Let’s face it, since leading the league in rushing in 2014, the Seattle Seahawks’ ground attack has been in a downward spiral. Incensed fans have looked high and low to find the blame. Was it the fault of Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevel? Injuries to the running back corps? The offensive line? Or as some claim, has Head Coach Pete Carroll completely lost his edge and the ability to lead a team?
We dissect the offense and take a hard look at the issues, hoping to find the answer to the biggest question of all: Will we see a resurgence of the Seattle Seahawks’ running game in 2018?
2017 was a disastrous year for Seattle’s ground attack. As a team, they totaled 409 carries for 1,629 rushing yards while averaging four yards per attempt. That was good enough for just the 23rd ranked rushing attack in the entire NFL. Hey, but you’re saying “there are 32 teams you know”. I hear you, but let’s dive deeper into last year’s stats. If you take away Russell Wilson’s numbers on the ground (and he had an incredible season running the ball), you’re left with 314 attempts for 1,043 yards by all six Seahawk running backs combined. That’s only a paltry 3.32 yards per carry. That average would be the lowest in the league. Throw in the fact that Wilson scored three of Seattle’s four total rushing touchdowns, and you can begin to see the problem.
Believe it or not, but 2017’s stats were actually an improvement over 2016’s numbers. That year the team averaged 3.9 yards per carry with 1,591 total rushing yards (25th in the NFL). Some of that was attributed to the slew of injuries which slowed down Wilson, limiting him to just 259 rushing yards at 3.6 yards per clip. The bright-side? The Seahawks at least scored 13 touchdowns on the ground in ’16, a major upgrade over last year’s numbers.
Total rushing yards aside, Seattle was also atrocious in goal-line situations. From 2016 through 2017, they had 21 carries at or inside their opponent’s two-yard line. They scored a total of six times on those carries. That’s a 29 percent conversion rate! To put it in perspective, the rest of the league had a success rate of over 52 percent during that same span. It wasn’t just at the goal-line where Seattle struggled in short-yardage. According to Pro Football Reference, if you take away Wilson’s runs, Seattle converted just nine of 19 third-down rush attempts with four or less yards to go for a first down.
It was even worse when you take a glance at the Seahawks rushing stats inside the red zone. On 34 carries inside their opponents’ 20, Seattle running backs combined for a grand total of 17 yards. Even throwing in Russell’s red zone carries, the ‘Hawks tallied only 46 yards on 43 attempts. Seattle could not gain any ground when it mattered most, and in fact, saw way too many carries result in lost yardage. Per PFF, 63 of the Seahawks’ 409 total rushes in 2017 resulted in negative yards.
So you see the issue. Putting it lightly, Seattle’s run game was not efficient in 2017.
Now, let’s see what’s changed for 2018 and if there is any hope on the horizon.
The Offensive Line:
Deservedly so, the offensive line has taken much of the blame for the Seahawks’ failure to effectively run the ball. The 2016 version of the o-line finished out the year as PFF’s lowest-graded run blocking unit in the league. George Fant, Seattle’s starting left tackle for most of that season, was also the lowest-graded tackle in the NFL.
Even with the free-agent addition of former first-round draft pick Luke Joeckel, the unit didn’t look much better through the early parts of 2017. Fortunately, a new arrival via trade did somewhat help to right the ship. On October 31, Seattle acquired Duane Brown from the Houston Texans in exchange for multiple draft picks. Brown would end up being the Seahawks best lineman, though he was graded as just the 27th best tackle in the league, earning a 77.9 grade from PFF. Seattle would wind up using 11 different starting combinations on the offensive line, and the group struggled to find any cohesion. Starting right tackle Germain Ifedi led the league in penalties with 16.
What’s changed for 2018:
On March 20th, 2018, the Seahawks’ signed the former 11th overall draft pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, D.J. Fluker. The 345-pound Fluker spent four seasons in San Diego and one year with the New York Giants. A mauling blocker who graded out as PFF’s 17th-ranked run blocking guard last season, Fluker will bring a much-needed physical presence to the right side of the line. Though he did miss time with an ankle injury for the Giants, his contribution to the team was very noticeable. New York averaged 24 more rushing yards per game that Fluker played in. The addition of D.J. will allow Ethan Pocic, a 2017 rookie who flashed at times, to move over to left guard.
