Burleson says he’s ahead of schedule in terms of his rehabilitation

I recently talked to Seattle Seahawks receiver Nate Burleson for a story I’m working on. Burleson says he’s ahead of schedule in terms of his rehabilitation from his ACL knee surgery in September, and believes he’ll come back from the injury even faster than before because of the emphasis in his rehabilitation on improving his leg strength. And he points to guys like Joey Galloway and Deion Branch as examples of players who have been able to regain their speed, and even improve on it, after surgery.

Burleson said he’s been running, lifting weights and running routes regularly at the team’s Renton practice facility. As far as his participation at Seattle’s first mini camp in April, Burleson is not sure how much he will be allowed to do during the camp.

“I’m going to leave that up to the trainers and the coaches,” he said. “They’ve got a great understanding of what time of the year it is. I’m going to be there because I can learn the playbook. So I’ll definitely be there to take mental reps.”

I also talked to Burleson about how the addition of T.J. Houshmandzadeh will affect Seattle’s offense next season. Burleson says he has met with offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and receivers coach Robert Prince about what the Seattle native’s role will be in the offense.

And without giving away too many details, Burleson said Houshmandzadeh adds a veteran presence that will help keep defenses honest and create other mismatches on the field with Burleson, Branch and tight end John Carlson all with a proven ability to beat man coverage.

“As far as the output of the offense, the one thing I know is he’s (Knapp) going to utilize every player available from A to Z. … We’re going to get playmakers the ball, and we’re going to allow our playmakers to do what we do best.

Whether or not Houshmandzadeh is a No. 1 receiver has been frequently debated, with several NFL observers saying that Houshmandzadeh may not have much success without Chad Johnson on the other side. I’m not buying that. Chad Johnson did not light the world on fire with his play last season, but T.J. still got his numbers.

And that will be the case again this season because of the talent Seattle will surround Houshmandzadeh with. Expect to see the three-receiver, tight end, one back personnel grouping used frequently with Seattle next season because it allows them to put their most dynamic players offensively on the field, and some of the zone running plays occur out of one back without a lead blocker.

And with a veteran quarterback like Matt Hasselbeck at the helm, Seattle will stand a good chance to get into the right play based on what the defense is giving them — whether the defense is in zone or man in pass coverage, showing blitz, or in an seven-man front that allows the Seahawks to run the ball.

As far as moving the ball through the air, Seattle, if they manage to stay healthy at receiver, should be able to attack defense on the outside with Burleson and Branch, and on the interior of the defense with Houshmandzadeh and Carlson.

The Seahawks can use Burleson’s explosiveness and ability to run after the catch by working him on the outside, particularly against a Cover 2 look where Burleson can use his speed to get into the seams of a zone and then use his feet to get into the end zone. And he also has enough speed to beat cornerbacks over the top, as he did against Buffalo in the first game of 2008 before he got hurt.

Burleson’s strength is his ability to turn a short catch into a big gain, so anytime when you can get him on something like a crossing route, shown here, where he gets a head of steam and then turn up field, Burleson has a chance to score.

And then you can’t forget about Burleson’s ability as a punt returner, although I would be surprised to see him used in this capacity after coming back from ACL knee surgery.

Branch is more quick than fast. He’s an excellent route runner, has good hands and when healthy more than capable of making the spectacular play, which he did against his former team, the Patriots, last season.

What Branch can do because of his quickness is create separation coming out of his breaks, which helps free him up on post corner routes and deep comebacks along the sideline in both man and zone coverage. And like Burleson, Branch also is elusive after the catch. You might see Branch run some of the short, quick passing routes out of the slot that Bobby Engram used to have a lot of success with because of Branch’s ability to get in and out of breaks.

While Burleson and Branch are putting in work on the outside, T.J. Houshmandzadeh will go to work in the middle of the field, keeping linebackers and safeties honest with his ability to take chunks of yardage with his physical play.

T.J. talks here about some of the tricks of the trade he uses to get open here.

While all three of these receivers on their own could wreak havoc on a defense, perhaps the key piece to Seattle’s passing package is tight end John Carlson. Because Carlson had such a strong year in his rookie season, defenses are going to have to account for him. And in order to account for Carlson you have to put a safety on him, if not he’ll do this. And that means one of the other receivers is going to have single coverage.

More times than not, Burleson, Branch or Houshmandzadeh will beat single coverage. Somebody is going to be open, and it will be up to Hasselbeck to find the right guy and the offensive line to give both Hasselbeck and the receivers enough time to make it work.

The only concern I have with Seattle is do they have a receiver with enough speed who can consistently stretch the top of defenses? Jordan Kent could be that guy, but he has to continue to show improvement.