Defense needs to keep improving for Seahawks

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that. Coming off their first 10-win season since 1986, the Seahawks enter this season with heightened expectations. Like winning a playoff game -- something the franchise hasn't experienced since 1984. Seattle came oh-so-close with that overtime loss in the wild-card round at Green Bay last January. The Seahawks emerged from that game feeling like a team on the verge of big things. And with St. Louis apparently taking a step backward in the NFC West, this should be the year for Seattle to win the division and, possibly, secure a playoff game at home. The offense, which ranked sixth overall in 2003, returns intact. Four starters are coming off Pro Bowl seasons, beginning with precocious QB Matt Hasselbeck. "We'll take the ball, and we're gonna score," was how he christened the OT coin toss in that memorable wild-card game at Lambeau Field. Never mind that the Packers prevailed; Hasselbeck was serving notice that the Seahawks had arrived. Almost, anyway. While the defense was vastly improved in Ray Rhodes' first season as coordinator, jumping to a No. 19 ranking, that side of the ball must take another step forward if Seattle is serious about contending. Rhodes will miss his best pass rusher, injured OLB Chad Brown, for at least the first four games. If the defense can avoid suffering similar injuries to key players, Rhodes should be able to approach the top-10 ranking a defense generally needs to contend for a championship. Quarterbacks: Hasselbeck owns all the tools to win the big games. He's tough, fiery, accurate and loved by his teammates. Few passers throw so accurately on the move, a skill Hasselbeck often uses to make plays downfield. The big concern is whether Hasselbeck can stay healthy. The team has asked Hasselbeck to avoid taking some of the hits he sometimes welcomes by scrambling when he might otherwise throw the ball away. Hasselbeck's health, while important, isn't as critical as it was a year ago. That's because backup QB Trent Dilfer is in better shape this year, while No. 3 QB Seneca Wallace has shown an ability to make plays through the air or on the ground. Grade: A. Running backs: This is a contract year for Shaun Alexander, and he is precisely the type of player who performs his best when the stakes are highest. There is no reason to expect anything other than another Pro Bowl-caliber season from the man with 44 rushing TDs over the last three years. Still, the team would like Alexander to improve his blocking and receiving skills. While the 27-year-old Alexander has improved in these areas, running will remain his strong suit by a wide margin. The Seahawks can live with that as long as they continue to get solid production from the FB position. Mack Strong is 33 years old and showing no signs of slowing. He is a very good blocker with better receiving and running skills than one might expect. Maurice Morris and Kerry Carter are in the running to replace Alexander should the former No. 1 choice leave via free agency. But for now, they figure to get only a few carries. Grade: A-minus. Receivers: Some wondered whether the Seahawks might pursue a veteran free agent to further strengthen a group that already includes Koren Robinson, Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram. The team decided otherwise, and for good reason. TEs Itula Mili and Jerramy Stevens appear ready to provide coach Mike Holmgren with the double-barrel threat he long envisioned. The key is the continuing development of Stevens, a player who finally appears serious about getting the most from his 6-7, 265-pound frame. As for the receivers, they need to cut out some of the drops that contributed heavily to a few of the Seahawks' six road losses last season. Through training camp, the evidence suggests the problem has been addressed. Jackson, who dropped eight passes during one three-game stretch of 2003, enjoyed his best camp as a pro after signing a long-term extension. There were some concerns early in camp about Robinson. He reported a bit heavier than expected and suffered from hip and quadriceps injuries that prevented him from contributing. More recently, Robinson has attacked practices with the kind of hunger he'll need to realize his Pro Bowl potential. Jackson and Engram remain their steady selves, providing great comfort to Hasselbeck and the coaching staff. Grade: A. Offensive linemen: This group was severely depleted during the preseason, but everything should work itself out when the season begins. OLG Steve Hutchinson joined OLT Walter Jones in the Pro Bowl last season, while ORT Chris Terry was playing at a similar level by season's end. Jones missed training camp for a third consecutive season thanks to the contract dispute that never ends. But he planned to report in time for the