In 2014, the Seahawks led the NFL in rushing with 172 yards a game. They finished the season with 2,762 yards on the ground -- 1,306 on the turbine legs of Marshawn Lynch -- while 849 of those came on Russell Wilson read-zone keepers, bootlegs, and scrambles. Wilson's 849 yards rushing was nothing to sniff at - and when you compare that to Oakland's rushing total of 1,240 yards all year, as a team, it adds a little perspective on how effective he was in picking up yardage that way.
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After two games this season, Seattle's rush yardage has plummeted to 121 per game (11th), and a big part of that has been a lack of effectiveness from Marshawn Lynch, who only has 114 yards in two games. Now, obviously, the inexperience of the offensive line and Seattle's two matchups (both of which they trailed for big portions of) have contributed to these numbers, but another major reason the Seahawks haven't gotten a ton of traction on offense is because Russell Wilson hasn't been keeping the ball on read-option plays. In Week 1, he did not keep the ball in any read option situation, and that prompted a little bit of what seemed to be frustration from Pete Carroll.
As Carroll told Brock and Salk on 710 ESPN Seattle the Monday following the Rams' loss, "[Russell] did alright. He was accurate with his throws. Unfortunately we didn't get him to run at all. They tried to take him out of the game, and now I'd ask him to challenge those guys a little bit more. He read everything right, but sometimes you just got to take the ball and make them have to tackle you, to get the accent for the other side of the running game. So that's something that will happen moreso."
Now, many of you may understand this comment implicitly but for those that don't, here's the full explanation of what's been going on.
Wilson's read is correct -- the positioning of the defensive end on the backside of the play (the direction he's looking, or "reading") is holding on the outside and not diving hard at Lynch immediately.
However, that defensive end, in this case, 278 pound, 30-year old William Hayes, is certainly "cheating" down the line and closer to the line of scrimmage than a normal technique would call for. In other words, Wilson -- 26 years old and purported to have run a 4.4 over the summer in his speed training -- should be able to simply beat this dude around the edge and get a big chunk of yardage even though he's supposedly forcing Wilson to read "handoff".
Here's an overhead view below. If Doug Baldwin gets a good block on that receiver on the top, this could be a 20-yard gain, in theory. I'm putting money on Wilson outrunning Hayes.
As you can see, the Rams have more or less sold out to stop the run with eight men tightly packed into the box, showing minimal -- token, really -- respect for Wilson's running ability on the outside.
I realize this may be a poor example because in this case Wilson may have just called a run in the huddle and eliminated the read altogether, but either way, the read still says to hand off. That said, look at who the first player to hit Lynch is.
The basic fundamental idea behind the read option is that Russell Wilson's threat to run is supposed to freeze that defensive end (because he has to respect Wilson's legs) and take him completely out of the play. I.e., he should not be making the tackle, or at least, not be the first guy to hit Lynch. The reason the Seahawks have so much success with the read option is because freezing that defensive end is like adding an additional blocker to the equation.
In this case, Hayes kinda misses anyway, and Lynch does get the first down, but we're talking process here, and if that's a true read option, Seattle's really not maximizing it properly. And, obviously, this was not the only example of this happening in the game. In fact, it happened the entire game, on almost every read option run.
So, as we heard talked about all last week, in order to stop that defensive end/outside linebacker from cheating so much, the Seahawks want Wilson to keep a few anyway -- ignoring the read that it's a handoff -- and force the defensive player to make a tackle. As we've seen over the years, this annoying little bugger Russell Wilson can be hard to catch.
So, while teams are catching up a little bit and now scheming to force Wilson into reading "handoff," that doesn't mean he still can't keep the ball here and there to keep defenses honest.
VS. THE PACKERS
Okay, so let's look at a few examples.
Early in the 2nd quarter, Russell Wilson handed off to Marshawn Lynch in a 2nd and 3 situation and as the outside linebacker Nick Perry squeezes down (still sort of giving Wilson the "handoff" read), Lynch essentially runs right into him.
2-3-GB 40 (8:34 2nd Q) (Shotgun) M.Lynch left guard to GB 37 for 3 yards (N.Palmer, A.Mulumba).
This is a pretty clear case where despite what might've looked like a "handoff" read, Wilson should've kept it.
Perry doesn't even show Wilson the respect of stepping past the line of scrimmage, as you can see below. Eight of ten Packer defenders are either in the box on the "playside" (right) of this formation, leaving only the corner and safety to keep track of Wilson on the backside. That leaves the 11th defender, Nick Perry, in no man's land, and Wilson should be able to beat him to the outside nine times out of ten, particularly if Perry is anticipating a handoff, as he's clearly doing here.
Instead, Wilson gives it, and Lynch picks up 3 yards. He does get the first down, but as Joseph Randle might say, that's "leaving a lot of meat on the bone," particularly on a 2nd down.
This is the next play:
1-10-GB 37 (7:47 2nd Q) (Shotgun) M.Lynch right end to GB 39 for -2 yards (B.Raji, C.Matthews).
