Shaun Alexander, In Short

Much has been made of Shaun Alexander's past failings in short yardage situations. In 2005, however, the Seattle Seahawks have had very good success handing the ball off to him in short yardage situations. A bit of analysis of why this is so is in store.

Statistics

A scan of the Gamebooks for Seattle’s first six games reveals 17 situations where the Seahawks handed off to Shaun Alexander with one yard to go for a first down. There were other short yardage plays in which they passed or handed off to other players. Those plays are not included in this study.

Over those 17 rushing attempts, Alexander scored 3 touchdowns, gained 12 first downs, and was stuffed only twice for negative or no yardage. Of the 12 first downs, two were negated by penalties on the defense. In both of those cases, Seattle had actually achieved its first down but took the penalty as it gave them more yards. Fifteen of seventeen successful attempts (either a first down or a touchdown) calculates out to a success rate of 88%. At that rate, we can be sure that Coach Holmgren will continue to have faith that if he gives the ball to Shaun in short yardage situations, he will make the first down.

It is incumbent on us to note that the two failed attempts occurred on 2nd down. One of these occurred on the Arizona one yard line, and the subsequent 3rd and 1 rush was successful in getting into the end zone. On the other 2nd and 1 play, against the Rams, Seattle lost 1 yard. Subsequently, they were forced to punt.

To break it down further, there were two 1st and goal, one 2nd and goal, and one 3rd and goal situation from the one yard line. The 2nd and goal play was mentioned above. All of the other plays resulted in touchdowns.

There were six 2nd and one situations resulting in 4 first downs, one no gain, and one loss of 1 yard. On 2nd and one, the team rushed for 15 yards (2.5 avg) and 4 first downs.

There were eight 3rd and one plays, including one 3rd and goal. The Seahawks ran for 7 first downs and a touchdown on these plays for a 100% success rate. Two of the plays were negated by defensive fouls, but the offense had made the yardage for the first down prior to their enforcement. Overall, the Seahawks gained 52 yards on these plays, 4 yards of which were converted to 10 yards on the two defensive penalties. On 3rd and one, after the penalties, Seattle rushed for 8 yards per carry.

Of those eight 3rd and one plays, two resulted in gains of 16 and 17 yards.

There was one 4th and one yard to go play, on which Shaun Alexander gained 5 yards and a first down.

Hardware

The basic short yardage rushing play most teams use is one that is common to all football teams in all eras. Most players first saw it in Pop Warner football, and have run it their entire careers. Over the years, it has worn different names. Currently, teams like to call it the ISO lead play, which refers to the attempt to ISOlate the FB blocking on the linebacker (also knows as BOB for back on ‘backer). In the past it has been called a dive play or a blast play or a “quick opener.” Every offense has its own variations and nomenclature, based on how they label the line gaps and the players.

The basic idea is that the offensive linemen block out the defensive linemen and try to form a crease or gap. The fullback drives into the hole created and blocks out the linebacker. That leaves the halfback carrying the ball to take on the safety one on one. There are variations, including using a tight end if the defense has an uncovered linebacker or extra safety playing close to the line.

The basic premise is to neutralize the big men on the defense. Then the ball carrier, with a running start, can gain several yards just based on momentum, even if a defensive back meets him in the hole. Shaun Alexander weighs as much or more than practically every safety in the league, so if everyone gets blocked properly, he has a built in advantage if he gets that running start. He’s going to push just about any defensive back backwards. Plus, if the RB can avoid the DB or break his tackle, there is a good chance to gain some respectable yardage, as the ball carrier will be at the second or third level of the defense almost immediately.

There are, of course, variations. As the team comes out of the huddle and lines up, the QB (Matt Hasselbeck) might change the play to a different hole, based on the defensive front, including moving the tight end if an additional blocker might be needed near the point of attack. Meanwhile, the center (Robbie Tobeck) will call out blocking adjustments to the offensive linemen, again based on the defensive front.

In short, if properly blocked, any “one yard to go” play should have a near certainty of success. Certainly, with our offensive line and Mack Strong playing fullback, this has the makings of a “bread and butter” play. Obviously, it has been working this season to near perfection.

Software

No matter what he says in his interviews, Shaun Alexander has had a bit of an awakening about his rushing game. No doubt missing the rushing title by a single yard last season made him look back at how many times he failed to pick up a single yard in short yardage situations. After all, beyond the single yard gained, there is also the benefit that prolonging the drive will get him more carries. It is very self serving.

In his defense, though, his instincts no doubt hindered him. Many cutback runners like him will, if he sees a wrong colored jersey in the hole, instinctively bounce outside or make some other kind of cut to find daylight. It is the essence of the gap style defense that so many teams play to put a man in every running lane. Even if it is a small man, the defensive coordinator is counting on this natural instinct of runners to seek a better running lane, which allows the defense to string the play out, and make the running back run sideline to sideline, rather than north-south.

In short yardage situations, though, this is counterproductive. If the front seven on the defense stuffs the inside and the running back slides out, he will be running into the waiting arms of the cornerback, who will be crashing in to contain. More often than not, this results in no gain or a loss of yards. On short yardage plays a running back has to overcome that instinct to juke for more yards and dive into the hole to get what yards are there.

Also, if the running back hesitates even slightly, he will lose forward momentum and increase the potential of being stood up and stopped short of the first down marker (or the goal line).

In Shaun Alexander’s case, it appears that the short yardage mentality is finally sinking in this season. Third down and one yard to go is most often won by the team that wants it more. It is the ultimate test of wills. Late in the game those one yard first down runs are golden. Success means another set of downs to burn the clock. Failure means punting the ball back to the other team, and giving them an additional chance to score. Last season, in most of our losses, one more first down might have sealed the win for our team, regardless of how much we blamed the poor officiating or our defense or special teams for their breakdowns.

This year, Shaun has been lowering his shoulder on 3rd down and short and making the safeties pay for trying to plug the hole. He can run out of bounds or do the QB slide elsewhere on the field anytime he wants. Heck, it protects him and allows him to play longer. But on 3rd and short, he and his teammates have been proving that they want that one yard more than the other guy this year.

That’s as it should be.

Steve Utz writes frequently for Seahawks.NET. Send your feedback to Steve at sutz12@comcast.net.

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