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Marshawn Lynch and Seahawks' run game versus the 49ers, part I

Thearon W. Henderson

Earlier this week, my fellow writer Thomas Beekers wrote an excellent breakdown of the Seahawks' run defense woes versus the San Francisco 49ers from last Thursday's game. Seattle gave up 175 yards on 32 carries - 131 to Frank Gore - and as Thomas pointed out, per ESPN, 107 of his 131 yards came before contact. This was indicative of a major breakdown in gap control and integrity and was a departure from a normally disciplined Seahawks' defensive line.

Now, if you're feeling down in the dumps about how Seattle played, you shouldn't be, necessarily - particularly if you read Thomas' concluding thoughts on the defense, but I wanted to talk a little bit about what Seattle was able to do on the offensive side of the football, because I think the Seahawks came close to clicking in several phases of the game - on the road versus the then-3rd-ranked defense in the NFL. The formula was there, and at moments it looked effective. Execution in the passing game was a major issue though, and ultimately Seattle wasn't able to put points on the board when they needed to.

We all know that the passing offense has struggled and continues to find trouble getting traction - this is a function of many things, and much of it last week had to do with a rookie quarterback doing rookie quarterback things combined with a bunch of receivers that uncharacteristically couldn't catch the ball when Wilson put it up for them to make plays.

Perhaps flying in under the radar, though, following an ugly 13-6 loss was just how effective the Seahawks run game was. The reason I'm encouraged by this is that though Seattle's offensive output obviously left a lot to be desired, this run offense came back to life against an extremely stout 49er run defense. At this point in time, having a consistent and solid run game is important as the Hawks bring Russell Wilson along in this offense, so being able to gouge San Francisco, at times, was eyebrow-raising. Chin-scratching even. Surprising, but kind of exciting.

Again, let's get some context on this. San Francisco came into Thursday's matchup at 4-2. In those four wins, they'd held their opponents to an average of 65 yards on the ground per game (compared to 147.5 yards per game rushing in their two losses). It's still early in the year, obviously, but San Fran is on their way to matching or possibly exceeding their 2011 6th ranked pass defense by DVOA and the 2nd ranked rush defense by DVOA.

To beat the Niners, which Seattle certainly must attempt again this season and many times, looking into the near future a couple of seasons, I'd say it behooves them to be effective running the ball; to beat them at their own game. Ask Minnesota or New York.

In Thursday's loss, despite what seemed like a stinker offensively, Seattle dropped 139 yards on the 49ers at 4.7 yards per carry (the same average they reached while running for 128 yards in Week 16's loss last year). What's more, as Danny O'Neil points out, "Marshawn Lynch rushed for 103 yards against a 49ers defense that has allowed an opponent to rush for more than 100 yards three times in the past 44 regular-season games. Lynch is responsible for two of those performances." Three times in 44 regular season games. That's an unbelievable stat. In other words, it's really, really hard to run on this defense.

The two offenses have a really interesting contrast of styles when comparing the trapping, multiple and complex 'wham' and 'power' schemes that San Francisco used to annhiliate Seattle's defensive front seven to the way Seattle got theirs -- almost exclusively behind simple zone scheme concepts.

As opposed to mixing schemes and using brute strength buoyed with deception to take advantage of one-on-one, strength-on-strength as San Francisco did - Seattle's looks seem very basic. As former NFL lineman Seth Payne explained it over the offseason, "when you run a real zone offense, you're talking about the offensive linemen stepping laterally at the snap, and running toward the sidelines, creating seams horizontally instead of trying to blow guys off the ball."

It's "a very simple running game that is predicated on running toward the sideline. What that does for you is it stretches the field for you horizontally; in essence, you're almost moving the hashmarks as you do that. And, you're getting the secondary, the linebackers -- not only to commit to the run, but to commit to the run toward the sideline."

Incidentally, important to the shot-play-pass teams that run heavy zone schemes, "...So, when you do pass, you've really created a lot of nice open lanes."