Entering the 2018 preseason, Seattle’s starting offensive line will look like this: Duane Brown, Ethan Pocic, Justin Britt, D.J. Fluker and Germain Ifedi. Four of those five started multiple games together last year, something Head Coach Pete Carroll is excited about. Speaking at the annual NFL meetings in March, Pete spoke to the continuity of the group.
“This is the best we’ve been in some time,” Carroll explained. “A little quietly it’s emerging that it’s a very good group and it’s going to be one that we’re going to look forward to seeing some real progress made. It hasn’t been mentioned that much, but we feel like we have continuity. We haven’t said that in so many years, but we feel like we have some continuity on the offensive line, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Let’s not leave out the potential return of George Fant, who should be ready by the start of preseason after missing all of 2017 with a torn ACL. Fant did struggle as a left tackle in 2016, but the presence of Duane Brown allows George to flip to the right side, a much better fit.
Though he’s not technically an offensive lineman, 4th round draft pick Will Dissly should significantly help the line on running plays. The University of Washington alum was PFF’s 20th-ranked run blocking collegiate tight end in 2017. Nothing but good things have been said about the addition of the road-grading tight end.
Wanted to see the #Seahawks commit to the run in this draft. That's exactly what they're doing here. Will Dissly the definition of smart, tough and reliable. Blocking tight end. Here's Bob McGinn take: pic.twitter.com/L7fiXCpJf8
— Rob Staton (@robstaton) April 28, 2018
Huskies TE Will Dissly is a plug & play in multi-TE sets. Like having an extra OL. Won’t see many targets but he’ll make you tackle when he has the ball pic.twitter.com/yjhEmLR0ap
— Mark Dulgerian (@MarkDulgerianOS) February 15, 2018
At worst, this year’s edition of the offensive line should be viewed as average, which is a major step up from recent versions.
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The Running Backs:
Since the end of Marshawn Lynch’s career in Seattle, the Seahawks have trotted out Christine Michael, Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise, Chris Carson, Mike Davis, J.D. McKissic and Eddie Lacy at the running back spot. In 2017 Carson lasted just a month before a broken ankle ended his season. Journeyman Mike Davis led the running back corps with 240 yards on 68 carries. Rawls and Prosise missed significant time to injuries. Free-agent Eddie Lacy completely underwhelmed, averaging 2.6 yards per rush on 69 carries. J.D. McKissic, a former wide receiver, scored the only rushing touchdown out of the group. Before going down with the ankle injury, Carson was clearly the best of the bunch, gaining 208 yards on 49 carries. Prior to his injury, Chris looked Marshawn-esque in his ability to get yards after contact.
— PFF SEA Seahawks (@PFF_Seahawks) October 3, 2017
What’s changed for 2018:
Carson, now fully healed, should enter preseason as the starting back. J.D. McKissic and C.J. Prosise (if healthy) will continue to have third down roles and will see the occasional designed play. Mike Davis may find himself as the odd man out of the rotation, with newcomer Rashaad Penny immediately stepping into the number two job.
Penny, the 27th overall pick in the 2017 draft, will also challenge Carson for the starting job in camp. Playing at San Diego State University, Rashaad showed off a hard-nosed running style and the ability to be a three-down back. In four years with the Aztecs (two as a starter), Penny totaled 4,135 yards from scrimmage, 42 receptions and 44 offensive touchdowns. If the offensive line fails to improve, the rookie gives Seattle the best chance to have an improved running game. In his collegiate career, Penny was notorious for fighting through tackles, with over 1,200 career YAC (Yards After Contact). He was also number one in the nation at gaining yards after being hit at or behind the line of scrimmage.
— PFF (@PFF) March 19, 2018
That ability to make something out of nothing is exactly what Seattle needs in short-yardage and near the goal line. Chris Carson will have his hands full trying to hold off the rookie during camp. While we do expect Carson to have the job early on, Penny will absolutely get a lion’s share of the workload as the season wears on.
