Countdown to kickoff

CHICAGO – Greetings from venerable – even if it has been remodeled – Soldier Field, where some of the Seahawks already are out preparing for today’s game against the 4-1 Chicago Bears.

This matchup on a gorgeous fall afternoon on the shores of Lake Michigan has more storylines than Julius Peppers has pass-rush moves, and that’s as good a place as any to start:

Rookie left tackle Russell Okung making his second start – and hopefully finishing his first game – for the Seahawks. The team’s top draft choice will be doing it against Peppers, the Bears’ big free-agent acquisition during the offseason. Okung missed 5½ weeks with a high ankle sprain before starting the Seahawks’ pre-bye week game against the Rams in St. Louis. But Okung didn’t finish that game because of soreness in the ankle. He was moving much better in practice this week. Peppers, meanwhile, has not missed a beat – or much of anything else – since coming to the Bears.

There’s also running back Marshawn Lynch making his Seahawks debut after being acquired last week in a trade with the Buffalo Bills, and doing it against the Bears defense that ranks third in the league against the run. The flip side is Bears leading rusher Matt Forte, who is coming off a career-best 166-yard rushing performance in Carolina last week, going against a Seahawks defense that ranks second in the league against the run.

Don’t leave the room early, or get back late, when either team is punting or kicking off, either. The Seahawks’ Golden Tate and Leon Washington lead the NFC in punt and kickoff return averages, respectively, while the Bears’ Devin Hester and Danieal Manning rank second in each category.

Second-year wide receiver Deon Butler will make his first start at flanker, after the Seahawks traded Deion Branch back to the New England Patriots on Monday. Part of the reason coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider felt Branch was expendable is because they wanted to see what Butler could do in a more featured role.

The offensive lines play will be a bigger factor in this game than most, because the Bears will be starting their fifth different unit this season – as Chris Williams steps in at left guard for the injured Roberto Garza. The Seahawks will be using their fourth different starting combo – with Okung and right tackle Sean Locklear making their first start together.

It’s also always fun to watch the pre-snap game of check and countercheck that goes on between Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck and Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, the QB of the Chicago defense.

Less significant, but sure to get some play during the Fox telecast, is the relationship between Seahawks offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates and Bears QB Jay Cutler. They were together in Denver in 2007-08, and Cutler lobbied to get the Bears to sign Bates before he decided to join Carroll’s staff.

Then there is the ongoing saga of the Seahawks’ plight when they take flight. They are 0-2 on the road this season, where 1-7 last season and have lost 17 of their past 20 games away from Qwest Field. Carroll has inherited this unnerving situation and tried a new wrinkle this week by having the team travel on Friday – but only after getting in a final full practice at Virginia Mason Athletic Center.

Finally, there’s the bottom-line factor in this game: Turnovers. As Carroll always says – and signs in every meeting room at VMAC proclaim in large letters: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BALL. In their two victories, both at Qwest, the Seahawks forced seven turnovers in upsetting the 49ers and Chargers. In their two losses, at Denver and St. Louis, they had one. Compounding the conundrum is the fact that the Bears have forced a league-high 14 takeaways. But they’ve also given the ball away 12 times.

We’ll be back later with the lists of inactive players.


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