Commentary

Seattle RB may need new approach

Afer a difficult start to the season, Shaun Alexander is hoping to turn things around against the Rams, Mike Sando writes.

Originally Published: October 19, 2007
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- Shaun Alexander never scared opponents with breakaway speed. Quick to smile and quicker to avoid contact, Seattle's career rushing leader was never the type to impose his will on defenders. When Alexander bulled over a safety during a 2005 game against the Atlanta Falcons, the development made news in the Northwest.

Alexander was never known for pass protection, either. He was more likely to get his own quarterback hurt than to knock out an opponent with a stiff-arm to the chops.

What always separated Alexander was his deadly efficiency in the red zone. He played the game to score touchdowns and wasn't bashful about saying so. Put Alexander near the goal line and he became a single-minded scoring machine with more career touchdowns (109) than starts (92).

Alexander's limitations became footnotes when the Seahawks were hot, but they are dogging him now that he ranks 11th among NFL rushers and his team has fallen to 3-3 with successive defeats. The home crowd booed the former league MVP against New Orleans last week, following the latest in a string of rushes that seemed to lack purpose.

"We've done this before," Alexander said Thursday. "It's just been a long time ago where it didn't look good and then all of a sudden it just hit. It's going to happen."

The winless St. Louis Rams come to town Sunday, so anything is possible.

Alexander has averaged 120 yards rushing per game in seven regular-season starts against St. Louis. But with 413 yards and two touchdowns through six games this season, Alexander is off to his slowest beginning in five years. He rushed for 375 yards through six games in 2002. That slump dragged through the 11th week before Alexander finally hit stride, averaging more than 100 yards per game over the final six weeks.

Alexander's non-violent running style makes him an easy target for criticism. Seattle's struggles in the ground game might be easier for fans to accept if they saw Alexander clawing for every last yard, or if he traded his omnipresent smile for the occasional fit of anger. Instead, Alexander recently pointed out he was still among the top runners in the NFC, implying that fans might have unrealistic expectations after years of prolific production.

Alexander isn't entirely at fault.

Shaun Alexander
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireShaun Alexander has not been his usual self so far this season.
Injuries have forced mainstay fullback Mack Strong into retirement while making it harder for all-world tackle Walter Jones to finish blocks. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, a Pro Bowl passer when he's comfortable, hasn't looked the same with both starting receivers injured.

Left guard Rob Sims and center Chris Spencer are finding their way as full-time starters, still learning the intricacies of an offense that requires them to juggle assignments. Perhaps most importantly for Alexander, the Seahawks aren't finding the red zone much.

Alexander averaged 4.3 red-zone carries per game in 2005. That figure fell to 3.8 in the 10 games Alexander played last season. He's down to 2.2 red-zone carries per game this season and none in the last two games. Overall, the Seahawks are down to 3.5 red-zone plays per game, after averaging more than 7.5 over the previous two seasons.

It's tough to be a great red-zone runner without running in the red zone.

Coach Mike Holmgren set an unexpected tone in the opener when he called pass plays on first and second downs from inside the Tampa Bay 10. Hasselbeck threw incomplete passes both times. When Holmgren went to Alexander on third-and-goal from the 7, the Bucs were waiting.

Alexander was culpable, too, failing to bounce the run to the left, where he might have had room to score.

One potential solution, Alexander said, is for him to become a more creative runner. Throughout his career, Alexander occasionally has confounded coaches by bouncing runs away from where the playbook called for them to go. Sometimes, the freelancing would produce huge gains. Other times, defenders would drop Alexander for a loss, compromising drives. Either way, Alexander played on instinct more often than not.

Seattle's line was so good in 2005 Alexander couldn't go wrong. He knew how to play off blocks after spending five seasons with Jones, left guard Steve Hutchinson, center Robbie Tobeck and right guard Chris Gray.

The line began to regress when Hutchinson left in free agency before last season. Tobeck retired in January and Jones has battled shoulder problems. With the offense searching for continuity this season, Alexander said he cut out some of the freelancing. That might explain in part why Alexander hasn't appeared to be himself.

"With a new team, you want to go do basic stuff: If the hole is in the 'A' gap, go run in the 'A' gap," Alexander said. "That hasn't been working for our group. I'm just going to go back to making the plays happen."

When Seattle's offense hit its stride from 2003 to 2005, Alexander averaged better than 1,670 yards and 20 touchdowns per season. He has fought injuries over the last 13 months. A cracked foot sidelined Alexander for six games last season. This season, his left wrist has bothered him since Bucs safety Tanard Jackson brought him down awkwardly during the opener. Alexander has carried the ball exclusively in his right hand since.

Running backs can expect to break down as they reach their 30s. Alexander turned 30 in August, but his legs appear fresh in practice. He has never suffered a significant injury to a joint. Did we mention the Rams were coming to town?

"It only takes one big game and then all of a sudden everyone goes, 'Oh, those other games were the flukes,' " Alexander said. "We're practicing hard for that big game to happen. We don't know when it is, but we're ready."

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.