NFL Preview - St. Louis (0-0) at Seattle (0-0)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Five years ago, this was a marquee opening-weekend game.
For 2009, though, it's devolved into the battle of "who can get back to respectability first?"
When the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks - two teams that, believe it or not, have represented the National Football Conference in the Super Bowl this decade - get together Sunday afternoon on the West Coast, it'll be a matchup of two "new" head coaches, two faded-star quarterbacks and two remaining rosters full of question marks.
The Rams make the 2,100-mile trip as step one in forgetting the disaster of 2008, which featured a four-game losing streak out of the gate, a two-game winning mirage in mid-October and a 10-game stumble down the stretch that saw them allow 30 or more points five times while scoring 20 or less nine times.
Add a dash of hopelessness and voila! - 2-14.
Problem was, even an anemic .125 winning percentage was exactly .125 points better than that of the winless Detroit Lions, meaning the Rams couldn't even parlay their misery into the first pick in the 2009 draft.
Instead, they chose second for the second straight season, selecting athletic Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith to fill the void left by the exodus of Orlando Pace to Chicago. In 2008, after a 3-13 debacle in 2007, St. Louis chose defensive end Chris Long.
So young, beefy talent isn't the problem.
Old and increasingly feeble inventory, however, might be.
Quarterback Marc Bulger, the incumbent since Kurt Warner - remember him? - was ushered out of town six years ago, returns as a 32-year-old in a new offensive scheme under first-year offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, part of the coaching staff assembled by new head man Steve Spagnuolo after his "promotion" from defensive coordinator of the New York Giants.
Bulger missed time in the preseason with a broken finger on his throwing hand.
Running back Steven Jackson is also back after a 1,042-yard season that also featured 40 receptions, eight touchdowns and another collection of games missed due to injury. The sixth-year man has missed eight games over the last two seasons due to injury while unsuccessfully trying to duplicate a 2006 that yielded 90 catches and 800-plus receiving yards.
For the Seahawks, incoming head coach Jim Mora inherits a heap of concern while stepping into a pair of walrus-sized shoes.
The son of a former NFL coach and himself a former sideline boss in Atlanta, the younger Mora replaces Mike Holmgren, who stepped away from a 4-12 mess last season that only slightly sullied a lengthy tenure which had already featured five division titles, six playoff berths and the aforementioned Super Bowl berth in 10 years.
The tumble to third in the NFC West marked an end to a five-year playoff run.
Left in the city that grunge built is holdover quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who started only seven games and threw twice as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (5) while battling injuries and leaving starting duties to Seneca Wallace, who managed 1,532 passing yards and 11 TDs in eight starts of his own.
Whomever is healthy enough to go most Sundays will have a few new toys to play with, namely wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and running back Edgerrin James, each of whom was acquired via free agency in the offseason.
Houshmandzadeh was a 92-catch man in Cincinnati last season, while James gained 514 yards in limited duty with the Super Bowl-bound Arizona Cardinals.
The Seahawks lead the all-time series with the Rams, 12-9, and currently own an eight-game winning streak over their NFC West rivals. Seattle swept its fourth consecutive home-and-home over St. Louis last year, taking a 37-13 home decision in Week 3 and prevailing by a 23-20 margin at the Edward Jones Dome in Week 15. The Rams' last wins of any kind in the series came in 2004, when they swept a home-and-home with their NFC West rival and went on to defeat them at Qwest Field in an NFC First-Round Playoff.
The latter contest, a 27-20 road win for the Rams, marks the only postseason meeting between the teams all-time.
Mora was 2-0 against the Rams while at the helm of the Falcons (2004-06), including a win for Atlanta in a 2004 NFC Divisional Playoff. The Rams' Spagnuolo will be meeting both Seattle and Mora for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Bulger, based on pedigree and assuming good health, can still get it done. He ranks second in Rams history with a 62.6 completion percentage and 85.6 passer rating and is fourth in franchise history with 117 touchdown passes. Jackson, meanwhile, has rushed for 1,000 yards or better in four straight seasons, tying Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson for the longest streak in Rams history. He averaged 118.4 scrimmage yards over 12 games last season, best in the NFL, and St. Louis is 7-3 in games where Jackson registers at least 25 carries. Elsewhere, the aforementioned Smith makes his NFL debut up front and wide receiver Donnie Avery comes back off a rookie season that saw him rank second among NFC youngsters with 53 catches and 674 yards.
Defensively for Seattle, linebacker Lofa Tatupu returns as the lone player in team history to lead in tackles for four straight years. Also, fellow linebacker Aaron Curry - the fourth selection in April's draft - makes his NFL debut as the highest drafted linebacker in team history. Up front, tackle Brandon Mebane and end Darryl Tapp are back after sharing the team lead in sacks with 5� apiece. And in the backfield, Josh Wilson, a cornerback from Maryland, tries to build on a team-high four interceptions. As a unit, the Seahawks allowed 378 total yards per game last season and were minus-7 in takeaway ratio.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Like Bulger, Hasselbeck has a career's worth of solid numbers. He has won eight of 11 starts against St. Louis overall, including six straight, and his teams are 36-12 in games where he posts a passer rating of 90.0 or better. In the backfield, holdover Julius Jones ran 22 times for 140 yards and a score in his last home game against the Rams and he has posted 2,172 yards and 16 TDs in 20 career games with at least 22 carries. Joining him in the backfield for his Seattle debut is James, the league's leading active rusher with 12,121 yards. In five starts vs. St. Louis "The Edge" has averaged 108.4 yards and scored five times. Fellow newcomer Houshmandzadeh is the only player to record 90 or more catches in each of the last three seasons and his 294 receptions since 2006 lead the league. Elsewhere, when fellow wideout Deion Branch has a TD catch in a game, his teams are 19-6. And tight end John Carlson caught 55 balls for 627 yards last season, joining Hall of Famer Steve Largent as the only Seattle rookie to lead the team in both.
For the Rams, 2009 presents another opportunity for league-wide acclaim for ball-hawking safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, who had a team-high five interceptions last season and has an NFC-best 13 since 2007. The aforementioned Long tied for second among NFC rookies with four sacks last season and was just 2� off the team watermark posted by end James Hall. Veteran end Leonard Little has 80� sacks since 2000, fifth-most in the NFL, and has posted 6� in his career against Seattle. And linebacker Will Witherspoon has averaged a sack per game in the teams' last five meetings. Overall, the pre-Spagnuolo Rams allowed 371.9 yards per game and were minus-5 in takeaway ratio.
For the Rams, Jackson is the best statistical bet for as long as he stays healthy, but little else offensively or defensively elicits excitement from most fantasy players. As for Seattle, big names and good matchups suggest a bevy of must-plays, including Hasselbeck, Jones, Houshmandzadeh, kicker Olindo Mare and the Seahawks' defense.
Make no mistake, the fiery personality of Spagnuolo and the residue of talent still remaining from the glory years - boosted by some key youth - should spell an uptick from the three- and two-win nightmares for the Rams. But it probably doesn't begin on the road this week. Mora's got too much to prove in his NFL rebirth and old guns like Hasselbeck should be rejuvenated with new bullets like Houshmandzadeh and James and a returning Jones and Carlson. The Seahawks' return to glory gets a one-week head start.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Seahawks 30, Rams 17
09/10 14:07:46 ET