Seattle Seahawks Season Preview: 12 Biggest Concerns Heading into 2011

Charlie TodaroAnalyst IIISeptember 10, 2011

Seattle Seahawks Season Preview: 12 Biggest Concerns Heading into 2011

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    The Seahawks surprised with 284 roster transactions in year one of the Pete Carroll and John Schneider regime, en route to a division title. But, the intensity of year one served as a primer for the impact of the changes in year two. Only 10 old regime players made the active roster, and many questions exist.

    Seattle managed to squeak into the playoffs in 2010, but realized going into 2011 that squeaking in wasn't sustainable; with the extended offseason and a largely new coaching staff, now was the time to rebuild the roster and pursue continuity. 

    The Seahawks are the defending NFC West champs and intend to own the division, but they have a laundry list of concerns to tackle for their goal to become a reality.  

Will This Team Prove "It's All About the Ball?"

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    This is one of the main tenets of Carroll’s football philosophy; “turnover Thursday” is a regular part of the Seahawks’ practice routine. At USC, Pete Carroll won 53 straight games when they won the turnover battle; the Seahawks were a paltry -9 in turnover margin last season, in the bottom quarter of the league. 

    As a young team that will continually be working on learning Carroll's message, the importance of ball security and creating opportunities will be one of the most consistent messages preached to the players this season; the ball is the main focus in all phases of the game.

    On offense, the quarterback has to play within the game plan and nothing more. Matt Hasselbeck’s untimely turnovers contributed to Seattle’s 3-7 finish to the 2010 season and the Seahawks need Tarvaris Jackson to be a "game manager." Jackson came to Seattle because he knows the system; he needs to emphasize ball security.

    For all offensive players, ball security is more important than fighting too hard for an extra yard; running back Marshawn Lynch's three fumbles in 2010 all came while fighting multiple defenders, a tendency he must refine in 2011.

    On defense and special teams, the goal is to create opportunities by finding the football; knock at the ball when tackling, get hands up in passing lanes and take care of possession on returns before trying to create big plays--Leon Washington has "guidelines" for taking the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs.

    Seattle has gotten younger, more athletic, more aggressive and bigger; the defense was active forcing fumbles and breaking up passes this preseason; former USC linebacker Malcolm Smith caused multiple fumbles.

    Seattle must improve upon their -9 margin, which means taking better care of the football on offense and creating more opportunities on defense and special teams. Only five of the 14 teams that finished with the zero turnover margin or better missed the playoffs in 2010--the Rams were one of them. The Saints, Colts and Seahawks made the playoffs with a negative margin. Seattle must improve here or their playoff chances will be slim.   

Can They Stay Healthy?

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    For the Seahawks to gain continuity and take a collective step forward , they must find a way to remain healthier than they were in 2010--strength coach Chris Carlisle had a plan waiting during the lockout.

    The Seahawks dealt with injuries across the board; the offensive line started 11 different combinations, the defensive line lost Red Bryant for more than half the season and others for extended periods of time; the receiving corps constantly battled injuries and Matt Hasselbeck was a walking injury concern for the second half of the year.

    Simply put, the Seahawks were more than lucky to win the West given their injury troubles. After a long offseason and another vigorous roster churn during free agency, one would think the Seahawks are in a "healthy" position going into the season.

    One of my main hopes was that Seattle would spend their dollars, especially their big ones, on players with a history of health. Injuries happen, but a history of them is worrisome. As a team that struggled to gain continuity and consistency in 2010 due to injuries, a similar occurrence in 2011 would be unfortunate for the growth of program.

    Unfortunately, the processes has already begun; minus career Seahawk John Carlson, it's Seattle's major acquisitions who are bringing the pain, but not on the field. 

    Veteran defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson had a strong preseason, but is now on IR for the year. Even though he was signed on a one-year, $1 million contract, his experience and success with new defensive line coach Todd Wash created expectations he would be a factor for this defensive line. 

