In the preseason, units are fluid. Certain indispensable players comprise a super-first team unit. Matt Hasselbeck should see maybe 10 plays to one series. If Walter Jones plays, he should be on a similar schedule. As established players that shouldn't expect a dramatic performance change, those guys aren't of much interest.
The players that interest me are the rookies, the young players still developing, the free agent additions and the players playing out of position. This post is committed to the first unit and fringe first unit players, the ones who start and should play for most of the first half. Later, we'll examine the second unit, and finally the mop guys.
What matters when considering individual performance is matchups. These previews are meant to present a primer on not just what to look for, but because of matchups, what to expect. For instance, no one should expect much out of Steve Vallos, who starts opposite the Williams twins. Actually, that matchup is a nice place to begin.
What can we expect from Vallos? Disintegration? Leaving but a flaming jockstrap and a smoking pair of cleats? Hopefully not. The goals for Vallos are modest. He has to feel outmatched, and when a threat is applied to someone already sketchy about their job, mistakes are made. So his goals center around keeping cool and accomplishing rudimentary center assignments.
Goal 1 Don't flub any snaps: EJ Henderson is a bit of an outside/middle linebacker hybrid and I expect him to be aggressive, baiting, intimidating, walking up between the tackles, showing blitz and blitzing. Vallos has to keep his nerve. A false start is acceptable. Survive this game without fumbling a snap and a major hurdle is cleared.
Goal 2 Combo Blocks: Centers combo block on almost every play. Tackles don't. Tackles play the wing, are on an island, part of why they must be so good. In Mike Holmgren's scheme, Vallos will be teaming mostly with Rob Sims to counter Kevin Williams. That's a losing matchup. It's not so important that the Hawks young duo beats one of the best three techs in the NFL, only that they hit him square, get down their coordination and not get beat into the turf. I kind of expect them to get beat into the turf.
Over the past two seasons, Minnesota has had the 2nd and 1st ranked rush defense in the NFL. The principles of that defense, the aforementioned Williams twins and Henderson, along with cornerback Antoine Winfield, remain. Trading the draft for Jared Allen adds one of the best run stopping, 4-3 ends in the NFL. So, if you're expecting Seattle's rushing revival in the first quarter, you're sure to be as disappointed as you're misguided. Jones' goals center on blocking and receiving.
Goal 1 Contain blitzing linebackers: Minnesota exploits its interior dominance by blitzing linebackers. 26.4% of its sacks came by way of its linebackers. It exploits its run stopping by sending the house. PFP 2008 reports the Vikings rushed 6 or more defenders on 12% of all snaps, 9th in the league. That means Jones will see blitzers, maybe multiple. Engaging the blitzing linebacker is the easy part, containing, neutralizing, much less stopping them is the tough part. Seattle hasn't had a running back capable of truly felling a blitzing linebacker in Mike Holmgren's entire tenure. I don't necessarily expect that from Jones. What would be an improvement is slowing the blitz enough to prevent the dreaded Matt Hasselbeck pocket panic, or the unpredictable Seneca Wallace dash and pass. Nowadays, Beck usually just absorbs the sack. Wallace is a bag of tricks. Everything from a rollout strike for 40 yards to a scramble capped with a fumble. Buying the quarterback time with a competent blitz pickup he can depend on could mean big things for Seattle's offense--especially its 3rd down offense.
Goal 2 Convert receptions, run after the catch: It would be very, no, extraordinarily hard for Jones to be a worse receiver than Shaun Alexander. In 2007, Jones was quite good. He ranked 4th in DVOA and converted 88% of the passes targeting him. That isn't to say Jones is a good receiver, isolating an individual players skills is not DVOA's strength, but it does mean that in 2007 passes targeting Jones often led to a positive result. Here's what I want to see: I want Jones to convert every target into a reception. In a flats and curls system, that should be easy. I want him to show an ability to catch and immediately turn the ball upfield. Make positive contributions running after the catch. That's it.
The step Mebane must take to be great is becoming a strong pass rusher. Some of the skills are there. He's an excellent bull rusher. He fights off blocks. He shows good burst to the ball carrier. Sometimes. He's not real straight line fast, but makes up for that a bit by being quick through blockers. Mindful of what Mebane can already do, let's concentrate then on achieving what he hasn't.
Goal 1 Beat Steve Hutchinson twice on a passing down: Hutch is a good pass blocker. Unlike run blocking, he's not the best, but he's still good. Therefore, if Mebane can even twice get past Hutch and move into the pocket and towards the ball carrier, it will be an achievement. This is the easier of Mebane's two goals.
Goal 2 Close in on the quarterback: Last season, when Mebane broke free, quarterbacks expected to have the time to check down, roll out or scramble. That's because though Mebane showed closing quickness in spurts, he wasn't consistently quick enough to convert the sack. Against the Vikings, I want to see Mebane shed Hutch and flash to Tarvaris Jackson. Jackson is mobile, so it won't be easy, but even incremental improvement by Bane could mean an additional 2 sacks plus countless more hits and pressures over a 16 game season. Let's see that start today.