Saturday, October 14, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

1. Hasselbeck in Check

Without running back Shaun Alexander, the Seahawks rely on quarterback Matt Hasselbeck’s right arm to take care of the bulk of the offense. That isn’t to say that Seattle won’t try to run the ball, but Hasselbeck is well aware of his importance to the offense in the absence of Alexander.

The Seahawks are 22nd in the league in passing offense. Hasselbeck has highs and lows, performance-wise. Against New York, he threw for five touchdown. Against the Bears, he struggled as many quarterbacks do against the Chicago defense, throwing for 196 yards and two interceptions with a 39.7 rating.

Still, Hasselbeck presents myriad problems because he has a strong, accurate arm complemented by the ability to escape pressure and make plays with his legs.

“He does it all,” Rams defensive end Leonard Little said. “What can you say? He’s smart, he can run with the ball if he has to, he has a strong arm. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in this league.”

This year, Hasselbeck has been given the gift of playmakers at wide receiver. The Seahawks added Nate Burleson with a big free agent contract and followed that by trading for and signing Deion Branch. That duo joins Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram, giving the Seahawks a solid quartet of receivers. Engram probably won’t play because of an injury, but the Seahawks are using more and more four receiver sets without Alexander in the lineup.

“It’s like, who else are they going to get?” cornerback Travis Fisher said. “Those guys are playing very good football right now, they are looking very good, probably the best that we’ve seen so far this year.”

That will pose a serious problem to a Rams team that is banged up in the secondary. Fisher is recovering from a groin injury, but appears ready to go and will likely make the start. Fakhir Brown, on the other hand, is battling an ankle injury and his status remains in doubt. If he can’t go, Tye Hill will start and the Seahawks will almost certainly challenge him.

Regardless, expect to see plenty of blitzing to take the pressure off the defensive backfield and plenty of the likes of Ron Bartell and Jerametrius Butler on the field.

2. Slow Mo

Without the services of Alexander, the Seahawks running game isn’t quite as explosive, but that doesn’t mean they will abandon the run altogether. In his place is Maurice Morris, a different style of runner, but a talented one nonetheless.

“He’s the type of guy that can take the ball anywhere,” defensive tackle La’Roi Glover said. “He can take the ball inside or outside. He has the speed, he runs with power, and he catches out of the backfield. He does a lot of good things for them and we have to be prepared for him because he will get the ball a lot, I would imagine.”

Morris made his first start of the season against Chicago and was held to 35 yards on 11 attempts. Morris has more speed than Alexander and might be as elusive, but he isn’t as strong between the tackles.

The Rams are 20th in the league against the run, allowing unheralded Noah Herron of Green Bay to run for more than 100 yards last week. With that in mind, it’s no sure thing that Morris won’t be able to have success on the ground.

St. Louis expects the Seahawks to pound away on the ground as they have had success against the Rams in recent seasons.

“You just don’t replace the MVP, but they’ve done a nice job, for the most part this year, to find ways to be productive,” coach Scott Linehan said. “Maurice Morris showed signs of the type of back he can be at times last week and the week before. He’s going to get a number of carries, I’m sure.”

3. Leaking on the Line

Seattle’s offensive line was once one of the most feared units in the league. That unit could run and pass block with equal aplomb and worked as well together as any line anywhere.

Well, the offseason came and went and Seattle lost left guard Steve Hutchinson. Blessed with talented and experienced veterans behind him, many believed they could replace him and not miss a beat.

So far, that hasn’t been the case. Floyd Womack took Hutchinson’s place, but is injured and will miss this week’s game. In his place is Chris Spencer, who is in his second year and is more suited to center. At right guard, Chris Gray returns, but he has battled nagging injuries. Sean Locklear handles the right tackle spot and is solid if unspectacular.

The Seahawks’ line has appeared more vulnerable than in the past. The Bears got to Hasselbeck for five sacks. But the Rams aren’t taking the line lightly.

“Across their front they have older veterans, they have some young guys, and they have some guys on the verge of being very good players,” Glover said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. We just have to bring a lot of energy Sunday.”

