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The Drive: On Rashaad Penny, Receiver

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Wilson threw three passes to Rashaad Penny in Seattle’s loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. He would not be targeted again for the rest of the season. Today I look at those receptions—Penny converted all three targets into a reception—attempt to deduce why Penny was not targeted again, and project his performance as a receiver in 2019.

The era of the rush-only back is effectively dead. Great backs receive, and the greatest backs can produce more intrinsic value through their receptions than through rushing. Brian Schottenheimer’s scheme in particular has and should emphasize receiving backs. Run fakes, deep routes, and heavy use of additional blockers create space underneath. Ideally, the Seahawks should be difficult to defend because of the dangerous deep passing game complemented by the steadily successful short passing game to backs. The latter didn’t happen.

Seattle’s two potential three-down backs, Penny and Chris Carson, accounted for only 238 of the Seahawks 3,448 receiving yards. Neither scored a touchdown as a receiver. Meaning, in what should be neutral game states, in which a three-down running back is supposed to help disguise the play call by being able to rush, receive or block, the Seahawks were even more predictable than their exceedingly predictable tendencies would indicate.

It may be that Carson will prove to be the better receiver. He has certainly been the better player. But Penny is the more intriguing talent, and would seem to have the greater unrealized potential. Which is a nice way of saying, his performance has disappointed.

2nd & 6 at SEA 17

(4:12 - 2nd) R.Wilson pass short left to R.Penny to SEA 23 for 6 yards (J.Brown).

Expected Points Added: 0.78

Seahawks break in an unbalanced formation but motion into symmetry.

Three eligible receivers right of center; only one left of center.
Tyler Lockett motions into the left slot equalizing the number of eligible receivers on either side of center.

The Chargers are in man coverage. Their run stoppers are shifted right of center. Following the play fake, this creates an excellent opportunity for Penny.

Deep coverage is retreating—the deepest three defenders all have their backs turned. Three quarters of the defensive line are now right of center. Damion Square (#71) is attempting a wide pass rush and is deep into the backfield. The player assigned Penny, Jatavis Brown, is a relatively small weakside or nickel linebacker. Because of his need to cover Doug Baldwin underneath (Baldwin is cutting in by the left 30> and would be open if not for Brown’s underneath coverage), he’s almost precisely 10-yards away from Penny. Wilson sees the opportunity and targets his wide-open back.

Penny receives.

His turn up field is a bit slow. Penny is carried by his momentum further into the flat, but he’s still left with one defender to beat, and ample space to his left and right.

Brown is squared up to prevent Penny from cutting inside. In this way, he is capitulating yards in order to prevent a much longer reception. The next two closest Chargers defenders are effectively exterior to him, and in addition to that, the sideline looms as an extra defender. Penny likely had ten or more yards if he did nothing more than decisively cut left. Instead Penny runs two yards before employing that schoolyard favorite: the which way am I going to go dance.

The dance begins.

Penny stops, negating all the value of his forward momentum. He is now only about three yards away from Brown. 6’3” 200-pound corner, Michael Davis is free of blocker Doug Baldwin and closing. Penny invests eight steps into this seesawing tap dance in his attempt to fake out Brown. Here’s another look at where it starts, and how much the defense has changed by the time Penny commits to a slashing cut inside. Yes, inside.

Penny has been driven further outside. He now has two defenders bearing down on him, two defenders with inside position and two defenders with outside position. He’s also come very nearly to a stop, meaning the slashing move he attempts profits nearly not at all from ~20 yards of build-up. And, of course, he cuts into the defender’s leverage.

The Seahawks convert the first but Penny contributes almost nothing positive to the outcome of this play.

1st & 10 at SEA 23

(3:27 - 2nd) G.Fant reported in as eligible. R.Wilson pass short right to R.Penny to SEA 26 for 3 yards (K.Emanuel). PENALTY on SEA-D.Fluker, Unnecessary Roughness, 13 yards, enforced at SEA 26.

Expected Points Added: -1.98

He is again targeted on the next play. This time, Seattle runs a play fake which resembles an outside zone, and Penny is utilized as an outlet for a scrambling Wilson. It’s a worse opportunity but Penny plays it better. Slightly.

Kyle Emanuel, just outside the <30, is closing from the interior. Penny’s motion making the catch has moved him closer to the interior, but his usable space is to his right and up the sideline.

Beat Emanuel and Penny has acres of running room. Instead, Penny all but stops his momentum in an attempt to set up a move.

