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Maybe Chris Carson is the reason the Seahawks are a better running team

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Seahawks are expected to be without starting right guard D.J. Fluker for awhile because of a serious hamstring injury, and that’s certainly concerning given what we’ve come to know about the massive guard this year. Cast out of San Diego before even the Chargers technically were, unwanted by the New York Giants despite them having potentially an even worse situation on the offensive line than the Seahawks had, Fluker came to Seattle on just a one year, $1.5 million contract. Consider some other guards who signed free agent contracts this year:

  • Brandon Fusco got a three-year, $12.75m deal with the Falcons
  • The 32-year-old Matt Slauson got a one-year, $3m deal with the Saints
  • Senio Kelemente got a three-year, $12m deal with the Texans
  • Patrick Omameh took over for Fluker on the Giants, getting $15m over three years
  • Jonathan Cooper, fellow “bust” at guard, got almost $5m for one year with the 49ers
  • Billy Turner got $2m for one year with the Broncos

Fluker dealt with injuries in 2017 in New York, but still received some praise from coaches and teammates and many noted his “road grading” in the run blocking department that showcased what made him the 11th overall pick out of Alabama in 2013. His contract size though signaled that he wasn’t even guaranteed a starting position, but the Seahawks had virtually no competition for him at right guard and he’s basically had the job since he signed.

That was until an injury forced him out of the first two games, which gave Seattle an opportunity to get a longer look at J.R. Sweezy, another lowkey veteran free agent signing that has been surprisingly well-regarded since re-signing on August 1. It also gave them a chance to start, and eventually bump, Ethan Pocic, who at this point must be labeled as a “concern” after losing way to undrafted free agent Jordan Simmons.

And when Fluker returned from injury in Week 3, the Seahawks went from a team that tried-and-failed to run the football effectively, to being the most productive rushing team in the league. I was not absent when everyone else was giving praise to Fluker for his part in this rejuvenation of the run game. I was proudly at the front of the line in saying that Fluker was one of the best free agent signings of 2018.

Great teammate.

Great attitude.

Great run game.

Great Russell Wilson season.

Great praise for the job done by offensive line coach Mike Solari.

Great riddance of Tom Cable.

The offensive line has been great, right? PFF even told us so.

Seattle went from Rees Odhiambo, Pocic, Justin Britt, Oday Aboushi, and Germain Ifedi under Cable to Duane Brown, Sweezy, Britt, Fluker, and Ifedi under Solari, and they’ve gone from 23rd in rushing yards and 21st in yards per carry to 1st and 8th. The passing game has also seen Wilson go from a career-low 7.2 yards per attempt to a matching career-high of 8.3 and he seemingly has so much more time to throw, right?

So why does the loss of Fluker to another injury not feel so devastating? And why has PFF suddenly “turned its back” on Fluker — (even though in reality, they’ve never actually liked him)?

PFF’s grades really do not matter, though we should be asking ourselves: What does?

First of all, we used to measure Cable’s failures in sacks by Wilson, so why aren’t we doing that any more? Why has this season seen Seattle’s fans turn a blind eye to the total number of sacks and sack% on Wilson? Because his sack% of 10.2 is the highest of his career and way higher than any he’s had since 2013. Wilson’s been taken down behind the line of scrimmage 37 times, just six fewer times than all of 2017 with four games to go. Indeed 12 of those sacks came in Weeks 1 and 2 without Fluker.

But his 25 sacks taken over the last 10 games is still the 14th-most in the NFL. (Wanna know how quickly things can change for an NFL with one or two changes? Dak Prescott’s been sacked 39 times in the last 10 games for the Dallas Cowboys, a line that a year ago featured three All-Pro players.) And we can’t entirely erase the fact that a sans Fluker/with Pocic line still allowed six sacks against the Denver Broncos and six against the Chicago Bears, even if those teams do have Von Miller and Khalil Mack.

Is the line notably better because of Solari, Brown, and advanced play of Ifedi, or is it somewhat of a mirage? Is it really all because of Fluker? Do people feel that way? Because there’s still not one game this year where Russ has been sacked zero times and he’s been sacked at least twice in 11 of 12. Does Russ really run himself into that many sacks? Is it part of the reason that he’s only thrown five interceptions? Why did he throw three interceptions while still getting sacked 12 times in Weeks 1 and 2?

