Everyone in Seattle remembers how 2019 ended. Trailing by as many as 18 points twice in the Divisional Game against Green Bay, the resilient Seahawks – minus both of their starting running backs – kept battling back. Now with 3:22 left in the game, they had closed to just 5 points (28-23).
But, facing a third-and-5 on their own 42, the Packers’ Preston Smith sprinted around TE Jacob Hollister (who had no help against one of the NFL’s most skilled pass rushers) and dropped QB Russell Wilson for the sack that brought an end to their season.
It was the fifth sack Seattle allowed during the game.
In spite of a fine 11-5 regular season – and the attendant playoff berth – Seattle was left with several elements to fix during the offseason. One of those elements was the struggling offensive line. Yes, there were the sacks. Wilson bit the turf 48 times during the regular season (only two quarterbacks went down more) and his 8.5% sack rate was twenty-ninth in the league.
The offensive line, though, was also surprisingly unhelpful in the running game. I say surprisingly, because Seattle finished as the NFL’s fourth most prolific running team. Inside the numbers, though, a different story emerges.
Here pro-football reference breaks out team rushing yardage by before and after contact for 2019. Last year’s running attack finished just twelfth in average yards before contact (2.3). In the playoff game against Green Bay, the struggles of the O-Line were even more evident. All runners except Wilson combined for a total of 9 yards before contact on 17 carries. In 12 carries Marshawn Lynch gained 26 yards on the ground – all of them after contact.
Not all of their offseason re-invention projects have panned out (note the continued defensive struggles), but six games into the 2020 season, the new-and-improved offensive line appears to be working. Sacks are still an issue. Wilson is still being sacked on 8.2% of his drop-backs. But the improvement is most notable in the running game.
Last Sunday night, Seattle’s quest for an undefeated season came to a disappointing end with a 37-34 overtime loss to Arizona (gamebook) (summary). Nonetheless they left their impression as they pummeled the Cardinals for 200 rushing yards on 30 carries.
In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that a goodly chunk of those yards came from the legs of Wilson himself. With 84 yards on 6 carries, Russell continues to be the juice in the Seattle running game. But even removing his yards, the rest of the ball carriers accounted for 116 yards on 24 carries – 4.8 yards per carry.
More to the point, these ball carriers – minus Wilson – averaged 3.5 yards before contact. Six games into the season, the Seahawks are averaging 3.7 yards per running play before contact – the second best total in the NFL (second to Arizona’s 4.1 average, by the way).
If you’ve not seen Seattle yet this year, the offensive line looks quite a bit different. The starting offensive line for that Green Bay game was Duane Brown (LT), Jamarco Jones (LG), Joey Hunt (C), D.J. Fluker (RG) and Germain Ifedi (RT). When the Seahawks took the field on Sunday, only the ever dependable Brown at left tackle was the same. Here are the new members of the Seattle offensive line.
Left Guard Jordan Simmons. Mike Iupati went into the season as the starter at this position, but a back injury has forced him to the sideline and opened an opportunity for Simmons. Jordan’s career has been pock-marked with injuries, but, when healthy Simmons is an athletic lineman, comfortable blocking up the field. While it is unclear how long Iupati will be shelved, Simmons is taking full advantage of this opportunity.
Center Ethan Pocic. A second round pick (from LSU) in 2017, Ethan made the All-Rookie team in 2017. Since then, he has mostly disappeared, re-surfacing in this year of offensive line re-invention. After an injury plagued 2019, Ethan has played every snap this year – and has yet to commit a penalty (hope I haven’t jinxed him).
Right Guard Damien Lewis and Right Tackle Brandon Shell. While the entire offensive line gave the Cardinals all they could handle, I was especially enthused by the play of the all-new right side of the line. Lewis is this year’s third-round pick out of LSU, Shell is a former fifth round pick (South Carolina) who was a three year starter for the Jets signed in free-agency. They both bring a presence and a much-needed physicality to the right side of the offensive line.
With 1:48 left in regulation, Lewis drove Angelo Blackson off the line, while Bell pushed Haason Reddick well wide of the play – it opened up a 7 yard off-tackle run for Carlos Hyde. In the middle of the second quarter, Hyde picked up 7 more yards up the middle when Lewis and Shell blew Trevon Coley out of the middle of the line. With 1:32 left in the first quarter, Chris Carson pushed through the middle for 7 yards as he tucked in behind Lewis and Shell as they swept the Arizona defense from before them.
Maybe my favorite – as far as attitude runs goes – was one of the very first. With 12:44 left in the first quarter, Carson hammered off right guard for 10 yards. Lewis and Shell began with a double-team block of Jordan Phillips. Shell then came off the double-team and ranged into the second level to block out Jordan Hicks. Greg Olsen pushed Reddick off the edge. Carson finished thing off running through the attempted tackle of De’Vondre Campbell.
Carson – who had injury issues last year – lasted only 15 plays in this one before leaving with a foot injury. He will miss an indeterminate amount of time. The injury hurts. Carson is their toughest back by a significant margin. According, again, to pro-football reference, Carson has 159 of Seattle’s 228 yards after contact, and 5 of the team’s seven broken tackles in the run game.
Another point that needs to be made about Seattle’s 200-yard rushing day. It was not at all a product of the fact that the two teams played almost 10 minutes of overtime. In that overtime period, Seattle ran 13 offensive plays – 12 passes and 1 run that lost 6 yards – which leads to another observation.
Last year, Seattle was one of football’s most dedicated run-first teams (I call these teams Neanderthals, and explain the reasoning here). One of the early graphics on the broadcast pointed out that last year no team threw less frequently on first and second downs than the Seahawks. This year, they lead all of football in throwing on first down. Seattle, thus, becomes the first team to have gone full Neanderthal and then decided it wasn’t for them.
The 2020 philosophy is to put the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands and let their dynamic quarterback make his magic happen. And that is all well and fine – but it caught up to them in the overtime period.
Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far to the other side? Even without Carson, the Seattle running game was still causing the Arizona defense problems. Perhaps, with a more balanced approach in overtime, that damaging interception never happens.
You can’t help but be impressed by the Cardinals. Down by 13 points twice, they kept fighting their way back. Just 5-10-1 last year, the Cards are growing up fast. But run defense could be something of an issue for them going forward. After last Sunday, they are now twenty-fifth in run defense – giving 131.1 yards per game and 4.7 yards per attempt. And watching Seattle roll them up, it didn’t seem to be a fluke.
Outside linebackers Reddick and Devon Kennard were not stout at all on the edges, and the interior linemen made no effort at all to occupy blockers. Hicks and Campbell had linemen on top of them all evening.
Unless they make some adjustments, the Cards may see more of this kind of thing going forward.