When the 2020 Seahawks season ended, coach Pete Carroll said he had one primary goal for the offense in 2021: run the ball well enough to get opponents out of playing two-high safety schemes designed to take away big plays in the passing game.
It was Seattle’s inability to run well in the second half of 2020 that Carroll felt allowed opponents to go to the two-high looks — meaning, not having to bring a safety closer to the line to play the run — which curtailed Seattle’s passing game. QB Russell Wilson, who had thrown 28 touchdowns in the first eight games of 2020, threw just 12 in the final eight games.
“Frankly, I’d like to not play against two-deep looks all season long next year,” Carroll said last January. “We need to be able to knock those guys into the scheme that we want to throw at.”
Finally, as the 2021 season comes to a close, the Seahawks may have accomplished that goal thanks to a revived rushing attack led by resurgent running back Rashaad Penny and an offensive line that Carroll thinks has blocked well most of the season.
Asked this week why he thinks the offense has broken out the last few weeks — Seattle has scored 24 or more points in four of its past five games and 30 or more in three — receiver DK Metcalf said: “We’re seeing mainly a lot more one-high than we have in the past. The running game hasn’t really been there for us (in the past). We’ve seen a lot of two-high which is taking away the passing game. Knowing Rashaad Penny is able to do what he does and then you’ve got DeeJay Dallas and (Travis) Homer coming in there and backing him up, it really just puts a lot of stress on the defense to worry about the run and the pass. It just basically has opened us up a lot more for big pass plays.’’
The stats bear it out.
Seattle has averaged 170.8 rushing yards per game the past five games and 5.4 per carry. And that has indeed appeared to have the effect of forcing defenses to put another safety closer to the line.
According to TruMediaSports, Seattle faced two-high safety looks an average of 52% of plays from weeks 1 to 13. But Seattle faced two-high safety defenses just 25% against Houston and 38% against Detroit last week, games in which Seattle scored 33 and 51 points with Wilson throwing a combined six touchdown passes.
One caveat is that Houston and Detroit each rank among the bottom four teams in the NFL in yards allowed per pass, meaning they’ve given up lots of big pass plays against everyone.
Carroll, though, said he thinks the revival is real, saying he’s felt the line has blocked well all season but that Seattle’s injury issues in the backfield — Chris Carson playing only four games, Alex Collins battling an abdomen injury during most of his seven games as a starter, and Penny truly entering the mix just five games ago — made it hard for Seattle to fully take advantage.
“We’re averaging 170 yards or something in the game (rushing), for the last month or so,’’ Carroll said. “That’s the statement you make and people have to defend you. They’ve got to make their choice. Not everybody will. It’s pretty hard to just let teams run like that. Most teams will adjust and show some different looks to take care of it.”
And while Penny’s impact has been blazingly obvious as he has rushed for 135 yards or more in three of the past four games, Carroll said it has started up front.
“I like the way the guys (offensive line) play,’’ Carroll said. “And you can see, we can run the football. It’s obvious.”
Which makes it that much more interesting that Seattle has had to start three different sets of offensive linemen during the past five games due to injuries and COVID-19 absences, with two young players — Jake Curhan and Phil Haynes — making the first starts of their career and playing impressively.
Curhan, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Cal, has started the past four games at right tackle with Brandon Shell out with a shoulder injury, and will do so again Sunday at Arizona. Carroll called Curhan “a big surprise. (He) has really helped us.’’
Haynes, a fourth-round pick in 2019 out of Wake Forest who has battled a string of injuries, started at left guard against Detroit with Damien Lewis on the COVID-19 list, and with Lewis back, could start this week at right guard with Gabe Jackson dealing with a knee injury. Haynes had only played one offensive snap in the regular season until starting against Detroit (he also played in reserve in a playoff loss at Green Bay after the 2019 season).
“Phil played a really nice football game,’’ Carroll said. “He played physical, he was on point with his calls and his assignments, and he’s a tough guy.”
Both players could factor prominently into Seattle’s future on the offensive line, which is one of the more uncertain groups on the team.
Shell will be a free agent in March as will two other veteran starters — left tackle Duane Brown and center Ethan Pocic. Also a free agent is backup swing guard/tackle Jamarco Jones, as well as Kyle Fuller, who started the first seven games at center before Pocic took over and then started two other games at left guard. Haynes will also be a restricted free agent.
That means only four offensive linemen are under contract for next year — Jackson, Lewis, Curhan and Stone Forsythe, a sixth-round pick in 2021 who has played in just one game with 14 snaps this season.
Curhan, though, could be a legit option to take over the right tackle spot permanently, while Brown has said he’d like to return, and it would seem Seattle would also try to re-sign Pocic and Haynes, given their recent play.
Also a pending free agent is tight end Will Dissly, whose impact on the running game as a blocker (he has 251 run block snaps this year, according to Pro Football Focus) has also been vital.
“I like the way our guys have played,’’ Carroll said. “They’ve played strong. We always want to keep our sack numbers down, better than we had, this year, but other than that these guys have blocked the running game and worked really hard, been physical and tough. I like what we’ve got.’’