Holmgren: Between Past and Future

Following a rather embarrassing loss to the team that game him his start as an NFL assistant coach twenty years ago, Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren now prepares to welcome the team, and the quarterback, that has taken him to his greatest heights.

A day after the 20-14 vexation at San Francisco’s Monster Park, a loss that put Seattle at 6-4 – and only a game up on the surprising 49ers - Holmgren talked about the effects of the game on the team’s (and his own) psyche. “It’s tough around here today, because we lost a tough ball game yesterday,” Holmgren said. “It was a game that we felt good about going in, but I think at the end of the day two things happened; obviously we were very careless with the football with interceptions and fumbles - that was one. Then, two, San Francisco did a great job running the football. I think the young man, (49ers running back Frank) Gore is a fine back, and he was able to really run.

”And you put those two things together, you dig a hole on the road as deep as we had in the first half, even though we had our chances in the second half, we couldn’t do it. I think that’s the tough part. I think the positive part doesn’t have much to do with the game. The positive part is that we are still leading the division. We know what’s ahead of us. We can control our own destiny. And I think we get most of our players back this week. So those are things we can build on. Clearly we have some things to fix. It’s a hard working group, and we just keep trying. I think getting our guys back will give us a little boost in the arm, and now the season’s come down to six games. So that’s where it sits.”

Frank Gore certainly could and did run, setting a 49ers team record for single-game rushing yards with 212. Though Gore’s overall success this season points to his own excellence, there is a worrisome trend regarding Seattle’s formerly excellent run defense. Currently averaging 117.8 rushing yards per game allowed, the defense that helped the Seahawks get to Super Bowl XL allowed only 94.9 yards per contest and ranked fifth in that category, as opposed to the current 17th.

The main problem, as Holmgren and any other observer with a pulse would easily notice, was the front four’s lack of ability to shed blocks and stop anyone. All too often, Gore was off to the races, and in the defensive backfield, before he was even touched. That’s a sure mismatch: a top running back with a head of steam versus cornerbacks and safeties who have to break out of coverage to clean up the mess.

“It was a similar game to the Kansas City game,: Holmgren remarked, referring to Larry Johnson’s similar 155-yard beatdown of Seattle’s defense on October 29. “I think we have to look at those two games together, kind of see what those teams did. Other teams, the teams we play are going to be looking at it. And we have to have an answer. We have to fix it, and have an answer if we expect to reach our goals this year.”

Holmgren pointed specifically to technique and execution. “I thought yesterday we tackled very poorly,: he said. “Start there. I think we just missed tackles. It’s the same thing. We were undisciplined in our fits. By fits on the defensive line, our gap control situations. We had a couple series yesterday, where they didn’t do anything. We tackled them and they had to punt the ball. That usually is what it boils down to on defense.”

The most important factor, and the element that seems to be missing in varying degrees all around the Seahawk landscape when surveying for similarities to the 13-3 monster squad of a year ago, is discipline. Specifically, he talked about “Discipline in fits in the run game. That’s all it is. Really, you are responsible for a gap. And you have to play the gap and you have to play a certain technique a certain way. And you have to fight double teams to get to that gap. You have to scrape into areas, and you have to take on blockers with the correct shoulder so you don’t make gaps bigger.

"All that kind of stuff, it’s very disciplined. And when you watch a play, and you’re watching all that stuff happening, I think most people aren’t aware if I were to take on, as an example, a blocker with this shoulder and open up a gap over here. And the man next to me is expecting me to close that gap, and he’s taking on with the other shoulder, that just widens that gap. That’s kind of what’s been happening.

“In some areas, we are very young on defense. And to read things there, it’s a tough job. To read things and react to things on defense against big, strong, powerful guys, I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s absolutely something we have to do better. I don’t like how that’s going so far. But the irony is, some games we’re fine. Some games we’re very aware, very solid that way. So the consistency I guess is the best way to put it, the consistency that maybe we had last year hasn’t been there this year. But we still have time. There is light at the end of the tunnel. We still have time to fix this.”

Given that the 2005 Seahawks won with rookies at two linebacker positions (Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill), youth may be less of an acceptable excuse than it has been before. Tatupu’s supernatural ability to read and react, and Hill’s predilection to shoot through gaps and make things happen, seem to be lesser factors in a defense where the foundations aren’t as tightly wound.

As to the Seahawks’ own ability to run, the surprising factor against the 49ers was that after the team’s first two 100-yard rushing performances of the season (both by backup Maurice Morris), Shaun Alexander’s return almost seemed to hamper the ground game. Alexander, lost to a broken fourth metatarsal bone in his left foot since the September 24th win over the New York Giants, returned as the feature back and gained only 37 yards on 17 carries, a horrific 2.2 yards-per carry average. For the season, behind a depleted line, the 2005 NFL MVP’s numbers are a veritable treatise on the true value of a cohesive blocking unit – 224 yards on 82 carries, a 2.7 YPC average and two touchdowns.

