now, I don’t think there’s any question that the Cowboys have the
NFC edge, though that edge is far less pronounced than New England’s in
the AFC. Dallas has good balance, Tony Romo’s playing out of his mind,
and the front seven is starting to hit a stride.
The surprise NFC team of
2007 has to be the Buccaneers, who are actually ranked higher in DAVE (Football
Outsiders’ “DVOA Adjusted for Variation Early”) than the Colts.
The defense has been tremendous, Jeff Garcia has been very efficient, and I
like what their group of running backs are doing. The Packers are living up
to FO’s positive preseason projections, and you have to wonder just how
far they can ride the current emotional high around Brett Favre’s resurgence.
If Green Bay gets a running game together – yikes.
I don’t know whether
the Cowboys will take home field throughout, but I’ll tell you this –
people are sleeping on the Seahawks a bit. This team is one dumb fumble against
the Cardinals away from a 4-0 record.
Ryan Wilson: The Steelers drafted a punter in the fourth round and some
fans were a little skeptical. After watching Daniel Sepulveda, many have come
around, particularly since the special teams were so atrocious a year ago. The
Seahawks used a 2006 seventh-round pick on Ryan Plackemeier and he immediately
paid dividends. Seattle finished '06 ranked seventh in special teams DVOA, and
they currently rank seventh in '07. Why are they so consistent in this phase
of the game?
A lot of it has to
do with the fact that Nate Burleson had trouble catching passes last season.
Nate had a lot of drops early on after he was acquired from the Vikings, and
that put him on notice as a return man. He excelled right away, and this gave
the Seahawks a real threat back there that they hadn’t had since the days
of Charlie Rogers. Cornerback Josh Wilson, the team’s first draft choice
in 2007, was a great return man at Maryland and led the NFL in preseason kick
Plackemeier has been a great
addition, living up to his 2005 Ray Guy Award as the best college punter, and
Josh Brown is as consistently “clutch” as any kicker in the NFL
– he won four games last season as Seattle struggled to find their way.
So, yes, it really is a strength now in a way that it hasn’t been throughout
the Holmgren era.
Ryan Wilson: What's the long-term plan at running back? We've talked
about the Curse of 370, and Shaun Alexander got his name added to the list last
year. But assuming he only has a few more productive seasons, will the position
change? I’ve noticed Alexander has been used more as a pass catcher --
is that something we might see more of?
The long-term plan
for the run game has to start with the offensive line, and that worries me,
because I don’t think this team puts as high a priority on the importance
of the line as I’d like. It really doesn’t matter who’s in
the backfield until a few things get sorted out up front. Yes, Alexander is
30 years old, and yes, he has the Curse of 370 to contend with, but the line
isn’t doing him any favors. Look at Frank Gore in San Francisco –
the 49ers line has fallen apart, that Gore, a great young back, is running for
almost two yards less per carry than he was in 2006.
There isn’t anyone
on the current roster besides Shaun that you’d say has the potential to
be a 1,500-yard guy, and this isn’t Denver or Indy, where you can plug
Joe Schmoe in and get that kind of performance. They’ll have to draft
that guy, but they’ll also have to start drafting and signing some reinforcements
for the line, not to mention opening the wallet for right tackle Sean Locklear,
who’s a free agent at the end of the season and could command serious
money as a starting left tackle for many teams.
As far as how the position
will change, that’s a good question that will be driven by whoever coaches
this team after Mike Holmgren. I don’t see Holmgren staying for several
more years, and his idea of the West Coast Offense has been somewhat modified
by Shaun’s skillset into something more like what the late-1990s Broncos
ran with Terrell Davis. Catching passes out of the backfield isn’t as
important, because Shaun isn’t really great at that. If current assistant
Jim Mora were to succeed Holmgren, would he go with the “Thunder-and-Lightning”
attack like he had in Atlanta like he had with Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett?
Seattle’s one of the last teams to place a huge value on the traditional
fullback, so that may change as well.
Wilson: D.J. Hackett is a great story. I know he's battled injuries, but when
he's healthy, he compliments Deion Branch and Bobby Engram nicely. Is he close
to making a comeback? And how is he best utilized in the Seahawks passing game?
great player when healthy – he’s the team’s other deep threat
besides Deion Branch, and his height makes him a great red zone target as well.
Right now, he’s out with the dreaded high ankle sprain, which he suffered
in the season opener against Tampa Bay. He’ll be out until early November.
It’ll be interesting
to see where he is utilized when he returns. The idea was to have him out there
as the starting split end, but Nate Burleson challenged him for playing time
with an incredible training camp. He’s good in traffic, but he can also
break out for yardage, so he could be used in a variety of roles. Probably the
best option is to have him as the deep threat because Burleson and Bobby Engram
are so good on the quick inside stuff. And once the Seahawks have those four-wide
sets they have liked to use more and more since last season, it will force defenses
to release their stacks up front, which will ostensibly help the line.
Wilson: Most people have heard of Lofa Tatupu, but who's a player on that defense
that the average fan may not know, but should?
There are two guys
that the Steelers will have to pay special attention to, especially with Hines Ward out and Pittsburgh’s traditional emphasis on the run game. The first
is linebacker Leroy Hill, who gets lost behind Tatupu and Julian Peterson. Hill
is a run-stopping force, and one of the primary reasons that the Seahawks are
defending the run so well this year despite the loss of defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs.