Seattle Seahawks: 7 Things to Watch in Practice for Week 1
An up-and-down preseason highlighted many concerns for this team: youth, inconsistency at quarterback and along the offensive line, a handful of new starters on defense, and continued roster turnover have created varied opinions about how this team will fare in 2011.
For Pete Carroll and this organization, preparation is paramount; how you play can only be as strong as the practice and preparation. Opening the season on the road and against a division rival is not an easy test.
"Captain Jackson" and His First Week of Practice
The locker room elected team captains; Tavaris Jackson from the offense, Marcus Trufant from the defense, and Michael Robinson and Leon Washington from special teams.
While Carroll said that he liked the choices of the players, the comments of Mike Williams were a bit more emphatic:
"It's a tough situation to come in to, with Matt (Hasselbeck) leaving. So much criticism and ridicule for a guy who is yet to have a shot to play, it's kind of unbelievable. It's overwhelming for a teammate and has to be for him. I just want to tell everybody to back the hell up, let him play, let him have a shot to work, to do his thing."
Would it be a concern if the quarterback wasn't wearing "C" on his jersey? If Jackson is going to get the chance to be a leader, with no one else on the offense capable of pulling rank, he should be the captain. It wouldn't have been an environment truly curbed toward giving Jackson the chance if he wasn't captain.
The role of the quarterback position is now clear, if it wasn't an already. This is a sign the leadership is coming from the top down. The Seahawks veteran receivers are spreading the message of the coaching staff and supporting Jackson; the locker room understands the staff's plan for Jackson.
They've given the ultimate symbol of leadership to "captain" Jackson. He faces a tough first test as the leader of this offense, on the road and against a division rival. A win on Sunday starts with setting the tone in the huddle on Wednesday.
Brandon Browner Prepares for His First NFL Start
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of training camp was the emergence of Brandon Browner. He is a player that Carroll recruited coming out of high school, though he didn't attend USC; this past winter, Carroll got another chance to recruit him, this time coming off of three straight CFL All-Star seasons.
When the Seahawks signed Browner, he was a player who immediately grabbed my attention and one I thought could definitely see the field in 2011; before training camp began, it was clear he could emerge as legitimate competition for playing time. After Walter Thurmond sat out most of camp with an ankle injury, Browner has been named the Week 1 starter at cornerback opposite Trufant.
Even though he has little experience in the NFL, Browner has not looked like a rookie during the preseason. His blend of length, experience in press coverage and athleticism have impressed the the staff, and it's apparent Browner is a unique cornerback.
Browner understands this may be his only chance to succeed in the NFL; to this point he's proven to be a hard worker, not the type of player simply content with starting. He knows the first time around he wasn't mature enough, but this time carries a different tune.
His size allows him to match up with big receivers and cover downfield; because Browner is an unknown, teams may test his skills early. This is Browner's first week of preparation as a starter and prepping him for NFL refs is crucial; he needs to learn how to endure the rigors of a regular season, and soon.
He has a chance to be a breakout player for the Seahawks, but the secret is out heading into Week 1. Browner is a confident and savvy football player; getting him into a rhythm as quickly as possible should be a key objective.
Robert Gallery and Sidney Rice Are Unknowns for Sunday
The regular season hasn't even started and two of the Seahawks' biggest free agency signings are already facing the possibility of not playing Week 1. Robert Gallery's status is uncertain due to a knee sprain and Sidney Rice hasn't practiced because of a sore shoulder.
Both were acquired as high-upside players; their continuity with the coaching staff—Gallery with Cable and Rice with Bevell—was a main reason for bringing them to Seattle, especially after the shortened offseason.
And while this approach does make some sense, one of my main concerns was that Seattle faced injury problems at both receiver and left guard in 2010, not to mention the injury concerns they had at quarterback.
If Seattle was going to spend big money, I hoped it would be on players who proved to have a track record of good health.
Both are players with the red flag of worrisome injury histories. Gallery missed 14 games the past two years, and Rice has played 16 games in a season only once in his four-year career—it's unfortunate there is a chance that after only one game in 2011, it'll be 1 of 5.
To me, it's unsettling that the red flags are already flying; the players Seattle brought in to create continuity and garner leadership may not even see the field to open the season. Furthermore, neither player stood out during the preseason.
And while it's too early to judge if Seattle made the right signings, having both guys not fully involved in the first week of practice is not an ideal scenario for helping an already tenuous situation for the first-team offense. Can Seattle get off to a fast start, but potentially without two of their most heralded signings?
The Offensive Line Shuffle
As Gallery's status is uncertain, the question now becomes: who starts at left guard and will that change other parts of the five-man front?
Interestingly enough, Gallery's injury gives Seattle an opportunity to explore James Carpenter's versatility and potentially find a different continuity along the line. With the competition already ongoing at right tackle, Carpenter could find himself moved to left guard if Breno Giacomini or Tyler Polumbus prove capable.
Carpenter saw reps at left guard Monday; a left tackle in college, he feels more comfortable on the left side. Veteran Paul McQuistan is currently listed as the backup to Gallery and Tyler Polumbus has experience at the position.
All of the sudden, the expectations could be temporarily lifted off of Carpenter. Seattle may have an opportunity to not rush their rookie into the lineup, if they find a viable alternative, or perhaps alter how they handle his transition. The organization gets a chance to justify their decision to take Carpenter in the first round, displaying his versatility through a rough patch at right tackle.
