When NFL defensive coaches watch game tapes of the Seattle Seahawks to try to find ways to slow tailback Shaun Alexander, they see a series of horror films. They see the league's most valuable player darting around defenders on his way to a record-setting season, and they realize it's possible to draw up everything just right and still have things turn out all wrong.
"You watch it in film after film. . . . He's just breaking tackles and scoring touchdowns," Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said recently.
The task of trying to deal with Alexander falls next to the Washington Redskins and their highly paid defensive boss, Gregg Williams. The Redskins just signed Williams to a three-year, $8 million contract extension to keep him off the NFL's head-coaching market, and Williams spurred his players to a defensive gem in last Saturday's triumph at Tampa Bay in a first-round playoff game. Now comes a tougher test as the Redskins travel to face Alexander and the league's highest-scoring offense on Saturday in a conference semifinal.
Alexander led the league with 1,880 rushing yards as the Seahawks averaged 28.2 points per game and compiled a 13-3 record to secure the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Alexander set a single-season league record with 28 touchdowns, 27 of them on runs and one on a catch.
"They're a very talented offensive team," Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said yesterday in a phone interview. "They've been together a long time. They have inside runs and outside runs, and they pick their spots very well. If you look at his games, it seems like every game he has a 45-yard run or a 50-yard run or a 60-yard run. They're patient. They stick with the running game, and then he breaks one on you."
Alexander ran for 313 yards and six touchdowns in two games against Arizona, an NFC West foe, this season. The Cardinals weren't alone in their struggles against Alexander. He had 11 games with more than 100 rushing yards. He had two games in which he scored four touchdowns and two more in which he scored three.
"He's a back that has everything, as you've seen," Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said during the season. "He's not just scoring all one-yard touchdowns. There are some big, huge 40-yard runs in there. He has an 88-yard touchdown. He has the speed to get loose and run away from people. . . . He can cut on a dime. He's playing at a very, very high level right now."
But he's not unstoppable. The Redskins kept Alexander to less than 100 yards when they beat the Seahawks, 20-17, in overtime at FedEx Field on Oct. 2. He ran for 98 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. His average of 4.9 yards per carry that day was slightly below his average of 5.1 for the season.
Two other NFC East clubs, the Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, fared better against Alexander this season. The Cowboys limited Alexander to 61 yards on 21 carries in a 13-10 loss to the Seahawks on Oct. 23 in Seattle. The Eagles were overwhelmed by the Seahawks, 42-0, in a Monday night game at Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 5. But they managed to keep Alexander in check, holding him to 49 yards on 19 rushing attempts.
"The teams that did the best against him, like the Cowboys, did a good job of winning at the line of scrimmage and making him give ground and go backward before he got to where he wanted to go," said former Steelers running back Merril Hoge, now an ESPN analyst.
What those two teams have in common with the Redskins is that they have a safety — the Eagles' Dawkins and the Cowboys' Roy Williams — who is a superb tackler and can help in run defense. The Redskins could breathe a sigh of relief yesterday when their hard-hitting safety, Sean Taylor, was fined $17,000 by the league but not suspended for allegedly spitting into the face of Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman.
The problem a defensive coach faces is if he has a safety creep closer to the line of scrimmage, he leaves his club more vulnerable to the Seahawks' passing game. Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck had his best NFL season, cutting down dramatically on his interceptions while throwing for 24 touchdowns and nearly 3,500 yards.
"It's the same problem as when you face Indianapolis: It's not just that one guy," San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Billy Davis said yesterday. "Usually it's pretty simple in the NFL. When you face a great running team, you move a safety up, get that eighth guy up there and shut down the run. When you face a team that passes better than it runs, you drop that safety back. But when you run up against Indy or Seattle, you have to stop both. Then it becomes a guessing game from play to play with their coordinator or [Seahawks Coach Mike] Holmgren. Both of those teams have a system that's been in place and players who have been together and are comfortable running it."
Pendergast said that in trying to slow Alexander defenders must play not only with aggression, but with precision. Having a defender get caught out of position when Alexander makes a sharp cut is what produces a long run.
"He has a lot of success on the perimeter," Pendergast said. "The most important thing to stress to your players when you go against a runner like that is to take good angles in pursuing him — not only your defensive linemen and your linebackers, but also your defensive backs. If you don't take good angles, he can stop on dime, reverse his field and make a long run."
Said Davis: "It's not a complicated running game. It's nothing fancy. It's just a system that suits him well. He uses his vision and speed and just kind of glides along, and then when he finds somebody out of his gap, he finds the hole and goes. The NFL is a game of mistakes. Everybody is going to make mistakes. And he's a guy who has the patience and the vision to see them, and then he's got the great speed to exploit them. It's deceptive speed, like Michael Vick, because he's so smooth in his stride. But he's really moving."
A defensive coach can out-plan the Seahawks, manage to have his players in the right spots to stop Alexander, and still fail if Alexander eludes defenders. Before the Eagles faced the Seahawks, Johnson stressed his defense couldn't afford to have botched tackles.
The popular notion around the league is that Alexander runs more often to the powerful left side of the offensive line, behind tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson. Not so, say the coaches who faced Seattle this season.
"They're fairly balanced," Pendergast said. "Every team that has a good running attack probably has a dominant side to go to. I would imagine that many of their runs are to that side. But they do a good job blocking for him on both sides of the line. You can't get too caught up in one side or the other."
Hoge said the Seahawks are most effective when Alexander runs behind Jones and Hutchinson, but they adjusted during the season when some opponents tried gimmick defenses to put extra players on that side. "If you try that," Hoge said, "they know how to make you pay for it."
Other defensive coaches might like to have Williams's paycheck, but they don't envy the assignment he faces this week.
"That's the best play-caller, the best game plan, the best scheme we faced," Pendergast said. "They're the toughest offense we went against. And then when you face them up there, they seem even a little bit faster. There's a reason they were number one in the league."