“Next man up.” It’s what we invariably hear any time an NFL starter at any position goes down with a significant injury for any period of time. It means to evoke the unwillingness to let a setback affect how a team prepares or performs. But it’s not a lie: A team cannot just go without a quarterback, tight end, running back or linebacker just because the starter got hurt. Someone has to step in and step up.
Such is the case with the Seattle Seahawks and the running back position. First, it was Marshawn Lynch, who hasn’t been fully healthy all year and is currently out—perhaps through the playoffs—after undergoing sports hernia surgery. Before the injury, Lynch had rushed 111 times for 417 yards and three touchdowns—a thoroughly not so Beast Mode-ly of a performance, but still a crucial one for the Seahawks’ run-heavy offense. And when Lynch became unavailable, the Seahawks turned to Thomas Rawls, who proved numerous times over the season that he’s more than capable of filling Lynch’s considerable shoes.
In 13 games and seven starts, Rawls rushed 147 times, for 830 yards and four touchdowns, and averaged 5.6 yards per rush. He had four games with at least 100 yards rushing, including his Week 11 performance against the San Francisco 49ers in which he had 209 rushing yards on his 30 carries, and a touchdown. But now the Seahawks are without him as well, with Rawls fracturing his ankle and tearing ligaments against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 14, ending his season.
In the week that followed, the Seahawks handled their running back position thusly: By releasing DuJuan Harris, just as he seemed primed to take over for Rawls; re-signing Christine Michael, their 2013 second-round draft pick, who had been released by Washington, Dallas and, yes, Seattle, over the course of the season; promoting Bryce Brown from the practice squad; confirming Fred Jackson would remain the third-down and change-of-pace back; and, finally, committing to the hot-hand approach via employing a multi-back committee.
Luckily for the Seahawks, they had the Cleveland Browns and their league-worst run defense to serve as the testing ground for such an approach. And, as it should against Cleveland (especially with the Browns on the road), Seattle passed the test. The Seahawks totaled 182 rushing yards on their collective 36 rushes in Week 15 and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. The run game did not yield any touchdowns, but this hasn’t been a run-touchdown heavy team this year, regardless. But it did prove that this committee can work for Seattle as they prepare for the postseason.
Michael was the hot hand in the game, getting 16 carries for 84 yards. Mobile quarterback Russell Wilson add another 46 yards on his five runs, while Bryce Brown had nine runs for 43 yards and Derrick Coleman contributed 10 yards on five carries. Jackson, meanwhile, only saw touches in the receiving game.
It’s one thing, though, for this approach to work against the woeful Browns. In the playoffs, where the Seahawks will be seeing either the Carolina Panthers or Arizona Cardinals should they get past, likely, Washington or Green Bay in the first round, it may not bear fruit as sweet. After all, this committee is neither as proven nor as tested as Lynch or Rawls and the level of competition will rise precipitously with the stakes.
But there’s also reason to believe that Seattle’s run game will be just fine, regardless of who gets the carries and when. It comes down to how the Seahawks’ offense is built.
This is a run-heavy team—only Carolina has run the ball more this year. And the offensive line, once a source of trouble in Seattle this year thanks to injury, is as healthy as it can be for the time of year. And it, too, is built for run-blocking. Football Outsiders ranks Seattle’s line as the fourth-best in run-blocking this year—second in short-yardage, fourth in percentage of runs stuffed (stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage), 10th in runs reaching the second level of the defense and 11th in rushing yards earned in the open field.
Behind a line like that, myriad running backs could find success. Add into the mix a run-capable quarterback like Wilson, who has rushed 92 times this year for 502 yards and one score, and defenses have a lot on their plate, just to stop the run.
But Seattle isn’t a one-trick pony. The passing offense has been sharp this year, especially as of late. Doug Baldwin is a touchdown scoring machine. Jermaine Kearse has been consistently moving the chains and Tyler Lockett’s speed means that there are often situations that feature numerous receivers on the field, along with Wilson and a running back. Anticipate pass and the Seahawks can choose to run, or vice versa. And when there needs to be defensive resources committed to keeping an eye on Wilson should he choose to take off, it’s easy to see how this offense can cause problems for defenses simply via the scheme. Seattle’s offense ranks fourth in DVOA by Football Outsiders for a reason.
The Seahawks’ potential playoff opponents, though, could test this scheme and the hot-hand committee of backs. Arizona’s defense ranks fourth in rushing yards per game allowed this year, at 86.7; Carolina’s ranks sixth, with 90.1 rushing yards allowed per game. Only Washington seems like a layup, with its 28th-ranked run defense giving up an average of 129.8 rushing yards per game. (Green Bay and Minnesota currently rank 22nd and 20th, respectively, with both giving up more than 112 yards per game on the ground.) But Arizona and Carolina, in particular, would be challenges for Seattle’s rushing offense even if Rawls and/or Lynch were healthy. As such, don’t expect the Seahawks to be particularly concerned with the intricacies of their opponents’ defenses and instead stick to their offensive guns and continue to do what has worked so well all year.
While there are some players upon which Seattle’s offense depends, Lynch begetting Rawls and Rawls begetting the current committee proves that the Seahawks’ run game should be just fine no matter who gets the call.