Week 1: No Gimme Games for These 'Hawks

lofa-tatupuMy beloved Seattle Seahawks launch their 2009 campaign Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, and like some honest Seattle fans, I find it difficult not to dismiss the game as a foregone conclusion. Both teams may be rebuilding, and both may be undergoing core changes and riddled with injuries and question marks, but at a glance, the ‘Hawks do appear to be on the deeper edge of the pool.

But a closer look at the recent history between these two teams denies me that armchair luxury, and forces me to keep in mind a certain proverb: When it comes to division rivals, throw everything out, because it’s any given Sunday again.

It was the Rams that served as the springboard to Seattle’s record 11-game winning streak just four years ago. Many point to that game as the moment that the Seahawks finally overcame their pesky reputation as choke artists and found the “mental edge”, as Torry Holt so eloquently put it, that catapulted them to the Super Bowl.

But that game was a shootout right down to the final drive, and it was a turnover by the Rams’ special teams that finally handed Seattle the victory.

It was the Rams that served as Seattle’s rebound in early 2006 after Shaun Alexander’s injury led to a worrisome 37-6 blowout loss to the Bears. It was also Deion Branch’s big debut as a Seahawks receiving threat, a 6-catch, 2-TD performance.

But everyone remembers Torry Holt’s impossible fourth-quarter catch-and-run that kept the Rams in the game. We also remember the last-minute Seahawk penalty, which just happened to belong to a class of penalty that didn’t mandate a game-killing 10 seconds off the clock.

2007’s episodes against the Rams helped solidify Seattle’s reputation for pass rush, as Patrick Kerney and Darryl Tapp chewed up the Rams’ injury-depleted offensive line without remorse. But the Rams’ defense was not amused, suffocating the ‘Hawks in St. Louis to where Gus Frerotte was almost able to pull out a game-winning drive in the final two minutes – before fumbling the win away on fourth down.

And in 2008, it was a timely pair of blown coverages on St. Louis’s part that paved the way for the third of Seattle’s four victories. After a nightmare season of injuries, almost-wins, blowouts by the NFC East, and a Pittsburgh/Arizona Super Bowl, we Seattle fans took our small comfort where we could: at least we stayed on top of the Rams.

Perhaps it’s natural, then, that we no longer regard the Rams with anywhere near the concern that we did in 2005.

The Seahawks themselves are probably thinking differently. This is a fresh team, humbled by 2008, re-made in new head coach Jim Mora’s image and transfused with new talent. Our rookies are promising but still just potential, and our veterans remain unproven in Seahawk blue. New coaching and new game philosophies have arrived. The injury list is already filling up. Question marks abound.

Many of those question marks could echo for the entire season.

Can Sean Locklear handle the brutal job of left tackle? He struggled against Denver in the preseason before seeming to warm to the task, but his opponent this week, DE Jake Long, was not a first-round pick for no reason. Add Long’s pressure to that of DE Leonard Little against RT Ray Willis, and Sunday is as good a test as any for Seattle’s new Walter Jones-less offense.

Is our defensive line up to the task? Newly signed Colin Cole has an underachieving reputation to beat from his Packer days, and Corey Redding is this year’s Kerney – an aging pass rusher fresh from the surgeon’s table. Behind them at DE are Darryl Tapp and Lawrence Jackson, who must start putting quarterbacks on the ground if a repeat of 2008 is to be avoided. Much has been made of preseason wunderkind DE Nick Reed, and of the new blitzing schemes that Mora guarded to the point of omitting them from the preseason playbook entirely, but the preseason told us little about the talent of our starters on the D-line. Sunday may be far more revealing.

Should we be as worried about our secondary as the preseason prompted us to be? Marcus Trufant’s absence is painful. Like Locklear, Kelly Jennings managed to keep himself out of the fans’ doghouse towards the preseason’s end, but he still has much to prove. Has Jordan Babineaux finally improved to the point of being solid between his trademark Big Plays? More importantly, will he be used properly to aid our cornerbacks against bigger, stronger wideouts? If we cannot limit the Rams’ badly depleted receiver corps this Sunday, we should indeed be worried.

And of course, as any wise team should ask itself each year – what should be done about Steven Jackson? Losing each of his five games against Seattle hasn’t stopped him from averaging 118 all-purpose yards and a touchdown in each.

Perhaps your outlook for Sunday depends on how you view football. If you’re looking at the Rams, you might be seeing a vulnerable team just ready to lift a division rival to a strong start. If you’re looking at 2008, you might be seeing a slipped disc waiting to happen.

Or you might be like me, regarding our eight-game winning streak against the Rams as a series of last-minute breaks and lucky bounces. Which means the Seahawks had better be looking to create their own bounces, taking nothing for granted.

So what is my prediction for Sunday’s game?

Why, 31-20 Seahawks, of course.

I am still a ‘Hawks fan, after all.