Not for the faint of heart or those who cannot suffer pirouettes, stutter-steps or the phrase "Alexander cuts outside".
Broken Tackle: 19
Good Block: 3
Good Run/Good Cutback: 7
Unforced Tackle/Missed Hole/Stop/Dance: 31
Blown Block: 4
*Includes all games minus Week 10, Divisional Round and the second half of Week 3 and the first half of week 1.
I make a lot of notes that never find their way into these recaps, one such note is simply "good run". It's a generic way for me to indicate that no matter the outcome of the rush that the player running the ball contributed positively. Alexander wasn't really an impact player on Sunday, but he did run better; not really well, but better. Four times I recorded what I considered a good run by Alexander. He followed his blockers, he hit his hole, he found a good cutback lane. Simple stuff. Those runs were for 11, 6, 3 and 2 yards. Damning with faint praise? Perhaps a little bit.
You want to hear something frightening? Alexander was markedly better yesterday than he had been in weeks. Yep. He was quicker, more decisive and able to break tackles. Healthy, fresh, but still Shaun Alexander 2007.
On the Hawks' third play of the second quarter, Seattle broke huddle in a 4 WR, 1 RB formation. Traditionally, the back in this formation is Leonard Weaver. That Alexander was in the backfield may have been an indication that something was amiss. The Eagles don't sniff out the run, and after the hand off a hole opens to the right, I'd estimate, 6-8 feet wide. Alexander attempts a stutter step, looks a bit like he trips over his own feet, and then falls forward into the waiting arms of Juqua Thomas - directly up the middle. Alexander's stutter step stops and stutter step falls started last season, and it doesn't seem at all far fetched to conclude that might have something to do with his broken foot. Those blunders, which routinely abort Alexander's rushes midstride, make it nearly impossible for him, no matter how good he is when not stopping or tripping or stumbling or staggering, to be a valuable NFL rusher. His 38% success rate, worst in the NFL among all rushers with 60 or more carries, attests to that fact.
Shaun gets credit for his own fumble on the eighth play of the Hawks' fourth drive of the second half. Not sole credit, but damn near. The Hawks are using an unbalanced formation right, with both wide receivers to the right, a wing formation with Mack Strong to the right and only Marcus Pollard on the left side. A formation this unbalanced is usually a run play for Seattle, and being third and one, the Bucs look like they know what's coming.
Here's the play design: Both wide receivers fake pass routes but quickly, very quickly, break into run support. Strong is the lead blocker. Shaun's job is to explode through the right B gap, the one between the guard and tackle. Rob Sims and Chris Spencer are attempting to collapse the middle of the Bucs line, not just block but really collapse it. Both employ low, take-out style blocks. Chris Gray and Sean Locklear are attempting to pull the remaining defenders hard right. The play is not designed to do anything but pick up the first down. No one is drive blocking and the resulting hole created is definitely more a crease than a `92 Cowboys HOLE.
Once the play starts the first mistake is made by Strong who doesn't get a good block on Barrett Rudd. It's not disastrous, per se, but Rudd definitely gets penetration too quickly. Regardless, the crease is still there and should Alexander simply blow forward a first down should be converted. Instead, sensing pressure, Alexander cuts to the outside. This play is designed with zero outside containment. Now in the flat he's a sitting duck. He fumbles, recovers, but really never had a shot. Alexander can be a very undisciplined rusher, and this was big mistake that just escaped being disastrous. I would like to see Maurice Morris, who's better at simply taking what his defense gives him, get more looks on third and short plays. This was an easily convertible play and instead of converting the third down and extending a potentially back breaking drive, he not only failed to convert, but made such a blunderous decision that nearly caused a turnover.
A lot has been made of Seattle's rushing struggles and I think I've figured it out. Stay with me here, this might get a little complicated: Shaun Alexander is really, really slow. Simple? Crushingly so. On five separate occasions I watched Alexander get chased down from behind. He doesn't hit the hole, he has no moves and when he breaks free, his first gear is so staggeringly slow that lineman regularly run him down. Seattle fans have suffered enough from a veteran fetish, it's time Holmgren gives looks to the field: Leonard Weaver is significantly quicker than Alexander, Alvin Pearman looked able in limited plays and Maurice Morris has more than proven himself. Alexander is still the Hawk's best red zone back, that's where he should stay. Bench Shaun Alexander.
I think, quite simply, Alexander didn't know the play call. That's pretty hard to swallow by itself, but Alexander proved later that despite working in the same system for 8 years, he often doesn't know what's going on.
