Behind Enemy Lines

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October 13, 2005
Behind Enemy Lines

by Keith Weiland/Doug Farrar

In anticipation of the Sunday night matchup between the Texans and the Seahawks, Seahawks.NET’s Doug Farrar joins me for a pre-game face-off on each of the teams. Doug first answers ten of my questions, then I handle ten of his questions. For many Texans fans, this will be their first look at Jamie Sharper since he last wore a Texans uniform. Bring us up to speed on how he performed through camp and preseason up through the Seahawks’ first five games. Is he helping the progress at all for his younger teammates at linebacker – D.D. Lewis and Lofa Tatupu?

.NET: Sharper is excelling quietly in his role as the strong side linebacker in a 4-3, as opposed to the inside in a 3-4 (where he played with Houston). He’s currently fourth on the team in tackles with 24 (19 solo). The leadership role is a bit different than may have been expected, because MLB Lofa Tatupu has really taken the bull by the horns with his instincts and work ethic. Lewis is getting a severe challenge on the weak side from rookie Leroy Hill, who has shown a great ability to wreak havoc in pass rush situations.

To answer your question about Sharper more specifically, I’d say that he’s helping the younger linebackers around him simply by being consistent in his performance – and consistently on the field! Given the horrific injury history of Seattle’s linebackers in recent years, the fact that Sharper has missed barely any time in his nine-year career was undoubtedly a huge factor in Seattle’s off-season interest. He hasn’t disappointed in any way. The continuity he provides is crucial for the kids around him, to be sure. The Seahawks endured a rather interesting offseason, beginning with the delayed changing of the guard in the front office. What is your assessment in how the situation was handled, and specifically, the contract decisions that were made to a few key players, including Matt Hasselbeck, Shaun Alexander, and Walter Jones. Was anything missed in all the hubbub?

.NET: Considering how dysfunctional things were at the beginning of the offseason, it’s a miracle more wasn’t missed. Former team president Bob Whitsitt was fired on January 14, 2005, mere days after the team’s wild-card loss to the Rams. At that time, the Seahawks had sixteen free agents to sign or cast aside…and they were also dealing with the departures of able executives Ted Thompson (to Green Bay) and Scot McCloughan (to San Francisco). The cupboard was bare to a frightening degree – and things could have been disastrous were it not for Mike Reinfeldt, the exiled contract and salary cap genius who ran the numbers from 1999 through 2003 until Whitsitt forced him out.

Reinfeldt came back as a consultant in early February and set about signing QB Matt Hasselbeck and LT Walter Jones to long-term deals, which allowed the Seahawks to put the franchise designation on RB Shaun Alexander. By the time Seattle hired new Team President Tim Ruskell in late February, those major pieces were in place. Reinfeldt was the team’s savior in that regard – who’s to say that Ruskell would have taken the job had Hasselbeck, Alexander and Jones remained on the open market? Reinfeldt was rewarded with the full-time position of Vice President of Football Administration. This is now a very tight front office after years of chaos.

Given the fact that he had a ridiculously short time to assess the situation from a free agency and draft perspective after his hire, I personally think Ruskell did a great job putting things back together. Some elite players were lost in free agency – CB Ken Lucas (to Carolina) and DE Chike Okeafor (to Arizona) were the two most prominent names – but Ruskell was able to replace frontline talent with less expensive and fairly equivalent players, which allowed more and better depth. Example: The Seahawks “replaced” Lucas with two players – former Titan Andre Dyson and former Bronco Kelly Herndon – for less than Carolina paid for Lucas alone. In the current cornerback market, that was an absolute stroke of genius. Speaking of Hasselbeck, he has sprinted out of the gates this season with a 97.1 quarterback rating and a TD:INT ratio of 7:2. He has overcome an inconsistent receiving corps and with the injuries Seattle has suffered at wide receiver, he still made things happen in the win last week over the Rams. Is this a mirage, or has Hasselbeck taken his game to the next level? What is the ceiling for Hasselbeck?

