Defense needs to keep improving for Seahawks

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

Coming off their first 10-win season since 1986, the Seahawks enter this
season with heightened expectations. Like winning a playoff game -- something
the franchise hasn't experienced since 1984.

Seattle came oh-so-close with that overtime loss in the wild-card round at
Green Bay last January. The Seahawks emerged from that game feeling like a
team on the verge of big things. And with St. Louis apparently taking a step
backward in the NFC West, this should be the year for Seattle to win the
division and, possibly, secure a playoff game at home.

The offense, which ranked sixth overall in 2003, returns intact. Four
starters are coming off Pro Bowl seasons, beginning with precocious QB Matt
Hasselbeck. "We'll take the ball, and we're gonna score," was how he
christened the OT coin toss in that memorable wild-card game at Lambeau
Field. Never mind that the Packers prevailed; Hasselbeck was serving notice
that the Seahawks had arrived.

Almost, anyway. While the defense was vastly improved in Ray Rhodes' first
season as coordinator, jumping to a No. 19 ranking, that side of the ball
must take another step forward if Seattle is serious about contending.

Rhodes will miss his best pass rusher, injured OLB Chad Brown, for at least
the first four games. If the defense can avoid suffering similar injuries to
key players, Rhodes should be able to approach the top-10 ranking a defense
generally needs to contend for a championship.

Quarterbacks: Hasselbeck owns all the tools to win the big games. He's
tough, fiery, accurate and loved by his teammates. Few passers throw so
accurately on the move, a skill Hasselbeck often uses to make plays
downfield. The big concern is whether Hasselbeck can stay healthy. The team
has asked Hasselbeck to avoid taking some of the hits he sometimes welcomes
by scrambling when he might otherwise throw the ball away. Hasselbeck's
health, while important, isn't as critical as it was a year ago. That's
because backup QB Trent Dilfer is in better shape this year, while No. 3 QB
Seneca Wallace has shown an ability to make plays through the air or on the
ground. Grade: A.

Running backs: This is a contract year for Shaun Alexander, and he is
precisely the type of player who performs his best when the stakes are
highest. There is no reason to expect anything other than another Pro
Bowl-caliber season from the man with 44 rushing TDs over the last three
years. Still, the team would like Alexander to improve his blocking and
receiving skills. While the 27-year-old Alexander has improved in these
areas, running will remain his strong suit by a wide margin. The Seahawks
can live with that as long as they continue to get solid production from the
FB position. Mack Strong is 33 years old and showing no signs of slowing. He
is a very good blocker with better receiving and running skills than one
might expect. Maurice Morris and Kerry Carter are in the running to replace
Alexander should the former No. 1 choice leave via free agency. But for now,
they figure to get only a few carries. Grade: A-minus.

Receivers: Some wondered whether the Seahawks might pursue a veteran free
agent to further strengthen a group that already includes Koren Robinson,
Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram. The team decided otherwise, and for good
reason. TEs Itula Mili and Jerramy Stevens appear ready to provide coach
Mike Holmgren with the double-barrel threat he long envisioned. The key is
the continuing development of Stevens, a player who finally appears serious
about getting the most from his 6-7, 265-pound frame. As for the receivers,
they need to cut out some of the drops that contributed heavily to a few of
the Seahawks' six road losses last season. Through training camp, the
evidence suggests the problem has been addressed. Jackson, who dropped eight
passes during one three-game stretch of 2003, enjoyed his best camp as a pro
after signing a long-term extension. There were some concerns early in camp
about Robinson. He reported a bit heavier than expected and suffered from
hip and quadriceps injuries that prevented him from contributing. More
recently, Robinson has attacked practices with the kind of hunger he'll need
to realize his Pro Bowl potential. Jackson and Engram remain their steady
selves, providing great comfort to Hasselbeck and the coaching staff. Grade:

Offensive linemen: This group was severely depleted during the preseason,
but everything should work itself out when the season begins. OLG Steve
Hutchinson joined OLT Walter Jones in the Pro Bowl last season, while ORT
Chris Terry was playing at a similar level by season's end. Jones missed
training camp for a third consecutive season thanks to the contract dispute
that never ends. But he planned to report in time for the regular season, as
he did a year ago. Terry is a bit of a question mark. The shoulder injury
that slowed him in training camp shouldn't be a long-term concern, but a
player with Terry's history of offseason problems must be watched closely.
New OL coach Bill Laveroni appears ready to go forward with the same lineup
Seattle employed in 2003. C Robbie Tobeck and ORG Chris Gray are both 34,
but no one has been able to unseat them. This is a line with enough talent
and continuity to start reducing the number of sacks allowed (43 last year).
If that doesn't happen, it might be time to start questioning the blocking
schemes. Grade: B.

