In the 2012 season, the Seahawks passed the ball 405 times, the fewest attempts in the NFL. By a lot. Seattle ran the ball a league-high 536 times. They finished third in the NFL with 161.2 rush yards per game. Tied for fifth with 4.8 yards per carry.
That dedication to running was fairly evident last night as the Seahawks rushed 29 times for 129 yards, a 4.4 YPC average, without the services of their Pro Bowl running back in Marshawn Lynch or his backup in Robert Turbin. Seattle's rookie tandem of Christine Michael and Spencer Ware carried the load - Michael rushing for 89 yards on 16 attempts (5.6 YPC) and Ware 32 yards and a touchdown on 7 attempts (4.6 YPC). Their 2nd year fullback in Derrick Coleman actually led the team in catches with 3, and scored a touchdown late on a bootleg rollout reception from Tarvaris Jackson, so it's clear that this front office and coaching staff highly value the running back position and building talent at that spot.
There's always the chicken or the egg argument as to whether passing sets up the run or visa versa - but regardless, I think that Pete Carroll believes in centering his offense around rushing the football. This is what allows them to execute their play-action passing game with more efficiency, take fewer risks, and turn the ball over fewer times. This isn't to say that Carroll is risk-averse - he was nicknamed "Big Balls Pete" for a reason - but Peter Clay Carroll prefers putting his chips in on big paydays, i.e., throwing the ball downfield and creating explosive plays. Running the ball often and effectively affords your offense more one-on-one matchups downfield and strengthens your odds of successfully completing these deep strikes.
Over the last few years, Davis Hsu and I have learned, through researching old USC documents, Win Forever seminars, and going through old interviews, that Carroll's four defensive priorities are thus:
1. Limit Explosive Plays
2. Make the Opponent One-Dimensional
3. Get the Ball
4. Out-hit, Out-physical the Opponent
Davis has posited that he believes Carroll's offensive philosophy is, more or less, a mirror image. I would agree, just based upon Carrollisms over the years and the product that he puts on the field:
1. Make Explosive Plays
2. Be Balanced-Never be One-Dimensional
3. Protect the Ball
4. Be Physical
When Carroll was asked this week about whether or not the Hawks alter their gameplans or philosophy during the preseason, he replied:
"Well, let me say this: scheme wise, [preseason games are] not an issue. We know what we want to do. We'll withhold quite a bit in these games. But, that doesn't mean we wont' show the style and way we want to play. The formations and the routes and the runs, we're not going to do all of our stuff now, we'll keep practicing that against ourselves, but, we play best when we're wide open.
We learned that. There's no doubt. That means, we hammer the football, and we try and play off of that with the offense.
That's all the play-passes, that's moving Russell around, that's giving him the chances for the big space that he takes advantage of. When we play-pass and we get him ten yards deep in the pocket, that gives him a lot of freedom. He usually takes advantage of that."
Hammer the football, and play off of that with the offense.
Again, running the ball to set up your passing game. It worked superbly in the 2nd half of the 2012 season with quarterback Russell Wilson, because of his mobility to move around and re-set, and because of his willingness to pull the trigger on tight window throws with pinpoint accuracy. As even the ever-humble Wilson admits, he throws a sexy deep ball.
His ability to throw downfield, though, is aided by the fact Seattle is seeing a ton of 8-man boxes with single deep safeties - giving Wilson more freedom to throw it up for grabs. One-on-one is a matchup that Wilson will take every single time, but two-on-one is obviously a lot more dangerous and lower-percentage.
"There are so many good things that come from running the football. It adds to the mentality of your team. It adds to the toughness of your football club that you present.
"Because you're always going to play tough defense, hopefully. We're always going to be tough in special teams. But you can be other than that on offense if you don't run the football. We want to be a physical, aggressive, tough, get-after-you football team. And that's where we can send the biggest message about that commitment to that."
This was a huge part of the reason Seattle loved Marshawn Lynch, traded for him, and signed him to a lucrative extension. As John Schneider said,
"Well, when we got here, we talked about an identity, and creating an identity, and getting ourselves into a position where we were a consistent championship caliber football team. In order to do that in this league, you need to knock people around. You need to play strong, tough, smart, physical football.
We thought, in acquiring Marshawn, that he would add that, not only on the field, but in the locker room as well and in the way he practices. He's done that, and you're always concerned about the way running backs don't hold up from a durability standpoint, but this guy - he is a seriously tough individual. He's the kind of guy that only knows one way to run, and that rubs off on the other guys, the other players here. It rubs off on our defense.
So, he brings an identity for us, it was very important that we signed him to a long term deal, and we were just ecstatic to get that done before free agency started."
Robert Turbin, Christine Michael, and Spencer Ware are all extensions of this identity, with varying styles.
Even with Russell Wilson's emergence as an effective pocket passer and the Seahawks decision to trade for and extend Percy Harvin, one of the premiere receivers in the league, Carroll insisted Seattle would stick to its roots. Said Carroll, when asked if the offensive philosophy changes with the addition of a dynamic slot receiver:
"No, it doesn't at all. We're gonna do exactly what we wanna do with continuing to send the message about how physical we are, how we attack with the running game and fit off that. What I hope happens when we throw it and catch it we just make more yards, we have more spacing. I'm expecting Golden [Tate] to have a huge year, Doug [Baldwin] to have a huge year and Sidney [Rice] to fit in together.
This is not a change at all."
After watching last night's dumbed-down, basic offense, I can't say I doubt him. It comes down to a belief held by pretty much every coach and front-office member that Seattle's identity will be centered on toughness and physicality. Offensive line coach and assistant head coach Tom Cable recently framed it:
"There are two kinds of thoughts in this league. You can standup and get run at, kind of be pin-cushioned all day. Or you can come off and tattoo people and give it back."
Even though, as fans, it's sometimes more exciting to see Russell Wilson throw it all over the yard and scramble around and pick up unlikely first downs, there's something innately primitive and satisfying about seeing the Seahawks pick up first down after first down by simply running it up into the briar patch and wearing down an opponent, breaking their spirit and will to resist and endure.
Jared Stanger asked rhetorically last night, "Can you imagine opponents taking three quarters of Beast Mode down their throats, and then having Spencer Ware come in for garbage time?", ending with the hashtag, #ToThePain. Which is my favorite hashtag ever.