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Countdown to training camp one game at a time: Seahawks play in Dallas in the Wild Card

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San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The holiday week has passed, meaning all that stands between football fans and the start of training camp is a couple of weeks. For fans of the Seattle Seahawks I will be counting down the days until training camp begins by working backwards through the season one game at a time. For each game, I’ll take a look at something that jumped out to me from either the stats or the film, and I’ll do a quick breakdown.

Some of the items I cover will be new to regular readers, and some might be rehashing a topic that was covered either during the season or over the course of the offseason. In any case, I’ll be starting with the loss the Hawks suffered at AT&T stadium to the Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. In losing to Dallas, the 2018 Seahawks team became the first ever Pete Carroll led Hawks team to be one and done in the playoffs, and a lack of success in the run game was definitely a major contributor for the team in the loss.

Today, we’ll take a quick look at how the Cowboys switched up their run defense just ever so slightly when Rashaad Penny was in the game versus when Chris Carson was in the game. Penny had four carries in the game, all within a short period of the third quarter, including a 28 yarder which was the team’s longest gain on the ground in the game. Below are a screengrab from each of the four rushing attempts, and what is highlighted in each of those attempts is how the Dallas defenders set up in such a way as to defend the perimeter.

The Cowboys defense seemed content to let Penny do his thing between the tackles, but the film shows they certainly seemed to be wary of his ability to do damage by getting to the edge and turning the corner. Thus, it seems that outside contain was a priority when Penny had the ball.

In contrast, when Carson was in the game and given the ball, the defenders crashed the box. While Carson is a tackle breaking machine and can slide through the slimmest of creases with a deceptively quick burst, he’s not nearly the threat to break it to the outside and take it all the way to paydirt on any given play like Penny is. Thus, here is a sampling of how the Dallas defense crashed the box in order to have as many defenders available to attempt to tackle Carson when he was given the ball.

I’m not here trying to state that the Cowboys defense didn’t maintain discipline and hold the edge when Carson was in the game, as they certainly did, but what I am saying is that how they pursued and corralled Carson was different than how they attempted to contain Penny. Now, the reason why they would do that is because when Penny breaks a big run, it is very likely to be to the outside. Penny had twelve carries that went for more than ten yards in 2018, and nine of those twelve carries were to the outside. Here’s a look at a screenshot from the Game Play Finder at Pro-Football-Reference.com with the three runs of greater than ten yards by Penny that went between the tackles noted.

Contrast that with the 27 runs of more than ten yards that Carson recorded, where 14 of the 27 came on runs between the tackles.

Obviously, just from that it would appear that Penny is a much bigger threat when he gets the ball on the edge. How much bigger of a threat is he. Well, here are the numbers for Seahawks backs during the 2018 season when they ran the ball to the outside.

You are indeed reading that correctly - when Penny was able to get to the edge and turn the corner during the 2018 season, he averaged 8.6 yards per carry and was a dangerous, dangerous weapon. However, when he was kept in between the tackles, he was nowhere near as much of a threat.

Those numbers are definitely a step above 2017 Eddie Lacy, but they are certainly a far cry from what he is able to do in the open field in space.

So, for the 2019 Seahawks the question then is twofold. First off, obviously with Mike Davis off to the Chicago Bears and Penny presumably being asked to carry a heavier load, what can the team do to improve his performance when running between the tackle?. Beyond that, the obvious question is how can the team get the ball to Penny in space and allow him to use his speed and burst to make plays? It’s still nine weeks until we even begin to learn the answers to those questions, but based on 2018 those are items that will certainly be worth paying attention to this season.