Doug Farrar, Editor-in-Chief, Seahawks.NET: Right now, I'd say that Seattle's playing the role of a somewhat weary Snow White, the 49ers are the up-and-comers, the Rams are aging at light speed, and Arizona needs a new coach more than Matt Millen needs a clue. It's still a very weak division from which the Seahawks have benefited endlessly over the last two seasons. That said, there's a lot to like about San Francisco's future. They have the division's most integrated and productive running game, a coach who really seems to get it, a owner who has either figured out how to operate a football franchise or has learned enough to stay out of the way (based on his past history, I'd guess the latter), and a forward-thinking front office led by former Seahawks personnel exec Scot McCloughan and Moneyball maven Paraag Marathe (San Francisco's Tim Ruskell and Mike Reinfeldt).
Seattle could basically lose out and win the division at 8-8 unless the 49ers sweep this series and run the table. But 2006, I believe, will be the last season that the Seahawks will have such an easy time. In 2005, they were the first team in 30 years to win their division by seven games. This year, objects in the mirror are indeed closer than they appear when the 49ers are in the backseat. Next year? We may have a real battle on our hands.
Craig Massei: Shaun Alexander didn't look too sharp in his first game back from his foot injury, gaining just 37 yards on 17 carries in the November against the 49ers. But he obviously got better in a hurry the next week with that vintage display against Green Bay. Where is Alexander now in his comeback, and what has his return meant to the team?
Doug Farrar: I think the San Francisco game was the unusually low side of that swing, and the Green Bay game was disproportionately high. He's good for about 85 yards per game over a full season, if you ask me, under the current conditions. Even with Shaun's 201 rushing yards against the Packers, the warning signs that this isn't the same ultra-productive offense were evident – Alexander didn't score one rushing touchdown in that game despite the fact that he carried the ball 40 times. After scoring 28 times last season, he's pushed the ball across the plane a grand total of 3 times in 2006.
It's not so much that Alexander doesn't have the moves he had pre-injury, because he does, for the most part – the real factor in Seattle's run game is an offensive line that can't seem to put two solid quarters together, much less games. After the first 13 weeks of 2005, Seattle's run-blocking has been among the worst in the league, based on Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards numbers, and the pass-blocking isn't much better. A combination of injuries, the loss of Steve Hutchinson to the Vikings and a complete lack of continuity have absolutely demolished what used to be the Seahawks' strongest asset. Without that asset, or a reasonable facsimile, Shaun Alexander – and his Seahawks – are in big trouble.
Shaun's return to the team has made life a bit easier for Matt Hasselbeck, who was out for a month with his own physical issues, because having Alexander in the backfield forces defenses to play the Seahawks honest. If the line doesn't solidify, that won't be the case for long.
Craig Massei: Of course, the comeback player that probably means the most is quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Who is more important to the Seahawks and their system, Alexander or Hasselbeck? I consider Hasselbeck one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL - certainly one of the best in the NFC - so how much better is the offense now that he's back and hitting his stride?
Doug Farrar: Who's more important to the team? Hasselbeck, without question. In Mike Holmgren's West Coast Offense, you can get by with an above-average running back, though Holmgren adjusted his own game planning to focus on Alexander's brilliance in 2004 and 2005. But without a quarterback that can run this extremely complicated system, the WCO is nothing more than an unimpressive array of overthrown slants and dumpoffs to fullbacks on 3rd and 8. Hasselbeck has a dizzying array of options at his disposal, and he's savvy enough to know which course to take. In my opinion, this makes his the conference's second-most effective quarterback, behind only New Orleans' Drew Brees.
When Hasselbeck was out, we saw this with backup Seneca Wallace. Wallace is a four-year veteran, an incredibly mobile athlete, and a quarterback with a great deal of potential - but he looked lost a great deal of the time. That's not a hit on him … the Seahawks' offense is based on repetition and timing to a ridiculous degree, and it doesn't happen for you without the reps. Hasselbeck is not only the next player in Holmgren's ungodly string of quarterbacks that goes all the way back to Steve Young at BYU, he's also the team's emotional leader. One need look no further for evidence of his intangible importance to the team that last Sunday's game, when Darrel Jackson caught a pass and fumbled a ball that shot backward about fifteen yards, Hasselbeck, knee brace and all, was the one Seahawk with the presence of mind to get to that ball and recover it.
Craig Massei: Julian Peterson was a god for the 49ers, and he appears to be doing the same kind of big things for the Seahawks. But the 49ers ran right at him in the November game, and he was a non-factor with two tackles. Have other teams been catching on to exploit virtually the only semi-weakness in his game, or was that a case of the 49ers knowing him so well? What will the Seahawks be doing differently with Peterson in the rematch to mask that weakness and allow him to make more of an impact?
Doug Farrar: Let me begin by saying that I LOVE what he brings to this defense, but I don't like Peterson as a run-stopper. Never have. I mean … he's 6'3" and 235 pounds. That doesn't scream "hole-plugger" to me. The Seahawks have used him in different ways this season, and it seems to me that they struggle with his versatility. I know this was a problem with Mike Nolan and the 3-4 as well, so it's possible that Peterson is that rare athlete who is so freakishly physically gifted, and can do so many things on the football field, that thinking outside the box is required. You almost have to create a new position for him.
In 2005, Seattle's run defense was great for a number of reasons. One reason was that all three primary linebackers - Leroy Hill, Lofa Tatupu and D.D. Lewis – were earthbound tough guys who flew to the ball with harmful intent. I'm not saying that Peterson isn’t physical – his nine sacks would disprove that theory if I did – but he isn't that kind of player. Tatupu and Hill are still there, but Hill used to be the primary blitzing linebacker (something he was great at), which allowed him to gain an advantage at the line of scrimmage. Now, he's playing a more passive role. Peterson can blitz as well as any defender in the league, but he's not going to add the run-stopping ingredient Hill did when he zips off the line.
Craig Massei: Statistically, the Seattle defense is right about where it finished last season in several areas, with the only significant decline being defending the run. But the Seahawks are giving up a lot of points, and the defense, overall, just doesn't appear to be as good as last year, when it probably was better than its numbers. Is that an accurate perception? What's been the biggest problem, if any, on that side of the ball, and is that something that has been holding the Seahawks back?
Doug Farrar: The defense isn't nearly as good, and as with the offense, the problems begin up front. If the Seahawks don't make it back to the Super Bowl (and right now, that's looking like a very obvious conclusion), the story will be the decline and fall of the front lines on both sides. Seattle's defense is supposed to work like this: Big guy in the front four makes the first stop, while linebackers and safeties fly in to finish the ballcarrier off. This season, the recipe has been more like this: Slightly smaller guy upfront whiffs on a tackle because he was out of position and trying to do too much, which leads to undersized linebacker getting juked out of his shorts on a misdirection and three defensive backs arm-tackling their way into the doghouse.
The biggest problem, besides the fact that Marcus Tubbs (their only behemoth interior lineman) is out for the season, is that the defense is not playing together. No matter what the sport – and this dynamic works in other walks of life as well – it's always the same story. If individuals don't work together with a common goal in mind, disaster will follow as those individuals try to overcompensate for the lack of team effort. That’s a long-winded way of saying that last year, Seattle's defense played as a team. This year, it's usually eleven guys running around in the wrong places.