Holmgren wanted to alternate Alexander and Morris more than he did, but the opportunities weren’t there. When you’re down 20-0 at the half, pounding the rock really isn’t the way to go. “I think Mo (Morris) was going to go in every third series. It was not a big-play offensive game for us. And I think when Mo was in the game we threw a little bit. I don’t know, I haven’t analyzed that part of it. Shaun felt good. He felt good today. He probably would’ve wanted to play more actually, but we weren’t going to do that.”

Again, Holmgren cited discipline and continuity as the driving factors behind these lesser performances. “I think because we’ve had a lot of different faces in there,” Holmgren said. “I think it’s as simple as that. First, at the running back position, I’d have to say Mo got a little comfortable and he had a couple games, and then when Shaun comes back, Shaun’s going to play. And running backs like them, they like to carry the ball sometimes. By Shaun’s own admission, I think yesterday he started a little slow, a little tentative breathing and stuff, and then he got into it a little bit, that’s what happens. So that’s part of it.

”The second part of it is (the) offensive line, to be honest with you. We have had some injuries in there, and so that’s a factor. The third thing is, when Matt (Hasselbeck) got hurt, the threat of passing the ball a variety of different ways is lessened somewhat because of the volume that we install in the game plan, and so perhaps they could gang up on the run just a little bit. I don’t know how defenses look at us. When both of them (Hasselbeck and Alexander) were hurt, I don’t know. All of those things have contributed to a little bit of a lessening of our run strength this year.”

Hasselbeck, who had been out with a sprained right knee ligament since the 31-13 loss to the Vikings on October 22, was the team’s third quarterback against the 49ers and is expected to return next Monday night when Holmgren welcomes the Green Bay Packers (his old team) and quarterback Brett Favre (his old pupil) to Qwest Field nest Monday night. According to Holmgren, Hasselbeck is one of several starters lost to various physical ailments that could return for the next game.

“I think the only guys that are definitely not going to play are (linebacker D.D.) Lewis and (fullback Josh) Parry. Everyone else has a chance, a good chance to play in the game. Some of them, I think, will take it all the way down to the end (of the week),” Holmgren said. “Rocky Bernard came out of that game. He was a little banged up last week. He played yesterday, gave it a great effort, but of course he’s hurt today. So that will be a game time decision, a late decision this coming week. I’m waiting to hear on (Bobby) Engram’s numbers. They’re taking some blood and doing those things today and tomorrow to see where he is. But I was very optimistic about his chances of playing this game. Matt (Hasselbeck) I think will play in the football game. (Robbie) Tobeck will play in the football game. (Sean) Locklear, it’ll be a late end of the week decision.”

Of course, having so many potential returning starters has to be a relief for the leader of a team that has had to juggle more than his share of lineups. “It makes everybody’s life easier,” the coach agreed. “It doesn’t guarantee you anything, but it certainly is the team you expect to put on the field for the most part. Having said that, injuries are a part of this business, you saw it this weekend. And teams get hit, and sometimes they get hit hard. That’s just part of the deal.”

Holmgren also talked about fourth-year quarterback Seneca Wallace, who guided the Seahawks to a 2-2 record in his first four career starts while Hasselbeck recuperated. Wallace’s first truly sub-standard showing was against the 49ers last week, when his three interceptions kept pushing the Seahawks out of winning opportunities. Now that his latest young apprentice has seen the elephant for the first time, Holmgren, the NFL’s current master of quarterback development, was able to discuss Wallace’s progression and what he saw on film. He also alluded to another reason that Wallace may have been distracted in the game.

“Seneca is not here right now. His mother is very sick. So I haven’t had a chance to talk to him again about it, or even look at the film with him,” Holmgren said. “But he’ll look at the film and he’ll wonder why he did some of those things too, because he has not played the game that way when he’s been playing. And yesterday, while he made some excellent throws, the touchdown pass to (Darrell) Jackson was as pretty a pass as anyone could ever throw anywhere, beautiful, but there were some couple that he’d want back. He is not expected to win the game by himself, ever. But at the same time that position has a lot of responsibility, and he has handled it very well. He really has. But yesterday was tough.”

It was tough is many ways, for all involved. Still, hope is on the horizon. The Seahawks have played their worst football since the 2004 season, and they still somehow have a hold on their division. Getting so many starters back will mean something when those two matching gremlins – discipline and continuity – are required.

For Mike Holmgren and his team, the real secret lies in looking ahead. “We hit a bump in the road yesterday, and I’m not downplaying that. I did not like how we played yesterday. But, we still have a chance to do some things.

”So that’s where all of our focus is going to be at this point.”

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. He also writes the weekly "Manic Monday" feature for FoxSports.com. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.

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