Last year was a difficult one for Mike Holmgren, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Four of his former assistant coaches — Jon Gruden (Tampa Bay), Steve Mariucci (San Francisco), Andy Reid (Philadelphia) and Mike Sherman (Green Bay) were all division champions, while Holmgren's Seahawks were mired below .500 all season long. With speculation of Holmgren being fired, this year was make or break for the venerable coach. His team has responded, as the Seahawks are on the brink of making of the playoffs.
Seattle is one of the youngest teams in the league at the skill positions, and nowhere is that more evident than at quarterback. While in Green Bay, Holmgren was convinced Matt Hasselbeck could be a long-term option at QB, much like Brett Favre was when he traded for him after his rookie year. At first it seemed like Holmgren had misplaced his faith. Hasselbeck struggled and was benched in favor of Trent Dilfer. However, by midseason 2002, Holmgren decided the future was with Hasselbeck and put him back in the lineup. His faith paid off, as Seattle's offense averaged more than 30 points a game behind Hasselbeck, and the Seahawks offense is now as potent as any in the league. He is among the league leaders in touchdowns and has everyone in Seattle looking to a bright future.
Running back Shaun Alexander is another young player who has made a big splash. He began his career backing up Ricky Watters, but Alexander got his chance last year and has become one of the most dominant runners in the league. Averaging 20 carries a game, Alexander is on pace for a 1,400-yard season and 50 receptions. He is the perfect running back for Holmgren's West Coast offense. While fullback Mack Strong sees plenty of playing time and backup Maurice Morris shows a lot of promise, Alexander is the unquestioned man in the Seattle backfield.
Youth is also on display at the receiver positions. Koren Robinson was a first-round draft pick predicted to be the next Randy Moss. At 6-1, 205, he has the perfect blend of size and speed and is capable of getting deep on anyone. He is joined by Darrell Jackson, the team's reception, yardage and touchdown leader. While Jackson has dropped too many passes this year, he is always a threat to score and is a top possession receiver in the mold of Cris Carter. Also in the mix is former Bear Bobby Engram, who has developed into an ideal No. 3 receiver — especially in the red zone. At tight end, the Seahawks have high hopes for Jerramy Stevens, but he has been a disappointment this year — leaving the door open for Itula Mili, who has become the team's top pass-catching tight end.
Up front, the Seahawks are solid, anchored by left tackle Walter Jones. A holdout to start the year, Jones is big and athletic and can neutralize almost any right defensive end in the league. He is joined by right tackle Chris Terry, guards Chris Gray and Steve Hutchinson and center Robbie Tobeck. The group is a blend of youth and veteran leadership. Hutchinson and Tobeck are 11- and 10-year veterans, respectively, while the other three average only four years in the league. If Holmgren can keep his young linemen together, this unit could be a force for years to come.
On the defensive front, the Seahawks have undergone an overhaul that could explain why the team is 1-4 on the road. At the start of training camp, they hoped Norman Hand, Chad Eaton and John Randle could be a three-man rotation. Instead, Hand and Eaton are gone with injuries and Randle is now a backup. In fact, only DE Chike Okeafor is starting where the team had anticipated he would. He is joined by DE Brandon Mitchell and tackles Cedric Woodard and Rashad Moore. Woodard is in his fourth year, his first as a starter, and Moore is a rookie. Teams have tried to push the ball at the inexperienced area with the run game, and the Vikings likely will be no different.
Unlike the inexperience up front, the Seahawks are battle-tested at linebacker. On the outside, Chad Brown and Anthony Simmons are both big hitters who are veteran leaders. In the middle, Randall Godfrey is a veteran who, while no longer at the top of his game, makes the defensive calls and is a valued member of the Seattle defense.
In the defensive secondary, the Seahawks are young and aggressive, which has its advantages and drawbacks. At cornerback, rookie Marcus Trufant joins seven-year veteran Shawn Springs as one of the better bump-and-run tandems in the league. At safety, rookie Ken Hamlin joins eight-year pro Reggie Tongue as the starters. Hamlin has earned the distinction of being compared to Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott and brings the wood on every play. The team has solid depth here as well, with third-year man Ken Lucas at corner and veteran Damien Robinson at safety.
The key for this game could be Seattle's road woes this year. While in the thick of the playoff race, Seattle hasn't won on the road since Week 2 and blew a 17-point lead in the final seven minutes to lose at Baltimore. While the Vikings try to hold off the hard-charging Packers, their head-to-head record with Seattle could be a wild card tie-breaker if Green Bay pulls out the North Division title — making this a critical game for both teams as the Vikings try to protect their dome-field advantage.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Shaun Alexander vs. Vikings Defense — Flash back one year ago. The Vikings started the season with four games many observers believed they could win to hit their Week 5 bye with a 4-0 record. As we all know by now, it didn't happen. Trying to salvage their season, the Vikings went to Seattle and ran into running back Shaun Alexander. Last year, he was the key matchup — but this time the Vikings are hoping for a far different result.
Last year's Vikings-Seahawks matchup was when the Vikings officially hit bottom, and Alexander was the reason. While the Vikings' first three losses were all by a touchdown or less, the loss to Seattle was a blowout by any description because of Alexander.
Not only was he dominant on the ground, he made his biggest play as a receiver and scored five touchdowns in the first half alone. He had touchdown runs of 2, 3, 14 and 20 yards and, after the Vikings had narrowed Seattle's lead to 17-10 early in the second quarter, he took a screen pass 80 yards for a touchdown.
In a span of 1:05 on the game clock, Alexander scored three touchdowns and, combined with an interception return 45 seconds later, the Seahawks turned a 17-10 lead into a 38-10 blowout. Although he wasn't used much in the second half, Alexander accounted for 231 total yards in the victory.
Don't think for a moment that any of the Vikings defenders or coaches have forgotten that performance. The entire defense is going to be keying on Alexander, which is why his matchup won't be against an individual. The defensive ends will have to force plays to the inside, the tackles will have to bottle up runs in the middle, the linebackers will have to contain the short passing lanes and be the second wall of run defense, and the safeties will have to be aggressive to jump into the box to make plays as well.
Of all the runners the Vikings have faced to date this year, Alexander is as dangerous as any — including Ahman Green, Clinton Portis and LaDainian Tomlinson. He has power and speed and, as the Vikings know, can break a play for a TD at any time.
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