    Two role players down, but the troubles don't stop there.

    Robert Gallery–signed for three years, $15 million--has missed 14 games the past two seasons; he's doubtful for week one. Sidney Rice-- signed for five years, $41 million--has played 16 games in a season only once in his four-year career; before the 2011 season even begins, it looks like that number will grow to one for five.  

    Three of the major free agency acquisitions Seattle made to gain continuity and bring familiarity to the schemes are already backfiring-- one backfired for good. Seattle juggled the health of an over-30 left guards with a knee concern, multiple injuries to their number one receiver and along the defensive line in 2010; not the type of repeat the Seahawks want this season. 

Should There Be a Quarterback Competition...if So, When?

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    The quarterback situation and projecting the "competition" has been a consistent topic during the offseason and preseason.

    Carroll’s “game manager” is a quarterback who plays within his skill-set, commands the huddle, sticks to the offensive game plan and most importantly is a strong competitor. Carroll is not looking to throw the ball 40 times a game; rather, the goal is to alleviate the quarterback from shouldering the majority of the pressure. 

    Before free agency I advocated that instead of sticking Whitehurst into a situation where he could quite easily fail, the Seahawks needed to bring him along at the proper pace and put the team in a position to compete. By adding Jackson, they implemented a plan that didn't treat Charlie Whitehurst as a Band-Aid and gave the position a floor to stand on.

    Carroll adamantly pointed out over the course of the preseason; the reason for acquiring Jackson was because of the unique offseason. Having a quarterback in the huddle who has been within the system is a major advantage; Jackson has been with new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell for the past five years. And while many pundits simply don't see Jackson as the answer, Carroll believes, at least publicly, that Jackson has the makings of a franchise quarterback.

    Though Jackson's performance has been disappointing to many, he really has performed solidly given his opportunities. Yes, the first unit offense needed to face Denver's second team offense to score; but Denver's first team offense spent a half running through the Seahawks' offensive line. Versus Oakland, Jackson showed more improvement despite the interception in the red zone.

    So where does that stand heading into the regular season? Carroll admittedly nixed competition for the greater good of the team, choosing a competitive ballclub over a competition at the position; but also admitted Whitehurst is coming along more quickly than expected. For this process to maintain "clarity" going forward, Carroll needs to stick to the plan.

    Since Jackson was acquired, the plan has been to put him in an optimal position to succeed. There should be a quarterback competition if and when Charlie Whitehurst gives the team an equal chance to compete, and creating that competition is not done at the greater expense of the team.

    If Jackson starts the season at least adequately, it's hard to imagine Carroll pulling the plug before the bye, week 6; only if Whitehurst truly proves ready to compete, which he hasn't yet, should there be a competition. But if Jackson struggles to start the season, Carroll could be forced to make a decision and perhaps more quickly than he would like.  

Can the Half-Ton Trio, David Hawthorne and Co. Lead a Stout Run Defense?

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    The Seahawks are relying upon the trio of Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch to anchor the run defense in front of a remade linebacking corps led by David Hawthorne.

    Pete Carroll moved Red Bryant from defensive tackle to 5-technique end before the 2010 season; the Seahawks' run defense was ranked second through six games, before Bryant was lost for the year and other crucial injuries piled up. What many saw as a crazy-Carroll move, moving Bryant outside, ended up working very well. However, the team was unable to adapt when Bryant went down. 

    Bryant is now back healthy and has looked like an enforcer along the defensive line, welcome news for the organization.

    However, 2011 brings more changes to juggle as well. Colin Cole has been replaced by Brandon Mebane – Mebane having his best year at nose tackle in 2008 – and Alan Branch now assumes Mebane's 3-technique spot. Branch has similar mobility to Bryant and great balance for a 6'6", 330 pound tackle; he can backup Red Bryant if need be. This is perhaps my favorite offseason acquisition, as they failed to find this type of player in the draft.

