Marshawn Lynch has played 58 regular season games for the Seahawks since being acquired from the Buffalo Bills in 2010. He has rushed for 4,456 yards and 40 touchdowns. He has triggered an earthquake and made countless opponents quake in their cleats. It did not all start out so sunny. His failed to crack 100 yards rushing in any of his first 13 regular season games as a Seahawk. He broke out for 135 yards in Dallas, and never went more than two games without breaking the 100-yard mark after that. Until this season, that is. Lynch is currently on a streak of four games without crossing the century mark, and that is the second time that has happened to him this year.
Running is at the core of Pete Carroll’s philosophy on how to approach football. He said as recently as yesterday that, “everything starts with the running game.” It is why the team acquired Lynch. It is why Jeremy Bates was asked to leave after one season of throwing 40-yard fades Ruvell Martin on 3rd-and-1. It is why Tom Cable is the assistant head coach. The running game is the metronome of Seahawks football. It keeps all other parts on rhythm. Through the last four games, other parts of the team have had to compensate for a rushing attack that has been less than stellar. Going 3-1 in those games quiets most critics, but Seahawks fans that want the greatest probability of a championship run, should pay close attention to what happens the running attack over the next two games.
In a year when Seattle’s passing attack has grown, their rush defense has improved, their pass defense and pass rush have improved, and even their special teams has gotten better, the core part of their team–the running game–has stepped back. The Seahawks averaged 161.2 yards rushing last year and 4.8 yards per carry. Over the final eight games of 2012, they averaged a gaudy 190.5 rushing yards/gm and 5.3 yards per carry. This year, the team is still #2 in the NFL in rushing yards, but are well off the standard they set a year ago. Despite averaging just one carry per game less than a year prior, the team is down 20 yards per game in rushing (141.0/gm) and a half-yard per carry (4.4). Lynch is down from a career-high 5.0 yards per carry last year to 4.2 (his career-average) this year.
Much of that can be attributed to the injury problems along the offensive line. Seattle has had four games all season when their starting offensive line has completed an entire 60 minutes. Not only did they lose three key lineman for long stretches, but Zach Miller missed a few games as well, and he is a key element to the run game.
Seattle, though, has had their starting line in place for three of the four games, and Max Unger left the San Francisco game late. That is part of what makes it puzzling/concerning that the team has compiled the worst four-game rushing total of the season during that stretch, averaging just 110 yards/game and 3.6 yards per carry.
The Seahawks face the NFL’s top run defense this weekend when the Cardinals come to town. Seattle piled up 135 yards and over four yards per carry when they traveled to Arizona earlier in the year. Only San Francisco has put up more rushing yards against the Cardinals this year, but were rather inefficient in doing so at less than four yards per carry. Seattle did that without their two starting tackles.
Does this mean Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini are the problems? No. These two were a part of Lynch’s fantastic success the past few years. More likely, this is a result of two things: continuity and opponent.
Running the ball effectively takes more coordination than most other parts of the offense. Lineman need to move in unison and establish a rhythm for how and when to work together. Keeping a line together across multiple seasons is crucial for any team that wants to compete year in and year out. Seattle has started so many line combinations this year, mostly out of necessity, that no group of five men can feel locked in. This is hopefully settling down.
Seattle also has faced a 49ers team that is among the best in the NFL at rush defense, a Giants team that ranks highly, and a Saints team that ranks as one of the best total defense in the league. But be careful how far you take this line of reasoning. Lynch had three straight games of 100+ yards rushing against the 49ers. The Seahawks run game fears no defense, and will defeat extra men in the box when operating correctly.
This Sunday is a perfect opportunity to get right on the ground. Playoff run defense will resemble what Seattle will see from Arizona. The yards will be hard to come by. Life will not get easier if San Francisco or Carolina comes to town in January. The Seahawks need to find their legs now. They need to close out the season with confidence in their ability to run the ball against any team and any scheme. They need to see this streak for Lynch end. Time to start gearing up, Seahawks.