.NET: The primary difference for Matt this year is that he’s got receivers who will actually catch the football! Funny how that helps a quarterback’s numbers…

He’s not a Peyton Manning – he’s not going to break records ostentatiously. But Hasselbeck runs a good game, has an arm accurate enough for the West Coast Offense (a little iffy with the deep ball), and he’s far more competitive than his off-the-field demeanor would lead one to believe. His performance against the Rams was not only a triumph for Hasselbeck himself – it was also a coup for the front office and their ability to assess depth needs. Joe Jurevicius and D.J. Hackett subbed very well for the injured Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram.

Another factor in Hasselbeck’s favor is his offensive line. We’ll talk about this later, as the offensive line as an overall subject is certainly on the minds of Texans fans everywhere! As for Alexander, his game – which was already productive to begin with – seems to be improved in the early going this year as well. His per-carry average has increased a half yard from a year ago (and almost a full yard from ’02-’03) to 5.3 yards. Is he just running toward the free agency ATM this offseason, or has something changed with him, too? And do you really think he’ll be playing elsewhere next season, or is that just posturing from either side, given the peculiar no-franchise tag clause in his one-year deal?

.NET: No doubt the “ATM” is foremost in Shaun’s mind – the Seahawks did do a one-year deal with Shaun which prevents them from franchising him next season. Not only is his production up, but Alexander is obliterating the criticisms about his playing style that have hounded him despite his production. He’s never been a willing blocker out of the backfield – but he’s better at the “dirty work” this season. His reception numbers had dropped severely in 2003 and 2004, but that’s picking up a little. And the primary dent in his reputation is the past perception that he goes down far too easily and fears contact. This year, he has been more forceful when hitting the hole. Right now, he is as complete a back as he’s ever been.

At the beginning of the season, I thought there was no chance he’d be a Seahawk in 2006. I assumed the team would want someone who fit the WCO better (like Brian Westbrook) and that Shaun would want to be the main man in a run-heavy offense. But if he keeps this level of performance going throughout the year and the Seahawks keep winning because of that, there might be an accord between player and team. I’m still not entirely convinced that this will happen, but I now see it as a possibility. This also looks to be the year that tight end Jerramy Stevens puts it all together, as he’s had five straight games with three catches in each. Has he finally matured – or at least harnessed that potential – for the long-term? With receiver Darrell Jackson now out for a few more weeks, do you see that trend continuing or even improving?

.NET: Stevens enjoyed some sort of epiphany on the offseason. After three years of nothing but unfulfilled potential, the 2002 first-round draft pick went through minicamps, training camp and the preseason working like a demon and imploring Hasselbeck to trust him on the field. So far, so good – he came up with an incredible diving catch in Seattle’s Week Two victory over Atlanta, and he’s an ungodly target at 6’7” and 260 pounds. He could be nearly impossible to defend in the end zone if he keeps his game together.

And yes, with Jackson and Engram out for the time being, you could see a lot of Stevens this Sunday. Following the team’s battle with Texas against the Texans and Cowboys, the Seahawks have a bye in Week 8. Would you mind if the Texans borrowed Walter Jones for their game that Sunday? They could really use the help at left tackle.

.NET: You can’t have Walter. Nobody can!!! He’s the best offensive lineman in the NFL. When he’s really on his game, he’s among the best players in football. Ask Patrick Kerney of the Falcons and Bert Berry of the Cardinals – those guys probably should have filed police reports after what Big Walt did to them this season.

Jones leads Seattle’s offensive line, a very powerful unit. Joining him on the left side is All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson. If you want to get to Hasselbeck, you aren’t going to do it from that end. And when Alexander rumbles left, it’s a problem for opposing defenses. C Robbie Tobeck and RG Chris Gray are wily vets who can be pushed around a bit too much at times. RT Sean Locklear has been solid in spot duty as Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack recovers from various injuries. On defense, Texans fans are going to recognize a few names on the Seahawks’ depth chart that played their college ball in this state – linebacker D.D. Lewis and defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs of Texas, and defensive tackle Rocky Bernard of Texas A&M (lest I forget little-used reserve receiver Jerheme Urban of Trinity, too). I imagine, much like the former ‘Texans’ on the Chargers’ roster when they played in Houston last season, that these guys will have a little extra motivation playing against a team from near their old stomping grounds. How has each played relative to expectations so far this season (i.e. Lewis is starting and Bernard already has three sacks? Who saw that coming)? While I’m at it, would you mind if the Texans sent you all of their Washington players (LS Bryan Pittman and TE Mark Bruener) in exchange for those three?