Another addition to the 2018 Seahawks that should get fans excited is the return of the fullback. After trying out converted tailback Tre Madden at fullback last year, Seattle has brought in three true blocking backs onto the preseason roster. Jalston Fowler, a veteran fullback with 42 games of experience with the Tennessee Titans is back after spending ’17 on the practice squad. Also in camp are undrafted free agents Marcus Martin and Khalid Hill, a 6’2″ 265-pound behemoth who scored 13 touchdowns on 42 career carries for the University of Michigan.
The lack of a true fullback really hurt the ‘Hawks last year. Not since Derrick Coleman in 2015 have the Seahawks had a true impact player at the position. This year’s roster now has plenty of depth at the position, and Seattle should be able to find the lead back they need from the bunch. Pete Carroll expressed excitement about the group to Curtis Crabtree of 950KJR.
“It has been a return to the dynamics that that gives you.” Carroll said. “We always want to be hard ball and run the thing as we like and that gives us a whole dimension that we’ve just been without. . . . This is a good competition right now, and I’m really happy that we have that kind of depth so that we can really check it out and we won’t have to just kind of spot play it and we can really go to it and lean on it during the camp time.”
Former Seattle offensive line coach Tom Cable was a true believer in the zone blocking concept. He coveted speed and athleticism from his players, often attempting to turn athletic defensive players into offensive lineman. The results were a mixed bag, but recently you could say his scheme was no longer effective. With the running game’s success decreasing steadily since 2014, Cable was ultimately fired on January 10th.
The offseason also saw long-time Seahawk offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell get fired. A favorite target of critics for the past seven years, Bevell got the boot after the offense struggled mightily with consistency in 2017.
What’s changed for 2018:
Replacing the departed Cable at the offensive line coach position is Mike Solari, formerly of the New York Giants. Solari brings with him a power run game and he desires big, powerful lineman who can knock down defenders, instead of smaller and faster players. He prefers to use man blocking concepts and wants Seattle to have a downhill style. Solari’s scheme seems to be perfectly tailored to players like D.J. Fluker and the 6’7″ Germain Ifedi.
Speaking to ESPN 710’s John Clayton, Duane Brown discussed the change in schemes from Cable to Solari; “Last year we were pretty much emphasized on zone scheme,” said Brown. “We still have zone concepts in our packages, but we also have power schemes and things that are more downhill. We have some man blocking, we have some double team things and gap schemes, we have zone schemes. I think we have a great assortment of runs and packages in this system. I think we’ll be able to throw defenses off balance.”
Stepping in for Darrell Bevell is former Jets’ and Rams’ Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. While this has been met with less enthusiasm than the Solari hiring by the fans, there is no doubt that Schottenheimer wants to run the ball. Speaking to the media at OTAs, Brian declared his intention to successfully run the ball.
“I think the biggest thing with the running game is it starts with the guys up front. That physical mindset of ‘Hey, we’re going to control the line of scrimmage.’” Schottenheimer said. “We’ve always been the best at places I’ve been when we were able to run the football when people knew we were going to run it. We could throw the football when people knew we were going to throw it. That just gives you that balance you need to be successful.”
Though Brian did guide the Jets to three top-ten rushing seasons, he also helmed six different seasons where his team was ranked 15th or worse. Despite the so-so track record, there is hope that he can turn Seattle into a consistent, albeit somewhat boring, offense. Schottenheimer brings with him a Pro-Style philosophy that relies heavily upon tight ends and fullbacks in the run game.
The return of Duane Brown, the addition of D.J. Fluker and the expected use of Will Dissly as an in-line blocker should greatly improve the o-line’s run-blocking. The inclusion of a true fullback, the return to health for Chris Carson and the drafting of the explosive Rashaad Penny will add some much-needed punch to the backfield. With Schottenheimer and Solari bringing a smash-mouth, power scheme to Seattle, there is little doubt that this version of the Seahawks has the potential to outperform last year’s group. It’s not outside the realm of possibility to expect a top-15 finish with double-digit touchdowns from someone other than Russell Wilson. If you’ve been waiting for the return to dominance by the Seahawk rushing attack, this season should not disappoint.
David Rogers covers the Seahawks for Full Press Coverage. Follow him on Twitter.