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Seahawks in new position: second

KIRKLAND, Wash. &

Jokes and welcome backs filled the Seattle Seahawks' locker room and practice field over the return of a needed player for their struggling offense.

"You're back! You're back!" players kept saying on their first day back from a six-day, bye-week break.

No, this wasn't about the return of Shaun Alexander. The league MVP had another round of tests Monday that showed the crack in his left foot is smaller. And coach Mike Holmgren said "we're going in the right direction" with the injury sustained two weeks ago.

Still, Holmgren called Alexander "iffy" to play Sunday at St. Louis (4-1), where the Rams are the new, surprise leaders in an NFC West that Seattle (3-1) ran away with last fall.

Monday's smiles came because tight end Jerramy Stevens will play against St. Louis, for perhaps 30 or more plays. It will be his first action since the Super Bowl.

"I'm just excited," Stevens said after buzzing around the practice field like a rookie trying to make the team.

So is quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.

"Jerramy has something that we haven't had on the field this year," the 2005 Pro Bowl passer said. "He adds an element of size and speed and the ability to get open."

Stevens had surgery in late April for torn meniscus cartilage in his left knee. He was held out of the first two weeks of training camp while recovering and then sustained an identical injury &

leading to the same surgery &

during a non-contract drill in his third day of practice, Aug. 17.

On Monday, Stevens was the second tight end behind Itula Mili during team drills. Stevens was delighted to be doing anything other than the same rehabilitation exercises he's faced for half a year.

"Come in. Warm up. Do ultrasound. A bunch of little exercises that get monotonous. It's the same two hours every day for the last six months," Stevens said.

"Definitely a little bit of Groundhog Day."

Last season, the formerly underachieving, first-round draft choice from 2002 out of Washington set career highs of 45 receptions and five touchdowns. The 6-foot-7 tight end with wide-receiver speed emerged as one of Hasselbeck's favorite targets on third downs and inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

Without Stevens, the offense that led the NFL in scoring last season is 15th now while using the comparatively lumbering Mili and blocking specialist Will Heller at tight end.

All attention has been on Alexander being hurt since opening day and finally missing his first career game, a 37-6 trouncing by the Bears on Oct. — in Chicago. Meanwhile, Seattle's rushing offense is producing 50 fewer yards per game so far this season, down to 105.

Less known is that Seattle has gone from 13th last season to 29th now in passing offense.

Hasselbeck has been sacked 13 times through four games. He went down just 27 times in 16 games last season. He also has seven interceptions, after throwing nine all of last season.

"Obviously, we've got Deion Branch, so we've been in four-wide sets," Stevens said of last month's heralded acquisition from New England. "That puts a lot of pressure on our O-line and running backs to pick up (pass rushers). We're just doing things we haven't done the last few years.

"So getting back to things that we do best is going to be a big help, I think, for everybody's confidence and just the continuity of the offense."

And specifically for Hasselbeck.

"I think it's going to be a huge thing for our offense. He was a huge part of our offensive success last year," Hasselbeck said of Stevens.

The Rams have knocked the Seahawks out of first place in the NFC West, a perch Seattle has held since it beat the Rams on Oct. 9, 2005. That began a Seahawks-record 11-game winning streak and runaway into the postseason.

The current role reversal that turns the Seahawks into chasers this week means little to former Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom.

"You expect it early in the season," he said.

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Notes: WR Bobby Engram watched practice wearing a cap instead of a helmet while feeling ill. "He is feeling kind of funky today," Holmgren said, adding Engram was due to get a round of doctor's tests. If Engram remains sick, Branch could get his first Seattle start Sunday. "He is certainly ready to do that," the coach said. ... LB D.D. Lewis was wearing a protective boot over his right foot because of what Holmgren called a turf toe. Lewis was expected to practice Wednesday. DT Marcus Tubbs was back practicing in what Holmgren called "a pleasant surprise." Tubbs had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee following the win over the New York Giants Sept. 24.

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