.NET: Bernard has been a pleasant surprise, no doubt. His previous season high in sacks was 4 in his rookie year of 2002. Seeing him with 3.5 already this year is great, especially considering the fact that he essentially fills a backup role in the DT rotation – Marcus Tubbs and Chuck Darby are the starters.

Tubbs was a disappointment last season – injuries and the death of his mother conspired to sap his strength and focus. This season has been a rebirth for him. Tubbs is not a statistical king, but he’s the one taking on double teams as the point of focus in Seattle’s interior defensive line.

As I mentioned before, Lewis, who missed all of 2004 with a shoulder injury, could lose his starting WLB position to Leroy Hill over time. That’s less an indictment of Lewis as it is a glowing reflection of Hill’s early performance. If Lewis wants to buck that trend, he’d best do it with quickness. There weren’t too many questions about the offense heading into this season, with the thought that the Seahawks’ playoff hopes rested upon how well their defense improved from a year ago. With a revamped linebacking group to go with the young talent at defensive back, will these guys hold up this season into the winter months? And just what is the defensive philosophy employed by coordinator Ray Rhodes? Can you please ask him not to blitz too hard on third downs this week? Pretty please?

.NET: Ray’s blitzing a bit more this year, in concert with linebackers coach (and former Carolina defensive coordinator) John Marshall, who has been calling the defense this season so far. Rhodes suffered a mild stroke last month, and he’s been a consultant and advisor while Marshall handles the big picture. Last year, David Carr and that horrifically porous Houston offensive line may have had a chance to emerge unscathed – Rhodes is known for taking a base 4-3 with little in the way of scheming or stunting, and he’ll back his defense off into a soft zone at the drop of a dime. There’s been less of that this season, which I would attribute to both Marshall and the possibility that Rhodes has a little more faith in his personnel. What will it take for head coach Mike Holmgren to finally get fired? Is he safe as long as he keeps winning at least nine games every season, or was last year the last, last, lastlastlastest time that will be acceptable? Has owner Paul Allen just blacked out since Holmgren last had Brett Favre as his quarterback?

.NET: While I’ll be the first to acknowledge the idea that Holmgren is an overrated coach (at least he used to be – his star has fallen precipitously in the last few years), I’m not all about the “Favre made Holmy’s team go” theory, either. Holmgren had an unbelievable braintrust in Green Bay, starting with the near-immortal Ron Wolf at the top, and talent like Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci and Dick Jauron on his coaching staff. He’s never found the defensive coordinator worthy of replacing the late Fritz Shurmur (Rhodes has not yet proven to be the answer), and the management he was dealing with in a day-to-day basis in Seattle under Bob Whitsitt was nightmarish at best.

With a more solid team, and intelligent discipline the order of the day in the front office now, Holmgren now has his best chance to win in Seattle. I can’t see him lasting here if he can’t put an end to the team’s two-decade playoff victory drought this year…but I’ve been wrong about his lifespan in Seattle before. Visiting teams despised the crowd noise in the Seahawks’ old home at the Kingdome, not unlike the racket that bounced off the walls of the Astrodome during Houston’s first foray into the NFL. Yet, the Seahawks seem to have played very well in their new home of late, dating back at least to the end of last season. How has the switch to an outdoor stadium changed the atmosphere for pro football games in Seattle, and does anyone miss the old dome, if only for sentimental reasons? Or did Seattle police have to hold back the fans from throwing extra dynamite on the old place?

