Saturday's matchup with the Seattle Seahawks will have significance for several reasons – not the least of which being that the Seahawks got blown out by the Packers by 35 points in their last preseason and head coach Mike Holmgren responded by doing a lot of lineup shuffling following the humiliation. That, combined with the bad blood that exists between the organizations from the "poison pill" contract given by the Vikings to Steve Hutchinson and the injury to Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck that he blames on a cheap shot from E.J. Henderson, this game may have much more intrigue than one would think there would be in a preseason game.
Hasselbeck might be the biggest question mark of all for the Seahawks – a team filled with question marks this preseason, especially on offense. Hasselbeck is coming back from off-season shoulder surgery and Holmgren has hinted that he might rest him for the remainder of the preseason as a precaution. While the veteran quarterback is lobbying to see playing time, Holmgren might stick to his guns. If that's the case, the Vikings will see a lot more of Seneca Wallace. While he didn't exactly light up the league in replacement of Hasselbeck, the organization thought enough about him that they signed him to a contract extension. Although Wallace's job is safe, the same can't be said for third-round pick in 2005 David Greene. Greene hasn't taken a snap in a regular-season game in two years and has looked awful in the preseason. He's getting a challenge from rookie Derek Devine and, if Greene doesn't play well against the Vikings, he could find himself on one of the cut list.
One player the Seahawks have been playing cautiously is running back Shaun Alexander. Slowed last year with a foot injury, Alexander wasn't the same player who re-wrote the NFL record book for touchdowns the year before. He has been running with more confidence this preseason and has vowed to silence his critics. While Alexander may get his longest look of the preseason against the Vikings, it's more likely the team will give more workload to Maurice Morris and Marquis Weeks. Morris has been a career backup after being taken in the second round of the 2002 draft, but he had back-to-back 100-yard games last year when Alexander was sidelined. Weeks is a second-year player who saw most of his action last year as a special teamer. Seattle has one of the best old-school fullbacks in Mack Strong, a 15-year veteran who has found a niche as a plow for Alexander on running plays. A player to keep an eye on is fullback Leonard Weaver. A versatile player Holmgren loves in a Najeh Davenport-type of role as a fullback and a rusher, he missed all of last season due to injury and has been looking good in training camp.
The receiver corps of the Seahawks is in continued flux, the latest change being the draft-weekend trade of leading receiver Darrell Jackson to division rival San Francisco for just a fourth-round pick. Jackson was a dependable target that Hasselbeck went to often, especially in clutch third-down situations. With him gone, others are going to have to step forward. Deion Branch, acquired at the start of last season for a first-round draft pick, is expected to be the go-to receiver. With speed and good hands, Branch can make big plays at any time on short slant routes or long bombs. D.J. Hackett remains atop the depth chart as the other starter. Hackett emerged as a viable target and made five starts in his third season. But, he's facing a challenge from a potentially unlikely source – former Viking Nate Burleson. In his first year with Seattle, Burleson was relegated to return-man duties and was at times No. 4 or 5 on the receiver depth chart. However, he's been having an outstanding training camp and is pushing Hackett and veteran Bobby Engram for playing time. Beyond the top four, the battle for roster spots is being waged. Three late-round rookie draftees – Ben Obamanu taken in the seventh round in 2006 and sixth-round rookies Courtney Taylor and Jordan Kent – are the front-runners to win what might be only one or two roster spots available.
The Seahawks also believe they have depth at tight end, where Marcus Pollard has been a pleasant surprise and has some people in the organization talking about him having 50-plus receptions this year. Will Heller is a solid blocker who is helpful in the running game. Ben Joppru is the wild card. A former high draft pick, Joppru has experienced one injury after another and has never blossomed into the athlete he could be. He's hoping to hook on with Seattle, but his constant injuries guarantee nothing.
The biggest problem for the Seahawks this year has been their offensive line. Damaged when Hutchinson left, All-Pro left tackle Walter Jones has been shut down in training camp because of a shoulder injury. As a result, sixth-year tackle Tom Ashworth has been shuttled to the left side to replace Jones, with injured Sean Locklear returning at right tackle. Ray Willis has been asked to back up both spots, but during the preseason, he's been working at both guard and tackle. There's a chance the team will put Locklear at left tackle, Willis at right tackle and keep Ashworth as a second-teamer Saturday, because he gave up two sacks last week against the Packers. In the middle, Pork Chop Womack has been battling injuries and poor play since replacing Hutchinson and has fallen behind second-year pro Rob Sims at left guard and also backs up 15-year veteran Chris Gray at right guard. A player to watch is Mansfield Wrotto, a fourth-round rookie who dropped considerably on draft day because he's very raw, having played his early college career on the defensive line.
While much of the success the Seahawks have enjoyed in recent years has been attributed to the offense, the defensive front is as strong as any in the conference. The team has four solid starters in tackles Chuck Darby and Marcus Tubbs and ends Patrick Kerney – a huge free-agent signing in the offseason – and Bryce Fisher. The team also has top-end depth with Rocky Bernard, who is in a battle with Tubbs for a starting spot and Darryl Tapp, a second-round draft pick who played in all 16 games last year. The battle for roster spots includes nine-year veteran Russell Davis, fourth-year pro Craig Terrill and third-round rookie Brandon Mebane for what could be one tackle spot and an end spot likely reserved for rookie Baraka Atkins. With the talent up front, it will be difficult for any of the reserves to make much of a splash barring injuries.
The Seahawks have two of the best linebackers in the league in MLB Lofa Tatupu and OLB Julian Peterson, who isn't expected to play Saturday. Tatupu emerged in his second season last year as a relentless chase-down player and Peterson has the ability to be a disruptive pass rusher and hold up well in coverage. The weak side is manned by Leroy Hill, a third-year player who became a full-time starter last year and showed steady improvement. Depth is a concern, with Niko Koutouvides viewed as pretty pedestrian at MLB and Kevin Bentley, Lance Laury and rookie Will Herring leading the way for backup/special teams duty on the outside.
The Seahawks have invested heavily in building a strong secondary, and that starts with a pair of former first-round picks at the cornerback spots – Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings. Both can play man coverage and, while they occasionally get burned over the top, both stand up well when asked to take a receiver deep. At safety, the Seahawks upgraded with the free-agent signing of Deon Grant to start with former Viking Brian Russell. Those looking to lock down backup spots at cornerback include Peter Hunter, who missed all of last year with injuries and second-round rookie Josh Wilson, with former starters Jordan Babineaux and Michael Boulware leading the group of backup safeties.
When healthy, it can be argued that the Seahawks have the best balance of offense and defense in the NFC. The team is capable of scoring 30 points a game as well as shutting down an opponent. Seeing as the third preseason game is typically the one in which the starting units will get the most work, an opponent like the Seahawks will be an ideal measuring stick to gauge how far the 2007 Vikings have progressed and how much more work is needed to compete with an elite NFC team.
Preview: Seahawks Present Great Test
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