The Seattle Seahawks had not been a great or even good rushing team in 2017, averaging 3.2 yards per carry on runs by running backs entering Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins. What’s worse, whether owing to poor run blocking or mistaken reads by the backs, 28 percent of those rushes had been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.
That makes Seattle’s performance in Week 9 nearly transcendent in comparison. Officially, it was the Seahawks’ second best running day of the season, with 148 yards on 28 attempts—an average of 5.3 yards per carry. But even more important, the Seattle running backs didn’t take a single tackle for loss, while breaking off positive runs of 5, 5, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 11 yards. It’s a step.
The total also includes two more six-yard rushes, a nine-yarder and runs for 11, 11, 11, 13 and 13 by Russell Wilson, who led the team with 77 yards on the ground on 10 tries. But helpful as Wilson’s many heroic plays were, the hope for improving the run during the week came from the addition of Duane Brown at left tackle stabilizing the blocking at large, and a renewed commitment to emphasizing starting tailback Eddie Lacy, rather than scattering touches among a gaggle of runners as the Seahawks had done most of the year. Former starter Thomas Rawls, with only 59 yards on 30 carries before the game, was looking more and more like some fading McFly sibling in the portrait of Seattle’s rotation.
But when Lacy exited after his sixth rush Sunday, Rawls looked transformed. With active tailbacks at that point limited to just Rawls and J.D. McKissic, the sudden frequency of carries for the undrafted third year runner may have been a necessity rather than a vote of confidence—yet the consistent opportunity seemed to make Rawls more comfortable than he had been since the playoffs in 2016 when he was last the unchallenged lead back. McKissic sprinkled in three rushes for 12 yards, but Rawls made the most of his second and third quarter chances for 4.3 yards per run on nine carries on the day. For the first time since Chris Carson went onto injured reserve, the Seahawks ground game operated as intended.
Which makes it all the more strange how Seattle went away from it during the endgame: In the fourth quarter, Russell Wilson threw 14 passes, scrambled twice more and also took a sack while the Seahawks running backs combined for just four carries.
It’s true Seattle was trying to rally and couldn’t be sure if it could trust its kicker so yards were at a premium, but the Seahawks entered the period trailing by just eight points and were down by two with 12 minutes remaining. They never faced a deficit of more than one score and so never faced a need to hurry the offense until the last ditch drive with less than a minute left.
Indeed, had Seattle counted on its run game just a bit more there probably would have been no need for a final comeback.
The Seahawks took a four point lead back from Washington with 1:34 in the fourth quarter on a drive that took 48 seconds while Seattle held both its final timeouts until after Doug Baldwin’s touchdown. They had first and 10 at the Redskins 30 yard line and 1:40 left on the clock. Yes, the Seahawks should be able to count on their defense that had limited the Redskins to a single touchdown and 174 total yards in the previous 58 minutes, but with two or three runs in that situation the Seahawks could have avoided giving Washington any chance for a winning score. Even one more run could have added significant pressure to that Redskins drive by draining an extra 30 seconds or encouraging Jay Gruden to use one of his last two timeouts.
However it’s not very fruitful to second guess an individual play call, especially one that was a touchdown and might well have been the game winner had other results broken right. What I will point out is that Seattle’s play call distribution was heavily tipped toward the pass all afternoon: Wilson threw 45 passes in total but was also sacked twice. Indeed, nine of Wilson’s 10 rushes came on scrambles improvised from called pass plays. That means the true disparity in plays is 56 to 19 in favor of passes. That’s an extraordinary ratio considering the game never got out of reach and the relative success Rawls and the Seahawks were having on the ground!
I wrote last week about Seattle’s franchise record in games with close to 2-1 pass-run splits; the Seahawks have literally ever only won once—in 1985—when passing numbers so near a 3-1 disparity. In the Wilson era, only the Carolina Panthers playoff game when Seattle fell behind 31-0 brought such an imbalanced attack.
The #neverrun crowd will point out the passing plays were still more efficient than rushes: Wilson threw for 6.6 yards per attempt, and even counting his zone read keeper among the called run plays the Seahawks only ran for 4.4 a rush. However, adjusting for interceptions (but also crediting the two touchdowns) and sacks, Wilson’s ANY/A was only 5.3 yards per dropback—far from enough of a difference to justify the radically disproportionate passing.
The scrambles do gain back some of that efficiency, but the point is Seattle had found something in its orphan run game that it then refused to explore when it might have come in handy. Pass plays will always offer more dynamic potential than runs but football is a game of context and the context of Sunday’s affair, with its wet field and slippery fingers early to its tightly contested finish, argued for more commitment to the run. Not abstractly—not even stubbornly, in this case, in the face of steady failure as had sometimes happened before—but because better offensive balance offered a tangible opportunity to seize control of the game state and was at the same time so readily within the Seahawks grasp and aptitude.
I saw criticism of the offense fly both ways online Sunday but one of the silliest critiques was that they ran too often early. The first half featured almost identical splits as the second: 10 called runs (4.4 yards per carry) against 24 called passes—passes that produced meager 98 yards and a pick. Nathan Ernst reminds us penalties often kept Seattle in difficult passing situations and definitely dictated some of that first half balance
Pass game was worse, but they saw down & distances of:— Nathan Ernst (@NathanE11) November 6, 2017
2 & 14
3 & 16
1 & 20
2 & 20
2 & 30
3 & 25
2 & 14
3 & 15
but I also think much frustration directed at the first half running came during Lacy’s first six carries for 3.0 yards on average. I hesitate to blame Lacy for that average because early runs are typically less productive, and to trace back to the beginning of this article Lacy demonstrated advancement even in avoiding tackles in the backfield. His early carries repeatedly showed him running through contact at the line of scrimmage. Those runs were setting up on-schedule downs for the most part—the costly situations often came from holding or other related penalties on passing plays.
And even if Lacy was truly worse, the running backs available to the Seahawks but neglected in the fourth quarter were running at a rate of 4.3 yards per rush—quite handsome enough.
So it’s disappointing to lose so narrowly with that kind of production out of the backfield, but what’s encouraging is that Thomas Rawls might again be a reliable runner in the future and if Seattle can learn to trust its re-emerging backfield maybe it can again move closer to the offensive balance Pete Carroll says he seeks.