Seahawks play small ball

SEATTLE – Matt Hasselbeck is not going to make the Fantasy Football Hall of Fame with the numbers he put up Sunday.

But he might take his team to a lot of victories this season with the way he played.

The Seattle Seahawks quarterback completed 17 of 24 passes for 222 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions in the Seahawks’ season-opening 20-6 NFL victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday at Qwest Field.

Those are decent numbers, sure, but they won’t put Hasselbeck on any “Who’s Hot” lists.

But the veteran quarterback earned praise from every corner of the locker room for the way he ran the offense on a day when the Buccaneers held his best receiver, Deion Branch, without a catch.

“This is a defense that can frustrate you. They don’t do much, but what they do they do very well,” Seattle receiver Bobby Engram said of Tampa Bay.

“The thing Matt did a great job of is being patient, checking it down. When the shots were there he took his shots,” Engram said. “Some of the biggest plays are when you pull the ball down and don’t throw an interception. I thought Matt did a good job of really managing the game and doing enough to help us win.”

Tampa Bay’s “Cover 2” defense, in which the cornerbacks tend to play tight to the line of scrimmage and both safeties tend to play well back, is designed to neutralize wide receivers, and the Buccaneers certainly did that.

Branch was shut out for the first time since 2002, and Engram, Nate Burleson, and D.J. Hackett combined for only six catches.

Instead, Hasselbeck completed five passes to tight end Marcus Pollard, a free agent from Detroit who was playing his first game as a Seahawk, and three to fullback Mack Strong. The longest of those passes went for 11 yards.

“I didn’t plan to do that, and I’m sure that won’t be the case the whole year,” Pollard said of being Seattle’s leading receiver for a day. “I got a chance to make some plays based on what they were giving us.”

What they gave the Seahawks was the football equivalent of small ball, and the Seahawks were ready for it.

“We knew what to expect. We knew what we were facing,” Burleson said. “Playing a team like that, you’ve got to nickel and dime them. You’ve got to be patient, and that’s what we were.

“Sometimes patient can look like we’re stubbing our toe, but it’s all about patience and taking advantage of the opportunities when they come,” Burleson said. “And we did just that. Matt did a great job of finding that big play when the opportunity arose.”

Hasselbeck’s big-play opportunities came when some of his less flashy receivers got one-on-one coverage from linebackers.

Though he is a wide receiver, Engram is hardly a speed guy by NFL standards. But he can outrun linebackers, and he got behind linebacker Barrett Ruud for a 49-yard reception that set up a field goal in the second quarter.

Engram, running down the middle of the field, has to read the play and decide whether to hook up at medium range or go deep. When he saw Tampa Bay’s safeties playing to the outside to help with Branch and Burleson, he blew past Ruud and hauled in the pass on the 7-yard line.

In the fourth quarter, the Seahawks put the game away when Hasselbeck hit backup running back Maurice Morris with a 34-yard touchdown pass when Morris beat linebacker Derrick Brooks down the left sideline in single coverage.

Morris started in the backfield and went in motion wide left. Brooks shadowed him, but nobody else on the Tampa Bay defense shifted that way, and Hasselbeck had another opportunity.

“During the week, we had talked about how anytime a back goes outside, they don’t really ignore him, but it’s not quite the same as a wide receiver,” Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said.

“Mo was not primary on that play,” Holmgren said. “I would like to tell you that I said throw the ball to Mo, but I didn’t do that. During the week Matt and I had talked about plays like this, where they sometimes ignore that guy.”

“His job is to clear that out,” Hasselbeck said of Morris’ planned role on that play. “I have been saying to Mo for a long time to be alive, you could actually get the ball. I think it has been about four years, and he has never gotten the ball.

“So, I don’t know if he’s lost faith or not, but he had an opportunity there,” Hasselbeck said.

Other than that, it was pretty much dump offs to Pollard and the running backs, which may be the difference between a Pro Bowl quarterback in his ninth season and a less experienced, less mature quarterback.

“An area that I’m trying to improve on is when it’s third-and-long where it’s OK to punt sometimes,” Hasselbeck said. “As an offensive player, sometimes you feel like you’ve lost if you punt. But it’s OK. And the way our defense is playing, it’s even more OK.

“Hopefully we can continue to make smart decisions and not turn the ball over,” he said.

So, while the Buccaneers kept Seattle’s speed guys from making plays, Hasselbeck made sure the Tampa Bay defenders didn’t either. There were no interceptions and nothing close to an interception.

The Buccaneers count on a quarterback’s appetite for big plays to work against him, but Hasselbeck didn’t bite.

“I was really pleased that Matt didn’t force the ball,” Holmgren said, “because they can frustrate you just a little bit.”

On this day, however, it was Hasselbeck who served up the frustration, one nickel at a time.

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