Enemy Roundtable: Bills at Seahawks

Hass hands off against Buffalo in 2001

In a preview of this Sunday's Seahawks-Bills game, Doug Farrar from Seahawks.NET and Frank Stephen from BillsZone.com recently participated in a "roundtable chat" to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each team. Read the transcript right here!

Doug Farrar:
Frank, I'd like to start this off by welcoming you to Seahawks.NET and thanking your team for beating the living snot out of the Rams and allowing us to back into first place in the NFC West. Can you give us a general overview of the Buffalo Bills? They're 4-6, but they look a lot better than that at times. What's the story?

Frank Stephen:
Thanks Doug. Pleasure to join you for this chat tonight and welcome to BillsZone.com. I would also like to thank the Seattle Seahawks for a last minute interception that made every Bills fan’s Sunday afternoon. The only thing better than a Miami loss is a Buffalo Bills victory.

I'd love to sit here and say the Bills are the "best 4 and 6 team in the league" but that probably is not true. It is a team that has a Jekyll and Hyde personality. After a slow start, with the help of the weather and a strong defense, they are 4-2 at home and looking very strong. However, when the Buffalo Bills get on the road, where they are 0-4, the team falls apart. It is not like they don't show up. Rather, they start off fine but as soon as adversity hits them, they crumble.

Doug Farrar:
The Seahawks have displayed the inverse of that phenomenon. After starting the season 3-0 (validating the positive preseason predictions so many had for them), they faced the Rams at home in game four, blew a 17-point lead with mere minutes left to play and lost that game in overtime. Since the Rams debacle left them at 3-1, they're 3-3 and raising a lot of questions. The Seahawks have actually done pretty well on the road this year (3-3 away from home), but that Rams game really affected them. Players have admitted that it took a few weeks to get over the shock.

Frank Stephen:
I remember seeing the end of that game against the Rams and was surprised at the outcome. It really looked like the Seahawks sat back and rested on their laurels instead of playing the full 60 minutes.

Doug Farrar:
That, unfortunately, is a valid point, and one that rears its ugly head more than any of us would like. The Seahawks at their best are capable of just terrorizing any defense. Last season, they had a freakish game in which they put 40+ points up on the Ravens’ vaunted defense (Ray Lewis was talking to himself on the sidelines) but lost in overtime (again) by blowing a huge lead in the fourth quarter (again). Both Mike Holmgren (head coach and offensive guru) and Ray Rhodes (defensive coordinator) do occasionally kick it into a mellower gear at the wrong times. Holmgren has a tendency to sit on a lead and Rhodes will run ridiculous prevent coverages at the end of every half. What Bledsoe could do to a soft zone scares me.

Frank Stephen:
The Bills, on the other hand, try to play more conservatively. They don't want to have to trust the offense to win the game by blowing out the other team or by having to come from behind. This team is full of young players who, maybe, are just learning to win. Early in the season the offense was as bland as vanilla. It wasn't until the injury to Travis Henry and the emergence of Willis McGahee that the offense began to be really productive. That being said, this team is still terrible on the road. They have not scored more than 14 points in a road game this season.

Doug Farrar:
I believe the Bills are 29th in the NFL in total offense. While your defense and special teams are very impressive, should we get the ugly part out of the way first? The offense - Mike Mularkey is in his first year as the Bills' head coach and he was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator from 2001 to 2003. What does he have to work with, and what is he doing with it?

Frank Stephen:
Inspector Gadget, as he was called in Pittsburgh, is trying to slowly overhaul an offense that has been adrift since the midway point of the 2002 season. Obviously, all offenses start with the offensive line. It seems as if the Bills have had problems up front since Jim Kelly retired almost 10 years ago. Except for a three-year stint in which Doug Flutie hid the weaknesses of the line, various QBs have had trouble finding time to direct an efficient and successful drive. Mularkey hired renowned offensive line coach Jim McNally to coach the line and so far the line is getting better.

The offense, however, takes its spark from Willis McGahee. As most fans know, McGahee is still recovering from an almost career-ending injury suffered in his last game at Miami University in 2002. McGahee has been a breath of fresh air since replacing Travis Henry at the Halfback position. He has 610 yards and three TDs in just five starts. He runs hard and has yet to put the ball on the carpet.