    This trio is a solid foundation for stopping the run, as long as they can stay healthy and get the time needed to gel. With the Seahawks' big three, the defensive line can use a variety of alignments, both one and two gapping, as they scheme the rest of the defense

    The question is do they have the depth, especially if injuries again become a concern. They released veteran Junior Siavii in favor of little known Al Woods, who worked with Todd Wash in Tampa. 

    The question marks don't stop there  Yes, I was one to advocate for David Hawthorne to get a chance play in the middle. Hawthorne is a true middle linebacker and his nickname, "the heater", accurately describes his mentality on the field. But, that's not to say the move will be made without growing pains.  

    He's missed two preseason games and the defense is more used to playing with K.J. Wright in the middle--both rookies, Wright and Malcolm Smith need to be reliable depth. Veteran Leroy Hill is back from injury and could be a vital piece of the defense, but whether or not he can remain healthy is a question; everyone knows the ups and downs of Aaron Curry, but there is no doubt the defense will be better if he can have his most disciplined year yet.

    It's no secret Pete Carroll's defense starts with stopping the run. The optimism garnered by the fast start in 2010 has raised expectations that the run defense can perform similarly over a full season.

    The addition of Branch and the position switch for Mebane were moves to enhance the scheme, and Hawthorne brings youth to the middle. Much of the outside focus has been on the changes on the offensive side of the ball; one of the main keys for success is making sure this re-tooled defensive line can control the line of scrimmage and the linebackers can make plays when the ball comes through the hole.  

Where Will the Pass Rush Come From?

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    Seattle registered 37 sacks in 2010, creating pressure in a variety of ways.

    The majority of pressure came from defensive ends Chris Clemons and Raheem Brock who combined for 20 sacks; though the statement is a bit misleading. Brock had nine sacks, but only one came when Seattle blitzed.

    Clemons on the other hand registered seven of 11 sacks when Seattle blitzed. Though not a definitive statistic, Seattle's pressure packages helped created favorable matchups for Clemons as the Leo rusher.

    Both players are coming off of career seasons and to expecting them both to perform similarly is not a safe assumption. Seattle needs to get a pass rush from its interior rotational lineman--Seattle traded Kelly Jennings for interior rusher Clinton McDonald, but he has been with the team for one game.

    Leroy Hill used to be a force rushing the passer; rookie linebackers Malcolm Smith and K.J. Wright proved capable of getting to the passer this preseason, but unable to finish; 2010 seventh round pick Dexter Davis was almost non-existent this preseason and must step up.

    I expect the Seahawks to continue experimenting with the seven defensive back "bandit" package--unveiled against Chicago in week 6 of 2010, producing 3.5 sacks by the secondary--and other sub packages; I'm hoping for a brother to the "bandit.

    The key for Seattle is having a stout enough run defense and solid enough secondary play that they don't have to continually manufacture pass rush. New versatility along the defensive line – the Seahawks signed Jimmy Wilkerson type Anthony Hargrove to play end on run downs and kick inside for passing situations--should help Seattle create combinations that allow them to drop six to eight men in coverage.

    But we saw this preseason that when Seattle dropped more than they rushed, they were often unable to get any push up front; to say the least, this is a major concern. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley must find a way to tow the line between creating pressure and exposing a young secondary.

    If Seattle's run defense is stout enough, creating pressure won't be as much of an issue; but if the interior breaks down and they can't create the desired matchups, Seattle will fight being exposed when they have to manufacture a pass rush...

Can Brandon Browner, Atari Bigby and the Rookies Shore Up a Shabby Secondary?

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    ...Unless this group proves wise beyond their years. 

    In the pre-draft press conference, Pete Carroll described the secondary play from 2010 "shabby, at times;" they were 31st in the league giving up 20-plus yard pass plays, 26th for pass plays over 40 yards and among the league's worst in other pass defense categories.

