Notebook: Broncos Provide Tough Test

Matt Hasselbeck's first game back from a knee injury seemed more like two games. There was the four-turnover first half, and there was the three-touchdown second half. The improvement Hasselbeck showed gives the Seahawks something to build on heading into their game at Denver on Sunday night.

The Broncos should win this game. They are playing at home and they have the look of an increasingly desperate team. The Broncos have fallen in the hotly contested AFC pecking order following two consecutive defeats. They need a victory to keep pace with San Diego and Kansas City in the AFC West.

Seattle, meanwhile, is sitting pretty with a two-game cushion in the NFC West, and a trip to Arizona waiting on the other side.

While all signs point to a Denver victory, the Seahawks are gaining momentum with Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander back in the lineup. They must start quickly in this game to prevent Denver from getting its ground game back into high gear.

"When you have your best players, your Pro Bowl-caliber players, come back, it's got to lift up the team," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "It just does." Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has chosen this game for the debut of rookie quarterback Jay Cutler. As Holmgren noted this week, that type of decision isn't made overnight. Shanahan and the Broncos have clearly been pondering the move for several weeks. They presumably targeted the Seattle game at least in part because the Seahawks have not been a good road team this season.

Seattle's defense has been much more effective at home. There hasn't always been the right energy level away from Qwest Field. That's why it's so important for the offense to jump out on the Broncos early in the game.

The Seahawks were able to overcome a slow start last week because the Packers weren't a very good team. Hasselbeck tossed three first-half interceptions, but Green Bay converted the gifts into a mere seven points. The Packers added a fumble return for a touchdown before halftime, but they led only 14-12.

A similar first half at Denver could be disastrous. Cutler is a talented prospect who might enjoy a dazzling debut if he gains confidence early. But if Seattle can get a lead, the Seahawks' pass rush could force the rookie into costly mistakes. Fast starts have meant everything for the Seahawks this season; when they fall behind, the opposing team generally gets its ground game going and controls time of possession.

Hasselbeck's return gives the offense much improved tempo. That was evident against the Packers even when he struggled early. The way he runs the offense gives Seattle a chance to pull the upset. "The first year when I got to the 49res, Joe Montana got hurt in the third game," Holmgren recalled. "When he came back -- he had back surgery -- you could just kind of feel the lift. He still wasn't 100 percent, but he came back. That happens. That is a real thing. Even Matt's not where he will be in a couple weeks, it still lifts everybody up."

Hasselbeck suffered a broken finger on his non-throwing hand against Green Bay. The injury is not a factor this week. His right hand is fine for throwing and handing off to Alexander, something the Seahawks will do frequently if game circumstances allow for it. Alexander is coming off a 40-carry, 201-yard game against the Packers. He hit the ground running in practice Wednesday, showing no effects from the broken foot he suffered earlier in the season.

SERIES HISTORY: 51st meeting. Denver leads the series, 33-17. That includes a 19-4 record in Denver. The teams were AFC West rivals from 1977 through the 2001 season. Seattle is 0-3 in Denver under coach Mike Holmgren, including 0-1 with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback. Seattle has not won in Denver since 1995.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Coach Mike Holmgren went out of his way to call Jerramy Stevens' number in the red zone Monday night. His decision produced a 3-yard scoring pass that gave Seattle a 34-24 lead. The Seahawks need Stevens to become more consistent and make big plays down the stretch, something he's struggled to do this season.

Holmgren wasn't particularly convincing in saying he still has faith in his first-round pick from 2002. "Last year the expectation level increased because of how well he played last year and I think he had a good year," Holmgren said. "Now this is what he can expect, this is what we can expect and this year it was like one of those early years a little bit.

"Start with the (knee) injury at training camp, and then re-injuring the knee, it's kind of been like that. So I think he's been fighting a lot of battles that way but my hope is, like the whole offensive team to be honest with you, that down the stretch here we can now all get better.

"All of us get better and he is very much included in that group."

--The Seahawks haven't won in Denver since 1995. John Friesz was their starting quarterback at the time. Dennis Erickson was in his first season as their coach. Matt Hasselbeck was at Boston College. Mike Holmgren had yet to win a Super Bowl with Green Bay.

