One of the big storylines before the Seattle Seahawks played the San Francisco 49ers Sunday was how Eddie Lacy was a healthy scratch. By the end of the game, one of the big storylines was how Thomas Rawls, the starter displacing Lacy, also became an apparently healthy scratch after halftime.
Chris Carson carried a starter’s share of the rushes on the day, running the ball 20 times compared to Rawls’s five carries. Carson also contributed one catch for seven yards on two targets. Carson was obviously much more successful in aggregate too, gaining 93 yards for a 4.7-yard average. Rawls didn’t even manage to break four yards in his combined tries.
Perhaps most telling of all: Rawls played just two downs in the entire second half and didn’t carry the ball once after the first quarter.
After lining up with the offense 50 times on Sunday, Carson has now accumulated 76 snaps on the year—more than all other Seahawks running backs put together. (Rawls has 16 and Lacy has seven, in one game each; C.J. Prosise has a total of 33 snaps in both games; Tre Madden also has 18, all in two-back sets.) Judging from Twitter and the morning radio, many people believe the rookie Carson is already the best tailback on the roster, and has won the starting job.
I like Chris Carson, and I think his running in the fourth quarter against the 49ers was critical both to Seattle’s comeback and the Seahawks finishing the victory. However, I’m not so ready to declare Rawls turf in Carson’s cleats just yet.
In that fourth quarter, Carson’s final seven rushes produced 58 yards—or nearly two-thirds of his total on about one third of his carries. At the time Carson was facing a San Francisco defense that was on the field for an incredible 82 plays over 37 minutes (the Arizona Cardinals ran 95 plays against Seattle in five quarters in last year’s Blood Draw; the Green Bay Packers ran 82 a week ago, when the Seahawks were downright San Franciscan on third downs).
Carson’s numbers in the first three quarters—13 rushes for 35 yards—are still better than Rawls did in his limited action, but it’s hardly the performance of a dominant runner. His rate of “successful” rushes was likewise imbalanced (4/13 compared to 6/7 in the last two drives). And it’s fair to ask what might have happened had Rawls gotten the same chance to run against a softened-up defense late in the game. Or even in the middle of the game.
This is exactly what the Seahawks want to do -- runs that go for one or two in the first half start going for six or seven (or more)— Danny Kelly (@DannyBKelly) September 17, 2017
The situation reminds me of a similar dynamic that started to occur late in games toward the end of 2016, when Alex Collins seemed to have some sparks of success in third and fourth quarters against defenses that had befuddled Rawls earlier in games. Although it was possible then and remains possible that Rawls just isn’t ever going to be as good as he was in 2015, or that he’s again rusty coming back from an injury, I remember thinking back then that what was happening was Rawls was baking the turkey but Collins was getting to eat the gravy.
With an offensive line like Seattle has right now, the running attack may be still more dependent on a worn-down defense if the blockers aren’t winning up front early in the game (the 49ers are bad, but their defensive line stocked with Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Elvis Dumervil and Aaron Lynch is really that team’s only strength).
In 2016, how often you ran in the first 3 quarters had no measurable effect on how well you ran in the 4th quarter pic.twitter.com/Amay19j1qw— Nathan Ernst (@NathanE11) September 18, 2017
And in case you’re as skeptical as Nathan Ernst about a cause-effect relationship between the Seahawks’ commitment to running and it’s rushing success late against San Francisco (reasonable), there’s still one more factor that that may have helped the improvement of the ground game. The start of the fourth quarter also lines up with when Russell Wilson became a meaningful variable in the running offense.
Wilson himself made 12 rushes all day for only 34 yards (2.8 yards per carry), but with Seattle trailing for the first time all game with 11:36 left in the fourth quarter Wilson had a combination of four scrambles and read-option rushes for 27 yards.
Two of those runs gained first downs, and right in the middle of them came Carson’s first carry of his explosive quarter—an option give that sprang for 14 yards on second down. Indeed, it appeared the Niners defense altering their formula to handle the threat of Wilson escaping outside later opened things up for Carson in his successive rushes on the interior. The effect on those final two drives seemed reminiscent of how the Seattle offense galvanized in 2012 after Wilson started picking up more first downs with his legs.
It’s not that the playcallers didn’t try to get that going earlier—a designed Wilson run was the first play of the game, it just didn’t work.
Perhaps if an option element had been more effective earlier, Rawls could have found more room to run than he did. In all, Seahawks running backs averaged 2.5 yards in the first quarter, 3.0 yards in the second quarter, 2.4 yards in the third quarter—and 8.3 yards in the fourth quarter, after Wilson started getting free, or the defense tired or whatever.
The question then becomes: Why wasn’t Rawls involved in the action in the second half, to take advantage of these developments?
The simple answer could be because he looked so bad. But we know the Seattle coaching staff are not usually the types who turn away from a project just because it isn’t working (I’m only half joking). It’s also true that Carson’s early numbers aren’t significantly different from Rawls’s—in Carson’s first five carries, he only had one rush that went for more than five yards, just like Rawls. Carson’s seventh carry went for eight yards, but it was sandwiched between a rush for zero and a rush for negative-1. Even by the end of the third quarter, Carson had run for zero or negative yards four out of 13 times, much like Rawls’ first quarter rate (which counted one recovery of a bobbled Wilson handoff as a zero-gain rush).
When Rawls’s absence became noticeable in the second quarter and after halftime, I wondered also if he had possibly aggravated his ankle injury—or worse, hurt something else. But if this was so, the news reports following the game seemed to dismiss the possibility. Pete Carroll also didn’t mention it in his postgame comments or Monday morning on the Brock & Salk show.
Instead, Carroll did say that part of the offense’s difficulties on Sunday came from running backs missing “principled reads”, which might be an indication that failures to locate his blocks put Rawls out of Tom Cable’s favor (Cable last year blamed Rawls “trying too hard” for his early-season struggles). The main difference between Rawls’s sequences and Carson’s early runs, apart from the extended opportunity for the rookie, were how Carson peppered two- and three-yard gains amidst the seven- and eight-yard pops and the negative plays. As of this writing, I’ll have to wait for the all-22 angle film to determine whether missed reads contributed to this difference.
However, probably the most important thing Carroll revealed in his radio hit was that, despite Rawls getting the start and despite not dressing Lacy, the team had intended in advance to limit Rawls’s carries as the third-year runner eases into his return from the ankle sprain: “In a guy’s first game back he’s going to play about a dozen plays,” Carroll said.
So maybe in this case there’s less than meets the eye regarding a potential running back controversy brewing in Seattle. The staff sure seemed intent on Rawls being the man heading into the 49er matchup. Once the coaches get comfortable with Rawls’s stamina and the sturdiness of his ankle he may well reclaim his spot as lead tailback in crunch time as well as in the tough early sledding. If Carroll wasn’t so careful with Rawls Sunday perhaps it’s the resurgence of Rawls, not Carson’s emergence, everyone is so excited about this week.
Of course if Rawls sees an increased load of carries against the Tennessee Titans but continues to look challenged, fans will be quick to call for the Vaudeville hook. At very least it’s a nice problem to have a reliable understudy waiting on the bench.