The Mike Holmgren 2008 Farewell Tour kicks off in Buffalo this weekend, with the league’s winningest active coach looking to add one last playoff run to his record before handing over the team to head-coach-in-waiting Jim Mora at the end of the season.
OFFENSE (#9 total yardage, #20 rushing, #8 passing, #t9 scoring):
Matt Hasselbeck has mastered Holmgren’s offense. In 2007, he set a new franchise passing record (3,966 yards) and threw for a career-high 28 touchdowns, earning his third Pro Bowl selection along the way. If he wants to match those number this year, though, he’ll have to do it with an almost entirely new group of receivers. Bobby Engram (shoulder) and Deion Branch (ACL) are both sidelined, although Branch is trying to practice this week. D.J. Hackett is in Carolina. And Ben Obomanu, who the team was counting on to fill in until the starters returned, broke his collarbone during the preseason and landed on I.R. That leaves Nate Burleson and second-year receiver Courtney Taylor to open the season, with former practice-squadders Jordan Kent and Logan Payne backing them up, and rookie John Carlson (Notre Dame) is the team’s starting tight end.
Hasselbeck, who missed most of the preseason with back spasms, didn’t sound worried. “They’ve been with us,” he said. “They know how we do things. We’ve seen how they play. Even though we haven’t necessarily had a lot of work together, I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal.”
After watching his team run for just 35 yards on 18 carries in their playoff loss to Green Bay, Holmgren and general manager Tim Ruskell knew they had to get better, and fast. “The one thing I can guarantee you: There will be some change in all of it,” Holmgren said. “We have to look at changes in the running backs, we have to look at changes along the offensive line, and there have to be scheme changes.”
Start with the running backs. The Seahawks said goodbye to all-time franchise rushing leader Shaun Alexander, and hello to Dallas Cowboys free agent Julius Jones. But while Jones probably expected to start in Seattle, Maurice Morris – who outplayed Alexander last year – did the same to Jones in the preseason. T.J. Duckett also signed with the team during the offseason, and Cal rookie Justin Forsett gives the team outstanding depth at the position. Leonard Weaver is the starting fullback; the Bills will have to keep an eye on him coming out of the backfield.
The left side of the line, with Mike Wahle now lining up next to perennial All-Pro tackle Walter Jones, should be among the best in the league. Rob Sims, who started at left guard last season, moves to the right side to make room for Wahle. The other two spots are in question. Center Chris Spencer’s back was so bad a month ago that he couldn’t tie his own shoes. H got some work in the final preseason game and is expected to play this weekend, but Steve Vallos may see some time there. Right tackle Sean Locklear will probably miss this game, leaving Ray Willis to start in his place.
DEFENSE (#15 total yardage, #12 rushing, #19 passing, #t6 scoring):
Ruskell has almost completely overhauled the defense since joining the club in 2005; cornerback Marcus Trufant and tackle Rocky Bernard are the only holdovers in the starting lineup.
Defensive end Patrick Kerney made an instant impact after signing with the team as a free agent, leading the conference with 14.5 sacks. Meanwhile, his old team, the Falcons, finished with 25 last year; only Carolina and Cincinnati were worse. Think they wish they’d had a chance to re-sign him? Kerney will present a formidable challenge to new right tackle Kirk Chambers. Expect the Bills to help out with a tight end or running back; Trent Edwards might be in for a long afternoon if they don’t. The team’s No. 1 pick this year, Lawrence Jackson (USC), beat out Darryl Tapp to start on the other side.
Buffalo catches a break this week with the suspension of disruptive tackle Rocky Bernard for violating the Personal Conduct Policy. Instead, backup Craig Terrill will line up next to Marshawn Lynch’s Cal teammate, Brandon Mebane, with rookie Red Bryant (Texas A&M) also in the rotation.
The front four is pretty good. The linebacking corps is better; in fact, it might just be the best in the league. Draft “experts” considered Lofa Tatupu a “reach” when Ruskell traded up to take him in the second round; since then, Tatupu has merely become one of the best middle linebackers in the league, leading the team in tackles and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. Weakside ‘backer Julian Peterson, apparently back at full speed four years after tearing his Achilles tendon, joined Tatupu in Hawaii in 2007 and 2008. And while those two get most of the ink, FootballOutsiders.com calls Leroy Hill “perhaps the most underrated linebacker in the league.”
Trufant led the team with a career-high seven interceptions last year and made his first Pro Bowl, then cashed in with a new six-year, $50.2-million contract. While he normally plays on the left side, it wouldn’t be stunning to see him matched up on Lee Evans and the Seahawks taking their chances with whoever lines up opposite Kelly Jennings on the other side. Jordan Babineaux joins Bernard on the suspended list for this game, so Josh Wilson takes over as the nickel back. Safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell provide veteran leadership – and a good dose of size – on the back line.
Josh Brown signed with St. Louis in the offseason, so for the first time since 2002 (Rian Lindell’s last year there), Seattle needed to find a new kicker. They’ve apparently settled on Olindo Mare, who won the job over seventh-round pick Brandon Coutu (Georgia). Mare’s long-range accuracy has dipped in the last couple of seasons, but his booming kickoffs might force some adjustments for the Bills return team.
Punter Ryan Plackemeier doesn’t have a great net average, but he’s good at dropping the ball inside the 20. (30 of 86 kicks last year, versus just six touchbacks.) The coverage units are below average, which is somewhat surprising considering that old friend Bruce DeHaven runs the teams.
Nate Burleson is a threat to take any punt or kick return all the way; last year, he scored on 91- and 94-yard runbacks. But with his current status as Seattle’s No. 1 receiver, they may not be able to afford using him on special teams. Forsett and Wilson got some chances during the preseason; Trufant and Seneca Wallace – yes, Wallace, who’s not your typical backup quarterback – are other available options.
All the pundits and prognosticators have had their say; it’s time to play the game.
While Angelo Crowell’s absence gives me pause, Paul Posluszny’s return and the addition of Kawika Mitchell make the Bills much more able to absorb this blow than they would have been in previous seasons. With Marcus Stroud and Spencer Johnson creating havoc up front, Chris Kelsay should be able to win his battle with backup right tackle Ray Willis. (Anything from Aaron Schobel, going up against future Hall of Famer Walter Jones in this game, should be considered a bonus.) And if the secondary can’t handle Seattle’s backup wide receivers, it’s going to be a long season.
On offense, Marshawn Lynch should be able to find some holes where Bernard would have been. A strong running game is critical this week, because Kerney and Peterson can make Trent Edwards’ life miserable if he’s forced into too many adverse down-and-distance situations. What’s Turk Schonert’s playcalling really going to look like? Guess we’ll see on Sunday.
The Seahawks were a playoff team last season ... but they may not have been one in the AFC. They’re banged up, and they’re flying across the country for a 10:00 a.m. (their time) game start. With a raucous Kickoff Weekend sellout crowd backing them up, the Bills win this game.
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