Carpenter could be in a friendlier spot, no longer learning a new position on the fly and as a starter. The depth of the line is already being tested without Mike Gibson, valuable as a backup and spot starter in 2010, but released during final cuts days ago. Seattle could face an interesting decision in deciding where to put Carpenter to start the season.
Seattle has options when filling the absence of Gallery, especially with the expected return of Okung, and could decide to rotate lineman for a day or two; they rotated lineman against Oakland to learn more information about the potential combinations up front. Hopefully they can find a couple of lines that work and finalize a solid plan.
Will Seattle Have a Healthy Heater?
Over the course of the offseason I advocated for the Seahawks to give David Hawthorne an opportunity to compete for the starting middle linebacker spot. Admittedly, I was a bit surprised when the Seahawks outright released Lofa Tatupu—a mutual decision—and gave the job to Hawthorne.
This is his defense to lead, but he hasn't been on the field in a few weeks. Even though Hawthorne's natural position is the middle, I think his absence is concerning. They need Hawthorne to get his reps as leader and facilitator.
In breaking down Hawthorne's 2009 season, his leadership displayed through toughness immediately stood out. He drew blood on the bridge of his nose/forehead after hard hits in a couple of games, a MIKE linebacker warpaint if you will.
He's expected to practice this week and could play, but the team is anxiously waiting to see how the knee holds up. Is this a situation of pain tolerance or is there a risk in playing him if not completely healthy?
This is one of the most important situations to monitor, as Seattle will be at a huge disadvantage if they don't have Hawthorne to open the season against 49ers running back Frank Gore.
Trimming from 53 to 46; the Rookies Battle to Be Active on Game Day
The Seahawks currently have 11 rookies on the 53-man roster: one quarterback, two receivers, three offensive lineman, two linebackers and three defensive backs. It's unlikely they will all be active on the 46-man, game-day roster.
Newly acquired rookie offensive lineman Jarriel King is a developmental prospect, not currently candidate for a starting spot. The Seahawks will not be forced to activate Josh Portis on game day, even though the extra game-day spot added for 2011 makes room for a third quarterback; former college quarterback Michael Robinson can handle those duties if need be.
At wide receiver, defensive back and linebacker, the team may face tougher decisions. If Seattle's top four receivers are healthy, there may not be room for both Kris Durham and Doug Baldwin. Based on the current depth chart, Byron Maxwell and Jeron Johnson are at the bottom for their respective positions and potentially fighting for one spot. Does veteran Matt McCoy lose his spot on the active roster to either Malcolm Smith or K.J. Wright?
Coming from USC and Carroll's program, Smith knew "it's all about the ball" in the preseason and forced two fumbles; he also had three passes defended and was constantly around the ball. Maxwell became a menace on special teams as the preseason progressed, while Baldwin had a 105-yard return. Whether or not they all make the active roster for Week 1 is also dependent on how many players are scratched due to injury.
These roster spots could come down to who is the most consistent on special teams, fits certain roles in sub packages and has the versatility to play multiple spots.
Leadership Starts with the Coaching Staff and Is Picked Up by the Players
In summing up the preseason earlier in the week, I noted Pete Carroll is a believer in creating leadership through the coaching staff, which trickles down to the players. It's not up to the players to create leadership and Carroll is not one to use the saying, "There wasn't enough leadership in the locker room" as an excuse for his team.
Eric Williams of The News Tribune sat down with Carroll for an in-depth interview that was released on Labor Day. It was a great read. Among other things, Williams got Carroll to clarify how he feels about the lockerrooms' reception of his message and what the plan was going forward in terms of creating leadership:
Q: But do you feel that (you're still selling the message)?
Carroll: "I feel like the message is much clearer for the players—and we still have new guys and new coaches, and you’re always teaching—but I feel like the message is much clearer. And it’s always, when you’re talking about what you could be and then now you are, it makes everything stronger. I have refused to waver. I’m going to stick with it, and stay with what we believe in. And bring these guys to believe in it as well hopefully. And give us a mindset that helps us perform at a high level."
Q: You lost three core leaders from last year’s team in Matt Hasselbeck, Lofa Tatupu and Lawyer Milloy. The coach is always going to be the person steering the ship. But I imagine you want your lieutenants out there getting out the message as well. So how much more do you take on that role with those guys gone?
Carroll: "Here’s the deal. If you don’t have anybody who can carry the message for you, then the coach has to do it. And the assistant coaches have to do it. And I’ve always said that. I don’t want to be a coach that says, “Well, we would have had a really good year if we had better leadership.” I don’t buy into that. That’s not OK because we can lead for them."
His philosophy relies upon having a clear message that he can relay to the players; a basic vision that can be understood and easily adopted. The Seahawks had 10 players older than 30 in 2010 and now have only three. It's up to the staff to lead an efficient, energetic first week of practice with a clear message and game plan. They need to get it right on the road, and preferably right away
The staff believes if the team understands the message, the rest of the process will fall into place. Carroll wants high expectations—some would say unrealistic—to be a part of the program and for the players to believe in Carroll's goal of "owning the division," the staff must bring their "A" game. Then this young team will have a chance to perform up to those "unrealistic" standards and hit the ground running to start the season.