BY Doug Farrar 05:16PM 12/12/2010

Hawks struggle to find positives after ugly loss

For the fifth time this season, the Seahawks lost by at least 17 points, and it was largely Matt Hasselbeck’s fault (4 interceptions and a fumble).

Travis LaBoy of the 49ers sacks Matt Hasselbeck and strips him of the ball, a key play that helped fuel San Francisco's big win over the Seahawks on Sunday / Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks have become the NFL’s version of the little girl with the curl. We’re not casting aspersions on the collective masculinity of the team; rather remembering the old nursery rhyme about the child who, “when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid.”

That’s been the story all year for this team, and so it was again in a 40-21 beatdown at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers. In five of their seven losses this season, the Seahawks have been outscored by at least 17 points. In this case, and against a team they beat just as convincingly in the season opener, the final score didn’t even indicate how one-sided the game really was.

It was day for negative validation. Those who believe that Charlie Whitehurst should be given more chances at the quarterback position had four Matt Hasselbeck interceptions as currency. The skeptics who think that offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates should have his headphone feed cut on any play with yardage ending in “…and short” or “…and goal” got more fuel for their feelings as Bates called two fourth-and-short passes that failed miserably. And those who believed that the team’s defense would be a mess of problems even with defensive tackle Colin Cole on the field for the first time in five weeks were validated beyond their wildest nightmares.

Hamstrung by the pregame decision to put receivers Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu on the inactive list, Hasselbeck was left to deal with receivers he didn’t have rhythm with in plays that really didn’t make much sense. Still, while Williams replacement Ruvell Martin may not have always been where he should have been and Golden Tate continues to struggle with advanced route concepts, the burden of blame for his horrible outing will have to fall on Hasselbeck himself; as his decision-making seemed risky even at the best of times. When the offense came out relatively hot, Hasselbeck was trying to fit stick throws into tight windows, a strategy that would backfire on him as his collaborators missed their marks and the 49ers defenders seemed more in tune with where he was throwing the ball.

Seattle’s offense dictated coverage for a time with creative slot-wise lineup combos, but as Bates tried to call more advanced plays, the relative inexperience of Seattle’s receivers came into play. Bates did himself no favors as he continued to get cute in crucial situations to the team’s deficit, and Hasselbeck simply made the wrong reads at times. A fourth-and-four situation with 3:10 left in the game from the San Francisco 32 was one such example. Down 20-7, there were several calls to make – but a deep sideline pass to Martin probably wasn’t it. Fellow receiver Brandon Stokley probably had the first down from the left slot, but that wasn’t the read, and the greedy Seahawks were left with nothing for their troubles.

Even more troublesome was the call on fourth-and-2 from the San Francisco 33 with 13:24 left in the game. At the snap, Hasselbeck rolled right and tried to throw across his body to Michael Robinson, who was downfield on the other side. Hasselbeck can do a great many things, but throwing downfield across his body is not traditionally one of them. The pass fell short, and the 49ers took over once again.

Even when Seattle’s offense got things right late in the game, fate bedeviled them. The Seahawks managed a nine-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a two-yard touchdown to Deon Butler. But on the play, Butler reportedly suffered a broken leg. He will stay overnight in San Francisco as the team travels home, according to reports.

After the game, Pete Carroll gave a fairly large raspberry to everyone involved, starting with a defensive unit that appeared vulnerable form the opening whistle. The Seahawks actually won the toss and elected to defer; an obvious gesture of faith by Carroll in his defensive players.

The gesture was not rewarded.

“We didn’t play well early on defense — we were moving the ball on offense, but you saw that the tackling just became an issue in the game, and we were slipping and sliding and falling all over the place,: Carroll said. “We were missing tackles like crazy, and they were able to catch flat routes and the throw and the catch – we’re missing guys, and they’re making plays. That showed up as a factor early on.”

Never was it more apparent than on the touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Josh Morgan with 8:11 left in the first half. On a shotgun set out of third-and-8 from the Seattle 15, Smith hit Morgan on a quick comeback, and Morgan got down to business. He juked Marcus Trufant, who had been playing off coverage, out of the play, evaded the arm tackle of Roy Lewis, simply ran by Lawyer Milloy as the safety fell down while trying to close in, and gave Earl Thomas a half-stiffarm in the end zone.

That was the play most will remember, but the questionable strategies and personnel packages extended to the defense. Excited as they were to have Cole back as the ultimate hole-plugger up front, the Seahawks knew they’d have to rotate him in and out as he got back into game shape after his ankle injury. However, putting Craig Terrill – who is a good special teams guy and productive defensive tackle in certain sub packages – right in the middle of the defense early was a disaster waiting to happen. Terrill was easily pushed out of run fits by the physical middle of the 49ers offensive line. And any sort of cutbacks by San Francisco’s running backs, specifically Frank Gore replacements Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon, were met with the kinds of lax gap discipline one would not expect from a team trying to stay ahead in its division.

The whitewash was total, but the frustration for Carroll and his team was that things didn’t have to be that way. While Hasselbeck’s four picks led directly to 13 points, the 49ers’ offense amassed just 10 first downs (only two on the ground) and had 56 offensive plays to Seattle’s 65. Neither team was particularly effective on third down – San Francisco converted seven of 17 such opportunities and the Seahawks made just four of 10 – but the 49ers started their average drive at their own 37 and began two first-half drives in Seattle’s red zone.

More than anything else, Carroll’s disappointment in the game’s outcome seemed to be rooted in the fact that it was all avoidable – if the defense just held serve when it had to; if Hasselbeck didn’t force so many throws; if certain formations and play calls were a bit more fundamentally sound. Even in a blowout, the Seahawks could point to a few things that kept going wrong time after time. As Carroll said after the game, there were no mysteries here. The only bewilderment was how quickly the Seahawks team that came back against the Carolina Panthers last week seemed to disappear.

“It’s amazing how, from one week to the next, you can come out and find your game, and execute so well and really not carry it to the next game. That’s what I wanted to see happen, and that’s why I’m so disappointed in this performance.”

There isn’t much time to fix what isn’t working. While the team could be buoyed to a small degree that the St. Louis Rams also lost to the New Orleans Saints, keeping the two teams’ records at 6-7, Carroll and his coaching staff will be working overtime this week to try and figure out how to counter the 11-2 Atlanta Falcons, who come to Qwest next Sunday hoping to stick a fork in a Seattle season which looks more and more precarious.