Again, the Packers pretty much sell out for the handoff to Lynch. Nick Perry is on the edge, sorta, but cheating badly up toward the line of scrimmage (instead of coming into the backfield). So, he's sorta signaling "handoff" to Wilson again, but I think Wilson has the speed to beat even an athletic dude like Perry outside.
Here's the overhead view of what Wilson's passing up. That's a lot of green out there.
Carroll mentioned this after the game, saying that "people are loaded up" to stop the Lynch handoffs. "What really was necessary was that Russell needed to get going too on some of the stuff, which he did in the second half. He had a good run in the first half too. That's all mixed together, it's all part of the thread and we have to make sure that we're blending that, and it was much more apparent. I think Russell rushed for 70 yards or something. That's a good deal. That makes it harder zeroing in on Marshawn."
That's how Seattle led the league in rushing last year. It's not because Marshawn is good at breaking tackles. That's part of it, obviously, but the read option is the heart of their success. Wilson and Lynch depend on each other for that level of dominance.
Maybe Wilson wants to feed the Beast. Maybe there's a lingering thing going on with how the Super Bowl ended, and Wilson feels obligated or pressured to give Lynch his reps. Maybe he doesn't want to run quite as much this year. I don't know. Whatever the reason is, this read option shit doesn't work unless he keeps it often enough to keep the defense honest. The Seahawks simply cannot tolerate opposing defensive ends or outside linebackers thinking they can hang out on the line of scrimmage every time and it will force Wilson to hand it off.
The Seahawks' coaching staff knows this. In fact, after this play pointed out above went down, Pete Carroll can be seen mouthing "You, keep it! Keep!" to Wilson while the referees conferred over a J.R. Sweezy penalty.
WILSON STARTS KEEPING IT:
Okay, so even with that directive from Carroll, it would take into the 2nd half before Wilson would find a situation to start making the Packers pay for their strategy.
2-3-GB 20 (11:54 3rd Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson right end ran ob at GB 10 for 10 yards (H.Clinton-Dix).
Here's a similar situation as broken out above -- a 2nd and 3 -- where the Packers are more or less selling out to stop Lynch. Wilson finally keeps it, and what do you know, finds a lot of green after he easily beats Andy Mulumba around the edge.
Wilson would hit Fred Jackson for a touchdown three plays later.
Later that quarter, he got another chance at it.
2-5-SEA 25 (2:37 3rd Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson right end to SEA 32 for 7 yards (C.Hayward).
This time, it's Peppers cheating in toward Lynch, along with safety Morgan Burnett.
Wilson picks up seven simple yards and slides down untouched.
At this point in the game, I ever so astutely tweeted to "watch Lynch rip off a huge run here now" only to see Lynch fumble the handoff from Wilson on the next snap. However, in my defense, the reason any team uses this read option play is that it opens up things for both the running back and the quarterback. Let's rewind to the first quarter to drive this point home.
THE ULTIMATE GOAL
Here's a small microcosm for why Wilson needs to keep the ball more often on read option plays, even if he gets tackled for a loss or for a meagre gain.
2-10-SEA 47 (4:55 1st Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson left end to GB 43 for 10 yards (C.Matthews).
Here's the one play where Russell Wilson kept it in the first half. You can see Mike Neal somewhat idiotically screaming downfield straight toward Lynch right at the snap. This was a no-brainer for Russell, and he takes it and runs for a first down.
Following this nice pickup, the Seahawks run power, but get stuffed for no gain. On the very next play after that, Marshawn and Russell show why it helps to force a defensive end or outside linebacker to either a) widen out or b) come upfield to contain the quarterback keeper play. In other words, why it helps to keep them honest.
2-10-GB 43 (3:56 1st Q) (Shotgun) M.Lynch up the middle to GB 36 for 7 yards (N.Perry).
As Wilson and Lynch hit their mesh point, you can see Perry really respecting the Wilson keeper. He's widened out significantly compared to nearly every other play shown above, and this helps Lynch see an enormous run lane open up. Wilson's threat has almost taken Perry out of the play. Almost.
Perry dives and makes a shoestring tackle on Lynch. Keep in mind, it's actually super rare for a player like Lynch to be brought down like this -- and in fact, I think this play had more to do with Lynch's unsure footing in the loose turf than the ankle tackle.
Regardless, there's literally nothing but green in front of Lynch at this point (the Packers were in cover-0 here), and it's pretty much guaranteed this would have been a jailbreak touchdown had Nick Perry not saved the day.
Lynch is tripped up, though, and he knows how close he was to springing this, as he slams the ball down in frustration after hitting the turf.
It's a game of inches, but that's why you need to establish and continue to reinforce the threat of a quarterback run.
As Tom Cable said in the Seahawks' offseason town meeting, "Marshawn needs Russ like Russ needs Marshawn. It's like ham and eggs or peanut butter and jelly. They've got to have each other for this thing to work. Neither one of them is bigger or greater than the other. And they probably wouldn't be very good without the other one, to be quite honest with you."