Melvin Ingram, who was playing right defensive end out of a two-point stance, has run 30 yards tracking this play down. With due respect to Ingram’s quickness and hustle, Penny is killing his opportunities with indecision. Enough side-to-side and even Brandon Mebane is closing in. Penny is able to shed Emanuel ever so briefly before Emanuel drags him down by his jersey, pants and then legs.

Penny is a big, fast back but not terribly elusive. He has quick feet, is able generate quickness and power in tight spaces through short choppy steps, but depends on a varied but largely so-so set of moves for evasion. His best is probably a compact jump cut. He’s also not a great tackle breaker, regardless of whatever you’ve read about his yards after contact.

(Here’s a simple debunking of any and all yards after contact stats. “Contact” is ambiguous and defining it is at the stat taker’s discretion. The feeblest arm tackle broken is therefore potentially equal to this:

Yards through contact.

Once the stat-taker has indicated “contact” has occurred, all remaining yards are then thrown into that bin. Not all runs have meaningful yards after contact meaning one or two long runs performed after some kind of nominal tackle-breaking will hugely bias the overall average.

No stat can accurately rate a player’s ability to break tackles. We’re just gonna have to watch the damn game, I guess.

Penny had one more chance to prove his ability as a receiver.

2nd & Goal at LAC 10

(2:04 - 4th) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short left to R.Penny pushed ob at LAC 6 for 4 yards (M.Davis).

Expected Points Added: -0.15

Seattle’s win probability is exactly 1%. Los Angeles is content to slow Seattle. Penny’s reception is the last play before the two-minute warning, meaning he should make no attempt whatsoever to run out of bounds. Heroic, all-out effort plays are now required.

Seahawks set up in shotgun.

Penny runs another out-breaking route into the flat.

While I am loath to ever criticize Wilson for throwing on time to an open receiver, I think he badly misreads the defense here. Los Angeles is rushing only three defenders.

Mebane retreats into zone.

And he’s in no imminent peril at the time of his throw.

The Chargers are in a three-deep zone, meaning Seattle’s inferior numbers to the left are a disadvantage. Two receivers are covered by three defenders to Wilson’s left. Three receivers are covered by four defenders and Mebane to Wilson’s right. Mebane is very nearly a decoy, and as the play extends, his coverage becomes less and less viable.

Wilson is looping the ball downward in preparation of throwing to Penny. Just about every other receiver is just beginning or not yet into his break. The game clock is at 2:01 when Penny begins to move upfield following the reception, meaning there is no chance this play could have ended before the two-minute warning. The score, the clock, the number of rushing defenders, and the coverage all call for Wilson to hold onto the ball looking for a touchdown. But he slings it underneath.

Penny isn’t left with a whole lot with which to work.

Michael Davis fell but was able to quickly right himself.

Penny again slows in an attempt to set up the defender. He has no viable path to the inside but postures as if he will cut inside anyway.

He again squanders space and time, allowing Adrian Phillips (#31) to close.

And, again, his open-field move does not achieve much separation.

Eventually he is driven out bounds. He would not receive another target in the final nine games of the season and postseason.

In Spring of last year Carroll said of Penny “He caught the ball beautifully, really[.] He can do whatever we need to do in the throwing game.” And that “He will give us the ability to play him on all downs and that versatility is really big[.]’’ Penny, as it turned out, probably received most of his touches either with an eye for development or to spell Carson. In the two games Carson missed, Mike Davis out-snapped Penny 86 to 33. Davis signed a two-year, six-million dollar contract to play situationally with the Bears.

Penny is suffering a kind of competition neglect. He is attempting inferior moves against superior competition, squandering available yards thinking he’s going to stanky leg his way away from NFL-caliber tacklers. It won’t happen. He must purge his tendency to slow or stop attempting to set up a move. By definition, a two-way go allows the back to go either way. Pick a way, preferably away from numbers and leverage, and go, Rashaad.

That’s eminently doable. Though the quality of his opportunities declined in the three above plays, Penny’s performance actually improved. Just not enough, and presumably not enough in practice either to earn more targets. That’s not good. Penny was a bit banged up last season, he looked slowed by excess weight too, and a penchant for squandering time and space with schoolyard moves at least seems like a very rookie-year kind of mistake.

Penny can still be a three-down back. He can still earn his rookie contract and then some. His season, his story and his future begin again in about two weeks.