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Monday, August 10, 2009
Camp Confidential: Seahawks' new priorities


 
  Steve Dykes/US Presswire
  Seahawks camp has a new feel now that Jim Mora is running the show.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

RENTON, Wash. -- Training camp for the Seattle Seahawks is dramatically different now that Jim Mora has taken over for Mike Holmgren as head coach.

The offense is no longer swimming downstream.

Holmgren stressed perfect execution, scripting the defensive schemes to fit what he expected -- hoped, even -- to see from an opponent. The offense was his baby and Holmgren fumed whenever it struggled through a practice. He would order a play repeated until the offense got it right.

Camp Confidential: NFC West
Cardinals: Mon., Aug. 3
49ers: Wed., Aug. 5
Seahawks: Mon., Aug. 10
Rams: Thurs., Aug.13
Training camp index

Camp Mora offers no such perks.

"It's two schools of thought," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said.

The Holmgren school emphasized mastering the offensive system, with less regard for what the opponent might do. Holmgren figured the opposing defense would come up with some surprises from time to time, but practice reps were too scarce to dwell on them in training camp.

"Let's make them perfect, let's be fast, let's get off the field," Hasselbeck said in summarizing the old way.

Mora and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp would rather see the offense face those problems in camp, allowing the staff to fix them before the regular season. They won't script defensive looks to facilitate offensive execution until closer to the season.

Camp Mora also places far more emphasis on game situations, even obscure ones. The team recently practiced third-and-10 running plays against a nickel defense.

"We practiced fourth-and-20 the other day," Hasselbeck said. "Fourth-and-20? What do we got for fourth-and-20? The funny thing is, I think we converted it."

Key questions

1. Will this team get -- and stay -- healthy enough to compete?

It's easy to explain away Seattle's 4-12 record last season by pointing to a horrendous run of injuries. Few teams could withstand losing their top six receivers, their starting quarterback and multiple offensive linemen (all five starters wound up on injured reserve).

 
  Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
  Seattle needs a healthy Walter Jones to help protect quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.

One injury-ravaged season hardly ensures future health, however.

Shoulder trouble forced starting left guard Mike Wahle into retirement as camp opened.

Back injuries have sidelined cornerback Marcus Trufant and tackle Walter Jones to this point in camp. Jones returned from microfracture knee surgery, only to have back spasms force him into the training room after only one practice. He is 35 years old. The Seahawks' pass protection depends on Jones being healthy enough to play. Any injury to Trufant is potentially serious because he's the best player in the secondary.

The team expects Jones back this week, with Trufant perhaps needing a little more time. But the unpredictable nature of back injuries adds drama where the Seahawks would prefer none.

At least Hasselbeck has held up fine to this point. The team has not reduced his reps to protect the back problems that sidelined him last season. The workload has actually been tougher.

Mora and Knapp are emphasizing a fast offensive tempo, reducing the time between plays -- a hallmark of the Seahawks' best teams under Holmgren. The faster pace leaves less time between throws, testing quarterbacks' endurance.

The quarterbacks also begin throwing 20 minutes before the team gathers for pre-practice stretching.

"We have been working way harder than I think anyone imagined," Hasselbeck said.

2. How much does Patrick Kerney have left?

The 32-year-old defensive end has not exceeded 6.5 sacks in three of the past four seasons. He has missed 16 of 48 games over the past three seasons, and he's coming off another shoulder surgery.

 Kerney

But his 14.5-sack season two years ago stands as evidence of what Kerney can accomplish when healthy. The pressure he can put on opposing quarterbacks would dramatically upgrade a pass defense that ranked 32nd last season.

Kerney is sporting a thicker physique without sacrificing his trademark chiseled look. He very much looks the part. Staying healthy remains the priority, however, and Kerney's former dominance has not shown in practices to this point. He recently failed to get pressure during three consecutive rushes against a backup tackle during one practice. Kerney did not appear to be rushing wi
th his usual abandon.

Expect him to cut loose when the games start counting.

"I have a history in training camp of pushing, pushing, pushing and having soft-tissue stuff -- hamstring strains, groin strains -- and we are making sure that doesn't happen," Kerney said. "I'm just a lot less likely to suffer them [during the regular season] because it's not the training camp repeated, repeated pounding and pounding and pounding."