Doug Farrar:
Why is McGahee so much more effective than Travis Henry?

Frank Stephen:
Simply, McGahee has better field vision, quickness and strength. He hits holes and cuts back whereas Henry is a straight-ahead runner. McGahee, even though he is not 100%, still has more down field speed than Henry. Finally, McGahee doesn't go down on the first hit. Rarely does a defender get a clean hit on him and even then McGahee breaks the initial containment because he is much stronger.

Mularkey has stressed getting as much from Drew Bledsoe as possible without making Drew win the game. For the most part, Drew has found his touch at home. However, many consider that his playing days on the road are well over. Rather than a reclamation project, Drew, at this point, is being asked to merely hold the ship until rookie JP Losman is ready.

Doug Farrar:
Interesting. Two other first-year players that the Bills are looking to with their future are the aforementioned Losman and WR Lee Evans. What does Losman bring to the table, and where do you see Evans in his progression as a pro?

Frank Stephen:
Losman is an interesting kid. He doesn't fit the "Buffalo stereotype" like Jim Kelly did. Losman is cool and cocky like Kelly but he is not blue collar and at this point does not appear to be rugged like Kelly. Also, it has been difficult to gauge Losman because he suffered a broken leg during training camp and has yet to get back to 100%. The season, at this point, may be lost for Losman. He might not see playing time until the Browns game on December 12th.

Lee Evans is showing very positive signs of being a future star for this team. He has come along very well. At the beginning of the season, it appeared that Josh Reed would hold the number two WR position behind Eric Moulds, but injuries and poor play have led to his demotion behind Evans. Evans has great downfield speed and appears to show no ill effects from the injury he suffered at Wisconsin. He has become a solid number two with good hands and can break a pattern long.

Doug Farrar:
Eric Moulds is really the primary guy, right?

Frank Stephen:
Yes. Eric is still the number one WR and Bledsoe's favorite target. He is coming off a groin injury that slowed him down last year but has shown to be a solid receiver in his 9th year. However, he has struggled a little this year with drops at critical times.

Doug Farrar:
Drops at critical times? I think we Seahawk fans know something about that! Although further along than the Bills (the Seahawks are 7th in the NFL in total offense), Seattle's offense is a vexing mix of unlimited potential and inconsistent results.

Our offensive line features the best left side in football with LT Walter Jones and LG Steve Hutchinson. Beyond that, it's a mix of gritty overachievers like Robbie Tobeck and Chris Gray and youngsters like Pork Chop Womack and Wayne Hunter. Chris Terry, an excellent RT at his best, is a question mark both on and off the field at times.

Frank Stephen:
The strength of your offense is really with Shaun Alexander. He’s already an elite RB in the NFL, but what does the future hold for him. He is a free agent at the end of the year, correct?

Doug Farrar:
The focal point of the offense this year has indeed been Shaun Alexander, the NFL's leading rusher with 1151 yards. He is a free agent at the end of the year, and his walk year has been his best by far. Since the Seahawks will also be dealing with the impending free agency of Matt Hasselbeck, Walter Jones, Chike Okeafor, Ken Lucas and others, I don’t know if they'll be able to retain Alexander. There has been talk in the past that some of the Seattle coaches were less than enamored with Shaun's hesitant running style, but he's blown those criticisms to bits this season.

Frank Stephen:
He seemed to be a little inconsistent in previous years. He could be electrifying one week and score 3 touchdowns and then disappear for two weeks. His 5.1 yards per carry average is almost staggering and his 10 TDs have not come in bunches. His consistency this year appears to be his biggest asset.

Doug Farrar:
In the past, he had a tendency to look to break the big play all the time, which led to a lot of train wrecks in the backfield (think Barry Sanders). However, this year he has been running far more decisively in the context of a drive. Without him, I don’t know if the Seahawks would be a .500 team right now. I’m quite sure that Shaun and his agent are aware of that! He might wind up being the NFL’s prize free agent in 2005 – there’s no question he’ll get a lot of great offers. Seattle might wind up franchising him.

