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Originally published Sunday, November 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Seahawks' priority: keeping QB healthy

Quarterback became a sore subject in Seattle this week. Not much practice for Matt Hasselbeck. A whole lot of ice. The question is: How...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Today

Seattle @ St. Louis, 10 a.m., Ch. 13

Quarterback became a sore subject in Seattle this week.

Not much practice for Matt Hasselbeck. A whole lot of ice.

The question is: How sensitive the subject will be moving forward. Not just today in St. Louis when Hasselbeck starts after missing two practices this week, but through the final month and a half of this season. The Seahawks will try to throw their way to their goals with an offense that includes more shotgun formations, fewer first-down rushes and an even higher premium of protecting the triggerman from the hell-bent pass-rushers who will head his way with increasing frequency.

"If you're going to do this, protection is everything," coach Mike Holmgren said.

He's not talking about the flak jacket Hasselbeck will be wearing, either. He's talking about the big fellows up front keeping Hasselbeck out of harm's way, a challenge that will only become more important as Seattle plays four of its final six games on the road beginning with this morning's game in St. Louis.

A protection breakdown or two will accelerate a sonic deficit because sacks are like Nitris to the engine of an opposing crowd. Everyone revs up a notch.

"On the road it becomes a little bit more problematic because of the noise," Holmgren said. "If you handle that OK, there's no reason to think you can't do that on the road."

Hasselbeck returned to practice on Friday, which was earlier than expected.

"I was Tylenol-free, so that's good," Hasselbeck said after the workout.

He joked he'll have two before today's game. The hope is he won't need more.

Seattle's pass protection is one of the team's biggest improvements this season. Last year the quarterback was battered, bruised and beaten from the first week in Detroit until he was finally knocked out by a knee injury against Minnesota. The Seahawks allowed 32 sacks in the first 10 games in 2006. They've given up 19 through 10 games this season.

Don't pronounce the improvement complete, though.

"You've still got six more games," offensive line coach Bill Laveroni said. "And it's tough in this league to protect the quarterback."

Especially when the other team expects a pass-first approach from its opponent. Hasselbeck was sacked twice last week and spent a good deal of time wheeling his way out of danger. The protection wasn't necessarily to blame. Some of it was the Bears' adjustments on defense caught the Seahawks off-guard.

"They fooled us," Holmgren said.

The quarterback has always been the rudder in Holmgren's offense, trusted to steer the ship. Hasselbeck is going to be the motor now, too, with an offense that hasn't had a 100-yard rusher since Week 3 and with Shaun Alexander expected to miss his third consecutive game with a knee injury.

Look no further than Seattle's opening offensive series to see the shift in play calling. Holmgren draws up the first 15 plays in advance. Seattle passed 13 times on those first 15 plays against San Francisco. Same thing against Chicago.

"For it to work for you, the quarterback really has to play well," Holmgren said. "He has to make good decisions. He has to keep the chains going and the clock going with completions."

Accuracy must make up for the absence of a consistent running game because incompletions and three-and-out possessions will leave you on the business end of the time-of-possession battle.

But the pass-first approach puts more than just the onus on the quarterback. He faces pressure, too. That's just part of the job.

"If you asked any quarterback, 'OK now, I will save your body and we'll only throw 10 passes a game,' " Holmgren said. "Or, 'We'll kind of cut it loose, and you do the best you can,' Every quarterback who's ever played the game would chose the second one."

But Hasselbeck will have to receive some protection along the way. Seattle's fate is in his hands, and it will also depend upon his health.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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