Scouts Buzz: Revamped offense has Seahawks poised for big season
Return of healthy Hasselbeck, Branch and Burleson will spark turnaround
T.J. Houshmandzadeh gives Seattle serious threat over the middle
Lions rebuilding their defense starting with bolstering linebacking corps
If you're looking for a team set to make a dramatic turnaround in 2009, be sure to keep your eyes on the one in the Pacific Northwest.
New offensive coordinator Greg Knapp has the pieces to guide Seattle back to the ranks of the elite after the Seahawks finished 4-12 last season and ranked near the bottom of the league in several offensive categories.
Knapp, who served as offensive coordinator for Jim Mora Jr. in Atlanta, brings an offensive system that is ideally suited to his roster. Relying on a passing game that features several of the West Coast offensive principles used by his predecessors, Mike Holmgren and Gil Haskell, Knapp should get the offense off to a fast start.
The most obvious reason for optimism revolves around the return of Matt Hasselbeck. The 11-year pro missed nine games last season due to injuries (knee and back) and is looking to bounce back from one of the worst seasons of his career. Hasselbeck completed only 52.2 percent of his passes, for 1,216 yards with five touchdowns and 10 interceptions in seven starts in 2008.
Those numbers are well off the standard he established during his eight-year tenure in Seattle. The three-time Pro Bowl passer has thrown for 23,549 yards in his career with 147 touchdowns and 94 interceptions. He has a career completion percentage of 60.1 percent and a 84.5 passer rating.
Hasselbeck's return coincides with that of Nate Burleson and Deion Branch, who combined for 99 receptions, 1,355 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2007, before missing most of last year while recovering from injuries. Burleson suffered a torn ACL in the season opener and missed the remainder of the year; Branch missed eight games while recovering from an ACL injury that originally near the end of 2007.
When healthy, Burleson and Branch give Hasselbeck two dynamic weapons in an aerial attack that ranked eighth in passing yards in 2007. Though neither is truly a No. 1 receiver, their collective abilities helped Seattle average 24.6 points per game and finish 2007 as the league's ninth-best offense.
With marquee free agent signee T.J. Houshmandzadeh joining Branch and Burleson, the Seahawks have the ability to attack defenses from all angles. Whereas Branch and Burleson thrive outside the numbers, Houshmandzadeh makes his living over the middle of the field.
Houshmandzadeh, who has tallied at least 90 receptions in each of the past three seasons with the Bengals, replaces Bobby Engram as the team's slot receiver and will be counted on to develop into Hasselbeck's security blanket in critical situations. As a crisp route runner with exceptional hands, the ninth-year pro has proven to be a clutch performer throughout his career and is coming off a season in which he led all receivers in third-down receptions (30).
Second-year tight end John Carlson is back after leading the team in receptions (55), receiving yards (627) and receiving touchdowns (5). Though he isn't considered a speed merchant, Carlson averaged over 11 yards a catch and emerged as a threat down the middle of the field.
While the pieces are clearly in place for Seattle to field a dynamic aerial attack, the team must shore up its lackluster running game to return to the ranks of the elite. Last season, the Seahawks ranked 19th in rush offense and only featured a 100-yard rusher in four of 16 games. Julius Jones, who was signed as a big money free agent last offseason, only rushed for 698 yards and lost his starting position to Maurice Morris by season's end.
However, Jones and the Seahawks' running game figures to be more productive under Knapp's zone-based running scheme. The 14-year coaching veteran has orchestrated top rushing attacks in all of his previous stops (San Francisco, Atlanta and Oakland).
In a zone-based running scheme, running backs are taught to be decisive in their running style. Coaches often implement a "one-cut" rule, which encourages runners to follow a predetermined path before making a quick cut downhill (inside move between the tackles) or to the outside on all runs. The premise behind the rule is to eliminate the negative runs that result from indecisive runners dancing in the hole.
