This is my unedited story that will appear in Friday's edition of the News Tribune.
Incidentally, I am traveling for much of tomorrow but will get practice stuff to you and injury updates when I get into Pittsburgh.
By Frank Hughes
The News Tribune
KIRKLAND – Even as the Seattle Seahawks continue to win, it perturbs coach Mike Holmgren that the running game flounders.
Despite Shaun Alexander getting 100 yards in two of the four games this season, which makes him the ninth-ranked running back in the NFL, Holmgren does not waffle about his displeasure with that aspect of the Seahawks' offense, particularly after last week's 23-3 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, when virtually every other unit on the team was altogether dominant.
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Holmgren, however, does not place the blame of the running game's struggles on Alexander as much as he does on the offensive line, which is much better than last season's often disjointed crew but far from meeting Holmgren's stratospheric expectations.
"We have had too many assignment errors," Holmgren said. "It wasn't necessarily the defense or the scheme we were playing against. We're making too many mistakes for what I would consider a pretty veteran group … on plays that are not new plays. That's troublesome. Then I get fired up about that."
To the point, Holmgren said, that he unloaded some verbal tonnage on the offensive line Wednesday morning, impressing upon them the need for better execution.
Of course, this is not exactly the opponent against whom the Seahawks would prefer to resurrect their run game.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are ranked eighth against the run, but they have not permitted an opposing back to rush for 100 yards against their defense in 29 consecutive games. In fact, since Dec. 4, 2005, when that streak began, they have allowed only two backs to rush for more than 78 yards.
The runner with the most success in that span? Alexander, who had 95 yards in the 2006 Super Bowl, a 21-10 Steelers victory.
What the Steelers have is a precise scheme designed by longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau that employs a 3-4 defense and focuses on gap control. They also have a stellar nosetackle in Casey Hampton who anchors the middle and a good secondary that allows the front seven –- and sometimes eight -- to concentrate on stopping the run.
"I suppose you'd like a different opponent to try and feel better about stuff," Holmgren said, "but we can only control what we can control."
Neither Holmgren nor line coach Bill Laveroni were specific about which players were at fault, but did say the culprits were making blatant mistakes involving not just where to block but who to block.
Holmgren said the mistakes are embarrassing on game film and distressing considering that Chris Gray is in his 15th season, Walter Jones his 11th and Sean Locklear, in his fourth, is relatively seasoned.
"I have to coach it better and we have to execute better," Laveroni said. "We can't say we are waiting for somebody to get better. Everybody has to get better now."
The Seahawks think that because quarterback Matt Hasselbeck had such a statistically poor season last year – his second-worst as a starter and worst since his first season in Seattle – and because they traded wide receiver Darrell Jackson, opponents are daring the passing game to beat them.
Last week in San Francisco, the 49ers, normally a 3-4 defense, came out in a 4-3 front intent upon stopping Alexander, which, for the most part, they did. He had 78 yards on 25 carries.
"I think if you are going to stop our offense, you are going to stop Shaun Alexander," Laveroni said. "You are going to make sure you cut that dimension out of your picture. And so people are going to stop Shaun at all costs. It opens up other things."
One anomaly that nobody can seem to explain, though, is that while the offensive line has struggled to open holes for Alexander, it has done a good job protecting Hasselbeck, who is back to Pro Bowl form.
The Seahawks' passing game is ranked seventh in the NFL with 250 yards a game, and Hasselbeck has been sacked seven times, better than all but 12 teams. Hasselbeck also has connected on three pass plays of 40 or more yards, an indication he is getting the time to allow plays to develop.
Teams "know we have 37 (Alexander) back there and their goal is to stop 37," Jones said. "They have been successful with that. So we are happy to sit back there and throw it. With the talent we have at wide receiver and quarterback, he can sit back there and if we give him time he can find those guys."
For the most part, Hasselbeck's early success has permitted Alexander to find more room in the second halves of games, when he has earned the majority of his 353 yards. Alexander said teams play "more vanilla" in the second half to stop the deep throws.
It would seem to make sense that with Hasselbeck playing well and regularly finding a strong contingent of receivers, Holmgren would choose to focus more on the pass early in the game, which would allow the run game to flourish sooner.
But Holmgren said that philosophically he is opposed to favoring one aspect of the offense over the other. He does not, he said, want to cater to the players' current weaknesses. He simply wants them to improve.
"I will not tolerate assignment breakdowns," Holmgren said. "That doesn't work. So, that's what we're working on now. Let's just do the right thing. Then if it works, it works."