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Get yourself a back who can do both

C.J. Prosise gives the Seattle Seahawks a dimension they haven’t had at running back since Ricky Watters

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

You know in old cartoons when a chase sequence turns into a tussle and the whole screen gets filled with a cloud of dust in orbit around the brawl? And then one of the clever protagonists extricates himself from the melee, and then another protagonist joins him outside the fracas, and they look at each other and dust themselves off as the bad guys keep pounding away at one another in the tumbling cloud of arms and legs?

That’s about how the Seattle Seahawks running back situation feels, with Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise now having separated themselves from the fray. Not that Christine Michael, Sr., is a bad guy, but for a year and a half, Michael, Sr., has seen the bends in his career shaped by the coming and going and health of Rawls. And even if it seems like the Seahawks may be counting an awful lot on their undrafted, oft-injured second round tailback, and however the eyelids fully closed on the Michael, Sr., awakening (don’t cry yall; Kate Chopin would have plenty else to worry about if she were alive today) there’s no doubt what other emergence grants relief to the tension that was the Seattle running back conundrum for most of the season.

Once Rawls becomes implanted as the starter again, C.J. Prosise will almost certainly resume his spot as the “third down back” as he began the season before getting hurt against Miami. But the way Prosise displayed his faculty for playing on all downs against the New England Patriots Sunday makes him that much more intriguing as a proper dual threat, rather than simply a complement to the run game in specialty situations and series.

It’s something Pete Carroll made clear he wanted when the Seahawks drafted Prosise (“You’re not a receiver—you’re a running back, but you’ll catch some balls too.”) in April, but it’s also an element Seattle has lacked in a featured runner ever since, really, Ricky Watters, back when the original vogue for West Coast offenses meant “guys like Watters who could receive and rush created scheme versatility,” as John Morgan puts it in his Seahawks book.

Of course Percy Harvin was that kind of player too, but mostly designated (and paid like) a receiver, and didn’t possess the physicality to be a regular inside runner so it seemed to stress Darrell Bevell to find ways to implement him in both schemes. C.J. Prosise isn’t necessarily going to be a Marshall Faulk, or even a Watters, but he does change the way an offensive coordinator can design plays and challenge defenses in the passing game.

Here you can see he does the ordinary running back routes to pick up outlet yards, arrow routes, swing passes, a delayed curl to find the soft spot underneath the defense in the last two minutes of the half. For these types of passes, it is a plus that Prosise has above average hands and, in the case of the pick play when he’s lined out in the slot, experience splitting wide—“It’s nice having a former wide receiver on the outside,” said Chris Collinsworth after the play—but they’re not too far outside the ordinary realm of running back responsibility. Even Marshawn Lynch used to line out wide in empty sets sometimes.

But then look at this out that Prosise bends into a fade after crossing patterns with the outside receiver, requiring precise timing and then awareness of the ball as he splits the defenders deep downfield:

It’s the precision in route running, too, that generated Prosise’s most memorable play of the night:

Every Seahawks fan appreciates the will and strength to drive through the defender rather than step out of bounds at the end, but as Sheil Kapadia points out it’s the footwork in the route creating yards of separation from the defender that makes guarding Prosise with a linebacker such a mismatch. Of course the physicality at the last moment is also another illustration why Christine Michael is no longer on the team, and that’s perhaps the biggest surprise from a guy like Prosise, who is listed about the same mass as Michael but who, with three extra inches in height, carries it on a slighter, less compact build.

If Prosise is just a third down back, his ability to take on defenders doesn’t play so primary a role, as long as he can hold up in blocking from time to time. But what Prosise did against the Patriots, and a bit against the Buffalo Bills last Monday, was demonstrate himself as an effective inside runner as well as find the correct lanes running off-tackle.

Here you don’t see anything brilliant: just competency. He keeps his legs moving and searches out the proper blocks. On the least-productive run of this highlight, you can notice the difference Sherm Smith, Tom Cable and Carroll seem to be alluding to when they favor Prosise’s decisions and reads in the run game: Prosise appears to be stopped in the backfield when Elandon Roberts breaks through, but he makes a quick cut—doesn’t reverse direction or really pause even—and steps inside for a three-yard gain.

Because Prosise has to be taken seriously as a runner, he’s able to make a difference in the passing game even when he’s not the target. Part of the reason Paul Richardson is able to collect this 39-yard pass that flipped the field and helped Seattle recover from a three-and-out on its first drive after halftime is because Prosise draws Dont’a Hightower on the play-action fake. It’s second and four, so the defense must honor run but should be ready for anything. Instead, Hightower gets drawn way out of position trying to fill the gap where Prosise might be headed so he’s not able to get into his pass drop where he might have affected Russell Wilson’s throw, at least giving time for the safety to close the gap on Richardson. Because Richardson is so wide open he’s able to add to the completion.

Of course, not every one of Prosise’s plays was perfect, and he did miss a few opportunities.

On this sweep left near the goal line in the first half, Prosise sees Alan Branch destroy Germain Ifedi and, fearing he’s going to get swallowed himself for a loss, bounces the play a little deeper than he should be. That means he’s out of position when his block sets up outside, with Mark Glowinski and Justin Britt having pulled around to kick out the outside linebacker (Glow) and lead him through the hole (Britt) where George Fant has sealed the defensive end. Instead Prosise strings it further outside, turning a possible touchdown into no gain and the Seahawks eventually settle for a field goal.

The key to the play is realizing Branch, however scary in overcoming Ifedi, has nowhere near enough speed to catch Prosise or prevent the play from developing from the backside. You can see from the sideline angle that Branch never really gets near enough to influence the play. As Prosise gets more familiar with the league and its personnel, he will be better able to read these situations and follow his disciplined steps.

However, it’s worth noting that down here by the painted area a player like Prosise offers a possible answer to Seattle’s ongoing red zone puzzle. The Seahawks offense, although challenged for much of this year, is actually 14th in yards per play and 11th in DVOA. It may surprise some of you to learn Seattle is even seventh in the league in avoiding three-and-outs. And yet the offense often bogs down near the goal line, where the Seahawks’ red zone touchdown percentage is barely more than 53 percent—19th in the NFL. Russell Wilson is completing 67 percent of his passes in 2016 but is only 50 percent inside the 20, and only 4-11 inside the 10, which helps explain why he has the lowest touchdowns per pass rate of his career.

Every team finds efficiency harder to come by near the goal line, but Seattle’s disparity is greater than most good teams. In his analysis of why some teams struggle in the red zone more than others, the Ringer’s Robert Mays uses the Patriots as an example how adding a receiver out of the backfield can be an antidote:

“New England does as good a job as any offense in the league of spreading defenses out in these short fields, making them account for as many receivers as possible,” Mays says. “By inserting James White at running back in the red zone, the Patriots put as many as five pass catchers on the field and force defenses to account for every inch of grass.”

You can imagine how Prosise can be useful in the same way. It’s a wonder New England didn’t try any of that with the game on the line against Seattle, but that’s, well, it’s a story for a later time.