SEATTLE Things should get easier this week for Matt Hasselbeck and the slumping Seattle Seahawks.
No, that's not a shot at the injury-riddled Carolina Panthers (1-5), who have lost four straight going into Sunday's game in Seattle (3-3).
Hasselbeck should have an easier time getting a handle on coach Mike Holmgren's complex offense. The coach is simplifying things, concerned he overloaded his quarterback with too much information during a three-game losing streak.
''I think we've been a little unfair to Matt,'' Holmgren said. ''You always want to expand. You have these great ideas and you want to do stuff, but at times you have to bring it back if it's not working.''
Holmgren needs Hasselbeck to recover quickly from a 14-of-41, four-interception performance in last week's loss at Arizona Seattle's third straight defeat after a 3-0 start.
The coach wants to establish a running game with Shaun Alexander. He needs his defense to return to its early-season form. And the Seahawks hope to back up their claim they're still one of the NFL's top teams.
They've just been off the mark lately, they insist.
''I'm a big believer in players making plays,'' center Robbie Tobeck said. ''That's what we're lacking right now, whether it's a lineman getting the right block, a running back making the right read or receivers catching balls.''
The offense could also use a boost in one key area: third downs. After leading the NFL last season by converting on 47 percent of their attempts, the Seahawks are 27th at only 31 percent.
''It's not third-and-long. It's third down,'' Holmgren said. ''It's being able to sustain drives. It's being able to make first downs, and we've been woefully inept.''
The hobbled Panthers might be the perfect opponent to help Seattle get back on track. Last year's Super Bowl run is a distant memory after key injuries: running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, and receiver Steve Smith on offense, All-Pro DT Kris Jenkins.
''If you take three guys out, the better players on your team, it's not easy,'' Carolina coach John Fox said. ''It's not an excuse, just reality. I still feel we can win. We've been in every game we've played so far.''
Jenkins is out with a shoulder injury, and the Panthers are down to their fourth running back in Brad Hoover, who began the season at fullback.
''We're not only playing with backups, we're playing with backup backups,'' defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said.
Hoover took over at tailback after No. 3 running back Rod Smart went out with a knee injury. In last week's loss to San Diego, Hoover gained 99 yards on 24 carries.
''He has been a good runner, and not all fullbacks have that ability,'' Fox said. ''He was the logical choice to move to tailback, and I thought he did an outstanding job last week.''
The Seahawks, meanwhile, have plenty of their own problems.
There's an injury to receiver Bobby Engram, who has a high ankle sprain and could miss his second straight game. In his place, Holmgren said recently acquired Jerry Rice must step up.
The superstar receiver had one catch for 10 yards at Arizona, his first game with Seattle. Rice said he feels more comfortable with the system this week and is ready to contribute.
''It's been a difficult three weeks for this team,'' Rice said. ''We've got to do whatever we can to turn things around.''
Buckner, who played with Rice in San Francisco, confessed to being star-struck the first time he took the field with the NFL's career receiving leader. He believes Rice is still capable of big games.
''Jerry Rice at 42 is just as good as a lot of receivers at 21, so you can't fault him for wanting to keep on playing,'' Buckner said.
Then there's Seattle's defense.
The Seahawks were the talk of the NFL after Week 3, when they shut out the 49ers for the first time since 1977. Seattle allowed only 13 points in the first three games, but has since given up 88.
Key starters DE Grant Wistrom and linebacker Anthony Simmons are out, but Seattle gets a lift this week when linebacker Chad Brown returns from a broken leg sustained in training camp.
On both sides of the ball, Seattle's mission is simple. The Seahawks know they've got to be sharper.
''What has to be maintained at a consistent level, regardless of your injuries or anything else, is intensity and sound play,'' Holmgren said. ''You have to do the right things. You have to be smart. That's what we're re-emphasizing.''
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