Behind Enemy Lines: Seahawks-49ers, Part 2

In Part Two of our exclusive four-part game preview, Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar and SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei continue their back-and-forth interaction with five questions from Craig to Doug. Do the Seahawks consider division rivals when assessing their personnel needs? Is Seattle's offense ahead of its defense? And do the Seahawks miss Darrell Jackson?

Craig Massei, Editor-in-Chief, SFIllustrated.com: Since the 49ers swept Seattle last year, are the Seahawks approaching Sunday's game as something more than just an important divisional matchup? What's Mike Holmgren mean when he says about this game, "there is a little extra in it for us"?

Doug Farrar, Editor-in-Chief, Seahawks.NET: There's always a little extra in these San Francisco matchups for Holmgren – and that's the case whether he's facing the Mariucci patch-jobs, the Erickson/Donahue disasters, or Nolan's resurgent squad. This is his home turf – where he got his start as a high school coach and as an NFL offensive coordinator. It was the stomping ground of his football father, the immortal Bill Walsh. Now, it's also the home of a team that has his old scouting director, trusty backup quarterback and used-to-be #1 receiver, not to mention the team that swept his Seahawks in 2006 and exposed his run defense as a near-joke without Marcus Tubbs in the lineup.

For the Seahawks, this will be the first of (at least) two matches with a team that has become their primary division rival; a team on the upswing as the Seahawks themselves try to stave off the inevitable mortality of a franchise that is still very talented, but is also aging in dog years at some key positions. The 49ers will have the resources next year to do for their offense what they did for their defense in 2007 – draft wisely and bring in high-ticket free agents – and when that all comes together, there may be too much assembled too well for Seattle to counter.

So, to add to everything else, there's a hint of desperation on both sides. The 49ers want to become the team everyone thinks they are (but probably won't be until next season), and the Seahawks are enjoying the warm glow of divisional supremacy knowing full well that the clouds are coming.


Craig Massei: Seattle has had the look of a three-time defending divisional champion coming out of the gate so far. In a NFC West that hasn't exactly looked stellar so far in September, how much is there to be said for the presumption that the division title still goes through Seattle and the Seahawks still own the NFC West until somebody takes it away from them?

Doug Farrar: That title still goes through Seattle on a "for-now" basis. The Seahawks have more cohesive veteran talent that has worked together longer than San Francisco has, and that's just the product of a team built over several years, not blown up and restarted as the 49ers were when Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan came on board. It takes time to a.) build a team; and b.) to watch it work together consistently. I think the 49ers will produce in fits and starts as they come together for now. The Seahawks must take advantage of this while they can.

Fortunately for both teams, the Cardinals are only slightly improved under new management, and the Rams have fallen completely off the map. It's a two-team race.


Craig Massei: In the past, the 49ers have geared parts of their roster with their NFC West opponents – both in general and in particular – in mind. Have the Seahawks done anything like that this year with San Francisco in mind?

Doug Farrar: Not per se. The acquisition of Julian Peterson last year was more about picking up a ridiculously talented defensive player with no equal at his position than it was about some manner of espionage, and Peterson has been worth every bit of his contract. What former 49ers defensive coordinator and current Seahawks secondary coach Jim Mora brings from that perspective is open to debate, but Mora hasn't been a part of the 49ers franchise since 2003, and San Francisco has gone through at least two completely different defensive ideologies since then.

So no, I don't think the Seahawks are bringing in players to provide "enemy intel". That's not really the way they seem to think. It's more about, "We'll take our guys, put ‘em against your guys, and see what happens."


Craig Massei: So far, the Seahawks seem to look maybe a little better on offense and maybe a little worse on defense than when the season ended last year. Is that an accurate perception? How do you see the Seahawks being this season on each side of the ball, better or worse than last season?

Doug Farrar: I think that the offense will be at least slightly better; possibly considerably better if the team can stay healthy as they couldn't last year. Receivers Deion Branch and Nate Burleson, who were both acquired last year by the Seahawks and took time to integrate with the scheme, both look to be far more comfortable and productive this season. An offensive line in transition from the dominant 2005 unit will be a year better, though league average is the best we can hope for there at this time.

Matt Hasselbeck is looking very efficient and in control off the offense, the odd blown fake audible notwithstanding. I have some fairly serious concerns about the running game – and that has to do both with Shaun Alexander and the line he runs behind – but I'm also not convinced that San Francisco's run-stopping abilities will be enough to negate it.

Defensively, the main concern is once again the team's ability to contain the run. Tubbs, Seattle's only real bulk in the interior line last year, is lost for the season with an ACL injury. Third-round pick Brandon Mebane can do some things, but he's still learning the position. Seattle's linebackers – Peterson, Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill – provide the team's best positional group, and they might be the best 4-3 linebacker corps in the NFL. Tatupu is playing at a level that will get him some Defensive Player of the Year votes if he keeps it up, and Hill is a grossly underrated run-stopping and pass-rushing force.

In the secondary, young cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings are being helped by veteran safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell, both free agents signed by Seattle before the 2007 season. While early results were inconclusive, Grant and Russell were outstanding in providing safety help last week, as the Seahawks held off Cincinnati's explosive passing attack.

The Seahawks could be better on both sides of the ball, but I'm holding a bit more faith in the offensive pieces I've seen than the defensive elements I still wonder about.


Craig Massei: So, is Darrell Jackson missed at all up there? Or are the Seahawks glad that he's gone? Matt Hasselbeck seemed to slam Jackson recently with some of his comments. Is Seattle's receiver corps better, worse or about the same without him? Who has stepped up as Seattle's No. 1 to replace him?

Doug Farrar: Hasselbeck's comments were more about missing Jackson in practice at times, and enjoying the fact that he's had so many reps with Branch and Burleson, than any specific slam. He doesn't really do that sort of thing through the media.

Honestly - and the ascent of Branch is a huge part of this on the Seahawks side – I think everyone involved, including Jackson, is probably happier to have moved on. Jackson is a very talented player whose injury frequency and contract dissatisfaction proved to be real problems for the Seahawks. Any claim he had to being indispensable went out the window in 2005, when Seattle won the nine games in a row that he missed with a knee injury. The Seahawks sent one message in September of 2006 when they gave Branch the money that Jackson wanted, and they sent another this April when they traded him to a division rival for a fourth-round draft pick.

Those messages? "We don't think you're worth what you think you're worth, and we have enough confidence in your ability to get in your own way that we'll ship you off to our main division rival and not give it a second thought." Jackson has an opportunity to make the Seahawks look foolish this Sunday, and this will be a very interesting in-game battle.

PART III: Make sure to check back Friday morning on both SFIllustrated.com and Seahawks.NET as Doug and Craig continue their back-and-forth interaction with the final five questions.


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