Five keys to keep an eye on as the Seattle Seahawks kick off the Pete Carroll era Sunday:
1) Can the 12th Man rattle the rookies?: The 49ers will be starting two first-round draft picks — right tackle Anthony Davis and left guard Mike Iupati — which should be interesting in the hostile Qwest Field environment.
It’s tough enough making your rookie debut in the NFL without having to deal with crowd noise making it impossible to hear snap counts and giving opposing defensive linemen that half-second advantage.
Davis likely will deal with Aaron Curry on passing downs, while Iupati will have his hands full with veterans Brandon Mebane and Colin Cole in the interior.
Additionally, the Niners lost starting center Eric Heitmann to a fractured leg a few weeks ago, so the offensive line stands as the team’s biggest question mark.
Here’s a story in the San Francisco Chronicle detailing the concerns over the rookie linemen in their Qwest debuts.
Iupati played at Idaho, Davis at Rutgers.
“Once you experience loud, it’s loud,” Davis told the Chronicle. “Once you can’t hear the guy next to you talking, that’s as loud as it gets. You can only see mouths move, and that’s it.”
Curry, who relishes the Qwest crowd mania, says Davis and Iupati have no idea what’s going to hit them.
“It’s definitely going to be a different experience for them,” Curry said. “How they handle, I don’t know. But it’s going to be something they’ve never seen before. Or heard before.”
2) Hello, running game? Are you there? Seattle’s running game was woeful in the preseason, averaging just 71 yards per game. And that was before line coach Alex Gibbs quit abruptly and young Tyler Polumbus was installed as the left tackle.
But the Seahawks need to get something going on the ground and will give third-year back Justin Forsett first crack.
Forsett seems well-suited to the zone-blocking scheme with his vision and burst, not to mention background in the same scheme at Cal, but he’ll need the line to block better than it has so far to give him a chance.
Polumbus and Mike Gibson — making his first NFL start at guard — are very green on the left side and the Niners have a strong, aggressive defensive front.
For Forsett, this is his breakthrough moment.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s been a long journey. But I wouldn’t have it any other way and I’m very happy to be here now. The trials I went through and the patience I learned have been great lessons. And I’m still learning. This is just the beginning.”
3) Will the Niners remember Frank Gore?: San Francisco running back Frank Gore has gashed the Seahawks badly in the past four seasons. The 5-foot-9 speedster averaged 124 yards rushing in seven games against Seattle — including 207 yards in the 49ers’ early-season win.
But the Niners inexplicably went away from Gore in their late-season 20-17 oss at Qwest Field, giving him just nine carries for 25 yards while having QB Alex Smith fling 45 passes.
Seahawks coach Jim Mora expressed surprise afterward at the 49ers’ game plan, thanking them for not using Gore more than they did. Those comments would undoubtedly have been raised this week if not for the fact Mora is no more in Seattle.
San Francisco coach Mike Singletary said there were some odd circumstances in that game that resulted in the offensive tactics, but didn’t get specific.
Regardless, the Seahawks expect they’ll get a full bore of Gore on Sunday in a critical test of their new defensive alignment with massive Red Bryant at one end and the undersized Chris Clemons at the other. It’ll be interesting to see if the Niners attack Clemons in running situations.
The best way to stop Gore?
“Get his feet off the ground,” said middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu.
4) It’s all on the line now: Polumbus, expected to start at left tackle, will be the focus of much attention as he becomes the latest in a long line of emergency replacements at that critical spot.
The days of Walter Jones’ taken-for-granted ownership at left tackle are long gone as Sean Locklear, Brandon Frye, Kyle Williams, Damion McIntosh and now Polumbus will have taken their shots at a spot now designated for first-round draft pick Russell Okung.
With Okung sidelined by a sprained ankle, Polumbus was obtained by trade for a seventh-round draft pick with Detroit just 12 days ago and will make his first start at left tackle since his senior year at Colorado in 2007.
He’ll go up against Justin Smith, who played in his first Pro Bowl last season after leading the Niners’ defensive line with 90 tackles and six sacks.
It’s not like the rest of the Seahawks’ line is filled with rock-solid veterans either. Gibson makes his first NFL start at left guard, Sean Locklear has struggled at right tackle and just agreed to a major paycut, Max Unger begins just his second season at right guard and Chris Spencer — oft-maligned last year at center — now stands as one of the team’s most-stable linemen.
Keeping Matt Hasselbeck upright is critical to Seattle’s hopes. The coaches game-planned around a bad mismatch when Mansfield Wrotto faced Vikings’ All-Pro Jared Allen during the preseason by helping Wrotto by using tight end John Carlson to chip block Allen and calling numerous quick-drop passes.
That isn’t a recipe for long-term success, given those tactics greatly limit an offense’s options, so watch to see how much those are needed or whether Polumbus and Company can hold their own without getting Hasselbeck killed.
5) Curry in a hurry: Linebacker Aaron Curry intends to make waves this season after a disappointing rookie season by his own standards. But the 2009 first-round draft pick has a difficult chore right out of the blocks, having to cover 49ers standout tight end Vernon Davis much of the afternoon.
Davis, who just signed a five-year, $37 million contract extension Saturday, tied an NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end last year with 13 while catching 78 balls for 965 yards.
“He’s definitely one of the better ones I’ve played against,” Curry said. “We’ll visit each other now and then during the game, I’m sure.”
When Curry isn’t tracking Davis, he’ll also try to get some pressure on QB Alex Smith off the corner as a nickel pass rusher.
That’s a role he’s yet to really excel at, despite his athleticism and 254-pound frame. But the Seahawks are making his pass rush a point of emphasis in that much-needed phase of their new defense.