Seahawks vs. Broncos: 10 Themes To Watch as 'Hawks Hit the Road Preseason Week 3

Charlie TodaroAnalyst IIIAugust 26, 2011

Seahawks vs. Broncos: 10 Themes To Watch as 'Hawks Hit the Road Preseason Week 3

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    The Seahawks are going into their third preseason game with one simple goal: to improve in all phases and eliminate the penalties and sloppy play that plagued them in Week 2.

    This week has been the most intense week of preparation thus far; game plans were handed out, film study was a part of the preparation, practices were more scripted and players are simply becoming more accustomed as to how to compete during the week. 

    In Denver, they're looking to build momentum with their first units and figure out who will make the 80-man roster—let alone the 53-man roster after Week 4. They're also hoping to get opportunities to work on crucial game situations that will prepare them for the regular season.

    Here are 10 themes to watch as the Seahawks play their final preseason road game—the last chance to get it "right" on the road before the season begins. 

A More Formal Introduction to the First Unit Offense

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    One of the most scrutinized areas for the Seahawks this preseason has been the first unit offense—and for legitimate reason.

    The focus this week in practice was simply getting better. The Seahawks are looking forward to executing a game plan—at least for a half—for the first time this preseason—their first attempt at teaching the players how to understand the process of preparation before a game.

    As training camp has felt "rushed," this is their best opportunity to prepare as they would during the season. The onus is on getting ready to play, so game day feels as natural as possible given the restraints. As all teams are facing the challenge of a rushed training camp, it's simply a matter of minimizing the mistakes.

    One position to watch closely is the increased involvement of the tight ends, which has been a topic of note throughout the preseason. But now as we are closing in on the regular season, expect to see more variation with how this group is used—more movement, mismatches and potentially three tight end sets

    Another aspect of the offense I'm looking forward to seeing is more continuity from the first team receivers. The return of Ben Obomanu should be a welcome addition, a versatile receiver who can be used all over the field to complement both Williams and Rice.

    The position under the largest spotlight is the offensive line. Tom Cable noted the biggest problem with offensive line is "not doing a good job of keeping the pocket integrity."

    They need to keep the pocket cleaner—give it more structure so the quarterback has passing lanes and room to move. This is a group that simply needs reps. But youth will be a constant issue, but they are improving as time goes on according to Cable—does anyone from a solid second unit eventually get a chance. 

    On the whole, the first unit will look to establish a rhythm and gain continuity—a major focus on limiting the penalties. They must protect the quarterback, and the skill position players must continue to grow as a group, by helping the quarterback in the passing game and contributing in the running game.

"Move the Ball and Put Some Points on the Board;" Can Jackson Carry the Offense?

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    Above are the words of Jackson, regarding his goal for the first team offense on Saturday.

    Jackson's interview was interesting because he's been practicing extensively with the team. It was his most informative interview to this point, in terms of learning what Jackson knows about the offense and what he understands his role to be.

    First, he offered the most difficult part about the transition from college to the pros was adjusting to reading NFL defenses and moving from "one side of the field" reads to "full field" reads. But, he confidently noted he's been in the offense for five years. Now, he gets it.

    In terms of heading into the week, he talked about the importance of practice—practicing right to play right, which happens to be a core principle of Carroll's philosophy.  

    He knows he must get everyone on the same page and moving in the right direction, consistent enough to put some points on the board and move the ball. As a unit, they need to get more conditioned and execute a normal game tempo—which includes improved communication—so they can stay "ahead of the stick." 

    In terms of his personal responsibilities: be more consistent and accurate, on target, make quick decisions, improve the passing game on the outside and get the running game going to complete the offense, take care of protections and reads, eliminate penalties and turnovers to zero if possible, and most importantly, get into the end zone.

    But perhaps the most polarizing comment by Jackson was a one-liner, slipped into the conversation. When mentioning the changes within the division he bluntly noted "...we have a new starting quarterback in Seattle, too..."

    Jackson hasn't done much on the field to impress the 12th man, but he sounds like a quarterback who absolutely knows that. He doesn't sound like someone who came to Seattle to simply compete for a job. He's here to lead this team.

    It's clear he's willing to buy into Carroll and his philosophies, confident he can making things right in his career. The next step is for that confidence to shift on to the field Saturday

David Hawthorne Is Out; Do We See a Game of Musical Chairs at Linebacker?