Defensive linemen: The front office went out of its way to bolster the
defense up front. President Bob Whitsitt was willing to overpay free-agent
DE Grant Wistrom with a $14 million signing bonus, and the team followed
that move by using its first-round choice on DT Marcus Tubbs. The 23rd
overall choice, Tubbs is a 320-pounder with the pass-rush skills this
defense needs. Wistrom isn't great at any one thing, but he's a solid
all-around player with a great motor. Perhaps only an arch injury can stop
Wistrom from enjoying a strong inaugural season in Seattle. DE Chike Okeafor
proved to be a bargain in his first year with the team. He's a better run
defender than his smallish size would indicate, and Okeafor proved he can
get to the quarterback with a team-high eight sacks last season. The
Seahawks are banking on DTs Cedric Woodard and Rashad Moore to build on the
surprising success they enjoyed while replacing injured veterans John
Randle, Norman Hand and Chad Eaton last season. Rocky Bernard, a tackle who
showed promise as a rookie two years ago, needs to bounce back from a
disappointing season. The team could also use a bounce-back year from
Antonio Cochran. Grade: C-plus.

Linebackers: The loss of Brown through September was a big blow for a unit that already had big concerns at middle linebacker. Brown, the team's most consistent pass rusher in recent seasons, was also the heart and soul of a largely revamped defense. With Brown sidelined probably through September, the Seahawks will try to win games with Anthony Simmons as the lone established linebacker. Simmons and Brown's likely replacement, Tracy White, possess tons of playmaking speed. The big concern, at least early, is whether White has the wherewithal to succeed in only his second pro season. The team can probably get by with Orlando Huff, Solomon Bates or rookie Niko Koutouvides manning the middle. Seattle asked its middle linebacker to play only 35 percent of the snaps last year. That shouldn't be too troublesome given the run-stuffing ability of Seattle's tackles. Brown's speedy recovery is important because his primary backup, D.D. Lewis, was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Grade: C.

Defensive backs: This should be an exciting unit to watch as LCB Marcus
Trufant and FS Ken Hamlin enter their second pro seasons. Both flashed
play-making ability as rookie starters, and both are healthier after
offseason surgeries to repair nagging injuries. RCB Ken Lucas finished 2003
with his confidence in tatters, but he turned in a brilliant training-camp
performance. Lucas is obviously a different player physically. His waist is
trimmer, and his upper body much more muscular. This should be a breakout
year for Lucas, just in time for him to become a free agent in March 2005.
So impressive was Lucas during camp that veteran free-agent addition Bobby
Taylor is looking like the third corner. That's a role he wasn't willing to
play with the Eagles, but one Taylor has embraced while becoming a mentor
for Seattle's very young secondary. Strong safety is the only position of
intrigue. The team talked about inserting former Florida State LB Michael
Boulware into the role as a rookie, and that still might happen before
season's end. In the meantime, former fourth-round choice Terreal Bierria
has emerged from nowhere to win the job impressively. Bierria is a towering
presence at 6-3. Injuries prevented him from making an impact last season,
but the team liked him enough to carry him on IR. Grade: B-plus.

Special teams: PK Josh Brown insists he'll be much more effective with new
special-teams coach Mark Michaels limiting his kicks in practice. Brown's
depth on kickoffs needs to improve this season, as does his accuracy from
40-49 yards. He was solid for a rookie last season, and now it's time to
take the next step. P Tom Rouen has proven to be a pleasant surprise to
coaches. His success should continue with Pro Bowl special-teamer Alex
Bannister back for another year on the coverage team. Engram remains
rock-solid on punt returns, while the team expects more from a healthy
Morris on kick returns. Grade: B-minus.

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