    The Seahawks had veteran Marcus Trufant and the foundation of Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Walter Thurmond and Marcus Trufant to build; the question was whether or not they could find the pieces to complement that foursome in the draft. 

    They drafted three defensive backs; Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell corners that made the 53 man roster--safety Mark LeGree was cut. They also found undrafted free agent Jeron Johnson, who unexpectedly made the cut.

    But perhaps the biggest addition in the secondary happened long before that pre-draft press conference even occurred.

    Many felt the Seahawks would strongly consider a cornerback early in the draft. But it's become increasingly clear that the reason they waited until the middle of third day was because they wanted to get the 6'4," 221 pound, former CFL All-Pro Brandon Browner in the mix.

    Now he's starting opposite Marcus Trufant opening day. Three of the five reserve defensive backs are rookies and former Packer Atari Bigby brings depth, versatility and experience. The Seahawks have a group of defensive backs that fit the scheme; they have the versatility and interchangeability to mix and match, be aggressive in press coverage and use different defenders in a variety of roles.

    Earl Thomas can be used as a chess piece and Trufant provides the leadership the secondary needs. They've become bigger, more athletic and possess more playmaking ability as a group. The rookies are expected to contribute in defensive of back heavy or situational packages, simply maintaining their role in the scheme and finding the football.

    Carroll's been gushing about Browner--up to this point a "misfit" at corner for being too big or too slow--and the organization has been pleased with their young contributors. There is a lot of playmaking potential for this unit, but the key is minimizing breakdowns and creating stability as the last line of the defense.   

Will the O-Line Stabilize; Does Cable Do Whatever Is Necessary to Get It Right?

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    Offensive line coach Tom Cable was brought to Seattle to resurrect an anemic rushing attack that ranked 31st in the league last season; expectations are high that Seattle will improve in 2011. 

    However, the offensive line has been a question mark throughout the entire off-season and the preseason did little to bring clarity to the situation; there has already been an ultimatum week, and it's not even week 1.

    We saw a group with new starters at four positions and they showed that discontinuity on the field. The first unit pass protection was a major issue and the running game was simply OK.

    Heading into the season there is already shuffling. Because of Robert Gallery's of injury, rookie right tackle James Carpenter now moves to left guard; Breno Giacomini has flashed enough for the organization to give him a shot at right tackle,  a guy with enough "nasty" to irritate veteran Raheem Brock.

    And while the move might be temporary, as it would be surprising to see the veteran Gallery lose his job, Seattle's already proving they will do what is necessary to find continuity up front; they are in this for the long term.

    After the preseason  I discussed the possibility of Carpenter moving to left guard. He's a natural fit on the left side and he has struggled with his transition to the right side; add the expectations that come with an unexpected first-round pick, and Carpenter is in a position of scrutiny. 

    Moving him left and giving Giacomini a chance puts Carpenter in position to succeed for long term, by simply allowing him to adjusted to the NFL before adjusting to a new position.

    But what happens if this move works? Gallery missed four of the first five games in 2010 and this was not an off-season conducive to players being in shape and fully healthy. As Seattle did not go after a younger, more versatile, bigger money offensive lineman in free agency, they are committed to the group of eight to ten lineman they've been developing; or at lease feel they need to give them a legitimate chance.

    Gallery could get healthy, find himself at left guard in week two and stay there for the rest of the season; but if the ideal scenario does not occur–include good health of both Russell Okung and Max Unger as part of that scenario– where does Seattle draw the line between creating continuity for 2011 and experimenting for the future? 

Can They Balance the Touches in the Backfield?

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    The Seahawks' backfield trio of Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington and Justin Forsett has the potential to be one of the most productive threesomes in the league; now that Washington is fully healthy, the key is creating balance in the backfield.

    Lynch is a complete back, but Washington and Forsett complement him to the point where they both need to be involved. Given that Lynch is technically the power back, fresh legs are important. The Seahawks have three backs that can run inside, contribute in pass protection and be a threat out of the backfield--given Bevell's history using Chester Taylor in Minnesota, their receiving production should increase. 

