GLENDALE, Ariz. – Greetings from University of Phoenix Stadium, where some of the Seahawks already are on the field preparing for today’s regular-season opener against the Cardinals.
This is, as you’ll recall, the same venue were the Seahawks closed the 2011 season with a 23-20 overtime loss to the Cardinals. But several things have changed since the Seahawks played here on New Years’ Day.
The most obvious, as well as most discussed and dissected, difference is Russell Wilson taking over at quarterback for Tarvaris Jackson – who was traded to the Bills last month. The rookie won the starting job with an impressive and productive preseason. The speed of the game increases during the regular season, so Wilson will have to deal with that – as well as an Arizona defense that batted 18 passes incomplete last season, which was the third-highest total in the league. It would indicate a mismatch for the 5-foot-11 Wilson, but his height – or lack of it – was not an issue at the University of Wisconsin last season and has not been since he joined the Seahawks after being selected in the third round of the NFL Draft.
The best thing the Seahawks can do for Wilson is to continue running the ball – regardless of how much leading rusher Marshawn Lynch plays because of the back spasms that have sidelined him since the second preseason game and limited him in practice during the week. The Seahawks averaged a league-high 178.3 rushing yards during their unbeaten preseason run, no matter who was carrying the ball or who was blocking for them.
Speaking of blockers, J.R. Sweezy’s remarkable story continues as the rookie will start at right guard today. A defensive tackle at North Carolina State, the Seahawks decided it was worth taking a chance in the seventh round of the draft on an athlete they felt eventually could make the switch to the O-line. Eventually has arrived ridiculously early, as Sweezy got a chance to start when incumbent starter John Moffitt was sidelined with an elbow injury. Sweezy stepped in for the final three preseason games and won the job.
Another new wrinkle: Robert Turbin. The rookie has shown he can be the physical presence in the running game to spell Lynch, and step in and start when Lynch can’t play.
On the other side of the ball, the Seahawks are better equipped to pressure the passer – a season-long problem last season – after adding rush-end Bruce Irvin in the first round of the draft and signing rush-tackle Jason Jones in free agency. Both moves were made to improve a pass rush that generated only 22 sacks in 2011 by players not named Chris Clemons, who has had 11 sacks in each of his two seasons with the Seahawks. The target of their attention will be John Skelton, the 6-6 QB from Fordham who won the Cardinals’ starting job and drew comparisons to the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger from the Seahawks players and coaches during the week.
Skelton was 5-2 as a starter last season, and he’s 5-0 as a starter at home the past two seasons.
The primary target for Skelton will remain Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who caught eight passes for 148 yards in the second half and overtime in the finale last season after the Seahawks held him to one catch for 1 yard in the first half.
There’s even a new wrinkle there, with Marcus Trufant, the long-time starter at left cornerback, moving into the nickel back role.
The Seahawks don’t just want this one; they need it, what with the Cowboys coming to CenturyLink Field next week for the home opener and then the Monday night matchup in Seattle with the Packers on Sept. 24.
So sit back and enjoy the opener, with kickoff set for 1:25 p.m. PDT on Fox TV (KCPQ/13) and 710 ESPN and 97.3 FM.