Notebook: "New Guys" Hope to Make Difference

No one in Seattle can recall a situation quite like this. Just as the Seahawks' offense started coming around, the cornerback situation has turned into open tryouts. That issue is trumping all others as Seattle prepares for its wild-card game against Dallas on Saturday.

How much will newcomers Pete Hunter and Rich Gardner play? "Probably too much," coach Mike Holmgren said with a laugh.

Holmgren could have been smiling because his offense is finally showing signs of becoming playoff ready. He could have been smiling because Qwest Field will give Seattle a big edge, helping its pass rushers get a leg up off the ball. Mostly, Holmgren was probably smiling because sometimes, you just have to laugh.

Marcus Trufant's injury against San Diego on Christmas Eve was bad enough. Trufant, the 11th player chosen in the 2003 draft, was coming on strong late this season. He was clearly the team's best cornerback. Now he might miss the remainder of the playoffs.

Things went from bad to worse when No. 2 corner Kelly Herndon suffered a broken ankle in the regular-season finale at Tampa Bay. A bit later in the game, No. 4 cornerback Jimmy Williams suffered a torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee.

That left Seattle with rookie first-round pick Kelly Jennings and former starting strong safety Jordan Babineaux on the corners. Jennings is a good young player who is generally in position but lacks size. Babineaux is a good all-around defensive back who started the final four games of the 2005 season at corner.

But if the Cowboys spread the field with three or four receivers, the Seahawks will have some tough choices to make. They'll have little choice but to put Hunter and/or Gardner on the field. Hunter was a starter for the Cowboys in 2004 until a torn ACL ended his season. Gardner never lived up to his status as a 2002 third-round pick of the Tennessee Titans.

Both will be needed Saturday. And yet there's no reason to focus solely on a single position. Several factors will determine whether the Seahawks can win a playoff game for the third time since the early stages of the Chuck Knox era in Seattle.

Seattle needs continued good play from its quarterback. Matt Hasselbeck is coming off his best game. He's playing much better than Cowboys starter Tony Romo in recent weeks. The Dallas defense has imploded since Greg Ellis departed with an injury. Seattle's line has been increasingly physical with youngsters Rob Sims and Chris Spencer throwing their weight around at left guard and center, respectively.

And there's no doubt Shaun Alexander is running with more authority in recent weeks. He hit the Chargers' defense for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He ran hard against Tampa Bay as Seattle held the ball for the final nine-plus minutes of the game.

"The last two ballgames, I've been pleased with how we've played," Holmgren said. "We've played better. Our running back is running very, very hard and very confidently.

"Our young linemen, who have had to play, have a few games under their belt and they're getting a little better feel for it. I think Matt Hasselbeck is in a little better place right now, too.

"The wide receiver situation has hurt our continuity because of different people playing different positions all the time. But that still is a strength of our team. We have good wide receivers.

"Some of the things I think you need to get into the playoffs and keep going are kind of there for us. A couple of the other things, though, aren't. I think you can say that about a number of the teams in the NFC. And here we go."

SERIES HISTORY: 11th meeting. Dallas holds a 6-4 lead in the series. Seattle won the most recent meeting last season, 13-10 at Qwest Field. Jordan Babineaux returned a Drew Bledsoe interception 25 yards in the final seconds, setting up Josh Brown's winning 50-yard field goal. In 2004, a disputed touchdown by Cowboys WR Keyshawn Johnson helped the Cowboys earn a 43-39 victory after trailing by 10 points late in the game.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Newly signed CB Pete Hunter could see significant playing time against Dallas, less than a week after rooting for the Cowboys on television from his home near the team's practice facility. He was a Cowboys draft choice who opened the 2004 season as their starting right corner. A knee injury nearly ended his career, but the Seahawks signed him after losing three corners to injury. "I worked out for the Jets last week and figured someone would call me late," Hunter said. "When I got this call, I was really excited knowing they played Dallas in the first week of the playoffs. I have a lot of friends over there still."

Hunter has other options after football, thanks to a criminal-justice degree from Virginia Union. He was scheduled to take a test Jan. 19 to work as a special agent with the border patrol in Texas.
"I'm going to try to postpone the test," Hunter said. "One of my college professors was an ex-special agent and he helped me out with that. I kept a good relationship with him. I'm pretty sure he'll understand."

