Unlike much of the 2004 preseason, where the Vikings have faced some of the lower-level competition the NFC West has to offer, when the team closes out its preseason schedule Sept. 2, it will be against the Seattle Seahawks — a game some are speculating will be a preview of the NFC Championship Game in January.
Like the Vikings, Seattle has made big strides entering 2004, has been made the favorite to win its division this year and has its sights set on the Super Bowl. Also like the Vikings, the Seahawks are looking to get that job done with an explosive young offense and improved defense.
Coach Mike Holmgren knew what he wanted when he took over Seattle — Brett Favre. Short of that, he took the next best thing — Favre's backup in Green Bay, Matt Hasselbeck. In his sixth year, Hasselbeck has developed into a star. Last year, he threw for almost 3,900 yards and had 26 touchdowns. While he was stymied by the Vikings last year, Hasselbeck has left behind him the days of looking over his shoulder at Trent Dilfer and is prepared to take the next step to greatness among NFL quarterbacks.
The running game for Seattle is in the capable hands of Shaun Alexander. He is entering his fifth season, and last year Alexander rushed for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns, solidifying his position as one of the top running backs in the league. He is backed up by Maurice Morris, a quick runner who can get to the corner in a hurry, but one that has been plagued by injuries. He is used primarily as a short-term change of pace for Alexander. The Seahawks likely will keep just four or five running backs on the final roster, which means fullbacks Mack Strong and Heath Evans will also see some spot running duty when not lead blocking for Alexander.
The receivers for Seattle have been a mixed bag of overachievers and underachievers. Leading the first list is Darrell Jackson. Taken in the third round in 2000, Jackson has consistently put together strong seasons. Last year, he added 1,137 yards and nine more TDs to his résumé. Joining him on the overachiever list is Bobby Engram and Itula Mili. After being left for dead by the Bears, Engram has developed into a very solid No. 3 receiver, one who caught 52 passes for six TDs last year. The same goes for Mili, who was supposed to be an afterthought at tight end but has never let his job get supplanted from him. On the underachieving side, the Seahawks have wide receiver Koren Robinson and tight end Jerramy Stevens. Both former first-round draft picks, neither Robinson nor Stevens has brought his consistent "A" game to the table. Robinson has been projected for dominance the last couple of years, and Stevens has worn the tag of the next great tight end in Holmgren's system. If they can elevate their game, this becomes a team strength.
Seattle has an impressive offensive line if moody Walter Jones, who has held out three years in a row after being hit with the franchise tag, returns anytime soon from his contract holdout — the third year in a year of that with Jones. The left side of the line is as good as any in the NFL with Jones and Steve Hutchinson — both Pro Bowlers last year. The rest of the line has shown improvement too, with center Robbie Tobeck and right tackle Chris Terry entrenched at their positions. The only position up for grabs is right guard, where Chris Gray and Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack are battling for the starting nod. It all starts up front for Seattle, and it has one of the best O-lines going.
The same couldn't be said for the defensive line, which struggled with aging vets like John Randle, who have since been cleared out. Seattle went to free agency to cure its problems at defensive end, signing Chike Okeafor in 2003 and Grant Wistrom this year. Both are slated as starters with solid depth being provided by Antonio Cochran and Brandon Mitchell. In the middle, more help could be used. Marcus Tubbs is a solid DT in the old Packers mold, but the quality drops from there. Fifth-year man Cedric Woodard and second-year DT Rashad Moore are serviceable, but not great, leaving the middle of the line vulnerable for between-the-tackles rushers. It is hoped the speed Wistrom brings will cut down on the chances offenses have to attack the weakness of the DTs.
The linebackers are a different story. Solid at the top, there is little in the way of depth and, like the Vikings last year, this unit is led by an aging player. Chad Brown is entering his 12th year and holds down one outside linebacker spot, but he will be out for the first half of the season. On the other side, Anthony Simmons is a former first-rounder from the great draft class of 1998. In the middle, fourth-year pro Orlando Huff gets his first shot at full-time starting duty and could be targeted by opposing offenses looking to confuse him with formations and audibles. Young OLB D.D. Lewis and MLBs Solomon Bates and Niko Koutouvides provide depth and an infusion of speed.
The Seahawks have invested a lot of money to improve in the secondary and may have found the right combination. The team has a free-agent acquisition (Bobby Taylor, formerly of the Eagles), a former first-rounder (Marcus Trufant) and a second-rounder (Ken Lucas) to give the team three-deep at cornerback that are capable of shutting any receiver down. At safety, rookie Michael Boulware makes the transition from linebacker, battling Terreal Bierria for a starting spot opposite Ken Hamlin. While still young and getting to know each other, by season's end this could be the strength of the team, not just the defense.
With both teams looking more toward their regular-season openers and trying not to get any of their key players injured, we likely won't see either team playing at full strength for too long. But it may just be a precursor to Round 2 on Dec. 12 at the Metrodome and possibly Round 3 in January with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Grant Wistrom vs. Bryant McKinnie — In every game there are matchups that stand out. Whether it's one team's strength against the weakness of another or a battle of strength vs. strength, every game brings its own set of intriguing matchups. With both teams looking for big things in 2004, they will need their big players to step forward. In this game, that pits Seattle defensive end Grant Wistrom against Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie.
When the Vikings drafted McKinnie, it was for the expressed reason of giving the offensive line a cornerstone at left tackle for the next decade. Not only is the mammoth Mount McKinnie expected to be a solid run blocker, he is expected to neutralize the NFL's best pass rushers by forcing them wide of the quarterback and, if they try to go heads-up, knock them on their back.
With Seattle lacking a consistent pass rush when free agency began, the Seahawks were looking to address their most glaring need of a pass-rushing defensive end. Not only did they get one of the league's top sackmeisters in Wistrom, they stole him away from division rival St. Louis — strengthening their own team while weakening their top division rival. Wistrom's mandate has been simply to overpower left tackles, disrupt the quarterback's rhythm and make plays.
While Wistrom is expected to make a few plays that can kill drives, McKinnie's job is to make him a non-factor. McKinnie has quietly improved to the point that he is now being viewed by NFL scouts as one of the better left tackles in the NFC. There's no questioning Wistrom's credentials as a pass-rush specialist. So the question becomes, who will win the battle?
Seahawks Also Harbor High Expectations
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