Behind Enemy Lines: Seahawks-Steelers, Part 4

In the conclusion of our four-part game preview, Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar answers five final questions from SCI's Ryan Wilson. What is the future of Seattle's rushing attack, who are the under-the-radar defensive players for Seattle that the Steelers need to look out for, and which NFC teams might have the edge over the Seahawks?

Ryan Wilson, Clearly, the Patriots are the best team on the planet. The NFC is pretty wide open, though. Do you think the Cowboys will come crashing down to earth at some point this season, or are they taking home field throughout the playoffs?

Doug Farrar, Seahawks.NET: Right now, I don’t think there’s any question that the Cowboys have the NFC edge, though that edge is far less pronounced than New England’s in the AFC. Dallas has good balance, Tony Romo’s playing out of his mind, and the front seven is starting to hit a stride.

The surprise NFC team of 2007 has to be the Buccaneers, who are actually ranked higher in DAVE (Football Outsiders’ “DVOA Adjusted for Variation Early”) than the Colts. The defense has been tremendous, Jeff Garcia has been very efficient, and I like what their group of running backs are doing. The Packers are living up to FO’s positive preseason projections, and you have to wonder just how far they can ride the current emotional high around Brett Favre’s resurgence. If Green Bay gets a running game together – yikes.

I don’t know whether the Cowboys will take home field throughout, but I’ll tell you this – people are sleeping on the Seahawks a bit. This team is one dumb fumble against the Cardinals away from a 4-0 record.

Ryan Wilson: The Steelers drafted a punter in the fourth round and some fans were a little skeptical. After watching Daniel Sepulveda, many have come around, particularly since the special teams were so atrocious a year ago. The Seahawks used a 2006 seventh-round pick on Ryan Plackemeier and he immediately paid dividends. Seattle finished '06 ranked seventh in special teams DVOA, and they currently rank seventh in '07. Why are they so consistent in this phase of the game?

Doug Farrar: A lot of it has to do with the fact that Nate Burleson had trouble catching passes last season. Nate had a lot of drops early on after he was acquired from the Vikings, and that put him on notice as a return man. He excelled right away, and this gave the Seahawks a real threat back there that they hadn’t had since the days of Charlie Rogers. Cornerback Josh Wilson, the team’s first draft choice in 2007, was a great return man at Maryland and led the NFL in preseason kick return yardage.

Plackemeier has been a great addition, living up to his 2005 Ray Guy Award as the best college punter, and Josh Brown is as consistently “clutch” as any kicker in the NFL – he won four games last season as Seattle struggled to find their way. So, yes, it really is a strength now in a way that it hasn’t been throughout the Holmgren era.

Ryan Wilson: What's the long-term plan at running back? We've talked about the Curse of 370, and Shaun Alexander got his name added to the list last year. But assuming he only has a few more productive seasons, will the position change? I’ve noticed Alexander has been used more as a pass catcher -- is that something we might see more of?

Doug Farrar: The long-term plan for the run game has to start with the offensive line, and that worries me, because I don’t think this team puts as high a priority on the importance of the line as I’d like. It really doesn’t matter who’s in the backfield until a few things get sorted out up front. Yes, Alexander is 30 years old, and yes, he has the Curse of 370 to contend with, but the line isn’t doing him any favors. Look at Frank Gore in San Francisco – the 49ers line has fallen apart, that Gore, a great young back, is running for almost two yards less per carry than he was in 2006.

There isn’t anyone on the current roster besides Shaun that you’d say has the potential to be a 1,500-yard guy, and this isn’t Denver or Indy, where you can plug Joe Schmoe in and get that kind of performance. They’ll have to draft that guy, but they’ll also have to start drafting and signing some reinforcements for the line, not to mention opening the wallet for right tackle Sean Locklear, who’s a free agent at the end of the season and could command serious money as a starting left tackle for many teams.

As far as how the position will change, that’s a good question that will be driven by whoever coaches this team after Mike Holmgren. I don’t see Holmgren staying for several more years, and his idea of the West Coast Offense has been somewhat modified by Shaun’s skillset into something more like what the late-1990s Broncos ran with Terrell Davis. Catching passes out of the backfield isn’t as important, because Shaun isn’t really great at that. If current assistant Jim Mora were to succeed Holmgren, would he go with the “Thunder-and-Lightning” attack like he had in Atlanta like he had with Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett? Seattle’s one of the last teams to place a huge value on the traditional fullback, so that may change as well.

Ryan Wilson: D.J. Hackett is a great story. I know he's battled injuries, but when he's healthy, he compliments Deion Branch and Bobby Engram nicely. Is he close to making a comeback? And how is he best utilized in the Seahawks passing game?

Doug Farrar: Hackett’s a great player when healthy – he’s the team’s other deep threat besides Deion Branch, and his height makes him a great red zone target as well. Right now, he’s out with the dreaded high ankle sprain, which he suffered in the season opener against Tampa Bay. He’ll be out until early November.

It’ll be interesting to see where he is utilized when he returns. The idea was to have him out there as the starting split end, but Nate Burleson challenged him for playing time with an incredible training camp. He’s good in traffic, but he can also break out for yardage, so he could be used in a variety of roles. Probably the best option is to have him as the deep threat because Burleson and Bobby Engram are so good on the quick inside stuff. And once the Seahawks have those four-wide sets they have liked to use more and more since last season, it will force defenses to release their stacks up front, which will ostensibly help the line.

Ryan Wilson: Most people have heard of Lofa Tatupu, but who's a player on that defense that the average fan may not know, but should?

Doug Farrar: There are two guys that the Steelers will have to pay special attention to, especially with Hines Ward out and Pittsburgh’s traditional emphasis on the run game. The first is linebacker Leroy Hill, who gets lost behind Tatupu and Julian Peterson. Hill is a run-stopping force, and one of the primary reasons that the Seahawks are defending the run so well this year despite the loss of defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs.

Rocky Bernard is the current star of that interior line. Rocky finished second among defensive tackles in Stop Rate last season (behind only Warren Sapp), and he’s a great pass-rush penetrator, as well. He was listed on Friday’s injury report as questionable with groin and ankle injuries, and he didn’t practice on Friday. I would expect Bernard to be in there if at all possible, because they need his disruptive ability to contend with Big Ben and Fast Willie. Top Stories