NFC West preview (cont.)
What the Seahawks do best: To be determined.
The Seahawks have yet to establish an identity under first-year coach Pete Carroll, who joins them after an incredible nine-year run at USC, where he won seven consecutive Pac-10 titles (2002-08), two national championships (2003-04) and led the Trojans to a 97-19 record. One of his favorite mantras is, "Always Compete." That might have to do in his first season, because it likely will take a couple of years for him to reshape the roster.
In the meantime, he must shore up the offensive line (rookie left tackle Russell Okung sustained a high ankle sprain in training camp) and find a No. 1 receiver (T.J. Houshmandzadeh, their top returning receiver, is better-suited as a complementary player), a big back (LenDale White was released before training camp) and an edge rusher (their top three ends from last season are gone: Patrick Kerney to retirement, Darryl Tapp in a trade and Cory Redding in free agency).
What the Seahawks need to improve: The running game.
Since going to the Super Bowl in the 2005 season, the Seahawks' running game has been in steady decline. It ranked third in the league in 2005 with an average of 153.6 yards a game, but plummeted to 26th last year with an average of 97.9.
Carroll likely will look to the waiver wire and roster cuts for a big back, but in the meantime he'll make due with a group of runners who have similar characteristics: more small and quick than big and strong. Justin Forsett played well the last month of the 2009 season, but at 5-8, 198, there are questions about his durability. Julius Jones (5-10, 208) is the incumbent, but he lacks Forsett's suddenness. The best of the bunch could be newcomer Leon Washington (5-8, 203), who is a threat every time he touches the ball.
"I've always liked complementary backs, different style guys," says Carroll. "We love the physical nature of the running game, so it's nice to have that type of big back. [Quinton] Ganther has been running really good for us and has that physical presence. He's tough and might give us that little change of style type thing. ... But I really like this position group."
Which Seahawks needs to step up: Linebacker Aaron Curry.
The fourth pick of last year's draft, Curry appears to be the team's best edge rush option. Seattle needs him to step up because it had only two sacks over its final five games last season and its top three ends from last season are gone.
Curry has the physical tools to rush the passer, but does he have the mindset? The 6-2, 244-pounder prefers playing over the tight end, but most successful pass rushers come from the weak side of the formation, where there is less traffic. Beyond Curry, the Seahawks don't have much in the way of pass rushers.
Predicted record: 6-10.
Carroll did not inherit a team that's built to win now. The Seahawks have the talent to compete, but need more playmakers to make a run at the division title. The good thing for Carroll is the players appear to have bought into his high-energy, open-competition philosophy.
What the Rams do best: Run the ball.
Steven Jackson is among a dying breed: the three-down, workhorse running back. Last season, he ran for 1,416 yards and ranked second in yards from scrimmage with 1,738 despite playing behind a patchwork line and lacking a complementary passing game.
"There's a lot of truth to the talk that he's going to have to carry us," says center Jason Brown. "What do they call that special player on Madden? Game-breakers? He's our game-breaker. He adds an explosive nature to our offense. We know as an offensive line if we do our job at least 10 percent better than last year and sustain some of those blocks, it's off to the house for him. Our goal this year is make sure that we allow Steven to shine in the way that he deserves."
What the Rams need to improve: Scoring.
It's tough to win when you don't put points on the board, and in each of the past three seasons the Rams have ranked in the bottom four in scoring. They were last in 2009 (10.9 points a game), tied for 30th in 2008 (14.5) and 28th in 2007 (16.4).
Perhaps No. 1 pick Sam Bradford can help reverse the trend. The former Oklahoma QB has all the tools: accuracy, a strong arm, intelligence and a competitive streak. All he needs is a healthy receiving corps. His top threat, Donnie Avery, tore knee ligaments in the preseason and is out for the year. And Laurent Robinson, a capable No. 2, has missed 23 of 32 games the past two seasons because of injury.
Which Ram needs to step up: Left tackle Rodger Saffold.
The rookie left tackle is being asked to protect the blind side of Bradford, who received $50 million in guarantees as part of his landmark $78 million contract. At 6-5, 323 pounds, Saffold has the size, athleticism and experience (41 starts in 42 games at Indiana) to get the job done. He also realizes the enormous responsibility of his job.
"I don't want to be the guy that lets somebody get through where [Bradford] could get injured or something like that," Saffold told reporters. "That would stay with me the rest of my career. That's one of the reasons I'm working so hard."
Predicted record: 4-12.
The Rams have just six victories over the past three seasons, but there is optimism they're on the road to respectability with the arrival of Bradford. The former Heisman winner won't be able to do it alone, and the season-ending loss of Avery was a major blow, but this season won't be measured by wins and losses as much as it will be measured by the development of Bradford.