.NET: The Kingdome has a place in my heart forever, as I saw three of my favorite entities there – the Seahawks, the Mariners and Metallica! It was a pretty neat place for football, although no baseball fan in his right mind misses it. Qwest Field (formerly Seahawks Stadium) is an amazing place, and the passion of the fans still shines through – maybe not with the same sheer frightening volume (we are, after all, at an “acoustic disadvantage” in a comparative sense), but with the very same amount of soul.

Halftime! Switching sides…

.NET: In the 2005 offseason, the Texans endeavored to rebuild the defense around a younger core, took a shot at acquiring Orlando Pace and hoped that David Carr could build on a fairly successful 2004 season. However, Houston has started 2005 with an 0-4 record, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer has already been shown the door, and rumors are swirling around head coach Dom Capers. Did the front office blow a series of personnel moves, is the team too young to succeed, or is coaching the problem? Before we get into specifics about the Texans, what is the one pressing issue that is killing this team? With their oldest draft class now entering just their fourth year of play, it is difficult to conclude definitively whether the personnel moves – at least those involving drafted players and undrafted free agents – are to blame for what ails this team. The team has nailed two of its first round picks – wide receiver Andre Johnson and cornerback Dunta Robinson – plus they have found a couple key contributors in the draft’s later rounds, such as running back Domanick Davis (fourth round) and starting cornerback Demarcus Faggins (sixth round). The Texans have had their share of busted picks as well (supplemental second round pick Tony Hollings at running back tops that list), but they have likely been on par with the league average.

The Texans have been less successful in bringing in veteran free agent talent, forking over big bucks to three-fifths of their beleaguered offensive line. They have also been on the tortuous side of a couple key injuries to players like Tony Boselli, Gary Walker, and Bennie Joppru.

It may be fair to judge then that the team is still too young to succeed, but there has always been a veteran presence, especially on defense. With Carr in his fourth season, having a couple weapons in Johnson and Davis to go with a largely veteran offensive line, I wouldn’t necessarily blame their problems on youth.

That leaves coaching, and yes, I believe it is a problem. Dom Capers is not a very emotional guy, which serves well with younger players prone to ride the highs too high and the lows too low, but four years into this position with a now-veteran bunch, I think his well-rehearsed and canned approach with players and his unwillingness to adapt his gameplans on the fly will be his undoing in Houston.

.NET: The most obvious problem is that old Texans bugaboo – quarterback protection. Carr has already been sacked 27 times this season – he’s on pace to hit the ground 108 times in 2005. Besides the unsuccessful campaign to bring Pace to Houston, did the Texans do anything to upgrade their offensive line? And is the line the main reason that this team is dead last in passing offense at 89.3 yards per game? The chorus of the offseason song and dance was that all this offensive line needed was to just spend another year together gelling and working out the kinks to their zone blocking scheme first introduced in 2004. There was some reason to clap along in unison, as the line showed vast improvement in run blocking in the second half of the last season, and the thinking was that the breakdowns in pass protection were going to be solved with a few adjustments to a shorter passing game.

Unwilling to give up two first rounders to sign Pace, the Texans signed right tackle Victor Riley in the offseason to a one-year contract. He was given the opportunity to compete with Seth Wand to start at left tackle once he reported to camp in shape, despite never really playing the position in his NFL career. Riley won the job, but the dismal results a quarter of the way through the season speak for themselves, as Chester Pitts will likely start in his place on Sunday.

In addition to shifting Pitts over from guard, the team has experimented with shifting other members of their starting five around like they were playing musical chairs. Center Steve McKinney will bump over to left guard where he played for the Colts, and a rookie, Drew Hodgdon, will step in to snap the ball this week. Right tackle Todd Wade is also on the verge of losing his starting job, too.

And yes, the lack of pass protection is the main reason (of several other key reasons) why the offense is ranked last in passing offense thus far into the season. But the pass protection breakdowns are not entirely the fault of the five guys on the offensive line. Tight ends, running backs, and even the quarterback himself have also been to blame for the disastrous results, much more so than most outsiders think.