At FootballOutsiders, Seattle’s adjusted sack rate of 9.9% is the fourth-worst in the NFL and worse than the 9.3% they posted in 2017 with Cable. In fact, it’s arguable and defensible at this point to say that the Seahawks pass protection under Solari is worse than it was a year ago ... but their run game is clearly, obviously, so much better and that’s one thing people will probably point to when looking for answers as to why the passing game is so much more efficient and effective than it was over the last two years.

At FO, Seattle ranked 32nd in “Stuffed%” (30%), 31st in Adjusted Line Yards, 28th in 2nd Level Blocking, and 27th in Power Success in 2017.

In 2018, they’re 9th (17%), 16th, 12th, and 5th in those same categories. It’s a major shift upwards for the Seahawks’ run game, but how do we attribute any of those positive changes to any one person or player? We can’t of course, but what I can tell you is that individually, neither of Fluker or Sweezy is really getting all that much praise from the advanced stats outlets.

But Chris Carson is. And a lot of that is because Carson is doing things positively absent of whatever his offensive line gives him.

Surprise surprise, Pete Carroll has a running back who creates yardage on his own rather than waiting for his offensive line to give it to him. Heard that story before?

According to FO, Carson had a Broken Tackle% of 37.5% last season, which would be insane for a full season but alas he only got 56 touches before breaking his ankle. Still, consider that his 21 broken tackles on 56 touches almost matched the 22 COMBINED broken tackles by Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls on 142 touches. That’s a Broken Tackle% of 15.4%. Mike Davis wasn’t much better, getting 25 broken tackles on 83 touches. That’s fine, but Carson was in a league of his own in Seattle and while his BT% has gone down, as expected with more touches, it’s still fairly elite.

We also must note the 113 touches of Davis in 2018, in which he has a broken tackle percentage of 15.9% and the 82 touches to Penny, in which he is at 13.4%. Both are well behind Carson and closer to the marks of Lacy and Rawls. In my personal opinion, this exemplifies that there is an advantage in run blocking (Davis is at 4.4 YPC, while Penny is at 5.1) compared to last year, while the eye test implies elite speed by Penny and important vision/receiving ability by Davis, who leads the team’s backs in receptions. It’s a much improved trio of backs compared to last year and a better offensive line, but I think we may have been overrating the perceived upgrades to the line in general, from all viewpoints.

As such, these are some assumptions I feel more comfortable with in regards to upgrades in the Seahawks’ offensive performance in 2018 compared to 2017:

  • Duane Brown is a better left tackle than Rees Odhiambo in every respect
  • Given contextual evidence, Ethan Pocic may not be a desirable offensive line option at this point in his career
  • Carson is great. Had he not broken his ankle in 2017, the running game would have been so much better and the rest of the offense may have followed.
  • If Carson is your number one and Penny is your number two, that is significantly better than Lacy as your number one and Rawls or Davis as your number two. If Davis or Penny is your number three, that’s amazing.
  • Carroll wants running backs who create absent of production of the offensive line. Lacy had been that in his career prior to his Seattle experience and it disappeared which is why he’s not in the NFL anymore. With Carson, he has that. With Penny, NCAA’s leader in broken tackles in 2017, he has that. That’s what Carroll wants and we should know that by now.
  • We can’t assume notable upgrades at center or right tackle. Those are the same players as a year ago, and I’m unaware of evidence that suggests improved play in regards to pressures allowed or penalties under Solari.

In general, my takeaway is that the biggest changes to the Seahawks run game from the start of 2017 to now is the change from Odhiambo to Brown at left tackle and Carson returning to start at running back. I think the next change is Pocic to anybody-besides-Pocic at guard, plus the option of Penny at backup and a mix-in of Davis. These upgrades in the run game do improve the quality of play for Wilson in the passing game but the career-high percentage of sacks-per-dropback is also of note and can’t be ignored, especially at a time that everyone is oddly praising the pass protection despite Seattle winning a Super Bowl in 2013, getting there in 2014, and finishing first in offensive DVOA in 2015.

Are the Seahawks better on offense in 2018 than they were the last two years? Obviously. Is Fluker an upgrade over Pocic? I think so. Is he an upgrade over Simmons? We’ll see. But the narratives about the offensive line, including the parts I am responsible for pushing as well, are questionable. Let’s see what happens from here on out, but I think Carson deserves even more praise than he’s already getting.