Pass Rush Priority: Seahawks' D-Line Could Make or Break Season
What are the Seahawks relying on heading into the 2009 campaign?
The health of key veterans like Matt Hasselbeck and Walter Jones?
Greater balance on offense, with a new emphasis on the running game?
A honeymoon period for new head coach Jim Mora?
Undoubtedly, all will play an integral part as Seattle hopes to rebound from a disappointing 4-12 season last year.
However, it's the defensive line that could make or break the Seahawks this year.
Mora has moved quickly to make changes to a defensive unit that was overworked and underproduced in 2008.
The Seahawks ranked dead last in the NFL last year on passing defense, giving up 259 yards per game on average.
Former defensive coordinator John Marshall, now with the Raiders, resorted to constant blitz packages to compensate for a lack of pressure created by the defensive line.
This often involved the linebackers, leaving the defensive backs exposed.
This year almost total reliance will be placed on the front four to create a sufficient pass rush, freeing up the linebackers to make plays and support the secondary whilst allowing a cover-two system to develop.
Simply put, an expensive defense will fail to function if the defensive line cannot create any pressure.
The Seahawks have kept 11 defensive linemen on their 53-man roster, including seventh-round compensatory pick Nick Reed and undrafted rookies Michael Bennett and Derek Walker.
This comes on top of an aggressive postseason that saw Tim Ruskell make bold moves to bring in Cory Redding and Colin Cole.
Many people will look at the high-profile drafting of Aaron Curry as a key addition.
But the fourth overall pick in the draft needs the freedom to read an offense and react.
He won't have that luxury if he's expected to rush the passer most downs because the D-line aren't doing their jobs.
The same goes for fellow linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill.
Without doubt Seattle owns the most expensive linebacker trio in the NFL. They won't see the full benefit of that investment unless they're able to be creative with the position.
Expect to see the continuation of a heavy rotation at both the end and tackle positions.
Patrick Kerney, clearly the Seahawks' best pass rusher, will see his workload lightened as the team hopes to avoid any further injury issues.
Kerney has missed 14 games in the last three years.
Cory Redding will start across from Kerney but is expected to move inside for passing situations on third down.
It's a big year for the former Detroit lineman. Redding reworked his contract to play on a one-year deal in Seattle, meaning he hits free agency in 2010.
Another defensive end in a contract year is Darryl Tapp. Both he and 2008 first-round pick Lawrence Jackson will be hoping to impose themselves this year.
Tapp has shown flashes of brilliance in a 15.5-sack, three-year career. He'll get his chance to spell the two starters and needs to use his playing time well in search of a new contract—either with the Seahawks or elsewhere.
Jackson endured a frustrating rookie season in which he played mostly with an injury.
However, he's struggled to impress either the coaching staff or onlookers during camp this year, and a second-year slump could put his future in doubt.
Nick Reed is the intriguing storyline.
The former Oregon Duck led the NFL in preseason sacks (4.5). He set school records of 29.5 sacks and 51.5 tackles for a loss in a decorated college career.
He's undersized for a prototype 4-3 DE (247 lbs., 6'1") but has shown a knack of finding ways to get the job done.
He'll likely be given a role in the rotation early on to try to show his game translates to the pros. It'll certainly be interesting to see how he copes against the bigger, faster offensive linemen in the NFL.
At tackle, underrated Brandon Mebane and recently acquired Colin Cole are slated to start.
Mebane will be given greater pass rushing duties in the three technique this year. Playing as a one in 2009, he still recorded 5.5 sacks.
Cole provides the big-bodied run stuffer lacking since Marcus Tubbs' forced retirement.
Second-year prospect Red Bryant and Craig Terrill will come into the rotation. Like Reed, rookie Michael Bennett will likely get his chance to take preseason form into the real thing.
It's a group with potential, but it remains reliant on the health of its key components.
Whether it can produce the kind of pressure Coach Mora is hoping for remains to be seen.
It wouldn't surprise me if with two first-round picks in 2010, the Seahawks took advantage of a projected solid D-line class containing potential stars like Ndamukong Suh and Carlos Dunlap.
Yes, getting Hasselbeck and Jones healthy is key.
Yes, finding balance on offense is crucial.
The importance of the defensive line cannot be underestimated, though, if the Seahawks are to get the best from their defensive unit and rebound after last year's disappointments.
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