Alexander: I wanted to figure out what got the Hawks crowd up in arms against their once beloved back. The two plays I can pinpoint are, first, his aforementioned pirouette. Seemingly, John Thornton tackles him after Sims blows his block, but it really looks a lot more like Alexander just fell over attempting a spin move. The crowd did not like that. The second is, well, if you're sick of me talking bad about Alexander you can skip down. This one won't take much explanation, it's 1st and 10 on the Hawks third drive of the second quarter, Seattle is at their twenty. Seattle is in a 3 wide, I-back set, Beck snaps, Alexander completely whiffs on his block leaving linebacker Caleb Miller untouched and with bad intentions for the Hawks exposed QB. Miller wraps but does not sack Beck. Beck dishes a little shovel pass, Alexander looks the ball in, seemingly catches it for a second and then watches it drop between his legs. Somewhere that's a fumble. Just ugly, fraidy-cat football by Alexander that nearly cost Seattle big.
Speaking of Douglas and poor decision making, on the Hawks' second play from scrimmage Alexander is tackled for a loss of 2 attempting to string a play outside left. Moose was all over himself complimenting Douglas, and saying ridiculous absolutes like "two years ago you'd never see a defense get penetration on Seattle's left side". Really, never? What you notice right away when you rewatch this play is that Alexander missed a pretty sizable hole. Here's how it was designed: Walter Jones moves hard right eliminating the Niners nose tackle, Rob Sims pulls out from under him and moves to the second level and Marcus Pollard is asked only to keep Douglas outside of the play long enough for Alexander to hit the hole. Had Alexander hit the hole he would have had one man to beat about 7 yards past the line of scrimmage and then a bunch of daylight. Instead, apparently not seeing a hole quite large enough, Alexander darts out wide left, Pollard, clearly mismatched against 292 pound Douglas loses his tackle and Alexander is stopped for a loss. When I speak about my frustration with Alexander it's not just his deteriorating skills, it's his increasingly poor decision making. Alexander made a similar goof against the Bucs, attempting to turn a right off-tackle run into an play wide only to be hit for a loss and a fumble (not lost).
One final knock on the offense before I travel to sunnier climes. Again we talk about Alexander and a clear gaffe. First play of the Hawks third overall drive. Seattle is in that once staple of Holmgren's system, the 2 wide, I-Back, one tight set. At the snap Alexander runs right into Sean Locklear's back, more or less precluding any chance of the play, as called, succeeding. He then run backwards two yards, now five yards behind the line of scrimmage. The plays ends with Alexander falling forward for a mere loss of two. On first watch this looks like Sean Locklear's fault, and I'm not willing to let him completely off the hook, but back to that in a second. I watched this play 13 times in my best attempt to be diplomatic, I'm a skeptical contrarian so even I wonder sometimes if I'm not giving Alexander a fair shake, but I just couldn't deny what I saw: Lock and Gray are both recessed 3 and 1.5 yards behind the line, the left side, meanwhile, is mirrored, like a dash: /, owning their blocks three yards past the line of scrimmage. It looks like a cutback run, where the right side is meant to draw the Niners in, while the left side is creating a huge cutback lane. Had Alexander not run into Lock, this play should have been huge, as the line executes it to textbook perfection. It's reasonable to think that Lock probably allowed too much give on the right, but Alexander absolutely cannot run into his own blocker. Nor should he run backwards, especially behind the line of scrimmage. A really miserably wasted opportunity that I got to see in slow mo, over and over. Doh!
I have not come here to bury Shaun Alexander but praise the line's run blocking. It really hasn't deserved the mass of criticism it has received. On some plays it almost looks as good as 2005. One such occasion was on the fourth play of Seattle's second drive. Here's how it evolved last Sunday: It's first and ten, the Hawks are in I formation, with 2 wide receivers and a single tight end. The Steelers a base 3-4. After the snap Chris Spencer moves hard left engaging defensive end Brett Keisel, Walter Jones engages Harrison gives him a big Franchise shove and knocks him about a yard back and to the outside. Rob Sims pulls up between the gap created between the end and linebacker. He enters the second level and creates a triangular shaped pocket of rushing room. The exciting thing is that fullback Mack Strong is running untouched through the gaping hole and promising a dominating lead block on any DB that dare attempt to tackle Alexander. There it is, perfection. The Steelers defense contained for five yards past the line of scrimmage plus an untouched lead blocker. The rush resulted in a three yard gain after Harrison caught Alexander from behind. Perhaps a younger Jones could have pancaked Harrison, taken him completely out of the play, I don't know. I do know that Harrison caught Alexander because sitting in that pocket, with Strong outpacing him four yards farther down the field, Alexander stutter stepped, twice. Watch this play, watch the execution, the dual lead blockers with Strong essentially running free eight yards past the line of scrimmage and tell me again that Seattle's problem is the run blocking.
