If the 49ers are going to make anything of this season, they'll have to find a way to upset the Seahawks this Monday Night up in Seattle. Not likely, but there are things that could happen that could make it happen. I'm not sure what those things are, but there's something out there. In the meantime, I sat down with John Morgan over at Field Gulls to get his insight on the Seahawks midway through the season. Thanks to John for taking the time to answer my questions:
NN: So what's the deal with Shaun Alexander? Is he officially past his prime and on the downhill slide to the end of his career, or is there some underlying issue we're not seeing?
FG: Ah yes, Alexander. If I could convince people of anything this season it is that nothing about Alexander's decline is anything but predictable - even expected. He's thirty, but that's not significant in of itself. He's carried the rock 2,118 times for his career. That's a lot of accrued ware. His reception numbers have been down for years, an early indicator of declining agility. Perhaps most significantly, he absorbed 448 total touches in 2005 and sustained a foot injury the subsequent season. The floor rises fast to reach running backs. His unforgiving style has further hastened his decline. The fact that his peak performance was a bit inflated by a pair of HOFers manning the left side, Big Walt and "Starmaker" Steve Hutchinson, has worsened the perceived severity of his decline. To say he's on the downside of his career is kind. It's every bit possible that the only thing that will keep Alexander in the league next season is an overdeveloped sense of pride and a foolhardy GM.
NN: It sounds like Deion Branch will be out this week. Any updates on him beyond the missed practice Wednesday? If so, who do you see stepping up in the receiving corp, particularly since the running game has struggled?
FG: I know nothing more than is published in the dailies and on the web. In other words I know no more than any other fan, except maybe not to underestimate foot injuries. For every sport except competitive arm wrestling feet are fairly essential. The Hawks as an organization have been pretty good about not rushing their injured players back. Something like the foot that simply cannot be spared from punishment can quickly turn chronic if the player is prematurely returned to the fray.
Bobby Engram has already stepped up. Mike Holmgren uses him like a very active slot receiver, getting a ton of looks, but running very conservative routes underneath: curls, digs, quick outs and a few plays that have him motioning L or R and then runnning into the flat from out of the tackle box, often with an accompanying roll out.
The two receivers that the Niners should fear are DJ Hackett and possibly Nate Burleson. When Hackett returned Burly was able to return to his more accustomed role working underneath. Burleson is fairly adept at using his body to screen receivers, but asked to do too much he runs sloppy routes and can quit on the play if he thinks he's a non-factor. Allowed to work on more slants and drags his inconsistent hands and separation skills are lessoned and his phenomenal RAC makes him a veritable homerun threat.
Hacks is the better overall receiver, but shares a certain inability to get open against good cover guys. Hackett, unlike Burleson, is a dangerous deep threat. He knows how to play physical, outcompete DBs for the jump ball. He also has excellent body control and good hands. The greatest threat is the three and (hopefully) four playing together. Few teams are deep enough at DB to account for their complementary strengths.
NN: The Seahawks have put together a very impressive pass rush. Is it just a general group effort, or is there a more specific reason for this impressive showing to date? And considering the 49ers offensive line issues, do you think there's any way for them to combat the Seahawks D-Line?
FG: Depth and an emphasis on pass rushers - that's basically it. When Ellis Wyms became available, Ruskell moved for him. Jason Babin, ditto. Those two (especially Babin) have yet to produce much in the way of dividends, but it's an organizational philosophy: Defense is built on pass rush. Few teams are willing to stockpile players like Craig Terrill, who are essentially one trick players. The Hawks do it almost compulsively.
The key to beating the Hawks pass rush is exactly what Norv Turner did last season and the Cards did earlier this season: Employ a ton of blockers. Use designed roll outs. Pound the rock from heavy formations. It helps if you have strong receivers underneath, something the Niners do. I would get Vernon Davis heavily involved, not up top, but underneath. I watched Jim Hostler run a wide receiver screen to Davis in the contest against the Steelers. They split three wide left, had Arnaz Battle and I believe Maurice Hicks run a couple steps forward to bate the DBs then passed to Davis and had him hook around Battle. It was pretty effective, and could be so against the Hawks, too. Kelly Jennings is a solid young cover corner, but he's not much of a tackler. Other than that, it's just sort of a talent mismatch. You can only gameplan so much, if AB or C can't block or your QB has a gimpy arm, it'll lay waste the machinations of even the greatest offensive mastermind.
NN: People know the big names on offense and defense for the Seahawks. Is there somebody under the radar that has been a key for the Seahawks?
FG: Well, first thing, Rocky Bernard does not get nearly the respect he deserves. He is, plainly, one of the best single-gap three techniques in the NFL. Kelly Jennings, as I mentioned, is very good at forcing teams away from passing at him. Terrill is a little bit of bottled lightning and can spring a real nice play here and there. The name that has Hawks fans abuzz is Brandon Mebane, who is sorta truncated Marcus Tubbs. Like Tubbs he's able to force double teams but also penetrate when single covered. The past two games, after Chartric Darby was lost for the season, the Hawks and Mebane have stifled opposing rushers to the tune of 2.46 YPC. YPC is an inferior stat, but at its margins it's still relevant. Frank Gore should be facing a better rush defense than the one that brutalized him in week 4.
Offensively, Rob Sims is not even properly appreciated by much of the Hawk faithful. He's a rock in pass pro and has the kind of overall strength to stymie defenders with even glancing blocks. Leonard Weaver is an excellent receiver underneath, and though he can still be a bit clueless pass blocking, with a known assignment and gap his run blocking has improved mightily. Hackett has been discussed, but he's capable of punishing a team from the slot. Most intriguing is Maurice Morris. Morris has always played in Alexander's shadow, but with Stumbles (hopefully) riding the pine this Monday, Morris gets to show America if he's capable of a late career renaissance like many smaller scatbacks before him. Morris isn't deadly, per se, but he's very consistent and paired with a potentially explosive passing attack, a proper remedy for an unbalanced and summarily stagnating offense.
NN: How do you see the Seahawks season finishing up? On the one hand, they're clearly the best team in the NFC West. On the other hand, they're 4-4 and struggling to show consistency. Thoughts going forward?
FG: It depends on so much. The Hawks have a ton of talent - very deep. They are solid drafters, get value where so many teams only get practice fodder. If the Hawks can get their 6 deep WR crew all healthy at one time, paired with their pass blocking and polished (*wink*wink) quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, they have the potential to establish the type of aerial attack that could really open up the rushing game. That is, if Holmgren comes to his senses and neither continues to ride Alexander nor abandons the rush. Further, like last season they have a potential upgrade at right guard. I honestly thought right guard was Ray Willis' position to lose, but a bad knee injury (that looking at it now has apparently landed him on IR) and Chris Spencer's continued inability to make line calls has kept Gray from transitioning to a line coach or private citizenry or whatever. Mansfield Wrotto, who was several dimensions from being technically sound enough to play in the NFL exiting the draft, is powerfully built and athletic, plus surprisingly mobile in a short area. He is, in all likelihood, at least one season from contributing, but as was the case with Robbie Tobeck last season, retirement comes quickly for players on the other side of 35. Wrotto's time could come quite quickly, should Gray be sufficiently injured, and Pork Chop Womack sufficiently exposed as an injury riddled slouch and miserable fatbody.