3. How badly will the Seahawks miss Holmgren?

 
  AP Photo/John Froschauer
  How Matt Hasselbeck and the offense adjust to life without Mike Holmgren will be key for the Seahawks.

Holmgren's strengths were as a teacher and playcaller. He wasn't as interested in leading offensive meetings or even attending them in some cases. He kept distance between himself and his quarterbacks, operating through his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

The new staff has bridged the gap, with Knapp and Hasselbeck communicating directly and frequently. Hasselbeck enjoys more input into the plays Seattle runs. There's less emphasis on the system itself, affording greater flexibility.

The question becomes how well Knapp can "dial it up" as a playcaller on game days. Holmgren was among the best in that category.

Market watch

Deion Branch faces what is likely a make-or-break season for him in Seattle. This is his fourth season with the team since the Seahawks acquired him from the Patriots after the 2006 regular-season opener.

Branch's totals for receptions have declined each season, from 78 with the Patriots in 2005 to 53, 49 and 30 last season. The Seahawks have paid him $22 million for his efforts to this point. They need more from him this season.

Branch has generally played well when healthy, but he hasn't been healthy nearly enough. Can he finally hold up? ...

The defensive front seven is much bigger now that first-round linebacker Aaron Curry has signed his contract. Cory Redding, nose tackle Colin Cole and Curry are far bigger than the people who filled their roles last season. The starting defensive line averages more than 300 pounds per man. ...

Getting the 5-foot-11 Trufant back would give Seattle its biggest cornerback tandem since Trufant and the 6-foot Ken Lucas were starters together in 2004.

The Seahawks need all the size in the secondary they can get after the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald caught 15 passes for 281 yards in two games against Seattle last season. Somewhat ominously for Seattle, Fitzgerald put up the same numbers in two matchups against Lucas' Panthers. ...

Redding has been the surprise of camp to this point, dominating against run and pass alike. He has dropped to 292 pounds. This is a contract year for Redding. He has the talent to emerge again as a disruptive force. Look for him to start on the left side, sliding to defensive tackle on passing downs. ...

Running back Julius Jones finally appears close to realizing his dream scenario, a chance to serve as a featured back without a significant threat to his carries. Jones has talked a big game at times, blaming the manner in which teams have used him for his mediocre stats. The Seahawks should find out this season whether Jones was really to blame.

Newcomer to watch

 
  AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
  The Seahawks are counting on T.J. Houshmandzadeh to help bolster their receiving corps.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh is sensitive to the suggestion he's an older player in decline. He blames offensive problems in Cincinnati for the steady retreats in his yards per reception.

It's clear from watching Houshmandzadeh that he remains a tough, reliable craftsman. He likely will not run away from defenses for big gains, but the Seahawks can trust him to make difficult catches in the middle of the field.

"Me and Matt are starting to get into somewhat of a rhythm," Houshmandzadeh said.

Observation deck

The Seahawks' free-agent additions have created competition. Cornerback Josh Wilson, whose starting job went to Lucas, has responded with a top-notch camp. Houshmandzadeh's addition has raised the stakes at receiver. Nate Burleson, less than a year removed from reconstructive knee surgery, has responded with an excellent camp so far. ... Second-year running back Justin Forsett has adapted better than expected to Knapp's one-cut zone blocking scheme. Forsett has also shown he can make catches downfield. Experienced depth behind Jones remains a potential weakness, however. T.J. Duckett is more of a short-yardage and complementary player. ... Defensive end Darryl Tapp tends to impress during training camps. This summer is no different. Transferring that success to the regular season has proved difficult. A situational pass-rushing role would seem to suit the 2006 second-round choice. ... Left guard Rob Sims has been the most impressive offensive lineman to this point. He has held up effectively against problematic defensive tackle Brandon Mebane. Still, with Wahle retired, Jones hurting and center Chris Spencer turning an ankle Friday, the Seahawks' depth up front appears tenuous. ... Jordan Babineaux has yet to make an obvious push for the starting job at free safety after general manager Tim Ruskell said Babineaux would challenge veteran Brian Russell for the job. ... Owen Schmitt isn't looking like the best option at fu
llback. Justin Griffith, late of the Raiders, could have more value. "Justin Griffith has been a huge, huge, huge addition with knowledge of this offense," Hasselbeck said. "He is just a pro. He is a pretty good player. He can do everything pretty good."