Numerous changes have taken place for the Seattle Seahawks this offseason, all of which make the 49ers divisional rivals an even greater opponent for the opening week of the 2010 season.
New head coach, new general manager, but the Seahawks spirited fan-base remains the same. No doubt the "12th man" will be ready to go for the home opener and the 49ers are expecting it too.
With close to 200 roster moves made since Pete Carroll and John Schneider took their respective roles with the organization, the Seahawks will understandably look a lot different when they host the 49ers Week 1 at Qwest Field. Twenty-seven of 53 players are new to the team, including former 49ers running back Michael Robinson, who was one of six players signed to the roster after the NFL's final roster cuts last week.
Despite finishing the preseason with a 1-3 record, Seattle (5-11 last season, 3-3 against the NFC West) competed hard throughout the exhibition season. The Seahawks made strides under Carroll's coaching staff. Now it's time to carry that momentum into the regular season.
Matt Hasselbeck returns for his 12th NFL season and his ninth in Seattle as the starting quarterback. The veteran signal caller is coming off a season in which he completed 60-percent of his passes for 3,029 yards to go along with 17 touchdowns and as many interceptions. But that's not to his standards. After all, Hasselbeck has been named to three Pro Bowls.
Last season, Hasselbeck was knocked out of the team's first meeting with the 49ers, when Joe Staley fractured one of his ribs with a devastating goal-line hit in the first half of action. Hasselbeck missed his next two starts, but got revenge later in the year when the 49ers traveled to Seattle by tossing two touchdown passes in the Seahawks 20-17 victory.
However, when the 49ers travel north this Sunday, Hasselbeck won't have many of the same targets as he did that day.
Veteran wideouts T.J. Houshmanzadeh (recently released) and Nate Burleson (signed with Detroit in free agency) are no longer the team's top perimeter threats. That distinction goes to second-year wideout Deon Butler and Mike Williams, a former product of Carroll's at the University of Southern California. The duo combined for 25 catches for 368 yards and two touchdowns in the preseason. Rookie wideout Golden Tate was drafted in the second round to provide big plays on the perimeter as well.
Seattle's running game returns the duo of Justin Forsett and Julius Jones, only this year and former New York Jets running back Leon Washington was added to the group. All three are short, shifty runners who provide versatile threats to the ground attack. Forsett (114 carries for 619 yards in 2009)should get the bulk of the work against the 49ers, but look for the other running backs to play a part in the game plan as well.
Up front is where many of the changes have taken place for the Seahawks, some more recent than others. Offensive line coach Alex Gibbs abruptly retired recently before the start of the season, but Pat Ruel, a former Carroll colleague at USC, has stepped in to guide the unit.
Also out is perennial Pro Bowl tackle Walter Jones, who retired after his 13th season. In is No. 5 overall pick Russell Okung out of Oklahoma State. But Okung won't be the replacement right away however. The rookie left tackle will be out of action to start the season due to a sprained ankle suffered in the preseason. Look for recently acquired tackles Stacy Andrews or Tyler Polumbus to step in for Okung on the left side.
It should also be noted that tight end John Carlson remains a key threat in the Seahawks offensive attack. He finished 2009 third on the team with 51 catches for 574 yards, but more importantly was first with seven touchdown receptions. Without Houshmanzadeh or Burleson's services, Carlson is likely to be an even bigger target for Hasselbeck, especially in the red zone.
The first time the 49ers met the Seahawks last season, Frank Gore had a field day. The two-time Pro Bowl running back gashed Seattle's defense for touchdown runs of 79 and 80 yards. Gore's runs came at home at the expense of a wounded Seattle defensive front.
That won't be that case this time around; the Seahawks should have their starters intact.
Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu is likely to start at inside linebacker, unlike last season when he played sparingly in the first meeting and not at all the second time around.
Second-year outside linebacker Aaron Curry is looking to build off a rookie campaign which saw him total 61 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. And with Tatupu likely to play more than five games this season (which is as many games he suited up for in 2009), having a Pro Bowl-caliber player by his side which should help Curry's development.
Like Tatupu, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane figures to be back as well for the Seahawks-49ers first meeting of the season. He was absent for the 49ers 23-10 victory last September, but was a factor in the second contest, posting three tackles and a half of a quarterback sack.
Former 49ers first-round pick Kentwan Balmer is also in the mix of Seattle's defensive line rotation after being acquired mid-way through training camp for a late-round draft pick. Seattle bolstered its defensive line even more by adding defensive ends Raheem Brock and Junior Siavii after the final roster cut deadline. They'll take the places of veterans Kevin Vickerson and Craig Terrill who were recently released.
On the back end, the Seahawks are led by a mix of veteran savvy and youthful exuberance, at least that's the case with the starting safeties. Strong safety Lawyer Milloy enters his 15th season in the NFL, while free safety Earl Thomas enters his first.
Thomas, the No. 14 overall pick, has a knack for covering ground and figures to be all over the field this Sunday. Also, cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings return to the defensive units as the starters. The 49ers attempted 72 passes in two meetings against the Seahawks in 2009 and none of them were intercepted, the new-look secondary will look to change that outcome beginning Sunday.