The other half of this story is the classic "the mind is willing but the body's not able" dilemma. Sometimes Alexander saw his hole, his cutback lane, made the right decision and ran his hardest but still failed. A couple runs really stood out to me, so I watched them with particular scrutiny. The seventh and eight plays of Seattle's fourth drive, both runs, 3 and 4 yards respectively and in both plays Alexander took more than 3 seconds to get past the line of scrimmage. And both plays, not surprisingly, ended with a DB tackle. When people complain about Seattle's run blocking, some of it is that their spoiled on Hutch and Jones gashing canals through the opposition's defense, some of it is worthy critique, but I would contend most of it is that Alexander simply takes so long to get into and through the hole that it closes in front or around him. He dances too much, yes, but he's also slow to the hole and slow in and out of his cuts. I don't mind Alexander's style, Madden described it as "weaving" without a hint of irony, but if his body is no longer capable, he must adjust. He must move forward and hit the hole that's provided him or be benched.
Jones and Chris Spencer each blew a block in the run game. Jones no longer sustains run blocks like he used to, something made that much more glaring by Alexander's maddening foxtrot behind the line of scrimmage. Spencer did what Spencer does, trip. On both plays, a better running back could have escaped, specifically, on Spencer's blown block Alexander needed only to run around the fallen defender (he had, in fact, tripped over the tripped Spencer) to get to the edge and two pulling blockers, but on both plays Alexander froze, allowed Cleveland to swarm around him and then he futilely cutback into the pile.
Weaver had a drop. Gray blew a couple blocks and Alexander cut away from his hole in an all too familiar sight for Seahawks fans. The first on his first run, where he started left and then cut back right and right into Maake Kemoeatu. The second was on his second run - isn't that a wild coincidence? First play of Seattle's second drive. The Hawks break in a 3 Wide, Split Backs formation. Alexander for, roughly, the past three years has not been a strong rusher out of split backs, but, y'know, what do I know? That run is designed off left tackle, that's where Weaver blocks, that's where the sizable hole is and that's where Alexander runs away from, I suppose, because Weaver doesn't blow the hole open fast enough. Which is too bad, because Weaver walks his man back a good three yards a split second later and a real jim-dandy hole opens on the left side. Alexander, unfortunately is already running right. On both blown blocks, it's entirely possible Gray didn't expect Alexander to be rushing anywhere near him, and thus allowed the defender to penetrate so that he was "sucked up" out and away from the play. Obviously, the Hawks run blocking isn't sensational, but how we judge run blocking has a lot to do with how a rusher runs. Ergo, The Devil and Mike Holmgren, A Story Problem. For legal reasons, I'm compelled to say: This is a work of fiction.
I'm not a scouting genius, I just watch the tapes, take notes and present my best possible opinion. In the second quarter, on the second play of the Hawks second to last drive, I jotted down a little asterisk and wrote: "Alex looks slow again." After having a pretty nice start to the game, this run seemed to signal to me that Shaun Alexander was hitting a wall, winded, breaking down, pick your cliché. Here's Alexander's rushing line from that point onward: 0, 1, 3, 0, 4, 8, 3, 2, 0, -3. Alexander was also targeted on two pass plays: 0, -1. So, the question is, ignoring the insanity of Alexander being targeted in the passing game, if I can tell that Alexander is clearly out of gas, and, at the very least, should be spelled for a couple series, why then did Morris and Weaver have 2 combined touches from that point onward? The Hawks offense looked awful on Saturday, and, clearly, Hasselbeck was in his full, atavistic, circa 2001 splendor, but Alexander, riding Alexander, is killing this rushing game. If the Hawks want to make a surprise Super Bowl run, they must stop forfeiting an entire offensive unit because of loyalty/apathy/incompetence.
He's rich, has his health, isn't a ton older than me (therefore: young) and can light a city block with his smile. The significant part of his NFL career is over. It's too bad that discussion of Alexander has so often devolved into personal attacks. Attacks that have all too often invoked the term "Hatorade". Alexander was once great. Not just the product of a historically unmatched guard/tackle combo, but a great back, with keen vision and excellent cutback ability. He no longer is. That's a rational, even obvious summation of who he was and where he is now in his career. The day he drops the Blue, is cut, traded or retires, I'll write a lengthy piece on who he was, what he meant to the Seahawks, his glory days and how badly he'll be missed. Truly, he already is.