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    The Seahawks' linebacking corps is already undergoing a transition from Lofa Tatupu to David Hawthorne in the middle. The defense is getting their first opportunity to see what life is like without Hawthorne—sooner than they hoped—who will be out with a knee injury.

    K.J. Wright will get his first opportunity to start in the middle—a new position for the unique player. Wright stepped up in practice this week. He's a bright rookie and natural football player that is understanding the position more quickly than anticipated. 

    The question is: will he be able to hold is own on the field? His unique length will be an asset in coverage, but can he hold up to the rigors of being a first-unit middle linebacker?

    Both Leroy Hill and Aaron Curry suffered knee injuries in last week's game as well, but they will play. This should help Wright a bit, but in general, it'll be a good test for the depth at linebacker. 

    I'm also looking forward to seeing new free-agent acquisition David Vobora. Former Seahawk Will Herring is a player that I thought was important to retain because of his special teams leadership and versatility as a backup.

    Vobora is the first player they have brought in, at least in my opinion, that can potentially fill that role. He can provide depth across the position and also offer the veteran presence the Seahawks need to round out their linebacking group.

    With Hawthorne out and the new addition of Vobora—also with the experiment of Wright in the middle--it's possible the Seahawks decide that they need to use this opportunity to see who can play where, experimenting and evaluating as they move closer to crafting the final roster. 

Leon Washington's Breakout Game?

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    Rumors of Leon Washington's improved health were quickly affirmed in the first preseason game, when he was a prominent member of the offense. He showed the burst and elusiveness all Seahawks fans were hoping for when he was acquired from the New York Jets.

    From the start of the preseason, I have been encouraged by how the Seahawks have used Washington. They've given him the ball in space on screens and let him run between the tackles. Even though he has a reputation as an undersized scat back, he is a more complete player than he often receives credit for.

    This week, look for Washington's role to increase even more as Lynch will not play with an ankle injury. The Seahawks know Washington is a versatile weapon, but they are unsure about the best ways to use him. 

    I expect Seattle to keep experimenting with him, finding ways to implement his skills as more than just a change of pace back; I'd really like to see the quarterback look one way, perhaps on play action, with Washington on a wheel route out the backside, matched up on a linebacker or even a defensive end.

    I don't necessarily expect him to keep such a large role during the season, but this is the perfect opportunity for the Seahawks to learn which situations Washington can be most useful in–preseason game film providing hints for disguising his role as the season wears on.

Gaining Clarity Along the Defensive Line

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    This weekend, we will see more from the Seahawks defensive line than we have thus far. Now that Red Bryant is back healthy and Chris Clemons is playing for the first time, I expect the Seahawks to experiment with their top two units to find out who will play which roles as part of their primary rotation.

    I believe the following players are locks; Red Bryant, Alan Branch, Brandon Mebane, Chris Clemons, Raheem Brock, Jimmy Wilkerson, Junior Siavii.

    Kentwan Balmer was a potential member of that group until his release earlier in the week. Many were surprised and feel the position is now lacking manpower, but I personally liked the release—he was immediately claimed by Carolina, though I'd imagine Seattle explored if there was potential for a trade before his release.

    During the offseason, I highlighted Balmer twice—here and here—as a player who could be easily replaced if he wasn't able to maintain his health in the offseason and come into camp willing to show a motor strong enough to keep him on the roster in favor of younger, versatile, hungrier players. 

    With Colin Cole likely out for a large portion of the season, Seattle doesn't necessarily have sure depth behind the front seven guys. I believe they have found a group of players that fit Seattle's mentality better than Balmer—a former first-round pick who has failed to live up to expectations.

    Guys I'm watching to step up into his position are Jay Alford—pictured sacking Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII—Pep Levingston and David Howard.

    Unknown Maurice Fountain I believe was the unexpected bright spot of last week's second half, and I'm looking forward to seeing if he can back it up this week. Not a group of household names, but a group that I think creates a better fit than Balmer.

    Two players I'm concerned about are Dexter Davis and Pierre Allen. Davis is a linebacker-type pass-rusher in his second year, struggling with a hip injury. Allen is promising rookie but will be missing a second straight game with a hamstring issue.