    How should the balance were going forward? Personally, I'd like to see the combination of Washington and Forsett get an equal number of touches to Lynch. Instead of Seattle using Lynch on first and second downs and the other two on third, Seattle needs to use all backs on all downs. 

    The Seahawks featured Washington in the preseason, as they felt they needed to learn more about his skill set; he excelled, showing the ability to both run inside in the zone scheme and be a threat out of the backfield on screens. The next step is expanding his use in the passing game, with a more versatile package of routes out of the backfield--Leon Washington on a wheel route for a big play is on top of my wishlist for 2011. 

    Forsett's combination of explosiveness, vision and undersized-toughness make him as reliable as any change of pace back in the league; he's been in the backfield with Marshawn Lynch since college, best friends with complementary running styles.

    Pete Carroll wants a power running game. The progression of Michael Robinson's growth as a fullback will be important to the success of this group as a whole, but the key is to make sure each player gets their touches and in more ways than simply running the football. Pete Carroll preaches balance; the usage of the backs will be one of the most telling tests for this season.  

Can Seattle Mix and Match Personnel to Create a Balanced Offense?

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    Over the course of the preseason the Seahawks have seen many faces emerge as potential playmakers.  Pete Carroll's game manager quarterback must use his weapons to create a balanced, explosive offense; can Seattle integrate all of their weapons into the offense?

    The short passing game is an extension of the running game—screens to the running backs and short throws to tight ends—helping create downfield opportunities. Expect a movement oriented, versatile “west coast” offense under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell; we should see play action and the quarterback on the move quite a bit. The hope is Jackson's athleticism can open up the field.

    If Sidney Rice can get on the field, we've seen his upside. Mike Williams, Ben Obomanu and Golden Tate are all looking to improve on their 2010 seasons. Rookies Doug Baldwin and Kris Durham will be fighting for an active roster spot all season.

    We've already covered the versatility of the running backs; and as explored earlier in the off-season and seen throughout the preseason, tight ends--Zach Miller, Dominuque Byrd and Anthony McCoy--will be key factors in this offense, playing a variety of roles.

    Separate of the fact of whether or not the Seahawks have the right quarterback to distribute the football, they have a lot of weapons at their disposal. Having a balanced offense entails getting the ball to all of these players and in the variety of ways.

    Some examples: using receivers in the running game and running backs in the passing game, using motion to create bunched formations and manufacture open receivers, consistently using tight ends as safety valves or down the middle the field. The goal is to find the mismatches and if they're not there, create them.

    Carroll consistently spoke of the offenses struggles to "mix and match" in 2010 under coordinator Jeremy Bates. Darell Bevell is a coordinator who strives for a balanced offense and has received nothing but high praise from Pete Carroll.

    To an extent, play calling will be a product of the success on the offensive line, as the quality of protection up front will determine if extra protection with backs and tight ends is necessary; thus, potentially limiting the playbook and production of some, like we saw with Carlson in 2010.

    The challenge for this offense will be finding a way to get all of their young playmakers the ball when Jackson has the opportunity--he must continue to make progress with keeping his eyes down field and finding receivers. Carroll expects his quarterback to understand who is on the field and how that affects the offense. 

    Carroll made drastic changes on offense to create a staff that can better facilitate the offensive approach; a lack of offensive balance in 2011 would be a major disappointment for this organization, and raise questions as to whether or not Carroll made the right hire. Bevell must find a way to get all of their weapons involved and the quarterback needs to execute.

Another Special Season on Special Teams?

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    The Seahawks had a strong special teams unit in 2010, Leon Washington one of the most dangerous returners and Olindo Mare among the leagues most consistent kickers.

    Mare is gone, now a member of the Carolina Panthers. He converted nearly 90% of his field goals in three seasons with the team and they are relying on young legged Steven Hauschka--replacing Jeff Reed, who was cut after the preseason--and his 73% career conversion rate to pick up the slack. 