.NET: The story’s a bit happier on the rushing side of things – the Texans are 11th in the NFL when pounding the rock with a 123.8 YPG average. We know that Domanick Davis is a pretty good back – what are his strengths and weaknesses as a player? And why hasn’t he scored a TD this season? Well, first know that a big part of that ranking has been also due to the scrambling feet of David Carr. He is reluctant to throw the ball away when he should put it four rows up into the stands, but he at least has the moxie to scramble upfield for positive yardage. Carr is on a pace to rush for nearly 600 yards this season.

As for Davis, he figured out midway through the season last year how to run in the Texans’ version of a zone blocking system. Previously, he would try a little too hard to make something happen, jitterbugging around the line the scrimmage. He would try so hard to gain the extra yard that he failed to protect the football at times. Now, Davis patiently waits for the backside hole, makes a single cut, and runs downhill to daylight. Drafted as a kick returner and third down back, Davis can also catch the ball in the flat and make people miss in open space.

Davis has been inconsistent as a pass blocker, and while people often underestimate his thick middle (he is listed at 221 pounds), he is neither a bruising back nor a speed back. Davis’ failure to score touchdowns this season though is more of a result of the offense’s inability to pass and extend drives into the redzone than anything else. Davis actually had a touchdown reception last week against the Titans, but it was nullified by a penalty on one of his linemen. Davis’ touchdown deficiency will prove to be more of a statistical aberration over the rest of the season.

.NET: Preseason prognosticators rated Houston’s receivers as a fairly balanced unit, with Andre Johnson and Jabar Gaffney at the wideout positions, and Davis out of the backfield. Right now, David leads the team in receptions with 18 (and a 6.4 yard-per-catch average) while Johnson and Gaffney have 10 catches each. The Texans have three passing TDs this season, and they’ve been outgained by almost 400 yards in the air. What gives? The team has been awful in pass protection in obvious passing down situations. Unfortunately, when you’re an 0-4 football team, you’re in obvious passing situations quite a bit.

Part of the problem has been that opposing defenses have taken away the deep pass by playing a cover-2 scheme, and they have always kept two guys hanging around Andre Johnson for an entire game. Now, the situation is even worse. Johnson injured his calf and is doubtful to play this Sunday. The Texans will need another wideout to earn Carr’s confidence to throw the ball downfield.

.NET: Let’s talk about this offensive line. Player-by-player, what are the issues here? And why does this team keep striking out when it comes to assembling a decent line? At left tackle, Victor Riley was playing out of position and appears to maybe adding back a few of the pounds he lost just before training camp opened. He can run block but is slow footed against the faster pass rushers. He might see some time at right tackle this week. Left guard Chester Pitts started at left tackle in 2002 and 2003, and he might be the best left tackle on the roster. He has been prone to mental lapses in drawing penalties, but he is otherwise solid, though not spectacular.

Center Steve McKinney had also been arguably playing out of position until this week, coming to the Texans four years ago after playing guard in Indianapolis. He is a subpar pass blocker and did not have the feet and strength to play center at a high level. Rookie Drew Hodgdon takes over for him now at center, but he isn’t ready. While he has the strength, Hodgdon will obviously lack the savvy of a veteran.

Right guard Zach Wiegert has been fairly dependable when he isn’t hurt. Steady and strong as a run blocker, he has slowed down as a pass blocker. Right tackle Todd Wade is a big man, but he has had problems with speed rushers and backside rush blocking, a key ingredient to the team’s zone blocking system.

The Texans have tried to build their line with veterans, dating all the way back to taking Tony Boselli with the first pick in the expansion draft. None of them have outperformed their contract. Of their drafted players, only Pitts has been acceptable, as third rounders Seth Wand and Fred Weary have yet to show enough improvement.

