Alexander gained 37 yards on 17 carries against San Francisco on November 19 at Monster Park, and Seneca Wallace's three interceptions led to a 20-14 Niner win that was punctuated by a Seattle defense that gave up 262 rushing yards. That game started Seattle's current 2-2 holding pattern, a time in which they've alternately resembled the reigning NFC Champs and a team that doesn’t even deserve a first-round playoff beatdown.
Now, as Holmgren prepares for the rematch against the team that gave him his start as a position coach in the NFL, he must begin by reviewing the lessons learned in Sunday's 27-21 loss to the 4-9 Arizona Cardinals, a defeat which prevented the Seahawks from wrapping up their third straight NFC West title. Seattle stands at 8-5, and the goal is to haul out of the four-seed in the NFC. Given the unfocused performance exhibited by his Seahawks on Sunday, it might be surprising to some that Holmgren basically gave his team a light Monday. This is especially interesting in that the team has only three days to prepare before facing the 49ers on Thursday night.
“The players came in today. We graded the film with them, then they lifted and then we sent them home," Holmgren said. "Tomorrow will be like a Thursday. Practice will be somewhat altered in what we do, but we’re going to have two practices. The time schedule of the day will be like a Thursday. Wednesday will be like a Friday, we will have one practice and then will try and get them out of here like we do on Fridays. What we’re trying to do is prepare, at the same time, let them recover a little bit.
“I just talked to them today about the same thing I mentioned to you when I first came in; balancing the healing of their bodies with the preparation that we have to do," the coach continued, when asked what he said to his players. "And they’re not the only team that has to do it, the other team has to do it too. Thursday night’s a big game. We can win the division with a win there. They know that. Really we have to become a more consistent football team, that’s the bottom line. In this league, as close as everybody is, and you see the scores on Sundays...
"There’s some surprises. Nothing should surprise anybody anymore, not in the NFL. And the simple fact is, as close as everyone is, that anybody is capable of beating anybody else if they’re playing very well. At the same time, if you don’t, you’re capable of losing to anybody else. And that’s the way it is. We have not been as consistent as I would like. But yet having said all that, and going through the ups and downs so far this year, we have what we want in front of us and it’s Thursday night. So, that will be my theme all week.”
How does he feel about the mid-week games, showcases for the league's own television network, and the wrench it throws in his normal week-long perparations? “It’s like fighting city hall, you can have an opinion and you might listen to it briefly, but you’re the only one," he said. "The league is not going to listen to it, the owners certainly are not. It’s the NFL Network. We did have conversations when I was on the competition committee with the people about this. I voiced my opinion along those very lines, saying, ‘this is going to be tough on players now.’ They play Thanksgiving day games, so there was a precedent already. And really it drives the car… Once they decided they were going to do it, out of sight, out of mind, just tell me where I’m going.”
Still, the bigger concerns are on the field. The Seahawks are having trouble running the ball and stopping the run, the two hallmarks of any postseason success. Their three fumbles resulted in fourteen of Arizona's points, and the front seven wasn't able to bring any pressure on Arizona rookie quarterback Matt Leinart. “I think he did a nice job of that," Holmgren said when asked about Leinart's ability to avoid pressure in the pocket "The other thing they did, they kept a lot of people in to protect him. They kept a lot of max-protection type situations. But then, the young man got rid of the ball when we did pressure.”
On top of everything else, Holmgren found out today that several positions that were already depleted by injury and poor play will take further hits based on injuries in the Arizona loss. Defensive tackle Craig Terrill was placed on the injured reserve list, ending his season, with ligament damage in a knee. WR Darrell Jackson will miss the San Francisco game with a toe injury he suffered during his final catch last Sunday. Nate Burleson will replace Jackson in the lineup, and Robert Pollard may replace Terrill, though Holmgren intimated that " Some things could happen, roster-wise before the week is up.” Guard Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack suffered a groin injury and may not be able to play, leaving a berth open for talented rookie Rob Sims.