--RB Shaun Alexander was wearing an Alabama T-shirt when he offered some advice for new Tide coach Nick Saban. "You know, I'm like every other Alabama guy," Alexander said. "I only expect like -- what, he's got 10 years? -- three national championships. So, good luck with that."

--Mike Holmgren loved what he saw from Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, not that he would ever call a Statue-of-Liberty play with a key game hanging in the balance. "Wasn't that something?" Holmgren said. "Last time I ran that was in high school, honest to goodness.

"It's amazing how they did that. We would try that in practice and guys would run into each other."

BY THE NUMBERS: 8 -- The number of Seattle players with at least three sacks this season. Julian Peterson leads the way with 10, but no other player has more than four. The team has 41.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "They haven't been playing their best football the last couple of weeks, but that doesn't mean they won't come out and play great this weekend. As we know, our offense hasn't necessarily played our best football. We know we're capable." -- QB Matt Hasselbeck, on facing the Cowboys' struggling defense.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Seahawks are holding out hope that CB Marcus Trufant might be able to return if the team advances in the playoffs. They listed him as doubtful this week, but there's no way he'll play. There's an outside chance Trufant could return for the divisional round or NFC championship round, should Seattle be fortunate enough to advance. Seattle will need him back if the team hopes to make a legitimate run at a second consecutive Super Bowl. The Seahawks would rather leave a roster spot dark for the time being that rule out a top player at a position of need.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Darrell Jackson did not practice Wednesday. He remains questionable with a turf-toe injury.

--WR D.J. Hackett did not practice Wednesday. He remains questionable with a hip-flexor injury. The injury was initially reported as a groin injury, but that was incorrect.

--DT Rocky Bernard missed practice Wednesday. He remains probable with a foot injury. Bernard has had the injury for some time. He is playing well regardless.

--WR Nate Burleson missed practice Wednesday. He is probable with a sore ankle. He'll play Saturday.

--OL Floyd Womack missed practice Wednesday. He is questionable with a groin injury. It seems unlikely Womack will play this week.

--T Tom Ashworth has gotten some work at right guard while Chris Gray and Floyd Womack rest injuries.

--LB Leroy Hill returned to practice Wednesday. He is questionable with a concussion. Look for Hill to play Saturday.

--CB Marcus Trufant is listed as doubtful, but there's no way he'll play Saturday, coach Mike Holmgren said Wednesday. Trufant did not practice.

--RG Chris Gray missed practice Wednesday. He is questionable with a thigh injury. Gray is expected to start Saturday, but there are no guarantees.

GAME PLAN:
Protecting the secondary has to be the top priority. That means controlling the ball on offense. Seattle might have to set up the run with the pass against the Cowboys' forgiving pass defense. That approach could be successful if the Seattle receivers eliminate the drops that have cropped up sporadically this season. Seattle's offensive line was physical enough to handle the Chargers' 3-4 defense two weeks ago. That could bode well against the Cowboys, whose defense has struggled in recent weeks.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Seahawks LT Walter Jones vs. Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware. Jones has not been as consistent this season. Whether it's injuries or missing Steve Hutchinson or relaxing on his technique, Jones has not been his usual dominant self. He's still good and he's still heading to another Pro Bowl. And he's still good enough to handle Ware most of the time. The Seahawks don't give Jones help. They expect him to hold up and now they need him to step up his game.

--Cowboys WR Terrell Owens vs. a depleted Seattle secondary. The Hawks are without three of their top four corners heading into this game. They signed ex-Cowboy Pete Hunter off the street. He'll play right away. Hunter has looked good in practice. He's a big corner at 6-2 and 208 pounds. Jordan Babineaux is another big corner Seattle can put on the field. And rookie Kelly Jennings had good cover skills despite being undersized. The pass rush and crowd noise will be hugely important for Seattle's secondary in this game.

INJURY IMPACT: The situation at cornerback is about as bad as anyone could have imagined. WR Darrell Jackson might try to play on a turf-toe injury, but he would not be 100 percent. RG Chris Gray will probably return at less than full strength.


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