Their rabid fanbase creates a home field advantage any team would envy. Their head coach is one of the most respected in the game, establishing his own system after apprenticeships in two other high-quality organizations. One of the NFC’s two best teams, they stand on the precipice of a bright future.
Oh, sorry…you thought we were talking about the Seahawks? These are the Bears of Chicago, Seattle’s opponent this Sunday.
Lovie Smith, the head coach in question, cut his teeth in the Tampa Bay and St. Louis organizations – with the Bucs as their linebackers coach from 1996 -2000, and with the Rams as their defensive coordinator from 2001-2003. Smith has made his name with an impressive ability to exact positive change. Nowhere has this been more obviously manifested than in the Bears’ 2005 season, Smith’s second as their head man, when he brought his new team to an 11-5 record and won the AP Coach of the year award.
On Wednesday, Smith’s attention turned to the Seahawks. As a connoisseur of defense, he admires the unit assembled and coached by Tim Ruskell and John Marshall – a sack-happy unit with speed to burn. “They have come quite a ways,” Smith said, with the perspective of a man who used to beat heavily on the old Seattle teams as a ram. “It is easy to talk about their defense. Defense has had as much to do as any offense as anyone else that I’ve seen. They always had a good offense, but now the defense has really played well.
That St. Louis defense was good enough to catch Seattle’s attention – both of their starting defensive ends are Ram imports – Grant Wistrom in 2004, and Bryce Fisher in 2005. “I know some of the players there personally. of course. I had a chance to work with Grant when I was down in St. Louis, just a nonstop motor, great guy, plays hard every down, Bryce also. Both of them played hard,”” Smith said. “I know (Seahawks defensive tackle) Chuck Darby. Coaching-wise, (Seahawks secondary coach) Larry Marmie is a like a second father to me. I’ve known him all my life. He was my position coach in college. Defensively they have an excellent staff and their guys are playing hard.”
Seattle’s offense, that well-known juggernaut, is Smith’s primary concern. “We think it is a flexible offense,” he said. “Nowadays, you have to be that way; you never know when things happen. When you have a talented deep receiving crew like the Seahawks have, you assume that you will have more formations where you have more receivers on the football field. It is not like they haven’t done it in the past. They’ve had the four receiver package, the three receiver package, and it seemed like every time we have played against them they have used it some, but just not to the extent that it was used last week (in their 42-30 victory over the New York Giants).”
One bullet won’t be in Mike Holmgren’s gun, however – running back Shaun Alexander, the 2005 NFL Most Valuable Player, is out indefinitely with a cracked bone in his left foot. Backup Maurice Morris, who’s more scatback and waterbug than franchise player, provides an intriguing change of pace. Smith has scouted Morris, and he’s aware of the differences.
“I know a little bit about him,” Smith said. “He’s been a valuable backup. I know he has played a little bit. You have to miss a player like Shaun Alexander. He’s a great player. Normally if you enter the National Football League there is a reason for that and there is a reason Maurice is there, I’m sure he will do a good job for them.
“He has good quickness. He has played quite a bit for them on third down situations. He has good hands, good quickness, what most NFL running backs have. He has been around in the league for a while and there is a reason for that.”
Smith also knows his opposing coach very well, and he knows that Mike Holmgren has the knowledge to create flexibility with different players. The four-wide set used so effectively against the Giants is a prime example. “You can lean towards certain things if your package is flexible enough to do that,” Smith said when asked how he thinks that flexibility might show up. “We have no idea what they’re going to do; could you tell me what they’re going to do? It would help us an awful lot. Either way, they have an excellent fullback still in Mack Strong blocking for Maurice, they still have a good running game and they can still end up doing exactly what they did with Shaun. We’re just going to try to prepare for everything.”
Brian Urlacher, Chicago’s elite linebacker, has his own thoughts about Seattle’s offense, and how Alexander’s absence might affect it. “He’s the league MVP. I think it’s going to be a little bit of a hit to them with the caliber of player that he is, but I think (Maurice) Morris does a good job too. The way they’re doing things now with the four-wides and all that good stuff, we’re going to have to adjust to that more so than the running game.”
When asked about the points of focus, Urlacher said that he expects to gameplan for the Seahawks as they were – he believes that’s they way they are. “They still have that fullback and that offensive line, so I don’t see them getting away from what they’ve been successful with the last few years.”
He is aware of Morris and his style, make no mistake – and as one of the better and faster pursuit linebackers, Urlacher will be looking to bring a bunch of tackles Morris’ way. “I’ve seen him play before,” Urlacher said of Morris. “He still gets a lot of carries even though he’s a third down guy. He gets quite a few carries. Actually the past couple years I’ve watched a lot of film on Seattle, so I’ve seen him run the ball. He does a good job, catches it well, blocks well, and he can run with it.”
Still, the four-receiver sets seemed most prevalent in Urlacher’s mind. “Look at those four receivers, there’s four Pro Bowl caliber players,” the linebacker said of Seattle receivers Darrell Jackson, Deion Branch, Nate Burleson and Bobby Engram. “It’s going to be tough for anyone to stop, and then they throw in the run with the offensive line and Maurice Morris back there. It’s a big challenge for us. It’s definitely our biggest challenge to date.”
Like his head coach, Urlacher knows a great defense when he sees one, and he respects the one Seattle puts on the field. Fellow elite linebacker Lofa Tatupu has Urlacher’s admiration, if not his extreme familiarity. “I’ve never met him,” Urlacher said of Tatupu. “I know he had a great rookie year. I know he’s a good player, and makes a lot of plays for their team. He’s always doing these hand gestures, moving guys around, so I know he’s a smart guy. He looks like a smart guy out there getting everybody lined up.”
But as he said, Urlacher will “let the offense worry about the defense.” For him, the test is that Seattle offense. How easy does he think the Seahawks, and field general Matt Hasselbeck, will be to stop?
“He knows everything,” Urlacher said of Seattle’s quarterback. ”He knows their offense inside and out, and you can see it just watching him at the line of scrimmage. He gets rid of the ball. All quarterbacks make throws they shouldn’t make sometimes. Every once in a while he’ll do that, but he puts the ball on the money. He’s always going to keep you in the game.”
On Sunday night at Soldier Field, it will be a game of similar opponents, heavyweight contenders, and potential conference championship challengers.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. He also writes the weekly "Manic Monday" feature for FoxSports.com. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.