    Allen in particular is a player who can bring versatility and strength to the line. Both are guys Seattle will need healthy to learn if they have depth in their rotation.

    Without these two and no longer with Balmer, the major questions are: will the top guys in the rotation prove deep and versatile enough to give Seattle the manpower they need to execute with the first team, and can they find the depth needed to spell the main rotation without having to dip into the free-agent pool? 

The Secondary Competition Is Coming Down to the Wire; Who Jumps out in Front?

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    As the preseason has progressed, the secondary has become one of the more intriguing and competitive groups on the roster, unexpectedly to those who are unfamiliar with the new talent.

    However, this is a group that, with the addition of Brandon Browner before the lockout and the talent added through the draft and undrafted free agency, exemplifies what Carroll is looking for the secondary. The downside is they are a unit that simply needs to go through the growing pains before they become a group to be reckoned with.

    The Seahawks are yet to field a full-strength secondary this preseason, but now, presumed No. 2 corner Walter Thurmond returns from his ankle injury. He was looking more explosive than last season when camp started–he was coming off major knee surgery in 2010– and still explosive is after his return. The coaches have been extremely impressed with his quickness.

    The Seahawks are aware that he doesn't have a practice portfolio and will most likely be prone to making mistakes. But simply getting Thurmond back on the field is a victory—expect to see him in nickel situations at the least. 

    Kam Chancellor had a strong preseason to this point, but he will not play this weekend due to injury. Josh Pinkard will fill in. He was in position to take over a reserve safety role when the preseason started; as a former college corner with a knack for making big plays, his mentality and versatility fit with this defense. Another good game for "Pink" and he could become a near lock for the final roster.

    We also learned this week that Roy Lewis will begin the season on the PUP list, which makes room for Kelly Jennings as a slot corner. But, will Jennings remain ahead of Browner this weekend, or does the 6'4" corner finally get the shot he deserves?

    For the second week in a row, I'm watching to see Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell and Jeron Johnson. Can they continue to make their cases for the practice squad and potentially the 53-man roster?

    One player who hasn't performed up to "expectations" is Mark LeGree. This is a big week for him, if he gets the opportunity to see the field.

    The Broncos are undergoing a transition to a new coaching staff but have a solid group of receivers and a veteran quarterback that relies on intelligence and accuracy.

    However, they also have inexperienced backups that could create turnover opportunities for Seattle. This will be a good test for the young cornerbacks.

Moving Day for Charlie Whitehurst

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    While Charlie Whitehurst is currently not in a competition for starting quarterback job, his strong play through two weeks has impressed the coaching staff and potentially put him on a faster track to entering a competition, especially if Jackson continues to struggle.

    I used a golf analogy on Monday to describe the Whitehurst-Jackson situation. Given the fact that Whitehurst went head-to-head with senior pro Jay Don Blake at practice in a "closest to the pin" competition the next day, it feels appropriate to continue with another analogy.

    Whitehurst is from Georgia and likely knows that the SEC isn't only a powerhouse in football. The Southeast has a strong pool of young, competitive golfers—Gig Harbor, Washington's own Kyle Stanley recently excelled as a golfer at Clemson and is now pro; he has made the cut in two majors.  

    Though Jackson is firmly in the lead, Whitehurst has another slim opportunity to emerge as a potential threat. For Whitehurst, Saturday is "moving day;" Saturday is moving day in a traditional PGA golf tourney.

    It's his chance to move up the "leaderboard" and put pressure on Jackson; if Whitehurst can gain momentum with his limited playing time in Denver, what happens if he plays absolutely lights out in the final preseason game?

    There's no doubt the 12th man will have Whitehurst's back, especially if Jackson's performance remains flat. If Whitehurst continues to close the gap for the next two games, presumably competition could be on the horizon.

    Whitehurst noted that after Blake hit his shot only a few feet from the pin during the competition, it forced him to change his approach.

    If Jackson and the first unit have a strong showing in Denver, does Whitehurst change his approach when he enters the game. Does he take out that fourth wedge, used for the short passing game, and throw a two iron and a hybrid in the bag to improve his downfield arsenal?

    If he's only going to play only five holes or so, let the driver rip on one of those downfield reads that should be open. He's been decent putting—helping lead a comeback—and had a couple of burned edges, maybe a lip-out, last week.

