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Why do the Seahawks want to target RBs in the passing game?

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Seattle Seahawks v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

While it took what seemed like forever, the offseason finally gave way to training camp in late July, and with just eight days remaining until roster cuts on August 31, the preseason is nearly over. The time between now and then will be chocked full of news, with the Seattle Seahawks set to play two preseason games as well as go through the difficult process of paring down the roster to 53. However, in the meantime, fans of the Seahawks will get to continue to discuss the wrinkle that is expected in the Seattle offense, with the team stating it wants to increase how many targets go to the running backs this year.

This is not exactly a new development for the Seahawks, with Chris Carson having stated back in 2018 that he expected Brian Schottenheimer to increase the usage of the team’s running backs in the passing game. However, it does lead to the question of why the Hawks would make this change. In the nine seasons since Pete Carroll was hired by Seattle, no running back has finished higher than third on the team in receptions.

Specifically, looking at where the running back with the most receptions for Seattle finished on the team in terms of receptions, since 2010 it’s obvious that running backs have not been the preferred target for the team.

  • 2010: Justin Forsett, third
  • 2011: Marshawn Lynch, fifth
  • 2012: Marshawn Lynch, fifth
  • 2013: Marshawn Lynch, third
  • 2014: Marshawn Lynch, third
  • 2015: Fred Jackson, fifth
  • 2016: Christine Michael, sixth
  • 2017: J.D. McKissic, fifth
  • 2018: Mike Davis, third

So, what is it that is driving this change? What is it that has the potential to bring about a complete change in the deployment of running backs for the team? Quite simply, this is largely the result of the changes in the coaching staff made after the 2017 season combined with the current uncertainty in the wide receiver room.

Obviously, the team needs to find out how it will replace not only the 34 receptions Davis had in 2018, but also the 50 receptions Doug Baldwin put on the stat sheet as well. That’s 84 receptions to be doled out, and with Tyler Lockett already leading the team in receptions, there may not be a lot of room for the team to increase Lockett’s receptions if the Hawks plan on staying so run heavy. Thus, the question becomes who could take on those targets? Jaron Brown has all kinds of potential, but has never recorded more than 477 yards receiving in a season his ten years of playing football in college and the NFL. David Moore started off 2018 strong, but a late season dip in production left many once confident fans with questions.

And from there it’s all unproven youngsters the team has added.

So, it would seem only logical that the team would look to increase the targets to players who possess on field NFL experience in both Carson and Rashaad Penny. Add in a solid distribution of targets to tight ends, and all of a sudden the problem is solved.

And, all of a sudden, the influence of the two big coaching hires from 2018, Mike Solari and Brian Schottenheimer, come into focus. It we look back fifteen years, it takes Seahawks fans to the time where Mike Holmgren was truly getting Seattle to be the team he wanted. In the second season after realignment Holmgren’s Hawks had made the postseason for just the second time in fifteen seasons and were on the brink of entering what at that time was the period of greatest success in franchise history that would see five straight playoff berths and an appearance in Super Bowl XL.

That said, all that is a tangent, as the key to today’s story is realignment. When the league added the Houston Texans in expansion in 2002 it put the league at 32 teams and led to the realignment that saw a shift from six* five team divisions to eight four team divisions. With that, the AFC West needed to shed a team to drop from five teams to four, and as the youngest team in the division, the Hawks got the boot. That move put Seattle in the NFC West with the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams, and brought some semblance of geographic reality to a division that had previously included the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers.

However, it’s the AFC West that was left we are focusing on here. Specifically, while the Seahawks lost their traditional rivalries with their closest geographic competitors in the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos, they also lost their yearly matchups against the then San Diego, but now Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. That is interesting to note for the simple fact that at that time Schottenheimer and Solari were coaching for the Chargers and Chiefs, respectively. And it’s not just noteworthy that they were coaching, they were on the offensive staffs of teams that were throwing the ball to running backs a lot.

In Kansas City Solari was the offensive line coach for a team that had been throwing to running backs routinely since the early 1990s. Specifically, early during Solari’s time as the offensive line coach of the Chiefs, fullback Kimble Anders was a dangerous receiving threat out of the backfield. He was second on the Chiefs in receptions in 1997 and led the team in catches in 1998. That trend changed in the two seasons Gunther Cunningham was head coach in 1999 and 2000, but was right back on track once Dick Vermeil was hired in 2001.

Starting in 2001, the Chiefs were again back to throwing extensively to the running backs, and each year had a running back at or near the top of the team in receptions. Specifically, by season it played out like this:

  • 2001: Priest Holmes, second
  • 2002: Priest Holmes, first
  • 2003: Priest Holmes, first
  • 2004: Three different RBs (Holmes, Larry Johnson and Derrick Blaylock) started due to injury and combined for 66 catches, which would have been second on the team for a single player
  • 2005: Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes split the starts (again due to injuries) and combined for 54 receptions which would have been third on the team.

At the same time the Chiefs were busy slinging the ball to running backs, former Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer was out in San Diego with his son as the quarterbacks coach. The Chargers were out in California running their own version of Air Coryell under Cam Cameron, who was more than happy to utilize the receiving skills of a young LaDainian Tomlinson. During the time that the younger Schottenheimer spent on staff with San Diego, Tomlinson never finished lower than fourth on the team in receptions. Breaking it down by season, it looked like this:

2002: LaDainian Tomlinson, first

2003: LaDainian Tomlinson, first

2004: LaDainian Tomlinson, second

2005: LaDainian Tomlinson, fourth

In fact, Tomlinson was used so heavily as a receiving target for the Chargers in 2003 that he hit 100 catches, which was 33.7% of all of the 297 receptions by San Diego players that season. The players who finished second and third on the team that season, wide receiver David Boston (70 catches) and rookie tight end Antonio Gates (24 catches) didn’t even combine for as many catches as Tomlinson had on the year.

In short, it’s no surprise that the Seahawks might be poised to make a drastic change in how often they target their running backs during the 2018 season. They are faced with needing to replace significant receiving production of both Baldwin and Davis, and there’s not a lot of experience currently residing in the receivers room. Thus, it makes perfect sense for the coaching staff seems to draw on their past experience in distributing targets elsewhere, and both Solari and Schotty have significant experience in offenses that have thrown the ball to running backs early and often.

Now it’s just a matter of seeing exactly how they deploy their strategy for the Seahawks in 2019.