    Seattle has also lost other key members on special teams. Will Herring was a heavy hittter, Jordan Babineaux had been with the team for nearly a decade, Kennard Cox blocked a punt in 2010 and Craig Terrill blocked three kicks.

    This group was inconsistent this preseason. But after a kickoff return for touchdown allowed in the first week, their performance improved; mainly as the team learned which players were capable.

    Rookie Byron Maxwell stepped up as a special teams menace during the preseason and Doug Baldwin registered a 105 yard kickoff return for touchdown. Seattle needs other rookies to step up and the coaching staff needs a repeat performance after creating a solid unit last season.

    One major question; with kickoff now moved up to the 35 yard line, how much of a reduction does Leon Washington see in return attempts? Last season, he had three kickoff returns for touchdown and was tripped up on a punt return inside the 10. The return-teams need to make sure that whenever Washington touches the ball he has an opportunity to make a big play.

    In general, Seattle needs strong play out of this group once again. The influx of youth and athleticism should help the cause, but it remains to be seen whether or not a lack of experience will stand out. A shabby special teams unit could be the difference between competing for the division and jockeying for a top 10 draft pick. 

Can They Maintain Continuity and Commitment?

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    The Seahawks have made drastic changes within the coaching staff going into 2011; a new assistant head coach/offensive line coach (Tom Cable), offensive coordinator (Darrell Bevell), quarterback coach (Carl Smith), defensive line coach (Todd Wash) and movement among the secondary staff (Kris Richard and Rocky Seto getting promotions) is a lot of change.

    Add the fact this roster has more rookies (11) than old regime players currently active (10), this team appears en route to a fragmented season.

    However, creating continuity through these coaching changes has been a goal of Pete Carroll's since day one--he believes the addition of Carl Smith is a huge asset. And while 2010 was about "selling" the program, Carroll believes the message is ingrained going into 2011. 

    As mentioned previously, Carroll thinks that team leadership, effort, enthusiasm, strong preparation—the “always compete” mantra-- start with the coaching staff; it’s the coaching staffs job to set the tone and allow the players to be in an environment conducive to winning.

    The coaches must facilitate unity and a belief among the players that the NFC West is theirs to “own;” the only way to “own” the West is for the players to play within the scheme and abide by the principles of the program, “buy in.”

    Though Carroll believes the message is no longer being sold, we won't know until the season progresses and they have to overcome adversity whether or not this group understands better than last season.

    Matt Hasselbeck wasn't re-signed, Lofa Tatupu was released and 2010 special teams captain Roy Lewis starts the season on the PUP list; leadership will inevitably emerge, but is it strong enough and does it appear before the team slips into a mid-season slide?

Can Seattle Repeat as NFC West Champions?

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    Going into the offseason I thought the Seahawks were 4 to 6 starters, 8 to 10 players from being a contender in the NFC; though Seattle has added depth all positions, I don't think the changes to the starting lineup guarantee a division title in 2011.

    The Seahawks may be a more talented team than they were in 2010, but there are simply too many new and uncertain parts.  General Manager John Schneider has engineered two offseasons of vigorous roster changes and most of the core for the future is now in place.

    Unrealistic expectations are part of Pete Carroll's program; even though this is a young team that still needs to mature together, don't expect Carroll to waver. His program is based on setting goals high and working with enthusiasm and diligence to get there.  

    This is a different team than in 2010. They are a younger, bigger, more athletic group that will compete and learn through the growing pains. Expect this team to play hard and continually attempt to defy expectations. Considering they play in the NFC West, where 7-9 can make playoff dreams happen, anything is possible.   

    They will have ups and downs; this is a program where a 6-10 type season should not be indicative of the future. Regardless of results, the Seahawks hope to remember 2011 as the year they took a major step forward, creating a team a few pieces away from being perennial contenders in the NFC.