Seattle's struggles against the Broncos aren't much of a mystery. Hasselbeck took a stab at potential reasons for Denver's dominance in the series. "I don't know ... John Elway, maybe?" Hasselbeck quipped. "That would be my guess. I was a big Elway fan growing up. I know they won a lot of games." The Broncos hold a 19-4 series lead in Denver.

BY THE NUMBERS: 14.7 -- The increase in interceptions Seattle is projected to throw this season. The team has thrown 17 in 11 games after throwing 10 all last season.

QUOTE TO NOTE:
"They are very explosive, very fast and they are really good on defense, especially at home. When you watch their film at home, they are even better. It is going to be a very, very difficult game for our offense." -- Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck on the Broncos.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Seahawks have been rotating rookie Rob Sims into games at left guard. Floyd Womack remains the starter, but his history of injuries makes it tough for Seattle to count on him over the long haul.
Sims has talent and looks like he'll be starting by next season at the latest. By giving Sims some reps, the fourth-round pick continues to develop while the team protects itself against losing Womack to another injury. Womack has missed five games to injury this season.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Matt Hasselbeck has a broken finger on his non-throwing hand. The injury will force him to practice and play through pain, but it should not affect his effectiveness Sunday night. He was injured late in the first half of the team's game Monday night, after he had thrown three interceptions. He threw three touchdown passes without a turnover following the injury.

--RB Shaun Alexander thinks he has a shot at getting to 1,000 yards by season's end despite missing nearly two months of the season. His 201-yard game against the Packers left him with 425 yards. He needs 575 yards over the final give games, meaning he must average 115 yards per game the rest of the way.

--LB D.D. Lewis has not played since Oct. 15, a span of six games. He has a nagging toe injury.

--FB Josh Parry has not played since Nov. 6, a span of three games. He has a foot injury. The team placed him on injured reserve Wednesday.

--WR Bobby Engram has not played since Oct. 1, a span of seven games. He has a thyroid condition. His status is week-to-week. He is practicing.

--RT Sean Locklear has not played since Oct. 22, a span of four games. He has a sprained ankle. Locklear could be a game-time decision this week.

--C Robbie Tobeck has not played since Nov. 6, a span of three games. He has an illness and remains sidelined indefinitely.

GAME PLAN: The Seahawks have started horrendously in several recent games. They must be better on offense early in games to have a shot against competent teams on the road. QB Matt Hasselbeck heated up in the second half Monday night. He must pick up where he left off for Seattle's defense to have a chance. The Seahawks will surely send blitzes to confuse rookie Broncos QB Jay Cutler. This strategy will work only if the Seattle offense puts points on the board early. Falling behind in this game would allow the Broncos to unleash their ground game. If that happens, Seattle has very little chance to win this game.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Seahawks TE Jerramy Stevens vs. Seahawks TE Jerramy Stevens. Teams have a very hard time covering Stevens in the passing game. He roamed free against the Steelers in the Super Bowl. He has roamed free when healthy this season. His talent is obvious and undeniable. Consistency is the problem. Stevens is dropping too many passes. He isn't finishing plays regularly. Opponents might be getting into his head even though they can't cover him. Seattle needs Stevens to step up and play his best down the stretch, starting Sunday. Otherwise the offense won't come close to realizing its potential, even with Shaun Alexander back to full strength.

--Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant vs. Broncos WR Javon Walker -- Trufant is playing well and making more plays on the ball. He seems to be hitting stride as the season progresses. He picked off a pass last week, his first interception in more than a year. He has all the physical tools. Seattle plays zone coverages primarily, so Trufant won't be asked to take Walker one-on-one for the entire game. But clearly he must prevent Walker from enjoying the kind of monster game that helped Denver beat the Steelers and Patriots.

INJURY IMPACT: Matt Hasselbeck's broken finger should not limit his effectiveness against the Broncos. He'll have to fight through the pain and pay extra attention to getting the ball securely from C Chris Spencer. The Seahawks miss the savvy of veteran C Robbie Tobeck, but Spencer is more physical and improving as he gets experience. Spencer represents an upgrade in the run game, but his inexperience hurts when it comes to making protection calls.


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