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Seattle's big problem comes to the front

For the next two weeks, the Seattle Seahawks' offensive linemen, perhaps the best in the NFL, will study what happened to them against the Dallas Cowboys earlier this season, because if they cannot change it, they cannot beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XL.

Despite having the highest-scoring offense and most productive running back in the league, the Seahawks struggled to move the ball against Dallas's 3-4 front that night in October. For 59 minutes and 20 seconds, they could muster only one field goal and minimal rushing yardage before pulling out the game by scoring 10 points in the final 40 seconds with the assistance of some egregious Dallas misplays.

The Cowboys limited Seattle to 72 rushing yards on 22 carries, less than 3.5 yards a rush. On third downs, Seattle was 3 for 13, a success rate of 23 percent. Or is that a failure rate?

What makes that game so significant is that it is the only time Seattle faced a 3-4 front all season. But on Feb. 5, the Seahawks will be staring down the barrel of perhaps the best 3-4 defense in football, the one belonging to the AFC champion Steelers.

The Seahawks like to run the ball, having averaged 153.6 rushing yards a game. In Shaun Alexander, they have not only a touchdown machine who scored a record 28 times this year, but also a clock-controlling devourer of yardage who rushed for 1,880 yards on 370 carries. That's a 5.1-yard average on a team that rushed the ball more often than it threw it (513 to 449).

Perhaps most illustrative of what the Seahawks are about and the problem they face against the Steelers is this: Seattle lost only three games this season, and in each one of them, Alexander was held to fewer than 100 yards.

Sunday, facing a Panthers defense that ranked fourth against the run (91.6 yards per game), the Seahawks bowled them over. Alexander ran for 132 yards and scored twice, and the Seahawks trampled Carolina for 190 yards on a remarkable 51 carries, controlling the ball so thoroughly that the Panthers barely had it for 18 minutes the entire game.

But that was against a traditional 4-3 front. The Seahawks' offensive line, which is anchored by a Pro Bowl left side of tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson, was dominant. Seldom did they seem confused by what the Panthers were trying to do; they were clearly a step ahead of Carolina all game.

''Their win today was a matter of execution," said Carolina linebacker Will Witherspoon. ''They did a number of effective things out of different looks, and they always seemed to know what to play to give them the advantage."

But what of the Steelers? They are notoriously tough to run on, having finished third in the NFL in run defense (86 yards per game) and fourth overall (284 yards a game). And they attack the line of scrimmage with linebackers blitzing from all directions and safety Troy Polamalu often becoming like a fifth linebacker against the run.

Against Dallas, that 3-4 front and the linebackers held Seattle's running game down, forcing quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to win the game. He did, but barely, and not under the kind of pressure he'll be under in his first Super Bowl start.

Seattle's offensive linemen seem likely to put in more time watching film in the next 14 days than Steven Spielberg.

''It's different," said center Robbie Tobeck when asked about the Steelers' 3-4. ''Fortunately, we have two weeks to prepare for it."

Against Dallas, Seattle's offense produced only 289 total yards, and Alexander finished with 61 yards on 21 carries.

Whether two weeks is enough time remains to be seen, because the Pittsburgh 3-4 is an active, blitz-oriented unit that attacks the line of scrimmage and has been particularly adept at stopping what Seattle does best. It is the same formula Bill Belichick used so successfully during the Patriots' last three trips to the Super Bowl.

The Steelers hope to use their speed at linebacker to close holes and Polamalu to fill any gaps, making the Seahawks the same kind of one-dimensional offense they became against Dallas. That would force Hasselbeck to shoulder the responsibility in the same way Pittsburgh forced it upon Peyton Manning and Jake Plummer, with disastrous results for the AFC's top two seeds in this year's playoffs.

The Steelers very likely would have done the same to Cincinnati's Carson Palmer in the wild-card game but they knocked him out of the game the first time he tried to throw.

For the next two weeks, the Seahawks offensive line will very likely hold its own Seattle Film Festival, with only one subject: the Steelers' 3-4 front.

With an offense that averaged a league-high 28.3 points and comes armed with five Pro Bowl players as well as the league's MVP, they will search for answers they did not have against the Cowboys.

''We've just got to see more film, man," said wide receiver Bobby Engram. ''We've got so many weapons, three-receiver sets, two-tight-end sets. How we run out of it and pass out of it is a tough package to defend."

Tough, to be sure, but as the Cowboys proved, not impossible.

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