Several times during his first season as head coach of the Seahawks, Jim Mora has referred to himself as an optimist—an assertion that has been continually tested during a 3-6 start. The team has lost Pro Bowlers Walter Jones and Lofa Tatupu to season-ending injuries, while 12 Seattle starters have missed a combined 43 games.
But even in the team’s bleakest moment, a 31-20 defeat to the Cardinals that virtually sealed its playoff fate, Mora remained upbeat. “As strange as it may sound coming off a loss, I saw improvement,” he said.
With seven regular-season games remaining, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said the team can win all seven if their level of play is on par with last Sunday’s performance against the defending NFC champions. It might be the only way to avoid ending the year without a playoff berth for the second straight season.
When Matt Hasselbeck returned to the lineup in week five after fracturing two ribs just three weeks earlier, Seahawks offensive coordinator Greg Knapp called it “one of the guttiest performances,” he had seen in his career. Hasselbeck has also battled through a sore right throwing shoulder suffered from a hit against Dallas and received a forearm in the throat from Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett.
Nevertheless, the quarterback completed a career-high 39 passes to lead the Seahawks to a 17-point comeback win over the Lions and orchestrated a 41-0 romp over the Jaguars. Hasselbeck’s accuracy on deep passes, though, has been suspect and his 34-year old legs are showing wear.
Backup Seneca Wallace has looked good in Wildcat situations, but couldn’t lead the Seahawks over the Bears in week three. Looking back, the Bears loss is extremely damaging to the Seahawks’ playoff hopes.
Knapp said it usually takes his teams six to eight weeks to become fully accustomed to his zone-blocking scheme, but the current situation will take longer because of the injuries on the offensive line.
The Seahawks were down to fourth-string left tackle Kyle Williams in week six against the Cardinals and started the same offensive line combination last week for the first time since week two.
Still, Julius Jones has struggled with his downfield burst and the Edgerrin James experiment failed. Justin Forsett impressed the coaching staff with his speed and his elusiveness in rushing for a career-high in yards last week and Louis Rankin has added a spark to the special teams.
It would be tough for any offensive line to bounce back after losing starting left tackle Walter Jones for the season and left guard Mike Wahle to retirement. The two have combined for 11 Pro Bowls and Jones is regarded by many coaches as one of the best to ever play the position.
Seattle has also lost third-string left tackle Brandon Frye for the season and starters Sean Locklear, Rob Sims and Chris Spencer have missed a combined 10 games. The offensive line’s inability to protect the quarterback, though, single-handedly cost the Seahawks two home losses against the Bears and Cardinals.
Despite the losses at left tackle, Seattle struggled against the rush up the middle versus Dallas.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Nate Burleson has recovered well from last year’s season-ending knee injury in week one against the Bills and is one of the team’s top leaders in the locker room. Burleson ranked third in the NFC in catches before being shut out by the Cardinals last week and has looked sharp on intermediate routes across the middle.
Though T.J. Houshmandzadeh has struggled to develop chemistry with Hasselbeck, he is projected to finish with just under 89 catches for the season. The offseason addition has caught at least 90 passes in the last three years. Deion Branch has not been the same since suffering a knee injury and has just 22 catches.
Look for the team to use rookie Deon Butler more in the second half of the year. Since tight end John Carlson was forced to stay on the line and chip for added protection, his numbers have dwindled slightly. Carlson is still on pace for more catches and yards than his encouraging rookie year.
After a strong start, the defensive line has failed to produce a sack in its last three games. Defensive End Lawrence Jackson had three sacks in the first two games of the season, but just one since. He’s tied for the team lead with Patrick Kerney, who has been plagued by a groin injury.
Although Darryl Tapp put constant pressure on Jaguars QB David Garrard with his speed rush, he has done little since. Neither Colin Cole, nor Brandon Mebane has stuffed the run as hoped for at the start of the season.
David Hawthorne, the replacement at middle linebacker for Lofa Tatupu, has probably been the brightest spot on the Seahawks’ roster through nine games. In three games as a starter, Hawthorne has three sacks, three interceptions and 36 tackles. Mora has also lauded Hawthorne for his arduous study of the playbook while away from the team.
Leroy Hill has rebounded well from a groin injury and had a shoestring tackle to prevent Cardinals RB Tim Hightower from scoring on 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line last week. Aaron Curry has had an up-and-down rookie year. While he has displayed a constant motor, he has also been out of position at times and has missed key tackles against Frank Gore and Chris Wells.
Before intercepting Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford five times two weeks ago, the Seahawks were tied for last in the league with three. Defensive Coordinator Casey Bradley wanted his defensive backs to do a better job of reading the quarterback’s eyes and Josh Wilson complied with a 61-yard interception for a touchdown against Detroit. Much like the offensive line, the secondary has been beset by injury.
Marcus Trufant did not return until week eight and Wilson (ankle) and Ken Lucas (neck) have also missed time. If Trufant continues to get whistled for pass interference penalties later in the season he can’t attribute it to rust.
Punter Jon Ryan ranks fourth in the NFL with a 46.7 gross average and might be the Seahawk with the best shot at making the Pro Bowl. Kicker Olindo Mare has made 13 straight field goals since Mora lambasted him for missing two against the Bears in week three. Both the punt and kickoff return teams have struggled.
The coverage team surrendered a punt return for a touchdown by Patrick Crayton that put the game against the Cowboys out of reach.
Mora cannot be blamed for the rash of injuries the team has encountered. He has tried to stay balanced on offense, but early deficits have forced Knapp to depend more on the pass. Mora admitted he shouldn’t have gone for a fourth down in their own end against the Lions, but the team was in a desperate situation.
He has been a great motivator in the locker room and held up his promise of cutting players who didn’t perform by releasing Edgerrin James. The coaching staff also had creative game plans in both road games at Dallas and Arizona, despite coming up short. A close loss to Arizona might be an indication that the team is headed in the right direction. ####