    His strong play to this point has put him in a unique position heading into Saturday. He's been a surprise to the coaching staff and is looking to continue his strong competition against himself, and potentially Jackson. Hopefully, Whitehurst has a complete set of clubs in the bag this weekend.

Will Golden Tate See a Reduced Role?

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    Unfortunately for Golden Tate, his poor performance in the second preseason game re-awakened the whispers that he potentially is a bust. After a scared return on the opening kickoff, a drop on the first pass of the game and tipping a ball that caused an interception, Carroll pulled Tate in an effort to get his head right and stop the headaches.

    With the return of Ben Obomanu and the emergence of Doug Baldwin, it's worth questioning how big of a role Tate sees with the first team in Denver. The combination of those two potentially brings Tate's skill set, but with more experience—Obomanu—and perhaps consistency—at least shown by Baldwin's play this preseason.

    It's no secret Tate has been in line for a big role, expected to play the Percy Harvin like role in the passing game out of the slot and also in the running game. Thus far, he's been unable to do so.

    While it would be surprising to see Tate omitted from the final roster, he needs to prove he can bounce back from one of the poorest performances of his young career.

    Carroll and the organization have high expectations for the long-term vision of what Tate can bring to this team, but are they willing to sacrifice short-term efficiency? 

    Seattle is deep enough at the position to experiment for the final two preseason games. How much does last week's poor game effect Tate's short-term standing with the team? 

Beginning to Fill the Final 53

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    While the first team will play through the third quarter on Saturday, the second and third teams will get a limited chance to the distinguish themselves before the 80-man cut, and ultimately, after Week 4. 

    The Seahawks managed to find contributors in free agency and undrafted free agents that have complemented the rest of the roster. Now, both players and coaches are learning which players can be depended upon in certain situations, gaining clarity on both sides of the ball.

    In particular, the second-unit offensive line has been a strong group of veterans. The potential depth along the defensive line and in the secondary has been a surprise as well. 

    High-energy, team-first, tough players who are willing to do as the coaching staff asks—such as K.J. Wright—have a stronger chance of making the roster.

    The Seahawks need to make sure the depth of their program is strong and as willing as possible. Who can contribute on special teams or is capable of playing more than just one position?

    Beyond the players who have received attention thus far—include Kris Durham and Malcolm Smith—I'm watching the following players to see if they can make enough of the contribution to, at the very least, make the 80-man roster and then fight their way onto the 53 or practice squad;

    Mark LeGree, Ricardo Lockette, Jesse Hoffman, Ron Parker, Dorson Boyce, Jameson Konz, Isaiah Stanback, A.J. Schable, Vai Taua, Ricky Thenarse, Michael Morgan, Ryan Travis, Chris Carter.

    It's important to note the Seahawks made some major changes after final cuts last year, before the regular season started. They acquired players such as Raheem Brock, Michael Robinson and Junior Siavii.

    Whether or not they make drastic moves this year remains to be seen, but it does not appear they will need to fill as many major holes heading into Week 1 as they did last season.

    The position battles to make the final roster spots will be one of the more intriguing aspects to watch in the final two weeks.

Will We Finally See Jeff Reed...and Do We See Progress on Special Teams?

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    The Seahawks are hoping that veteran kicker Jeff Reed can be the answer for departed veteran Olindo Mare.

    Reed has Super Bowl experience but has not been himself in recent seasons; though nursing a slight injury this preseason, he was given the opportunity to win the job as Brandon Coutu was released. 

    The issue is the Seahawks' offense hasn't really given any kicker an opportunity to show the team much. Kickoff coverage was an issue in Game 1, partly due to the shortness of Coutu's kickoffs, but Reed is yet to attempt a field goal.

    On the road, in the thin air, will present Reed with an opportunity he must take advantage of.

    Beyond Reed, I'm watching to see the evolution of the special teams unit. As mentioned earlier, Vobora could play a key role with veterans Matt McCoy and Michael Robinson.

    Byron Maxwell, Jeron Johnson and Josh Pinkard are three guys I'm watching on special teams–in addition to on defense–as players that could step up. Do we see a fresh face beyond those three making an impact on special teams?

    Can Golden Tate rekindle memories of last year's regular-season game in Denver, perhaps his most productive game of the 2010?

    I'm hoping we begin to see answers from this unit on Saturday.


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