Commentary

With ground game grounded, Seattle will air it out

With running back Shaun Alexander struggling, expect the Seahawks to go to the air more, Mike Sando writes.

Originally Published: November 11, 2007
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- There's a reason Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren sounded far from crestfallen in saying he'll call more pass plays with Shaun Alexander and the ground game floundering.

Holmgren always preferred setting up the run with the pass, not the other way around. His 1996 Green Bay team won it all with 899 yards from leading rusher Edgar Bennett.

[+] EnlargeShaun Alexander
Diamond Images/Getty ImagesShaun Alexander, who isn't expected to play Monday night because of knee and wrist injuries, is averaging 3.3 yards a carry, a yard less than his career average.
That's the way Holmgren envisioned things going in Seattle, too, but he couldn't justify a pass-happy approach when Alexander was averaging 1,501 yards and more than 17 rushing touchdowns per season from 2001-05. Holmgren stifled his tendencies to suit the most productive running back he ever coached. But now the former Bill Walsh understudy is going back to his roots -- just in time for a "Monday Night Football" game (ESPN, 8:30 ET) against San Francisco, the team that gave Holmgren his start as an NFL coach.

The Alexander era has come and gone, at least for now.

"The team has changed," Holmgren said. "When they're all healthy, I think we have a pretty good group of wide receivers. We have a veteran quarterback that is playing well. So, my hope is, without disrupting the whole apple cart, that you just kind of slide a little bit in another direction."

The Seahawks have little choice now that Alexander is 30 years old and playing like he's 35. The former league MVP -- who isn't expected to play against the 49ers because of knee and wrist injuries -- once rushed for 266 yards in a game but has only 217 in his past five. Backup Maurice Morris is running more effectively, and he's better suited to the passing game because teams must account for him down the field.

With a soft schedule down the stretch and top receiver Deion Branch returning from injury as early as this week, the Seahawks can probably make the new approach work. The old one is broken beyond repair. And although it's easy to blame Alexander's injuries and running style for Seattle's diminished ground game, there are other reasons behind the drop-off:

1. No tight end: The Seahawks elected not to re-sign Jerramy Stevens and lost a bidding war with Denver in their attempt to land former New England tight end Daniel Graham in free agency.

With Graham off the market, Seattle poured its free-agent resources into pass-rusher Patrick Kerney. The team then signed tight end Marcus Pollard to a modest one-year deal in free agency.

Pollard is a skilled receiver when healthy. But he's 35 years old and increasingly prone to injuries. Pollard might not play against the 49ers, leaving journeyman Will Heller as the starter.

Seattle's ground game hasn't been the same since the team's best blocking tight end, Ryan Hannam, signed with Dallas following the 2005 season.

Chronic knee issues prevented Hannam from helping the Cowboys, but his blocking on the edge had been a key to Alexander's dominance. Losing Hannam and receiver Joe Jurevicius, another strong blocker, heightened the need for a tight end with Graham's blocking prowess.

2. No left guard: The Seahawks are still paying for their decision to let Pro Bowl left guard Steve Hutchinson test the market as a transition player in 2006.

Hutchinson brought toughness, vocal leadership and skill to the line. Now he's blocking for Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. The Seahawks wouldn't be trying to bring left guard Rob Sims up to speed if they still had Hutchinson.

3. No fullback: Traditional fullbacks are disappearing from the NFL, but Holmgren's offense still calls for one. Mack Strong was a two-time Pro Bowl choice who worked well with Alexander and rarely made mistakes.

Age and injuries were slowing Strong, 36, before a neck problem forced him into retirement last month. Replacement Leonard Weaver is better as a runner and receiver, but Seattle mostly needs blocking from the position. That's what Strong did best.

4. The age-old question: Running backs generally begin to falter by age 30, a milestone Alexander passed in August. He missed six games last season after missing none from 2000-05.

A wrist injury has bothered Alexander since the opener this season. A knee injury forced him to the sideline for a short stretch last week.

5. Coaching: Seattle's offensive line peaked in 2005 with Jones, Steve Hutchinson, Robbie Tobeck, Chris Gray and Sean Locklear clearing the way. All but Locklear were veterans who had learned the offense from line coach Tom Lovat, perhaps Holmgren's most respected assistant.

Lovat retired after the 2003 season. His replacement, longtime college assistant Bill Laveroni, had no NFL experience before joining Seattle's staff as Lovat's understudy in 2002.

The Seahawks were fortunate to line up with mostly veterans until Hutchinson left and Tobeck retired. They have struggled to develop young replacements.

Sims and third-year center Chris Spencer have the talent to succeed at the NFL level. Sims showed as much late last season, while Spencer was a first-round draft choice. Neither is playing as well or consistently as expected. Sometimes they appear unsure of their assignments, particularly when Hasselbeck makes presnap adjustments at the line of scrimmage.

A well-coached line might be jelling at this point in a season, but the Seahawks are struggling to execute basic running plays. Short-yardage situations have become an adventure. Add it all up and Holmgren has little choice but to lean harder on his old friend, the passing game. He has recently implemented subtle changes to the team's pass-blocking schemes, with linemen passing off defenders to one another more frequently. The Seahawks also unveiled a couple of slick pass plays last week, burning the Browns both times.

Seattle hasn't scored a rushing touchdown in its past six games, and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is quietly on pace for his first 4,000-yard season. For the Seahawks, there's no use in pretending they can line up in the I formation and pound away.

"I'm just trying to figure out a way, the best way, to do this in these last eight games," Holmgren said.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.