Frank Stephen:
How about the QB spot? Matt Hasselbeck was having a terrific year. Mike Holmgren brought him to Seattle from their days in Green Bay. Hasselbeck has really been able to move the ball around in that seven Seahawks have at least 10 receptions this season. Do the Seahawks depend on his arm to win them games like Holmgren depended on Brett Favre in Green Bay?

Doug Farrar:
Hasselbeck is not a Favre, Elway, Kelly type, where you can put the whole offense on his back. He's a system QB. That’s not a knock on him – after all, you could call Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger “system QBs” as well. On the other hand, he's quite a bit more than a "just don’t lose the game" guy, like a Kyle Boller. When he sticks to the game plan (and when the game plan makes sense), he's very effective.

Frank Stephen:
That is kind of what the Bills expect out of Drew Bledsoe right now.

Doug Farrar:
However, this year has been a mixed bag for Hass. Holmgren has him calling a lot more audibles this year (primarily to change the protection predicated on the defensive scheme he’s facing), and it's been a real mess at times. Holmgren has backed off and simplified the variables over the last few weeks, but this will not be Hasselbeck's best year. Hasselbeck has shown a worrisome trend this season to make strange decisions under pressure, but he also hasn't been helped AT ALL by a stable of wildly inconsistent receivers.

Frank Stephen:
Trent Dilfer started for Hasselbeck last week and was able to lead the team to victory over the pitiful Miami Dolphins (pitiful added to the joy of Bills fans, not to the detriment of the Seahawks). What is the status of Hasselbeck for this week?

Doug Farrar:
He’s still struggling with a very deep right thigh bruise which he suffered when he collided with Alexander in the first play of the Rams game two weeks ago. He's still having problems planting on his right foot, which is not very good news for a right-handed QB. Here in Seattle, we refer to it as "The Mother Of All Charley Horses". Given Buffalo's very strong defense, I would expect Hass to make every effort to start, but I'd guesstimate that he's about 50/50 as this goes to publication. Dilfer is a great backup, but the Miami game was his first regular-season start in two years.

Frank Stephen:
Last offense question. What has the addition of Jerry Rice done for the offense and for the team as a whole?

Doug Farrar:
I think Holmgren wanted Rice to come to Seattle for two reasons. First, as a reliable insurance policy in case Koren Robinson lost the appeal on his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy (he lost the appeal last week and the suspension started Monday the 22nd). Second, I believe he really wants Rice to mentor the team’s young receivers like Robinson, Darrell Jackson and Jerheme Urban. These guys are amazingly talented in theory, but in the real world, it's a different story a lot of the time. If Holmgren didn’t want a mentor, it probably would have made more sense for the Seahawks to trade for Keenan McCardell.

Now, Rice did well in the Miami game, catching his first TD pass as a Seahawk. And while he may have seen his best days, I won’t add my name to the list of people who have made themselves look stupid by doubting Jerry Rice. He’ll be an integral part of the offense during Robinson’s suspension.

Frank Stephen:
Let's turn to the defensive side of the ball. Seattle has the 15th ranked defense in the NFL. They have given up 325.5 yards per game and are ranked 8th against the run but 21st against the pass. What are the defense's strengths and weaknesses?

Doug Farrar:
They’re very strong against the run - McGahee is in for a tough day. They have two fine DEs in Grant Wistrom and Chike Okeafor, and a solid DT rotation with Cedric Woodard, Rocky Bernard, Antonio Cochran and 1st round draft pick Marcus Tubbs. Wistrom, in particular, makes the difference. The guy is a Tasmanian Devil who occupies multiple offensive linemen, allowing other defenders to slip through. When he was injured in the New England game and missed the next four games, the defense really felt his absence.

The linebacker position is the real bugaboo right now, OLB Anthony Simmons is out for the year with a wrist injury. Chad Brown is out for at least the regular season - he may or may not be back for the playoffs if the Seahawks get there. Versatile 'backer D.D. Lewis was put on IR before the season even started. This is the weakness, personnel-wise. The starting three will likely be Orlando Huff in the middle, with Isaiah Kacyvenski and Solomon Bates on the outside. The second wave could be easy meat for the Bills.

