Seattle's stretch of seven straight games with more than 150 yards rushing is a franchise record and among the best in NFL history.
Asked this week if he’d ever seen anything like the Seahawks’ recent stretch of rushing — 155 or more yards in seven straight games — offensive line coach Mike Solari shook his head.
“No,’’ said Solari, who first entered the NFL in 1987. “This has just been an outstanding performance by this offense.’’
One that, it turns out, has also been pretty historic.
Research by the Seahawks this week determined that Seattle’s streak of 150 yards or more rushing in seven straight games is the third-longest in the NFL in the last 40 years.
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The only two teams with longer streaks?
The 1985 Bears — regarded as one of the greatest teams in NFL history — with nine, and the 1984 Raiders, a team that won the Super Bowl the year before. Each had Hall of Fame running backs: Walter Payton for Chicago and Marcus Allen for the Raiders.
Seattle’s streak is tied with three other memorable teams — the 2004 Atlanta Falcons led by Michael Vick, the 1986 Bears, and the 1984 Rams in the year that Eric Dickerson set what remains the all-time single-season rushing record, with 2,105 yards.
Seattle doesn’t have a Hall of Fame running back leading the way (as yet, anyway).
But like that Atlanta team with Vick, it does have one of the best running quarterbacks in league history.
And no one with the Seahawks regards it as a coincidence that Seattle’s stretch of running games also coincides with when the team began using the zone read more, making even greater use of the vast skills of Russell Wilson, if often subtly.
The zone read (also sometimes called the read option) is a play in which the quarterback takes a shotgun snap and has the option of handing it off to a running back or keeping it himself.
As opposed to some other plays in which quarterbacks have options to keep it or hand off or even throw it, the zone read is specifically defined as a play when the offense intentionally leaves a defensive player unblocked at the end of the line of scrimmage.
The quarterback is tasked with reading what that defender does and then making a decision to keep it or hand off. If the defender crashes into the line, then Wilson keeps it and runs around the end. If the defender stays put to defend Wilson, then Wilson hands off to a running back generally heading between the tackles, where the Seahawks (if all goes well, anyway) have a blocking advantage.
It’s a play that was a staple of Seattle’s offense from 2012-15 when Seattle was among the top four rushing teams in the NFL each season.
But when Wilson was injured early in the 2016 season the Seahawks largely put it on mothballs. They used it more in 2017 but a combination of offensive line struggles and tailback injuries made it less effective than in years past.
And when this season began — with Seattle having changed offensive coordinators and line coaches — it was still largely kept far down the play call sheet.
According to Pro Football Focus, Seattle ran the zone read only 14 times for 34 yards in the first three games of the season when the Seahawks didn’t rush for more than 113 yards in any game and didn’t average better than 4.0 yards per carry in any game.
But the Seahawks began using the zone read heavily the following week at Arizona, when they rushed for 171 yards to start the streak of seven straight games with 155 or more, during which time Seattle has averaged at least 4.2 yards per carry in every game and 4.8 or more five times.
In the seven games beginning with the win at Arizona, Seattle has a combined 89 zone read rushes good for 499 yards, according to PFF — averages of 12.7 zone read attempts per game, good for 71.2 yards per game and 5.6 per attempt.
Those yards account for about 39 percent of all of Seattle’s rushing yards since week four (Seattle has 1,292 yards in that time).
The 89 zone read attempts the last seven games are almost equal the 97 Seattle had all of last season.
And Seattle’s 113 zone read attempts are almost double that of any other NFL team. According to PFF, Carolina (this week’s Seahawks’ opponent) is second with 67.
In that sense, the Seahawks are somewhat reviving an offense regarded as the new wave of the NFL in the early part of the decade — go back and read all the trend stories written during Wilson’s rookie year of 2012 when Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III were also running it regularly — but which has been regarded as slightly out of vogue in recent years (a September 2017 Sports Illustrated story was headlined “The Decline of the NFL’s Read-Option Offense”). The two leading offenses in the NFC — Rams and Saints — haven’t run one zone read all season, according to PFF. The Chiefs, with a mobile QB in Patrick Mahomes, run it some (38 attempts in 11 games) but it’s hardly the predominant feature of the offense.
Seattle’s new offensive brain trust this year, though, just seemed to need some time to get comfortable with it before making it a significant factor of the offense — almost 20 percent of the Seahawks’ 447 plays in the last seven games have been zone reads, via PFF’s numbers.
OC Brian Schottenheimer has never worked with a QB with the varied run-pass skillset of Wilson. And while Solari notes he spent some time with the 49ers and Kaepernick from 2011-14 he otherwise didn’t have a lot of experience with it.
“It’s a big factor,’’ Solari says of the zone read. “It adds another element to the attack. It’s a great asset to have, especially with someone like Russell who is so competent in doing it and very smart in executing it.’’
Part of Wilson being smart is knowing to keep it only when he’s not putting himself in undue harm’s way.
Wilson, in fact, has kept the ball just nine times on zone read attempts this season for 65 yards.
But the threat of Wilson keeping it, and the decisions he has made when to hand off (and also when to change into the zone read at the line of scrimmage when he sees the defense aligned a certain way) has opened up lots of opportunities for the tailbacks, the kind of impact on the success of the offense that can sometimes be overlooked in the emphasis on a few bad throws here or there.
Mike Davis, averaging 4.5 yards per attempt overall this season, has 201 yards on 35 zone read attempts, a 5.7 average. And rookie Rashaad Penny, averaging 4.8 per attempt, has 142 yards on 25 zone read runs, a 5.7 average. Chris Carson has 128 yards on 33 zone read attempts, a 3.9 average, compared to his usual 4.5.
As a team, Seattle’s 5.2 average on zone read runs is almost half-a-yard better than its overall average of 4.8.
“It just gives them another facet that they have to worry about defensively so it’s not just ‘we’re going to run the ball up inside between the tackles with our backs,’’’ Schottenheimer said. “It’s ‘hey, they’ve got to be ready for Russell to pull the ball on the edge.’”
An edge that has given the Seahawks what of late has been an historic advantage.