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Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Seahawks' big-play prospects vs. Bears

By Mike Sando

Hasselbeck
Matt Hasselbeck went 25-for-40 for 242 yards and a TD in a Week 6 win over the Bears.
There's folly in asking an aging quarterback to wing deep passes all around Soldier Field in mid-January, especially when that quarterback has never been known for arm strength.

It's also tough to envision the Seattle Seahawks winning their NFC divisional-round playoff game Sunday at Soldier Field without Matt Hasselbeck completing the longer passes that worked so well against New Orleans in the wild-card round.

Hasselbeck, 35, completed 4 of 6 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints on throws traveling at least 15 yards downfield. This was his best deep-passing performance of the season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Bears, however, allowed only nine pass plays of 30-plus yards this season, one off the NFL lead (Indianapolis) and less than half the average for other teams.

One challenge for Hasselbeck, it appears, is keeping a good thing going against a tougher defense and amid less favorable conditions. For thoughts on his prospects, I checked in with the person best positioned to provide answers. ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer played with Hasselbeck in Seattle and helped teach him the intricacies of a defensive scheme that Bears coach Lovie Smith mastered while working under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay -- where Dilfer was quarterback at the time.

"The X factor is this: Matthew understands Tampa 2, 3 Sky, fire-zone Bear defense as good as anybody," Dilfer said. "I don’t know if there is a quarterback who could better coach up what the Bears do than Matt."

In an upset of sorts, Hasselbeck fared well on longer passes when Seattle beat the Bears at Soldier Field in Week 6. He completed 4 of 7 passes for 85 yards, one touchdown and a 139.9 rating on throws traveling at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. One of those went to Deon Butler, since placed on injured reserve, for a 22-yard touchdown. Chicago held the rest of the league to 29.8 percent completions and a 41.2 rating on these throws.

Early in the New Orleans game, the Seahawks showed an ability to drive for a touchdown without relying on big plays. They went 57 yards in six plays, none longer than the 11-yard scoring pass Hasselbeck threw to tight end John Carlson following a well-executed play-action fake. Working on a short field helped.

"Every other scoring drive had some kind of big-play element to it," Dilfer said, "and the Bears only gave up nine plays over 30 yards in the passing game. They refuse to give up big plays."

Hasselbeck credited Seattle's offensive staff, notably coordinator Jeremy Bates and quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch, for finding ways to exploit the Saints' gambling defense. His own experience against Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, this season and over the years, also came into play.

The Saints sent six or more pass-rushers more frequently than any team in the league this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That played into Hasselbeck's strength. Counting playoffs, Hasselbeck has completed 24 of 38 passes for 378 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against six or more rushers this season. Two of those three scoring passes came at the Saints' expense.

Rod Marinelli
Rod Marinelli's defense has allowed only nine pass plays of 30-plus yards this season.
The Bears take a different approach. They sent six or more rushers 2.8 times per game this season. Converting big plays becomes tougher, even for an experienced quarterback, with more players dropping into coverage.

While Hasselbeck connected on downfield throws against Chicago last time, Seattle averaged only 9.7 yards per reception in that game. The Seahawks' longest pass covered only 24 yards. The team wasn't overly reliant on the long ball, in other words. Receiver Mike Williams caught 10 passes for 123 yards, and the running game produced just enough to sustain a few drives.

That was enough to win while Seattle's defense was holding the Bears' offense to no third-down conversions and 13 points (Chicago also scored on special teams). Winning without the big play could be tougher this time.

"Seattle really has to somehow scheme it," Dilfer said. "Look at the touchdown pass Charlie Whitehurst threw against the Rams (in Week 17), the big plays they generated against the Saints. To me, it almost seems like they fired their gun, they have unloaded their chamber. Bates has to steal some (big) plays against the Bears."