Alexander helps Hasselbeck in first game back
With its two stars -- Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck -- back, Seattle's ready for the stretch run, writes John Clayton.
"You have to catch up with the speed of the game," said Alexander, who had a modest 37-yard return last Sunday in San Francisco after a six-game absence due to a broken foot. "I told Matt, 'Don't worry, you'll realize you're just back into a game.'"
Fortunately, coach Mike Holmgren wasn't worried, although he should have been. Hasselbeck survived four first-half turnovers that handed the Packers 14 points in the first game ever played in snow in Seattle by the Seahawks. Hasselbeck got into a second-half rhythm and threw three touchdowns in a strange 34-24 win over Green Bay on Monday night.
Strange, as in on the next series, his four-week absence showed when he made an ill-advised throw toward Deion Branch that was intercepted by Al Harris. And on the first play of the second quarter, Woodson intercepted another pass directed to Branch.
The ultimate embarrassment occurred in the final 23 seconds of the first half when Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila sacked Hasselbeck, who fumbled into the hands of linebacker Abdul Hodge, who raced 29 yards for a touchdown.
Hasselbeck laid on the ground for a few extra seconds in the snow and slush covering the artificial turf and wondered how he landed in this nightmare.
"It was like, 'I can't believe that just happened,'" Hasselbeck said. "It was almost like a bad dream. But it happens and you have to bounce back. It was probably the longest I've laid on the turf. I would have laid there longer, but it was freezing cold and wet. It was just one of those things."
Somehow, the Seahawks didn't panic. Holmgren didn't erupt. Hasselbeck didn't get down on himself. Despite the four first-half turnovers, the Seahawks trailed only 14-12 at the half. Instead of blasting the team, Holmgren readjusted some strategy and kept positive amid the negatives.
For a couple of series, Holmgren called for more Alexander runs than Hasselbeck passes. Running out of three- and four-wide receiver sets, Alexander rushed for 201 yards on 40 carries. His legs bought Hasselbeck enough time to regain his composure and lead the Seahawks to a 22-point second half.
"It was 14-12, and to be in position after all of those turnovers and all of those things, I thought if we could just get better at holding the football, then we could make a move," Holmgren said. "Our defense had done a nice job. All of the bad things I thought could happen happened, but I was wrong."
Still, on Green Bay's first series of the second half, Brett Favre threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver to give the Packers a 21-12 lead. Since Alexander had returned a week ahead of Hasselbeck on the injury comeback trail, Holmgren kept calling No. 37 until the rhythm of the offense resurfaced.
"Things were happening, so I kind of took the ball out of Matt's hands for a while," Holmgren said. "Shaun carried the load and Matt finished up pretty good with the three touchdown passes. It was a great win for us, and hopefully we can get hot down the stretch and build on this."
The whole season has been a game of "Survivor" for the Seahawks. It is thought that Alexander broke the bone in his foot during the second week of the season against the Cardinals on a horse-collar tackle (though it isn't known for sure). After a week of trying to play with pain, he sat out until last Sunday. Naturally, he was rusty in his return against the 49ers.
"I think last week was kind of like my warm-up game," Alexander said. "You hate to take a game that really counts and warm up in it, but it was. I think that our line really played well today. I got into a groove early and it helped us control the clock, which is always important. We put up some good numbers today."
Alexander was running behind an offensive line that was trying to get into a rhythm itself. Steve Hutchinson, widely acclaimed as the game's best left guard, left in the offseason for Minnesota. Tom Ashworth was filling in for an injured Sean Locklear at right tackle. Chris Spencer was replacing ailing Robbie Tobeck at center.
"This is really the first time that they got to play and they got to see me play," Alexander said, obviously dismissing last week's warm-up game against the 49ers. "As the game went on, they started to feel that we can do some really cool things."
Alexander started to look like the MVP runner he was in 2005. The Seahawks worked the weakside runs to the left. They worked the power leads behind fullback Mack Strong. Alexander made his patented cutbacks.
Pretty soon, Hasselbeck started to find his groove. Holmgren called shorter, safer passes for his quarterback. Instead of asking Hasselbeck to make two or three reads, the coach called for quicker passes so Hasselbeck could regain his confidence quickly. Finally, Hasselbeck hit D.J. Hackett with a well-thrown 23-yard touchdown pass to complete a 62-yard, nine-play drive that cut Green Bay's lead to 21-19.
The next time the Seahawks got the ball, Hasselbeck used the run and the pass on a 77-yard drive capped by a 4-yard touchdown strike to Darrell Jackson. He hit tight end Jerramy Stevens with a two-point conversion to give the Seahawks a 27-21 lead 49 seconds into the fourth quarter.
"Maybe the only thing I learned when I got to sit back and watch, watching the Kansas City game from my couch, saying, 'Hey, guys, you're still in this game,'" Hasselbeck said. "As bad as it was today, and it was bad -- I had four turnovers by myself with one [returned] for a touchdown -- I tried to keep reminding myself of that situation."
The team stood by Hasselbeck. So did Holmgren. The defense limited the Packers to 51 yards rushing and contained Favre most of the evening.
At 7-4, the Seahawks are finally getting their offense back together for a final stretch run. They lead the NFC West by two games. Alexander is back in rhythm and he predicts Hasselbeck will be next.
"I'm not sure it was the fact that you don't tune up for 40 carries, period," Alexander said. "But the fact that I've been off for two months, I think that I'm in better shape than I ever thought I was."
Somehow, the Seahawks survived without Hasselbeck and Alexander. Together again, they are ready for a stretch run.
"We were running the lead and blasts and power," Alexander said. "It's the same offense that we've always had. Today, it went well."
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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