.NET: Rookie middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, and it’s precisely because of the complexity of Indy’s offense that he’ll be such a big factor. Tatupu was named to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, and while his stats are impressive, it ’s his ability to read plays before they happen at a near-psychic level that sets him apart – especially for such a young player. Tatupu calls the defenses on the field, and he’s become the “squadron leader” in an amazingly short time. There’s little doubt that his tête-à-tête with Manning (abbreviated as it may be, due to the Colts most likely pulling their starters as the game goes on) will be a most interesting battle.
One thing is guaranteed – Tatupu will study Manning, and rest of that amazing offense, as much as humanly possible. If he does get fooled or caught out of position, it won’t be from lack of preparation.
ColtPower: Is the Seahawks’ offensive line really good? I've read a couple of rave reviews about them.
.NET: Yeah, I’d say they’re pretty good! Let’s start with the left side, which is the best in football. LT Walter Jones is everything his reputation says he is, and more. While he can occasionally get left behind by ridiculously fast edge rushers (such as New York’s Osi Umenyiora), it’s also worth noting that the sack he gave up to Umenyiora this season was the first he’d allowed in two years. You hear a lot about Jonathan Ogden and Willie Roaf, but Walter is the best in the league. When he gets his feet set, and he takes a man one-on-one, the result is generally embarrassment for his opponent. With Dwight Freeney’s foot injury limiting any action he may see on Saturday, it’s looking as if we’ll be denied a Jones-Freeney battle royal.
LG Steve Hutchinson is an absolute beast against the run and the pass – he’s probably one of the strongest men in the NFL. I have seen him engage defensive tackles and push them from one side of a line to the other – sideways, against their own momentum. Not to minimize his technique (which is expert), but the main dilemma when facing Hutchinson is how to deal with an enormous strength/leverage issue. He’s also got quite a nasty streak!
Center Robbie Tobeck, named an alternate to the Pro Bowl this year, is a savvy veteran who is as good as anyone in the NFL with line calls – he’s our Jeff Saturday. RG Chris Gray is another smart veteran, but both Tobeck and Gray can get bulled back by larger DTs at times, and both have had issues with penalties this year. RT Sean Locklear is the pleasant surprise of the group. He’s a second-year man who was asked to seal the right side in spot duty while Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack recovered from a preseason quadriceps injury, but did well enough to keep that starting role when Womack recovered. Womack is now the primary backup.
With all due respect to Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander, Seattle’s offensive line is probably the team’s single most dominant aspect. This is a unit that has been painstakingly constructed over a number of years, and you’d be hard-pressed to name a better line in the NFL.
ColtPower: Tennessee and San Francisco both gave the Seahawks a much better game than most people expected in the past few weeks. Why do you think they were able to hang in there with the Seahawks?
.NET: It’s called, “Death By Soft Zone”, and it’s something that Seahawks fans are all too familiar with. In both the San Francisco and Tennessee games, the Seahawks backed off most of their additional pass rush for coverage at times, relied on the front four to bring pressure, and played their cornerbacks further and further off opposing receivers. When they did this in the second and third quarters against the Titans, Tennessee scored 24 unanswered points.
Seattle will play variants of the Cover 2 defense, which Colts fans are familiar with, as well as some man coverage. When the Seahawks back their corners off the line of scrimmage and play less aggressively, things can fall apart quickly. Coverage is predicated on pass rush. That coverage can be exploited when the Seahawks call off the dogs too often and allow quarterbacks far too much time in the pocket.
When Seattle blitzes (especially with rookie OLB Leroy Hill) and uses creative line maneuvers, they’re a solid defense. And with Seattle’s offense doing what it does, they don’t need to be much more than that – at least, not until the postseason.
ColtPower: Who do you think presents your greatest challenge in the playoffs, and why?
.NET: Although I have a great deal of respect for John Fox and his Carolina Panthers, my primary postseason concern (besides meeting your Colts in the Super Bowl, of course) is the Chicago Bears. They run a pretty conservative offense, but that defense is tough. They can get pressure with their front four against most teams, allowing their linebackers to drop into coverage if need be – but linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs lead the team 1-2 in tackles.
While Seattle’s offensive line is up to the task against any defense, Chicago frightens me from that standpoint. They remind me a bit of the 2003 Cinderella Panthers with their great D-line, linebackers playing at an extremely high level, and at least two defensive backs (CB Nathan Vasher, SS Mike Brown) who could go nuts and tear it up in the playoffs just like Ricky Manning, Jr. did for the Panthers in ’03. When you’ve got a great defense and a good rushing attack, you can go all the way to the Super Bowl without flash if you avoid mistakes. The Bears seem to have the template for one of these surprise teams that could sneak up on everyone – the classic “Let the defense win it if the QB doesn’t mess it up” squad.
The New York Giants, a very well-rounded team at most positions, would have a bit more of a postseason “fear factor” if Peyton’s little brother had a slightly better compass. Eli isn't the kind of quarterback you can build your offense around - not yet, at least.
ColtPower: What does the rumor mill in the Seattle area have to say about the re-signing of Alexander for '06 and beyond?
.NET: Nothing is likely to happen until after the season is over, but Shaun – who signed an interesting variation on the franchise tag right before training camp – will be looking for marquee money, and it’s hard to say he’s not deserving when you look at the numbers. As you well know in Indy with the Edgerrin James situation, the running back market was very much in favor of teams over players in 2005, due in part to the large number of quality backs coming out of college.
The variation on the tag that Shaun and the Seahawks agreed to was a one-year deal that paid him a guaranteed $6.323 million, the exact amount he would have been paid had he been tagged. The Seahawks were not allowed to trade him without his approval before the October deadline, and they cannot franchise him next year – he is guaranteed free agency in 2006. The idea from the team’s perspective was to get him into camp, get him through the season playing under what is essentially his second straight “walk year”, and analyze how Alexander fits into the offense in 2006 and beyond.
This has been the best year of his career from more than a statistical standpoint – he’s blocking better and running harder than in prior years. The Seahawks must balance the risk of losing such a talented player with the perception that most backs could succeed to a similar extent behind Seattle’s superlative offensive line. It’s comparable to what the Broncos went through when they let Clinton Portis go – the difference being that the Seahawks wouldn’t get a Champ Bailey in return.
My gut instinct is that the Seahawks will be forced to watch as Shaun tests the market, but they’ll find a way to bring him back.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at email@example.com.
Ed Thompson is the Publisher of ColtPower.com.