for. He is still every bit the #1 receiver, capable of 100+ receptions, gritty catches over the middle, and physical specimen that will be able to dominate some of the small DBs around the league. Almost as exciting is his persona. This guy could make a dying man laugh, or motivate him to get up and fight for one more day. He pushes confidence right to the brink of arrogance, but without losing the hunger to work. This franchise hasn't seen a WR this talented since Koren Robinson in his prime (1,240 yards in 2002), or one this respected since Steve Largent. He legitimizes the whole group, and perfectly compliments the others.

Nate Burleson may have a monster year. There appears to be more spring in his step than even before his surgery last season. Knapp has shown signs of knowing how to utilize him a little better as well. There have been multiple instances of getting him the ball in space, and letting him beat his man upfield. Nate is the rare WR that has RB shake at the receiver position. The first guy almost never brings him down.

Deion Branch is an enigma as the third WR. He will never justify the 1st round pick we traded to get him, but he can still play a key role. He should enjoy single coverage all season. If he can't get open with that advantage, he will need to make room for the new Deon in town, Deon Butler. Butler is a diminutive receiver who can blaze down the field with sub-4.3 speed, but also can get in and out of his breaks. He has shown toughness and decent hands.

John Carlson has quietly become the most popular Seahawk. The guy is smart, quiet, hard-working, dependable, and is easy on the eyes (from what I hear). He is also a monster on the field. He needs to work on his blocking, but his routes and hands are top-notch. He should catch at least 70 balls this year and will be the #2 target after Housh. John Owens is a capable #2 blocking TE.

Offense – Overall 2009 Outlook

On one hand, you can look back through NFL history and be depressed by the fact that teams without strong offensive lines rarely win big. On the other hand, this is a team game. For this years Seahawks, it will mean the other units will need to compensate. That can mean the defense holds teams to fewer points or creates more turnovers. It can mean the RBs will reliably pickup blitzs and grind out every yard available. All these things can compensate for a mediocre offensive line. Nothing can compensate for a bad one. If this line can reliably pass protect, and we stay reasonably healthy, this could be the top scoring offense in the NFL. I have seen the Hasselbeck-led Seahawks be a Top 10 offense with far less talent (most recently in 2007). The stats to watch for this offense will be avg yards gained on 1st down, and sacks allowed. Back in 2005, the Hawks also had the fewest third downs in the NFL. That, too, will be a key indicator. Buckle up, it should be a fun team to watch.

Read Part II -->

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