Gridiron Gab Week Sixteen Preview: Seattle at Tampa Bay

Two weeks to go and it’s do-or-die for Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks.

Sunday, the Seahawks, tied for first place in the NFC West with the St. Louis Rams and one game ahead of the San Francisco 49ers, take on the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay in the first of two must-win games in order to secure a spot in the playoffs.

“Our guys are excited about the fact that we have a chance to do something with the season,” said Carroll during his Wednesday press conference from the team’s Renton, Wash. training facilities on the opportunity to make the postseason – a feat the Seahawks haven’t been able to boast about since 2007.

“It’s up for grabs and it’s going to be exciting to see how it goes.”

Should Seattle (6-8) grab the division’s playoff bid it will require a win against an upstart Tampa Bay team. Following a last-place finish in the NFC South last season with a rookie under center, the Buccaneers (8-6) are a game behind the New York Giants for the NFC’s final Wild Card spot.

“This is a very young, talented football team,” said Carroll, “they’re going to be good for a long time.”

In addition to second-year quarterback Josh Freeman, the Buccaneers are headlined by rookies LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams.

Headed into his final season at the University of Oregon, Blount was amid the discussion for the Heisman Trophy until the running back punched an opposing player on the field following an opening-week loss to Boise State. The punch caught the ire of the national media and the Ducks suspended Blount for 10 of the team’s games.

Missing much of the season, Blount’s draft stock took a plunge.

After going undrafted, the running back bounced around the National Football League. Following preseason stops in San Francisco and Tennessee, Blount wound up on Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster less than a week before the start of the season.

Since joining the Buccaneers, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound running back has vaulted up the NFL’s rookie running back totem pole, becoming the league’s top first-year rusher with 777 yards.

“He’s always shown special ability to make people miss,” said Seattle’s Carroll, who, while coaching at the University of Southern California, faced Blount during the running back’s collegiate career.

“Then when you add in the fact that he’s so physical…he’ll make you look like you’re not even trying if you don’t have a really dedicated effort and a plan in mind in how to get him wrapped up and get him down.”

Like Blount, Mike Williams’ draft stock took a hit and now leads the league’s rookies at his position.

Williams missed the 2008 season at Syracuse University after an alleged academic cheating issue forced the wide receiver to leave the school. Then, in 2009, he left the Orange during the season and ended his collegiate football career.

Prior to his leaving, the 6-foot-2, 204-pound wideout totaled 133 receptions for 2,044 yards and 20 touchdowns in 33 games. He also set a school record for catching a touchdown in nine consecutive games.

Some projected the receiver to be a high-round draft pick, but Williams fell to the Buccaneers in the fourth round and now leads the NFL’s rookie pass catchers in receptions (58), yards (880), yards per game (62.9), catches of 20-yards or more (17), first-down receptions (39) and touchdowns (8).

“Right off the bat, he’s a playmaker,” said Pete Carroll. “You can see the confidence that [quarterback] Josh [Freeman] has in him, to go to him…counting on him to make a play. He might not even be open, you know? Might be going against what the coverage tells him to do, but he’ll go to him.”

Unlike Blount and Williams, Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck’s season has been lackluster. The 12-year veteran ranks 15th in the league in passing yards (2,977), 21st in completion percentage (59.8), 25th in touchdowns (12), fifth in interceptions (17) and 29th in quarterback rating (73.1).

In the last two games, Hasselbeck’s accounted for nine turnovers, yet, despite the poor play, Seattle’s head coach affirmed the quarterback’s starting status over first-year Seahawk Charlie Whitehurst earlier this week.

“It has nothing to do with Charlie,” said Carroll. “It has to do with we think Matt can get the job done for us.”

“We have to keep him in good situations. We gotta play good football around him. You know, I can’t emphasize that enough, that – and it’s for all quarterbacks – that they play with a bunch of other guys on the field as well and we have to do well running the football and protecting and all that and then the quarterback’s got to do his job.”

Sunday’s kickoff in Tampa Bay between the Seahawks and Buccaneers is set for 4:15 p.m. Eastern.

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