Seattle's pass-first approach likely a sign of things to come
With RB Shaun Alexander ailing, the Seahawks adopted a pass-first mentality on Monday night. Look for the approach to stick, writes John Clayton.
SEATTLE -- Old-timers must be cringing as they watch a remarkable conversion of offensive strategy in the NFC. Lovers of the Vince Lombardi power sweeps and Woody Hayes' three yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust style must feel abandoned.
The Seahawks (5-4) officially joined the growing field of finesse teams Monday night. Tired of waiting for Shaun Alexander to get healthy or run more aggressively, Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren switched to a pass-laden offense Monday night. Matt Hasselbeck opened the game by throwing 16 times in the first 19 plays. Throwing balance to the wind, the Seahawks pulled off a 24-0 shutout over the 49ers.
"I was not pleased with how we were running the ball," Holmgren said. "If you believe you have the right quarterback, then you can at least think about doing it more. [Hasselbeck's] decision-making really dictates if you choose to do that."
The Seahawks have that type of quarterback in Hasselbeck. He's been to the Super Bowl. He's won playoff games. He's been in Holmgren's offense long enough. Plus, the Seahawks needed a spark. Their running game has been running out of gas for weeks.
The trend to go to more of a passing attack isn't some isolated West Coast phenomenon. Three NFC playoff contenders -- the Lions (run 33.9 percent), Packers (35.9) and Saints (36.2) -- are at the bottom of the league's run-percentage charts. Those teams all have the right quarterbacks -- Jon Kitna, Brett Favre and Drew Brees, respectively.
Balance wasn't working during the Seahawks' 4-4 start. Alexander was averaging only 3.3 yards a carry. Part of the problem was a broken bone in his left wrist that affected his gait. Then he suffered a knee injury that kept him out of practice all last week, but his absence wasn't the reason for the change. Holmgren was tired of watching the ground game pull down the spirit of the team.
The Seahawks looked to the air for energy.
"You have a little more excitement out there because you know you are going to get more balls," said wide receiver D.J. Hackett, who led the Seahawks Monday night with eight catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.
Coming into the game, the Seahawks were pedestrian on offense. They ranked 12th overall in yardage, running the ball 41.6 percent of the time. Alexander was inactive because of knee and ankle problems, but he hadn't been much of a factor for weeks.
Whether he played or not, the Seahawks were going to throw the ball around. Holmgren, like most West Coast offense coaches, scripts the first 15 plays. Normally, seven or eight of those plays are on the ground. Hasselbeck looked at the Seahawks' script and saw more passes than normal. It's a trend that should carry the team the rest of the season.
"Mike said that, but I'm not sure I really believed him,"' said Hasselbeck, who completed 27 of 40 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns. "I heard there were 97 mile-an-hour winds in Bellingham [a city to the north of Seattle] this morning, so I was hoping he was lying at that point.''
The weather forecast in Seattle on Monday called for heavy winds and rain. Apparently, the storm blew in a different direction. The rain was a drizzle. The wind was a breeze. Thanks to Mother Nature, it was clear sailing for the Seahawks' new passing offense.
To everyone's surprise, Hasselbeck opened the game in the shotgun, a formation Holmgren detests. In eight previous games, Hasselbeck was in the shotgun for only eight plays. Holmgren is a disciple of Bill Walsh, who hated the shotgun because he felt it negatively affected the rhythm of a quarterback dropping back from center.
During the first three quarters, Hasselbeck was in the shotgun 14 times.
"When you say you commit, you have to commit," Holmgren said of using the shotgun and an offense balanced more to the pass. "Matt has always had the ability to go to the shotgun if he wanted to. He likes it. He is a little more comfortable in it now. There are some plays that dictated that he be in the shotgun, so he used a little bit more tonight than we have ever used it before. It might be something that we use more."
During a 13-play, 84-yard drive to open the game, Hasselbeck completed 8 of 11 passes for 69 yards and called only two running plays. The drive was capped by a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Will Heller. The Seahawks got the ball back quickly for a field-goal drive in which they had two passes and one run. Seattle led 10-0 with only 11 minutes elapsed in the first quarter.
After nine weeks, Holmgren has determined he has more receivers than backs, so he plans to take advantage of the receivers. With Alexander out, Maurice Morris took over as starting running back. With the pass setting up the run, Morris had 87 yards on 28 carries. Many of the first-half running plays were draws.
"Draws give a back the chance to decide which hole to run through," Morris said. "You can pick and choose. I'm all for the changes. We're spreading it around."
Favre is trying to go to a Super Bowl without a proven running back. Mike Martz has the Lions' offense rolling even though halfback Kevin Jones doesn't play a prominent role. The Saints lost Deuce McAllister and know Reggie Bush is more of a perimeter runner, so they go more to the air.
The 49ers (2-7) have the fourth-lowest percentage of runs, but the reason for that is different. Their offense is completely out of sync. They've had 22 consecutive games with fewer than 200 net passing yards, the longest streak since 1978. Quarterback Alex Smith looks lost. He completed only 12 of 28 passes for 114 yards and lost two fumbles Monday.
To make matters worse, the 49ers have one of the league's best running backs -- Frank Gore. The 49ers' version of a balanced offense was 72 rushing yards by Gore and 73 gross passing yards by Smith after three quarters. The 49ers lead the league in three-and-outs.
The way things are heading, the Seahawks should win the NFC West. They have a one-game lead over the Arizona Cardinals, but their closing schedule is slightly easier than the Cardinals'. Plus, the Cardinals have to come to Qwest Field in December.
Hasselbeck is on pace to throw for more than 4,000 yards. Holmgren tried a similar tactic in 2003 and Hasselbeck responded with a career-high 3,841-yard season.
"I think it was different in 2003," Hasselbeck said. "I think that that was more of 'We're losing, we need to throw the ball. We're going to be in high-scoring games.' But our defense is playing really good football. You have to ask the question to Mike. He knows the method and why he is wanting to do this."
Traditionalists might not like it, but this season's NFC playoffs could turn into a full-fledged aerial circus.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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