Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Seahawks, Part IV

In the final segment of our exclusive four-part game preview, Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar and's Craig Massei conclude their back-and-forth interaction with 5 more questions from Craig to Doug. Are the 49ers now the team Seattle has to beat to continue its reign in the NFC West? What's up with the run defense? What has Jim Mora brought to the Seahawks? These Q&As and more inside.

Craig Massei, Editor-in-Chief, Matt Hasselbeck has gotten off to a strong start after a down 2006 season that was hampered by injuries. Is he back in top form now, and is he the key guy now on that offense, or does the attack still revolve around Shaun Alexander and how he sets the tone on the ground?

Doug Farrar, Editor-in-Chief, Seahawks.NET: The secret of this offense is that it's moving away from the run-dominant approach of 2005, and it's really in Hasselbeck's hands right now. I'd prefer a more balanced attack, but it is what it is, as all the coaches say. Hasselbeck has attributed his strong start to the work he's been able to put in with receivers Nate Burleson and Deion Branch in the offseason and through practices. He mentioned in his Monday press conference that as far as he can remember through 2007, he's been able to throw to both receivers in just about every practice – he can't remember one they've both missed for any reason. This allows Hasselbeck to understand what routes his receivers are best at running. He knows that Burleson is great with short routes and getting upfield, and he's seen over and over how Branch can get a quick out, or a speed out, and spin out of trouble for 5-10 extra yards after the catch. It's so much easier for him now, because he knows where he can go and who can do what. In addition, the offensive line is a bit more solid with pass blocking and line calls than last season, through there's still room for improvement. So far, everything's lining up for a great season from Seattle's quarterback.

Craig Massei: Seattle looks like it has improved its run defense a bit since last year. Who has been the key to that, and is it a result of personnel or scheme? What have the Seahawks done to make their defense more stout against the run? After Frank Gore ran over them for 356 yards rushing in two games last season, what will the Seahawks doing differently this year to stop him?

Doug Farrar: Well, they still don't have tackle Marcus Tubbs, who's out for the season with a torn ACL after missing 11 games in 2006. Tubbs was worth about 65 rushing yards lost per game when he was in there with his ability to soak up blockers, but the Seahawks need a contingency plan now. Their undersized DT rotation got a boost with the selection of third-round draft pick Brandon Mebane from Cal, though Mebane is still learning the ropes. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu seems to be roaming more freely, as opposed to waiting for lanes to open as he did last year, He's really been the point man for the entire defense this year. This is not a defense that's gong to shut down too many running backs, but I think they'll be able to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment caused by Frank Gore's performances against them in 2006.

Craig Massei: You guys have a lot of former 49ers coaches on your staff up there, starting at the top, of course. Jim Mora was a dynamic, high-energy guy during his time here in San Francisco, but what has he brought to the Seahawks as your secondary coach? It seems like the Seahawks have been giving up a lot of yards through the air so far this season.

Doug Farrar: Seattle's secondary has been vulnerable to the big play for a long time - the Seahawks' cornerbacks, Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings, just aren't elite. They need safety help against great receivers, and they're going to get burned if they don't get it. In my opinion, the Seahawks used new safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell in run support or closer coverage too often in the first two games, forcing Trufant and Jennings to cover on islands, which they're not qualified to do. The secondary did give up 342 passing yards last week to Carson Palmer and the Bengals, but Palmer was throwing the ball all over the place (43 attempts), and Seattle only allowed one touchdown pass because safety help was set up to take away the big play. This was the difference in the game – the safety help that was there for the Seahawks, and wasn't there for the Bengals on Burleson's late fourth-quarter touchdown catch.

Craig Massei: Do the Seahawks now see the 49ers as their top divisional rival, and do they perceive San Francisco as the team they need to beat now to keep their stronghold on the NFC West?

Doug Farrar: Oh, I don't think there's any question. That rivalry was set up last season, and the 49ers are definitely taken seriously again. I think they're seen as a team with a few liabilities, but able to beat any team in the NFL if everything is flying right … not unlike the Seahawks.

Craig Massei: Were last season's nine victories after 13 the year before a wakeup call for a legitimate NFC power? Or are the Seahawks a team in decline with their reign over the division set to come to an end? When all is said and done, are the Seahawks still a Super Bowl contender or just a pretender?

Doug Farrar: It's really hard to tell. Last year's team might have been an 11-12 win proposition had Hasselbeck and Alexander not missed time, or it might have been a nine-win squad either way. While there have been some improvements to this team, many of the concerns from last year – the offensive line, the run game, secondary consistency and run-stopping ability – are still there. More and more, we'll be looking at players like Shaun Alexander and Walter Jones and forcing ourselves to admit that these superstars aren't what they used to be. Seattle's ability to stay on top of the division will be entirely dependent on the ability of the front office to bring in players who can keep things going at key positions. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, and because the 49ers took such a drastic approach to rebuilding, Seattle's a bit behind in that process. This is a team that can't just plan for the now anymore – one eye has to be on the future. Do I see them going to the Super Bowl? The NFC is anyone's conference, so that's a matter of X number of wins and good fortune in the playoffs. Do they have what it takes to beat the Patriots, Colts or Steelers nine times out of 10 in a Super Bowl based on what I've seen this year? Not yet. Not even close.

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