Payne continued, "[The offense is predicated on] the line and the running backs. If you listen to some coaches that talk about coaching the system, all they talk about is -- you almost have to look at the running back as an extension of the offensive line. That running back, more so than in a conventional scheme, really has to understand what those offensive linemen are doing, and it's up to the running back, more so than in a conventional blocking offense, to really read, and understand where a center or guard are taking guys, because they'll just wash them upfield if they're beat."

With the overhead camera in action on Thursday night, it provided some nice angles that illustrate this simple (yet demanding in teamwork, athleticism, and coordination) scheme, which the Seahawks used to break off multiple 10+ yard runs and a few 8- and 9-yard gains against this elite defense.

1-10-SF 37 (14:10 1st Quarter) M.Lynch right guard to SF 22 for 15 yards (D.Goldson, D.Whitner).

1st quarter. It's funny that this play is described as "M.Lynch right guard" because as it plays out, Lynch actually cuts back off left guard James Carpenter's cut block. That's how the ZBS works.

At the snap, it's 'student body right' as each lineman, plus Zach Miller, move horizontally down the line of scrimmage. Watch how the 49ers defense reacts:


Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman both flow to their left to try to cut off cutback lanes, but James Carpenter moving into the 2nd level does just enough to take Willis out of the play to the offensive left. All the way to the left side, Russell Okung does a great job of sealing off Justin Smith, and this creates a huge lane for Marshawn Lynch to cut back through. This is the whole "get downhill" part of zone running.

You can check off each offensive lineman from left to right, and each man does their job. Unger gets perfect leverage on Isaac Sopoaga; Paul McQuistan and Breno Giacomini double up to move the pile downfield to the right, and Zach Miller maintains leverage on his man to eliminate the backside pursuit.

Lynch has to break one arm tackle of unblocked 'backside' defensive end Aldon Smith, and he's into the second level. Sidney Rice does his part in getting in the way of Donte Whitner, which gives Lynch a chance to pick up a couple extra yards.

Seattle would go on to score a field goal on this drive, with no thanks to a big drop by Robert Turbin at about the 8-yard line.

Later, 3rd quarter.

2-10-SEA 49 (11:41 3rd Quarter) M.Lynch right tackle to SF 43 for 8 yards (P.Willis).

The Seahawks pick up 8 yards on 2nd and 10 on a nice inside zone run by Marshawn Lynch here. Instead of each lineman flowing to the outside on a zone stretch like the play above - which is meant to either allow Lynch to get outside or cut back inside in a crease, the Seahawks dial up what looks like a zone play right up the gut.

The key players to watch on this are:

1) Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy to the right. McCoy is outside, so he is tasked with taking the defensive end on the snap. He does a less than admirable job of this but luckily Marshawn Lynch breaks arm tackles pretty much better than any back in the league. Miller moves into the 2nd level to find sometone to block when he sees that no defender is in his 'zone.' As an 'uncovered' defender in a zone scheme, once you see you're not blocking anyone, it's your job to move into the 2nd level to find a man to engage.

2) Paul McQuistan and Breno Giacomini. McQuistan blocks down on Sopoanga nicely. When Breno sees his cohort to the left get a nice seal on Sopoaga (which happens very quickly in real-time) it's his job to get into the second level. He engages with LB NaVorro Bowman. McQuistan's block is integral to this play though.


3) Just look at Max Unger and James Carpenter move into the 2nd level to block Patrick Willis. Lovely execution.... to start. Unfortunately James Carpenter steps on Unger's foot, causing him to fall down. This allows Willis to sneak past and make the tackle, but not a huge deal. Dashon Goldson, NaVorro Bowman and Chris Culliver were converging hard as well, meaning Lynch would likely have been tackled anyway. The gif doesn't really show this, but nonethless, a great run right up the gut.

Gifs brought to you by BigTrain21 and as usual, huge thanks to him for facilitating my requests! Much appreciated!

Part II coming soon.

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This post is sponsored by Jack in the Box.