Behind Enemy Lines - Seahawks/49ers, Pt. 4

In the conclusion of our exclusive four-part game preview, Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar and SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei finish their back-and-forth interaction with five final questions from Craig to Doug. Who's on the field at receiver for the Seahawks, how much does the 12th Man factor into the team's Seattle success, and what are the chances for a return to the Super Bowl?

Craig Massei, Editor-in-Chief, SFIllustrated.com: It doesn't appear the Seahawks are a better team than they were last season, but are they a better team now than in September when they started 3-0? Are they a better team now than when they played San Francisco a month ago? What makes them better/worse at this time than earlier in the season?

Doug Farrar, Editor-in-Chief, Seahawks.NET: They’re pretty much the same team that started 3-0, considering the fact that those three wins were: A 9-6 squeaker over the Lions, a 21-10 win over the Cardinals, and a 42-30 oddity over the New York Giants. In that last game, the Seahawks once held a 42-3 lead, and gave up 27 points in the fourth quarter. That was the first real sign that this defense might not be what we were hoping it would be. The week after, when they were poleaxed by Chicago, 37-6, was the confirmation. They’re the same team that played San Francisco and lost – they just played Arizona and lost, so there hasn’t been any drastic improvement, that’s for sure.

From the first half to the second half of the season, I’d say the special teams have become a great deal better, the offense slightly better, and the defense worse against both the run and pass.


Craig Massei: With leading receiver Darrell Jackson out this week, how will that affect the passing game and offense? How do the Seahawks plan to replace him? What's the deal with Bobby Engram? Will he be back in the mix Thursday?

Doug Farrar: Jackson, who will miss this game with a toe injury and currently leads the NFL in touchdown catches, will be replaced by Nate Burleson. Burleson was acquired from the Vikings in the offseason, and has been more impressive as a punt and kickoff returner than as a receiver. He was recovering from a left thumb injury when he was in the lineup more often early in the season, and he was dropping more passes than was acceptable. We’ll just have to see how the thumb allows him to perform. Supposedly it’s better, so he needs to step up.

Engram will be back in the fray after missing several weeks with a thyroid condition. Mike Holmgren said today that he has a plan for Engram’s return, but that it’s “in the vault”. Expect to see him in limited duty as a slot receiver. When fully healthy, Engram is an indispensable part of the offense – he’s as good as any receiver in the league at converting third downs, and his hands and toughness have made him a favorite target of Matt Hasselbeck’s for years. It’s a great time to work him back into the mix, as the playoffs are just around the corner.

Note: Don’t sleep on fourth receiver D.J. Hackett, who has been the NFL’s best receiver with under fifty catches (or fifty projected catches) over the last two seasons. It’s hard for Hackett to get the amount of work that an elite receiver would get with Seattle’s “spread it around” policy, but he has the tools to put some special seasons together.


Craig Massei: On the topic of receivers, how is Deion Branch fitting in? He tore it up against the 49ers last month and appears to be playing well. How much of an impact as he made on the team, and are the Seahawks getting out of him what they expected? Has he been worth that big contract so far?

Doug Farrar: I don’t know that his impact has been as “definitive” as some might have expected, but that again has a great deal to do with the fact that Mike Holmgren and Tim Ruskell want a team with so many options for Hasselbeck that there’s ALWAYS somebody open. That’s a cornerstone of the West Coast Offense – too many guys running disciplined routes for everyone on a defense to cover. This means that you’re never going to have one receiver who leads the league in everything unless his name is Jerry Rice. Branch may be good, but…

Branch caught 18 passes in November, and three of those games were started by Seneca Wallace. As Hasselbeck rounds back into shape, he’s redefining his targets based on coverage, and Branch hasn’t been featured as often. Personally, I think he was brought in as Seattle’s top receiver of the future, and we may not have seen his best yet.


Craig Massei: After reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history, and having a running back who set an NFL record for touchdowns and was named league MVP, I noticed the Seahawks instead opted to go with a reference to their 12th man on the cover of their media guide this season rather than one or more of the players/coaches who led them to their best season ever. How much is that 12th man a factor for the Seahawks at home, and is that something of which people take a lot of pride in Seattle, and a subject that gets a lot of discussion up there? Is the impact of the 12th man accentuated during night games such as Thursdays, since you guys have been playing a lot of prime-time games over the past few seasons?

Doug Farrar: Over the past two seasons, the Seahawks have enjoyed the kind of home field advantage you rarely hear about – maybe in Denver, maybe a few other places. It’s rare that a crowd has a tangible impact on games this frequently and to this extent, but in 2005, more false start penalties (34) were called at Qwest Field than at any other facility. Eleven were called against the New York Giants alone. The two-season total of 42 is nine better than the second-most-disruptive stadium (Minnesota’s Metrodome). Over the last four full seasons (since Week 16 of the 2002 season), the Seahawks are 27-4 at home – the best home record in the NFL.

The numbers really only tell half the story – you need to sit among the masses just once at the “Q” and experience it for yourself. It’s something you’ll never forget … if nothing else, the ringing in your ears will be a constant reminder!


Craig Massei: Regardless of Thursday's outcome, Seattle is going to win the NFC West. So, how far will the Seahawks go in the playoffs this year? Opening at home certainly will help, and you never know what can happen if you make it past that. Is this a team that still has the wherewithal to make a legitimate postseason run this year and defend its NFC crown?

Doug Farrar: I had a discussion with Aaron Schatz, the Editor-in-Chief of Football Outsiders, about this very subject yesterday. Aaron is an extremely astute Seahawks observer, and he maintained that all this team needed to become very dangerous in the postseason would be for the defense to catch fire.

My take is that while Seattle’s offense is better than the Steelers’ offense in 2005, Pittsburgh’s defense needed one of the single greatest hot streaks in NFL history to take the Lombardi Trophy home. Their defense had to go through the four best offensive lines of the 2005 season – Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Denver and Seattle – and they had to do it all on the road. That’s really unprecedented. You can talk about the “help” the Steelers got from the officiating crew in the Super Bowl (and believe me, I have!) but that discounts the importance defense plays in any successful postseason run.

I don’t think this particular defense can do that, and unless I see something I haven’t seen since 2005, I’m hoping for one playoff win – perhaps at home – and putting anything else away as wishful thinking. The NFC sets up very well for Seattle at the bottom rung of the playoff picture, but as the air gets thin at the top, it’s rough up there. The Saints are ridiculously hot, the Cowboys have enough to be dangerous (though I don’t buy the Romo hype), and the Bears are two decent offensive performances from bulldozing their way to the Super Bowl.

It’s really simple – the Seahawks’ defense needs to turn it around. The change has to happen soon, and it has to be very drastic.


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