The secondary is the defense's real strength. Ken Lucas is the best cover corner in the NFC, and his battery mate, CB Marcus Trufant, leads the team in tackles with 58. Trufant has been burned a bit of late, but that's partially due to a lack of safety help. Safeties Ken Hamlin and Terreal Bierria seem to have issues with deep help and zone pickup, although Hamlin can be great in coverage and is a devastating hitter. Bierria, although a good run stopper, has been the local whipping boy for his pass coverage this year.

The freakish surprise has been the play of rookie nickelback Michael Boulware. Boulware was an OLB at Florida State, and the Seahawks are looking to convert him to safety over time. In the "tweener" position, he already has 4 INTs - two of those were game-savers, including the 63-yard TD return in the last minute of the Miami game. Boulware was just named Defensive Rookie of the Week. When he gets used to his new position, an Ed Reed-style impact is not out of the question.

Frank Stephen:
Yes, the interception that helped AJ Feeley steal defeat from the jaws of victory. A great thrill for everybody over at BillsZone.com and Bills fans everywhere.

Doug Farrar:
Ray Rhodes is a decent defensive coordinator, but he has been criticized for an infuriating predictability at times, as well as a penchant for backing the defense into Cover Four or Cover Zero schemes and letting teams just waltz back into games. Seattle’s defense was the best in the NFL after the first three games of the season - now people have caught Rhodes' picture show and are starting to adapt. Common theme with him...

Let's talk about your defense. What are the strengths and weaknesses there? Overall, they’re very impressive, and it was fun watching them scare poor Marc Bulger to death!

Frank Stephen:
Doug, the Bills currently have the 6th-ranked defense in the NFL. Coincidently, they are also ranked 6th against the run and pass. Up front, defensive tackles Sam Adams and Pat Williams lead the Bills defense. That combination, along with middle linebacker London Fletcher, makes it extremely hard for opposing teams to run up the middle on them.

Since his benching in week 6 against Miami, Sam Adams has been a monster inside. On the ends the team is a little light. Aaron Schobel anchors the RDE position and the LDE is rotated between Chris Kelsay and disappointing Ryan Denney. Schobel is a decent pass rusher but the LDE supplies little heat on opposing QBs.

The LB crew is as solid as the DL. Led by the aforementioned Fletcher and OLBs Takeo Spikes and Jeff Posey, the LBs play strong run defense and Posey takes a down stance in passing situations.

Doug Farrar:
Former Seahawk Sam Adams also has the best nickname in the NFL: “Big Poppa The Show-Stoppa”! Are they running a 3-4 or a 4-3 most of the time?

Frank Stephen:
The Bills play mainly a 4-3 but switch to 3-4 with Posey in a down position in obvious passing situations.

That brings us to the secondary that has been a source of worry since Troy Vincent went down with an injury earlier this season. Nate Clements and Terrance McGee lead the CBs. Clements is a solid CB that has a penchant for overplaying and showboating rather than making the right play. McGee is young but has made strides. The safety position has been a major concern all year. Lawyer Milloy missed the first quarter of the season with a broken arm and is now just coming back up to par. The FS position has been a huge worry all season. The Bills have tried four different players at the position and are now starting undrafted free agent Rashad Baker.

Doug Farrar:
So...up the middle, strong like bull. That's what it looks like! It also looks to me like DC Jerry Gray has been a key factor in turning this defense around. What are your thoughts on him?

Frank Stephen:
Gray is very good at adjusting, especially at halftime. The Bills defense has been extremely stingy in the second half of games. However, early in the season Gray had the habit of having the defense play prevent at the end of each half. A practice that got this team in trouble and probably lost them the games against Jacksonville and the NY Jets in the Meadowlands.

Doug Farrar:
Prevent at the end of each half? Oh, boy! Dueling prevents! Could be a shootout towards the end there...

Frank Stephen:
Anything to keep us in a game on the road. I'll take it!

