Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Seahawks, Part IV

Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Seahawks, Part IV

In the conclusion of their exclusive four-part game preview, Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar and SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei wrap up their back-and-forth interaction with five final questions from Craig to Doug. How will Seattle's defense do this year, is there enough in the tank for another NFC West title, and where does Mike Holmgren go from here?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: While winning the past four NFC West championships, the Seahawks pretty much have been a team defined by their fine offense. But as with all successful teams, the defense has done its part. Considering what's currently going on with the offense, are the 2008 Seahawks a team that will be defined by their defense? How strong is Seattle now on that side of the ball?

Doug Farrar, Editor in Chief, Seahawks.NET: At this point, the defense is the only thing left! With all the injuries, and the fact that the personnel is kind of stuck between the present and future, this stands to be the most undefined offense of Mike Holmgren's decade-long tenure with the Seahawks. Team president Tim Ruskell has been a walking menace with his offensive personnel decisions for the most part, but his defensive acumen is among the NFL's best. He has completely re-tooled that side of the team, and it should be a top-10 unit

Starting with the front four, there's NFC sack champ Patrick Kerney, who's still got it at age 31. Opopsite Kerney is the rotating duo of Lawrence Jackson and Darryl Tapp. The tackle rotation is stacked in depth; Rocky Bernard is the star. The linebackers are, quite simply, ridiculous. Julian Peterson, Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill make up the best middle 3 in the game. Hill, who gets almost no press because his battery mates are perennial Pro Bowlers, would be the centerpiece of many NFL defenses. The secondary is solid with cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings, and strong safety Deon Grant is a veteran leader. Free safety Brian Russell is the liability in coverage and especially as a tackler. Overall, it's a great defense, and the Seahawks will go as far as it goes.

Craig Massei: That said, what potential problem areas are there on defense this year? The Seahawks didn't perform all that well on that side of the ball in their opener. With so many starters returning from a unit that finished in the middle of the league rankings last year, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Are there some positions that could use upgrades? What has been the biggest change on defense from last year?

Doug Farrar: Well, Russell's the real problem. He's not a good wingman with safety help, and this defense relies greatly on safety help, no matter how many man looks the corners may give at the line. He also tackles like a quarterback. Having so many starters returning is a plus, I suppose, but I think the team is selling a bit of a line in its importance. In 2005, Ruskell radically overhauled the defense and the team went to the Super Bowl. Players who barely knew each other were playing in tandem, and that's because Seattle's Cover/Tampa-2 isn't terribly complicated. If you can read and react, you're pretty much home if you're physically gifted. It’s more about the individual abilities of the players than something like Dick LeBeau's multi-look zone blitz sets in Pittsburgh. 

Craig Massei: When Julian Peterson was a 49er, he told me several times that he only wanted to play a certain amount of premium years and then get out while he still was reasonably healthy. But now Jules is going strong on his ninth NFL season, and he said earlier this week he's still feeling good and does not see the end of his career on the immediate horizon. Is Peterson still at the top of his game? What does he mean up there to the team in general and the defense in particular?

Doug Farrar: Well, he's been used differently here, for one, Mike Nolan had some interesting comments about J-Pete in his Friday press conference -- he talked about the salary cap issues leading to Peterson's departure, and it's well-known that the 3-4 wasn't really a good fit. The fit here is great -- while I would like to see a bit more versatility, I suspect that's as much the "in-the-box" thinking of Seattle's defensive staff. They've had him as an edge rusher in their 5-2 packages, and a good overall outside 'backer. He will disappear from games from time to time, then blast out of nowhere and remind you why he is who he is.

Still at the top of his game? Yes, but it's a different game. This is not the player who could line up anywhere from defensive tackle to strong safety in San Francisco, but there is something to be said for giving a guy the assignments that will maximize his strengths. The only disappointment in my mind is that I would like Peterson to be a little better in pass coverage. If he was a dynamic options against tight ends -- and Seattle's defense tends to struggle against the best of them -- he'd be almost as indispensable to this team as Matt Hasselbeck or Lofa Tatupu. As it is, he's an exciting player who does a lot of things well, and that's good enough. More importantly, he's been healthy and happy in what's become the NFL's best group of linebackers.

Craig Massei: What is the feeling up there about this season being Mike Holmgren's farewell parade in Seattle? Is there a let's-get-back-to-the-Super-Bowl-for-Mike kind of mentality? Or is there a lame-duck-coach kind of atmosphere? How do you think these potential dynamics will affect the Seahawks this season? And, is Holmgren done in Seattle for good after this season, or could he potentially return to the team in some capacity down the road after his sabbatical?

Doug Farrar: It's put the team in a difficult position, if you ask me. Ruskell is now signing and drafting guys for the team he has now and the one he'll have with Jim Mora next year. It's not like the Dungy/Caldwell handoff in Indy, where the system stays the same. The acquisition of running back T.J. Duckett, who played under Ruskell and Mora in Atlanta, is a perfect indicator. When asked how Duckett would fit his offense, Holmgren seemed to indicate that he wasn't exactly sure. Holmgren's offense tends to rely more on the traditional halfback/fullback relationship (think Ricky Watters and William "Bar None" Floyd), and a guy like Duckett, with tailback moves and fullback size, is an outlier. That kind of confusion can't be good -- after all, if you're trying to "Win it all for Coach," shouldn't the idea to be to get the best players for now?

Holmgren has said that he'll take at least 2009 off at his family's insistence. He'll be back, though. The man lives and breathes football. I see him trying something like Bill Parcells is doing in Miami -- and San Francisco is the most obvious destination, given Holmgren's roots there.

Craig Massei: Four years owning a division is a long time in today's NFL. The Seahawks have been a true championship team during that span, but is the writing on the wall that they are headed for a fall this season? The NFC West is still weak and anybody's division, but do the Seahawks still have what it takes to remain atop of it? Or is this the season they finally come back to the pack?

Doug Farrar: If they fall this season, it'll be because of injuries -- there's still enough in the tank for one last run (read: second-round road playoff loss) if everyone's reasonably healthy, and only the Cardinals are a serious threat this year. From there, I do think the team will take a dip in productivity and success. The offensive skill players will get older, and this front office has displayed no ability whatsoever to provide replacement value at any position beyond short-term players who are already established. You can look at the team's Ruskell helped build in Tampa Bay as a pretty good indicator -- great defense, iffy offense, and a potentially wacky variance from year to year. I actually think they'll look a lot like the Jon Gruden Bucs -- capable of 5-11 one year and a playoff run the next.

The one thing I do know is this -- Holmgren's shadow will loom large for a long time in Seattle. We won't really understand what he's meant to the franchise until he's gone.

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