Slot receiver Bobby Engram, who has been out of the lineup with thyroid issues since Week Four, may be ready to hit the turf again, if his coach has anything to say about it. Losing the NFL leader in touchdown catches (Jackson, 10) would be mitigated to a point if the coach had his main inside man back in the game. “We’re going to try and fast forward so Bobby can play a little bit on Thursday night," Holmgren said. "That’s my hope. I saw him in a meeting today, but I have not talked to him. His numbers (medical tests) have been pretty good for a week. I said it was going to be up to him how he felt in practice. Hopefully, I have him able to play on Thursday night.”
Holmgren was very philosophical when asked about Seattle's injury bug this season. “Last year we were pretty fortunate. It happens. It just happens. You do what you have to do to try and plug the holes in the dike.
"It’s hard and it’s frustrating, but that happens. The expectations are high. They still are high. Look, no one is throwing in the towel here. We still have our goals set, and it’s there. It’s there. The frustration and the uncertainty, more then how they were going to play, is who was going to play. And that has had an impact on us. Is it unexpected that injuries take place? Absolutely not. That’s part of the game, but that has been an uncertainty for us. And as a result, I believe it has affected our consistency of play.”
Speaking of "plugging holes", that's something Seattle's run defense hasn't been doing at all. Last time they had to face San Francisco mega-back Frank Gore, the Seahawks were battered for 212 yards by Gore alone. “I think the very first thing, while we saw (Gore) on film, no one really knew too much about him," Holmgren explained. "This is his first year of really playing and carrying the ball a lot. And if nothing else, you know how damaging he can be. We know that first hand. So, you’re going in to a game with your eyes wide open. There are no surprises now. You know what he is, and what they’ve gotten, and what you have to do, try to do… He’s the real deal and he’s having a great year.”
Last week, the Seahawks gave up 115 yards to Edgerrin James, who ran behind an Arizona offensive line that has been pathetic for a very long time. Opponents are extending drives and blowing Seattle's rhythm because this defense can't stop the run, and Holmgren knows that isn't a workable option for a team that wants to get back to the Super Bowl. He said that the imbalance “can be slightly misleading at times, but if you lose that battle on a consistent basis two things are happening; One, you’re not stopping the run. And two, you’re not running like you should. That’s a big part of that.
"Now, we had a drive yesterday we scored. We had a couple big plays. I think we scored in 17 seconds or something. And we’ve been having some longer plays this year, scoring plays, and that affects that too. Something positive is happening, but that statistic is still skewed just a little bit. But normally speaking, if you lose that battle by too much then you’re not having a good game.”
With Terrill out, it will be harder than it already has been to keep the defensive line fresh. How is the coaching staff working around this? “Fortunately, we had a couple of extra people there to start with," Holmgren about the depth at defensive tackle. "Otherwise we’d be in a world of hurt now. We can still line up people and play. We have taken a couple hits in there. But we rotate the guys during a game, so number of snaps no one is getting much more than 30 snaps. But they just got injured. So, they’re not worn out or worn down or anything, they just got hurt. So you still have (Chuck) Darby, Rocky (Bernard), Russell (Davis), and now Pollard will be in there. (How Pollard will be used) depends on how (Joe) Tafoya feels.”
Injuries, division losses to lesser teams, fan frustration and a sense of reduced focus on the field could add up to a dismal season's end. This is when coaches have to motivate. “I want the guys to stay positive, and stay up," he said. "They gave a lot of effort. They’ve been giving a lot of effort. And then you lose a tough one, but we’ve won some good ones too. I think that’s going to be okay. We’re playing some young people, and I worry about them. We must be assignment correct and do the correct thing on the field. My number one concern is executing the game plan.”
Does the short week help ease the pain of a tough loss? “They've got to get cranked up faster. I would assume it’s easier. But I’m assuming. I told you this before, players turn the page rather quickly. Coaches are the ones that don’t turn the page so quickly. But, the guys they get ready. They got to play another game. It’s another game. Boom. Boom. They play. We've got to turn the page quickly as coaches.
"I will turn the page.”
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.