Doug Farrar:
The area in which the Bills have the distinct advantage is special teams. Buffalo acquired ST coach Bobby April after the Rams cashiered him at the end of last season. Tell us about Buffalo's special teams and the difference April has made.

Frank Stephen:
For the past couple of seasons Buffalo's special teams had amounted to Punter Brian Moorman's leg. The special teams were non-descript at best. This year, April has inserted some starters to the units and they have responded. Rian Lindell, a former Seahawk, is still shaky from outside of 40 yards but has been consistent when called upon.

The return game has been where Buffalo has excelled. Nate Clements and rookie Jonathan "Fast Freddie" Smith have each returned a punt for a TD this season. The biggest surprise has been kickoff return man Terrance McGee. He is second in the AFC averaging 25.9 yards per return. The play of the special teams has shortened the field, added points and brought excitement to almost every game.

Doug Farrar:
How do you get "Fast Freddie" out of "Jonathan"?

Frank Stephen:
Oh, good question. Guess it goes back to when he was a kid. He used to watch the Flintstones before going to school in the morning so his family gave him the nickname and it stuck. He prefers to be called Jonathon. The funny thing is it was his lack of speed that pushed him down in the draft to the 7th round.

Doug Farrar:
The return units really put the Rams six feet under, didn't they?

Frank Stephen:
The teams went into half time tied at 17 and the punt return team helped set up a TD and scored another on successive punts. It really changed the game.

Doug Farrar:
The Seahawks' special teams have not been at all special this year. At the end of last season, the team decided to part ways with highly regarded ST coach Pete Rodriguez and tapped assistant coach Mark Michaels to replace him. The results have not been impressive, although I'd place some of the blame on Holmgren's seeming inability to understand that you need specialists for the return game. The Seahawks are 27th in the NFL in punt returns and 13th in kickoff returns.

Kicker Josh Brown has difficulty getting long kickoffs going, so Seattle often has a handicap regarding field position. However, Brown has been virtually automatic with his field goal tries. Rookie punter Donnie Jones had punts of 19, 23, 20 and 30 yards against Miami and was just waived. The Seahawks signed former New England punter Ken Walter to replace him.

Frank Stephen:
It seems that many teams around the league have had a turnover at the ST coaching position.

Well Doug, I'd like to take this time to thank you for the session. I know the readers at BillsZone.com will be interested in the preview of the game this weekend. Any predictions for Sunday?

Doug Farrar:
I think that Dilfer will start, and that Holmgren will simplify the offense, running more screens and short passes. Rice will see a lot of action. Buffalo will key on Alexander and dare the passing game to beat them, a gameplan I think Seattle had better get used to. On defense, Bledsoe will have some success, but I think Rhodes will be calling blitz after blitz as he did in Miami. Bledsoe's lack of mobility will lead to a turnover or two that will be the difference. Bledsoe is about to get to know Grant Wistrom a lot better…

Seattle 23, Buffalo 20. How about you?

Frank Stephen:
The Bills have been putrid on the road this season, playing just one good quarter of ball against the Jets, and that was after Mike Mularkey blew a gasket on the sidelines. The offense has to come out and eat up clock. Long, sustained drives full of running by McGahee is the answer. The Bills cannot depend on Drew Bledsoe to win the game.

They cannot put the game on his shoulders; one mistake and he unravels on the road. The defense has to come up solid and stop Alexander. If the Seahawks run up the middle they are as good as dead. That being said, it is tough to pick the Bills on the road. The fact that the game takes place on Thanksgiving weekend, across the country, does not help.

I see it Seattle 27, Bills 13.

Doug Farrar:
I think I like your prediction better than mine! Well Frank, I'd like to thank you as well for this very enjoyable chat. Take care, and best of luck to your Bills (after this game, that is!)

Frank Stephen:
Good luck to the Seahawks and have a great Thanksgiving holiday!

Thanks to Frank and everyone at Billszone, as well as our own Ryan Smith (BBlades89), for helping to coordinate this chat.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at doug@seahawks.net.

Frank Stephen is a Staff Writer at BillsZone.com. Feel free to e-mail him at ebenezer133@hotmail.com.

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