.NET: Let’s talk defense. The Texans are 25th in the NFL in both yards and points allowed per game. They run a 3-4 scheme with Gary Walker, Seth Payne and Robaire Smith as the top linemen on the depth chart. How effective is that line, and what sort of effect is first-round draft choice Travis Johnson making in that equation? Their effectiveness is often overlooked because the Texans’ version of the 3-4 doesn’t ask its linemen to rack up a lot of stats. These guys are doing their job when they squat on the line of scrimmage, tie up a couple blockers, and clog the rushing lanes. Fans would love to see the ends get into the backfield a little more often though. Payne is the leader of the defense, a hard worker and a pleasure to watch on the field.

Gary Walker has been largely ineffective since his Pro Bowl season in 2002. After signing a huge contract extension two years ago, Walker has been hurt often, missing fifteen games since 2003.

When the Texans drafted Travis Johnson, it’s as if they replicated Walker’s DNA (in a good way). He has shown plenty of fire in practice, and he does bring a little pass rush ability, too. He is still young and has been handled by a single blocker too easily thus far in the regular season, but he’ll keep getting a little better with each game he plays.

.NET: The Texans overhauled their linebacker corps in the offseason, releasing Jay Foreman and Jamie Sharper (thanks for the latter, by the way!) in favor of Kailee Wong and Morlon Greenwood. Jason Babin is in that equation as well. Who’s the best linebacker on this team right now, and who’s taken Sharper’s role of pointman in terms of both leadership and total tackles? Babin was supposed to be the best linebacker. The Texans gave up three draft picks to move up into the first round of the 2004 draft and select Babin. After starting all sixteen games his rookie year, Babin was benched after his second game this season. It turns out though that a torn labrum in his right shoulder suffered in the preseason might have quite a bit to do with ineffective play this year.

Wong is the most consistent of the linebackers and perhaps the de facto leader of the unit. He might as well be – he has played just three of the four linebacker positions on the defense. Wong is not a gamebreaker though. That responsibility was supposed to fall on the shoulders of Antwan Peek, who is a starter at outside linebacker for his first season.

.NET: With all the sacks Houston’s allowed, they’ve amassed only four on defense. Is the lack of pressure a matter of talent, scheme, or both? There is certainly a talent deficiency at linebacker, but the scheme is likely at fault for the lack of sacks and forced fumbles. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio brought with him a complicated system from his previous post as the Colts defensive coordinator before the Tony Dungy regime, a system that seems to have his players reacting too often to what they read instead of forcing the action. The unit tends to stiffen though when an offense enters the redzone. They are capable of going long stretches of keeping opponents out of the endzone.

.NET: The Texans have no interceptions this season, and the secondary looks to be a bit of a mess. They released cornerback Aaron Glenn and safety Eric Brown in the offseason, and acquired former Oakland CB Philip Buchanon. Four games in, Buchanon has lost his starting job to Demarcus Faggins. How is 2004 rookie wonder DB Dunta Robinson performing in his second season, and how would you rate this secondary overall? Robinson is the star of the defense, and teams are reluctant to throw at him when they can avoid it. You just never see him beaten deep. Robinson has Pro Bowl ability to shut down his half of the field.

The secondary as a whole looks a whole lot worse on paper than they are in reality. The defense asks too much of this unit when the front seven fails to pressure the quarterback consistently.

.NET: This is a team in trouble right now. They’re in a pretty tough division, and there appears to be several aspects in need of serious rebuilding…or complete demolition. If you were Charley Casserly for a day (or an offseason), what would be your cure for what ails this team? My “to do” list would have just two items: 1. Fire the coaching staff. 2. Fire myself.

Seriously though, the problems this team needs to deal with cannot be fixed within a day. They are unfortunately far more complicated than that, however there is a small core of young talent here that is underachieving right now. A change in coaches (and subsequently gameplan philosophy) could go a long way in re-starting this team’s climb toward the playoffs.

At the top of the wishlist for the general manager this offseason ought to be drafting a few new offensive linemen, in particular one of those elite left tackle prospects that ought to be available when the Texans pick in the first round. The question bubbling now though is whether Casserly will still be around next April to make those selections.

Keith Weiland would like to thank Doug Farrar, the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, for his insight into the Seahawks. Feel free to e-mail him at [email protected].

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