Without Beast Mode on the field, opposing defenses aren’t honoring the Hawks’ running game and are making it harder to throw the ball.
You didn’t need to dig to discover who the Seahawks wanted to be. It was never more obvious than when they talked about running back Marshawn Lynch.
“He’s basically the concrete of the offense,” safety Earl Thomas once said.
Running-backs coach Sherman Smith took it even further: “He’s the heart and soul of our team. I truly believe that.”
But Lynch retired after last season, and in his absence the Seahawks have grappled with a question they haven’t contemplated in a long time: What is their offensive identity?
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The tension between what the Seahawks were and what they now are was illustrated by cornerback Richard Sherman’s blowup on the sideline of Thursday night’s game. Sherman directed his anger at coach Pete Carroll after the Seahawks called a pass play from the 1-yard line.
Defensive coordinator Kris Richard, along with teammates Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor, tried to calm him. Sherman was blunt in explaining what set him off: He wanted the Seahawks to run the ball. The next morning, Carroll called Sherman into his office and the two talked for an hour.
But Sherman’s frustration hinted at something deeper: an identity concern that has shadowed the Seahawks all season.
“The identity crisis permeates both sides of the ball,” said Bucky Brooks, a former NFL player and scout, including for the Seahawks. “If you think about Seattle and what they’ve always prided themselves on, they prided themselves on being the bully on the block. Part of their confidence stemmed from that they felt like they could always play any team, anywhere and make it a street fight in a phone booth. They knew on defense they were going to be physical and knock you around, but then on offense, they always had the luxury of giving it to Marshawn and he was going to make defenses deal with him.
“And now they don’t have that ability so they’re frustrated. … And they also know that it makes them more vulnerable in the playoffs.”
Carroll made his thoughts on the Seahawks’ offensive identity clear in 2014.
“We close the loop on toughness by being a running team,” Carroll said. “The circle of toughness wouldn’t be there if we were throwing the ball.”
But without the fear of a rushing attack this season, teams have defended the Seahawks differently. No longer jamming players near the line, defenses are dropping more defenders in coverage, shrinking space for quarterback Russell Wilson and his receivers, and daring the Seahawks to beat them on the ground.
“You’re seeing Marshawn Lynch’s value play out right in front of us,” Brooks said.
Analysts, players and scouts agree it’s the Seahawks’ biggest issue. The Seahawks rank 19th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (101.9) and 17th in yards per carry (4.1). They haven’t ranked worse than 12th in either category since 2011 and have finished in the top four in rushing yards per game in each of the last four seasons.
The most obvious change is the absence of Lynch. Thomas Rawls averaged 5.6 yards per carry as Lynch’s replacement last year, and he’s is averaging 4 yards per carry since returning from injury this year. He runs with the attitude and the style the Seahawks demand. But defenses are now daring the Seahawks to beat them by running the ball instead of gearing up to stop it.
Lynch missed most of 2015 with injuries, averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and yet the Seahawks ranked third in rushing yards. But former NFL fullback Heath Evans counters that the Seahawks still had Lynch’s identity then.
“I’ve said for years the day Marshawn retires this team will change,” Evans said. “And it has. I still believe a person’s presence, even though he’s not on the field, has impact. I believe there’s a mindset and a mentality that Pete has instilled in that team that Marshawn was a big part of.
“You don’t replace the heartbeat of a team. I hate to say it because I’m a big Russell fan. But this wasn’t Russell’s team. This was Marshawn’s team. Period, the end.”
Wilson and the offense never looked better than in the second half of last season. Wilson passed at a historically efficient rate, but two things aided the offense: the success of Rawls and his line and the reputation the Seahawks had spent the last several years constructing.
Defenses have adjusted this season. The Seahawks rushed for 72 yards against the Rams, and that included a 26-yard gain by punter Jon Ryan. Rawls was repeatedly met by defenders deep in the backfield and admitted some frustration.
There are caveats to the Seahawks’ run-game struggles: Wilson was hampered by injuries, diminishing his threat and his production. And Rawls also missed a chunk of the season with injuries. But the Seahawks haven’t consistently run the ball, play after play, game after game, even with both healthy.
“That’s been the biggest issue on offense, period: The offensive line,” Brooks said. “They can’t run the ball. They’re not able to move people off the ball, so you’re seeing more defenders be able to create penetration.”
Brooks added: “Because they can’t balance it up by running the ball and dictating the terms to the defense, they’re now throwing in situations where the defense knows they’re throwing and they can load the coverages to take away available options. That’s why you’re seeing Russell run around and run around and make it where he’s trying to create plays on scrambles. But teams are willing to let him run around and cover up everybody until time runs out and he’s forced to throw the ball out of bounds.”
Brooks said he recently watched the film of the Seahawks’ 14-5 loss to Tampa Bay. What he saw was representative: teams dropping extra defenders in coverage, suffocating space in the passing game yet still getting pressure on Wilson.
“Tampa Bay pretty much only rushed four guys and dropped seven on every down,” Brooks said. “So they either played cover two and had two deep safeties and five underneath, or they played some form of cover three, where they had three deep and four underneath. And they basically focused on suffocating the passing game and dared the Seahawks to run the football. Without loading people in the box, you can’t create one-on-one situations on the outside, which would free up Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and the like.”
Put another way: It becomes a simple numbers game. The Seahawks used to hold the advantage because of Lynch. He drew defenders close to the line, leaving open space and favorable matchups in their wake.
“He creates tremendous value in the passing game because of play action,” former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said a couple years ago. “You have to respect him, so you have to sit in there and make sure he doesn’t have the ball. Linebackers have to hold a little longer inside, giving the receivers a little bit more cushion between the secondary and the intermediate level. He creates problems for the defense.”
Consider Kearse’s game-winning touchdown catch against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Lynch had slowly chewed away at the Packers, especially late in the game. In overtime, on first-and-10, the Packers had nine defenders within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, leaving Kearse and Seattle’s other receiver with one-on-one coverage on the outside.
“We had a run play, and you saw how many people were lined up in the box — the whole team minus me and the defender,” Kearse said. “That shows you the impact that he has on the game.”
Rawls and the offensive line cruised last season without Lynch. But that’s rarely been the case this season. The Seahawks are seeing more defenses deploy two deep safeties than at any point in the last several seasons.
“Here’s the problem: In the NFC, all the teams are kind of like Seattle,” Brooks said. “There aren’t many teams that can decide: ‘You know what we’re going to do? We’re just going to run the ball and run it at you and make it a physical game.’
“Now they’ve become much like all the other teams that they used to beat with that mentality. They’ve kind of morphed into a finesse team that has to lean on the passing game.”
Carroll has maintained the Seahawks’ commitment in the run game. He could always see it getting better on the horizon, just around the corner. It still might, and the Seahawks are still a dangerous threat to win the Super Bowl. But it’s also the biggest question they face down the stretch.
|Are the Seahawks still a running team? The numbers say no.|
|Year||Rushing yds per game||NFL rank|