FOR THE firsttime in eight years, Shaun Alexander's toothy smile won't be the public face ofthe running game. Seattle's career rushing leader, who averaged 1,500 yards and17 touchdowns from 2001 through '05, was released in April after injuries, ageand inconsistent line play prevented him from cracking even 900 yards in eitherof the past two seasons.
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Instead, acommittee of backs—free-agent signees Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett, holdoverMaurice Morris and two late-round draft choices—will be called on to restorethe ground game to prominence. "We're kind of killing a mosquito with asledgehammer in the sense that we've got all kinds of guys who can play,"quarterback Matt Hasselbeck says.
The changes don'tstop with the ballcarriers. The Seahawks hired three new assistant coaches toget the ground game rolling again; Mike Solari and Mike DeBord will direct theoffensive line, and Kasey Dunn the backs. And they upgraded the line, which hadappeared ill-prepared and uncertain at times, by signing feisty free-agentguard Mike Wahle, a one-time Pro Bowl pick with the Panthers.
When Seattle wentto the Super Bowl after the 2005 season, it ranked third in the league with153.6 rushing yards per game and tied for first in third-and-one conversions(90.9%). But the Seahawks' average slipped to 120.2 yards the following yearand 101.2 last season. More telling, the short-yardage game that had been theirstaple was suddenly a liability: The offense failed on 13 of 24 third-and-onerushes in 2007 for a league-low 45.8% conversion rate. (The league average was71.6%.)
Addressing theground game was the priority because Seattle appears to have the personneleverywhere else to make a run at a fifth consecutive division title—andpossibly a second trip to the Super Bowl. The defense has 10 starters back, andthe special teams are solid, although a choice still had to be made between13-year vet Olindo Mare and rookie Brandon Coutu at kicker.
Solari, who hasoverall responsibility for the new running attack, is a stickler for blockingfundamentals and technique—areas in which the Seahawks lapsed in '07. In KansasCity he was instrumental in the Chiefs' finishing among the top 10 teams inrushing in five of the past seven seasons. DeBord, another running gamespecialist, oversaw Michigan's power attack. Pair those two with Jones, Duckettand Wahle, and it's understandable why a current of optimism is running throughthe locker room.
Jones and Morrisare similar backs in that they're speedy, perimeter runners; Duckett has thebigger body for short-yardage calls. Wahle is 31 but is still an upgrade on theline. Fifth-round pick Owen Schmitt of West Virginia provides depth atfullback.
Even the widereceivers were getting into the act, devoting extra time to downfield-blockingdrills early on. "I've never seen a commitment to the run like thisbefore," says Jones, who spent the past four seasons in Dallas and splittime with Marion Barber the past three. "The running game is what took themdeep in the playoffs in the past, and they're trying to get back tothat."
But first thebacks have to check their egos at the locker-room door. There will be no bellcow, as Alexander was—at least not initially. Holmgren says he plans to use allof them and views Jones and Morris as co--No. 1s. The coach has experiencejuggling ballcarriers; he did it often during his coaching tenure in Green Bay,most notably in the Super Bowl-winning 1996 season with Dorsey Levens and EdgarBennett.
Members of thecommittee say they have no qualms about splitting time. Says Morris, who isentering his seventh season with Seattle, "This is really going to get theoffense back in a groove where it should be."
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH MIKE HOLMGREN (157--99 in NFL), 10thseason with Seahawks
SACKS 14 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 10 1/2
SACKS 9 1/2
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
2007 RECORD 10--6NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 20/8/9 DEFENSE 12/19/15
7 at Buffalo
14 SAN FRANCISCO
21 ST. LOUIS
5 at N.Y. Giants
12 GREEN BAY
19 at Tampa Bay
26 at San Francisco
9 at Miami
27 at Dallas (T)
7 NEW ENGLAND
14 at St. Louis
21 N.Y. JETS
28 at Arizona
NFL Rank: 19
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .477
Games against playoff teams: 6
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Seahawks' units.
Hasselbeck isn't flashy; he just keeps moving the ball.
Need Jones to rise to No. 1 role; Weaver is an excellent fullback.
Should stay productive even with Deion Branch out until midseason.
Rookie Carlson will start—and will need to grow up in a hurry.
Still hurt by '07 loss of Steve Hutchinson; adding Wahle helps.
Noisy home stadium boosts the rush; need to get deeper.
Solid group; Tatupu and company can run and make plays.
Looking for a third corner but improved at safety.
Can kick in all kinds of weather and can cover.
The Seahawks got little production out of the tightend position last year, so they were thrilled when Carlson (87 catches in hisfinal two seasons at Notre Dame) fell to them in the second round of the draftin April. At 6'5"and 251 pounds, he has the size to be an effective blockerand the speed and hands to be productive in the passing game.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
December 12, 2005
ALEXANDER HAS had his sights set on the end zone sincehis Pee Wee league days, when his father, Curtis, doled out ice cream or candyas a reward for touchdowns. In one game Shaun, who started out playing defense,scored twice on kick returns and relished the treats that came with them. Whenhis brother told him tailbacks scored the most touchdowns, Shaun switchedpositions.
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