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Run Game Review: Rashaad Penny against the Chargers

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NFL: Preseason-Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday evening the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Los Angeles Chargers 23-15 in a game that saw many of the starters play the majority of the first half. One exception to that was running back Chris Carson, who was given three carries on the first drive before giving way to Rashaad Penny for the remainder of the first half.

Penny, of course, is the 2018 first round pick, who flashed at times last season, but who found tough sledding much of the year. Many of the big runs Penny broke over the course of the 2018 season were of the broken play variety, where he was able to use the athleticism, speed and burst that made him a first round pick to make something completely out of structure. Such as this play against the Green Bay Packers.

Or this insanity against the Minnesota Vikings.

And, on occasion, he did break a big run while staying within the structure of the play, such as on this beauty versus the Los Angeles Rams.

Or this toss play against the Arizona Cardinals.

That is just a handful of highlights from 2018, but the common thread in all of those highlights is that Penny got to the outside and once outside made things happen. As I’ve covered many, many times before, his performance when he made it outside and into space was far, far, far superior to his performance when he ran between the tackles. So far during the preseason, all 20 of his carries against the Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings and Chargers have come between the tackles, as the team appears to be focusing on the area where he most needs improvement. Add in that on most passing plays where he’s not a primary target he’s being asked to stay in and block, and it certainly seems to add to the idea that the Hawks coaching staff if taking advantage of the preseason as if it were four additional practices.

In any case, against Los Angeles Penny again had trouble finding much room to run, finishing the game with 22 yards on 8 attempts for an average of just 2.8 yards per carry, though one of those runs did go for a touchdown. For those who didn’t watch the game and haven’t gotten around to watching it, here are all eight of those rushing attempts.

The thing that jumps out the most in watching those clips is that effectively one of two things happens on every single play. If there is a well defined hole for Penny to run through, Penny proceeds forward through it and picks up a handful of yards. On the flip side, when there was not a well defined hole for him, he seems to hesitate and stutter step, giving defenders time to close on him. In short, he doesn’t demonstrate the same kind of patience and vision that Carson, and even C.J. Prosise, showed against the Chargers. This is what was seen on his tape in 2018, and even if we go back to the play against the Rams from above when he went for 38 yards he had a hole big enough to drive a beer truck through.

That’s not to criticize him for what he did on that play against the Rams. The offensive line did a phenomenal job opening up the hole and he ran right through it just like he was supposed to. The issue is that in the NFL while holes like that do on occasion open, it’s far more often the case that a back must pick and fight their way through something more resembling a tight crease than a freeway ramp.

So, while Penny’s performance during the preseason has been rough, none of his twenty carries have gone to the outside where he is at his best. In contrast, during the 2018 season, 72.9% of his carries went to the outside. We can use a binomial distribution to estimate that the odds of this, and they are extremely, extremely small.

Small enough, at least, to declare that it is extremely likely that the coaching staff is specifically calling inside runs for Penny in order to get him practice running between the tackles rather than the alternative, which is that despite their centuries of combined experience coaching players, they have no idea what they are doing. Now, while I may disagree with the preferred methods of the coaching staff, they aren’t idiots. They know what they are doing when it comes to football, and they know that the best way for Penny to improve is for him to practice the weak areas of his game, which is running between the tackles.

So, even though the starters aren’t expected to play on Thursday when the Hawks host the Oakland Raiders in the preseason finale, don’t be surprised if Penny gets extended action running the ball for much of the first half. Specifically, don’t be surprised if he gets another eight to ten carries, all of which are between the tackles.