The aforementioned foursome might have some question marks, but there remains one constant on the Seahawks’ line in the form of left tackle Walter Jones, widely considered one of the top three blindside protectors in the game and a top notch player.

However, Jones has allowed four sacks this season. Without Hutchinson there to help, Jones has faced more inside rushes. Expect the Rams to be aware to try to put is much heat on the Seahawks’ line and work around Jones..

“We’ve got to deal with that,” Linehan said. “That’s another one of their difference makers, and he happens to be one of the better left tackles in all of football. It’s not going to be any different than what we’ve done. We’ve moved those guys around enough; I think at this point it’s no secret. You’ve got to still play solid, sound football, too. Not get too worked up on who’s going against whom. We’ve just got to do a good job technique-wise, whether we’re going against him or on the other side or whatever.”

4. Speed Merchants

When the Seahawks made their run to the Super Bowl last season, most of the attention went to Alexander and the offense. But this year it has become clear that Seattle’s defense deserves more recognition than it has received.

The Seahawks defense ranks 11th in the league in yards allowed and is seventh against the run. The Rams faced a fast linebacking corps against Denver in Week 1, but there might not be a faster, more athletic defensive unit in football than the one Seattle brings to the table.

“They’re an exceptionally fast defense with a whole bunch of confidence,” Linehan said. “They’ve got a number of great players on that team that went to the Super Bowl last year.”

Leading that charge is middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who was a gift from the Gods as a second-round draft choice after his junior year at Southern California in 2005 and at a position that had been a weakness before his arrival. Tatupu is the emotional leader, but he also makes plays. He has 34 tackles in four games and remains the centerpiece of the defense.

Other talented holdovers include defensive ends Grant Wistrom and Bryce Fisher, defensive tackle Rocky Bernard, cornerback Marcus Trufant and safeties Michael Boulware and Ken Hamlin.

And Seattle didn’t limit its offseason additions to talented wideouts. The Seahawks went out and got a player who has long been a thorn in the sides of the Rams in linebacker Julian Peterson.

Peterson spent the first part of his career with San Francisco, where he used his versatility to cause problems in everyone’s back field. Peterson had two and a half sacks against the Rams when they played the ***** in September last season.

“He’s real versatile,” Linehan said. “He made a name for himself at San Francisco with his ability to be a WIL space player linebacker on third down. He’s doing the same thing for them. He can play in the outside linebacker space. He can be in the box. He can rush on the blitz. He’s a good enough athlete to cover tight ends and backs and things like that. Just kind of to add insult to injury, to put the guy as a defensive end on third down and rush the passer with him. He creates a lot of problems that way. There’s a handful of players like that in this league, so you just have to kind of have a target to where he’s at and keep your eye on him so he doesn’t sneak up on you.”

5. Well Rested

The Seahawks are coming off their bye week, meaning they had an extra week of rest and an extra week of preparation for this week’s game. That would seem to give Seattle a decided advantage coming into the game, but that might not necessarily be the case.

Since Holmgren joined the Seahawks in 1999, they are 1-6 after the bye week with the lone win coming last season against Arizona.

According to Linehan, the bye week can work in a team’s favor, but it can also work against a team.

“Sometimes it can go either way,” Linehan said. “We’ve won a couple on the road here, so sometimes you just don’t really want to have a break during that time, so sometimes it can go either way. I think it always is an advantage for the team with the bye, as far as preparation, but you’ve still got to go out there and play and execute and all those things.”

The Rams have the advantage of coming in on a hot streak, winning three in a row with a home game in what could be a playoff type atmosphere.

“It’s still a home game, which maybe, if anything, evens it out, that would be it,” Linehan said. “We’re definitely an underdog. We have to go into this game, regardless of how much time they’ve prepared and try to do a lot of things off the momentum we have, confidence, whatever it is that keeps going what we have going. It’s a whole new week, whole new opponent. They’ve certainly got our attention, that’s for sure.”