With Jones and T.J. Duckett in the fold, Knapp inherits a pair of runners who should thrive in this scheme. Jones, who had two 100-yard games last season, is a decisive runner who is most effective running between the tackles. Though his season was viewed as a disappointment, the six-year pro averaged a respectable 4.4 yards per carry and didn't receive nearly enough touches (he only averaged 10.5 rushing attempts a game in 2008) to determine if he could cut it as a feature back.
Duckett, who enjoyed the most productive seasons of his career under Knapp in Atlanta, gives the team a power runner to rely on in critical situations. While most would assume Duckett would serves as the team's short yardage/goal line specialist, the eight-year pro likely will play a prominent role as the team's "four-minute" back. With a passing game that has the potential to put up points in bunches, Duckett should receive plenty of carries in the fourth quarter as the team relies on the bruiser to salt away victories behind a powerful running game.
Additionally, the move to the zone-based blocking scheme should benefit the offensive line. In their new system, offensive linemen work in unison to block areas rather than to block assigned men. This often results in more combo blocks (centers and guards or tackles and tight ends working together), which minimizes penetration from the defensive line. With the use of more double teams, it is not necessary for the offensive line to feature a host of all-stars at every position. Seattle's running game has never recovered from the lost of perennial Pro Bowl lineman Steve Hutchinson, but the new scheme will help it mask some of the deficiencies.
The Seahawks fell off their lofty perch last season, but on the heels of a revamped offense, the team is set to soar again in 2009.
Rebuilding the Lions
The Lions' acquisition of Julian Peterson is a strong indication that Jim Schwartz wants to rebuild his defense around a dynamic linebacker corps.
When Schwartz took over in February, the roster only featured one standout linebacker (Ernie Sims). But Peterson, who was acquired in a trade from the Seahawks for Cory Redding, gives the team another difference maker.
A strong pass rusher off the edge, Peterson amassed 24.5 sacks the past three seasons. The five-time Pro Bowl defender had five sacks last season and finished with a career high four forced fumbles.
Although Peterson is listed as an outside linebacker, he is a hybrid player who specializes in getting after the quarterback. He often lines up at outside 'backer on early downs, but moves to defensive end in passing situations. Relying on an exceptional first step, Peterson has made 46 sacks in his career. Though some suggest his game is in decline, his dip in production last season was partially due to misuse in the Seahawks' scheme.
During his first two seasons with the team, Peterson was used as a wildcard pass rusher in an exotic rush scheme. He would blitz from unpredictable locations, and his uncanny ability to get to the quarterback helped the team finish as the top-ranked sack unit. Last season he was used as a conventional linebacker, shouldered with more running-game responsibilities.
In Detroit, Peterson will reprise his role as a hybrid pass rusher. Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham loves to pressure from all angles and Peterson's versatility will pay big dividends.
With Peterson playing as the SAM (strong-side linebacker) and Sims occupying the WILL (weak-side linebacker) position, the Lions have the ability to bring blitz off both edges in their base defense. As offenses focus on Peterson, Sims could become the difference maker the team envisioned when it selected him with the ninth overall pick in 2006.
While the pairing of Peterson and Sims upgrades the Lions' defense, the team could make a major move on draft day to further bolster the unit. By selecting Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry with the first overall selection, the Lions could solidify the second level of their defense.
Curry, widely regarded as the top defensive prospect on the board, could be an intriguing middle linebacker. Although he spent the majority of his college career playing outside linebacker, he has the athleticism, football acumen and savvy to be an effective MIKE 'backer. As a natural leader with a high football IQ, Curry would be a commanding presence in the middle and perhaps free Peterson and Sims from having the burden of making checks in the complex defensive scheme.
Furthermore, it would give the Lions three talented playmakers at the position, and they would become the foundation for a defense that is capable of attacking from multiple angles.
The Lions' toothless defense didn't strike fear in many opponents in seasons past, but the move to pick up Peterson is one of many that could give the unit more bite.
NFL Truth & Rumors