regular season, as he did a year ago. Terry is a bit of a question mark. The shoulder injury that slowed him in training camp shouldn't be a long-term concern, but a player with Terry's history of offseason problems must be watched closely. New OL coach Bill Laveroni appears ready to go forward with the same lineup Seattle employed in 2003. C Robbie Tobeck and ORG Chris Gray are both 34, but no one has been able to unseat them. This is a line with enough talent and continuity to start reducing the number of sacks allowed (43 last year). If that doesn't happen, it might be time to start questioning the blocking schemes. Grade: B. Defensive linemen: The front office went out of its way to bolster the defense up front. President Bob Whitsitt was willing to overpay free-agent DE Grant Wistrom with a $14 million signing bonus, and the team followed that move by using its first-round choice on DT Marcus Tubbs. The 23rd overall choice, Tubbs is a 320-pounder with the pass-rush skills this defense needs. Wistrom isn't great at any one thing, but he's a solid all-around player with a great motor. Perhaps only an arch injury can stop Wistrom from enjoying a strong inaugural season in Seattle. DE Chike Okeafor proved to be a bargain in his first year with the team. He's a better run defender than his smallish size would indicate, and Okeafor proved he can get to the quarterback with a team-high eight sacks last season. The Seahawks are banking on DTs Cedric Woodard and Rashad Moore to build on the surprising success they enjoyed while replacing injured veterans John Randle, Norman Hand and Chad Eaton last season. Rocky Bernard, a tackle who showed promise as a rookie two years ago, needs to bounce back from a disappointing season. The team could also use a bounce-back year from Antonio Cochran. Grade: C-plus. Linebackers: The loss of Brown through September was a big blow for a unit that already had big concerns at middle linebacker. Brown, the team's most consistent pass rusher in recent seasons, was also the heart and soul of a largely revamped defense. With Brown sidelined probably through September, the Seahawks will try to win games with Anthony Simmons as the lone established linebacker. Simmons and Brown's likely replacement, Tracy White, possess tons of playmaking speed. The big concern, at least early, is whether White has the wherewithal to succeed in only his second pro season. The team can probably get by with Orlando Huff, Solomon Bates or rookie Niko Koutouvides manning the middle. Seattle asked its middle linebacker to play only 35 percent of the snaps last year. That shouldn't be too troublesome given the run-stuffing ability of Seattle's tackles. Brown's speedy recovery is important because his primary backup, D.D. Lewis, was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Grade: C. Defensive backs: This should be an exciting unit to watch as LCB Marcus Trufant and FS Ken Hamlin enter their second pro seasons. Both flashed play-making ability as rookie starters, and both are healthier after offseason surgeries to repair nagging injuries. RCB Ken Lucas finished 2003 with his confidence in tatters, but he turned in a brilliant training-camp performance. Lucas is obviously a different player physically. His waist is trimmer, and his upper body much more muscular. This should be a breakout year for Lucas, just in time for him to become a free agent in March 2005. So impressive was Lucas during camp that veteran free-agent addition Bobby Taylor is looking like the third corner. That's a role he wasn't willing to play with the Eagles, but one Taylor has embraced while becoming a mentor for Seattle's very young secondary. Strong safety is the only position of intrigue. The team talked about inserting former Florida State LB Michael Boulware into the role as a rookie, and that still might happen before season's end. In the meantime, former fourth-round choice Terreal Bierria has emerged from nowhere to win the job impressively. Bierria is a towering presence at 6-3. Injuries prevented him from making an impact last season, but the team liked him enough to carry him on IR. Grade: B-plus. Special teams: PK Josh Brown insists he'll be much more effective with new special-teams coach Mark Michaels limiting his kicks in practice. Brown's depth on kickoffs needs to improve this season, as does his accuracy from 40-49 yards. He was solid for a rookie last season, and now it's time to take the next step. P Tom Rouen has proven to be a pleasant surprise to coaches. His success should continue with Pro Bowl special-teamer Alex Bannister back for another year on the coverage team. Engram remains rock-solid on punt returns, while the team expects more from a healthy Morris on kick returns. Grade: B-minus. Pro Football Weekly Material from Pro Football Weekly.
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