When the Seahawks host the 49ers in their season opener at Qwest Field on Sunday, it’s San Francisco that comes in as the favorite to win a division Seattle once dominated.
Here we go.
Pete Carroll uttered those three little words several times during his midweek news conference – with emphasis. The Seahawks’ first-year coach repeated them several more times during practice this week – even more empathically.
Here we go, indeed.
The Seahawks’ not only open their first season under Carroll on Sunday, they do it at Qwest Field against a San Francisco 49ers team that is favored to win the NFC West – and also looking for a little payback after dropping a 20-17 decision to the Seahawks at Qwest in December.
“It’s a big game for us,” cornerback Marcus Trufant said. “All the games are going to be big. But I think we’ve got to come out of the chute running. First Game. At Home. The fans are going to be nuts. So we just want to go out and play our football and have a good showing.”
It’s difficult to know what to expect from the Seahawks, who have undergone change from top (Carroll, general manager John Schneider and the resignation of CEO Tod Leiweke to become CEO and part owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning) to bottom (the 53-man roster includes 27 players who were not on the team last season; and only 11 from the Seahawks’ last playoff team in 2007).
All this change has left the 49ers wondering what the Seahawks might throw at them on Sunday.
“Obviously there’s an element of the unknown,” 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. “There are a lot of new faces up there. From our offensive perspective, the same defensive coordinator (Gus Bradley), but obviously Pete is a defensive guy so we don’t know what that’s going to mean.
“So a lot of unknowns in general heading up there. We’ve just got to prepare for everything.”
One element Smith can grasp is the significance of opening against a division opponent at a venue where the 49ers are 3-5.
“Yeah, no question – huge,” Smith said. “The opener is obviously important in itself just because it’s kind of setting the tempo for the season. But it’s even a bigger deal because you’re playing a division opponent.”
As for what Smith and his teammates can expect from the Seahawks, the coaches want to be more balanced on offense and more aggressive on defense.
“This is a new beginning for us,” said Carroll, who grew up in the Bay Area and was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator in 1995-96. “We’re really pumped about this chance to open up at home. A great division matchup with San Francisco. Just brings everything right to the front now.”
The challenges facing the Seahawks are obvious:
On offensive, they must generate a more productive running game than they did during the preseason – when they averaged 71 rushing yards per game and 3.6 per carry. Part of doing that will include dealing with 49ers middle linebacker Patrick Willis, who led the league in tackles last season and is a preseason favorite to win NFL defensive player of the year honors.
“He’s a big factor in that he’s so explosive and he penetrates so well when they bring him in the pressure, which they do feature quite a bit,” Carroll said. “He’s not their only threat, but he is the guy that shows up because he’s so explosive.
“Very rarely do you find a linebacker that can run that fast. And he utilizes it very well.”
Hasselbeck certainly knows all about the impact Willis can have on a game. Willis put his helmet into Hasselbeck’s back in a Week 2 game at San Francisco last season, cracking a couple of ribs.
“Patrick Willis is probably the most talented player on their defense,” Hasselbeck said. “He’s extremely strong, extremely fast. He’s their Mike Singletary, so to speak. He’s a great player.”
In passing situations, the No. 1 priority is getting the 49ers’ Justin Smith blocked. He had 78 QB pressures last season and for much of Sunday likely will be matched against left tackle Tyler Polumbus – who probably gets the start because first-round draft choice Russell Okung is out with a sprained ankle. Polumbus just joined the team last week.
“If you’re a quarterback and you’re worried about your offensive line you’re probably not going to be successful,” said Hasselbeck, who is 6-3 in his previous openers for the Seahawks. “I’ve got all kinds of faith that those guys will get their jobs done.
“Where my focus is going to be is a little bit more on the total defense, and on our receivers and tight ends and running backs. The thing I can do to help those guys out is just enunciate clearly in the huddle. These are new plays to all of us. It’s new snap counts and all the kind of stuff. But I’m not worried about those guys.”
The focus of the Seahawks’ defense just as clearly is containing 49ers’ running back Frank Gore, who has a pair of 200-yard rushing performances against Seattle – but was limited to 25 yards at Qwest last season, in part because he got only nine carries.
“You’ve got to get his legs off the ground,” said middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who missed both games against the 49ers last season because of hamstring and pectoral injuries.
“And I’m not saying we’re going to shoot for the legs. But he’s one of those rare backs where contact does not stop his feet from churning. So you’ve got to put a body on him. Arm tackles will not work. If we can get 11 hats, we need all 11.”
On one side Sunday will be a team favored to win the division for the first time since 2002.
“I just think it’s important for our team to really focus on what’s important, the things that we have to get better at,” said Singletary, the 49ers coach and also a Hall of Fame middle linebacker. “In terms of the division and people saying that we are the favorite or whatever that is, I think that it’s just as important that we continue to not get involved in what people are saying.
“It’s important what we do. And that’s really the only thing that matters.”
On the other side will be a Seahawks team that is taking the same approach – sans the national expectations.
“We need to go out and play our ball,” Trufant said. “It’s not so much about all the other teams and what they might be doing, but what we’re doing and taking care of our business. From then on, we’ll see what happens.” Yes we will, because here we go.