For the last three weeks, the running game for the Seattle Seahawks has been stuck in neutral. With a spot in the the playoffs secured, the Seahawks must now figure out how to get the rushing attack back into gear.
Running back Marshawn Lynch has averaged just 3.2 yards per attempt over the last three weeks, forcing the Seahawks to rely far too heavily on the passing game. Last Sunday in San Francisco, the lack of production on the ground finally caught up with them. Without the ground game working, the offense sputtered.
After examining the tape from those three games, there are some clear reasons for Seattle's stalled rushing offense. Luckily, there are some fairly clear paths that can be taken to fix those problems.
Failed Blocking Assignments
The most common problem plaguing the Seattle running game right now is offensive linemen failing to block their assigned defender. This is especially problematic when the missed block is right at the point of attack.
Here is an example from last Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers. The player to watch on this play is right guard J.R. Sweezy.
The Seahawks line up in the I-formation and run a simple inside-zone play through the A-gap on the right side.
Fairly early in the play, it is easy to see Sweezy isn't going to be able to maintain his block long enough for this play to be successful. Sweezy has moved too far to his right, and 49ers defensive end Glenn Dorsey is already starting to move back into the hole that Lynch is supposed to run through.
This play is relatively well-blocked by the other offensive linemen and by fullback Michael Robinson. If Dorsey had not been able to make the play at this point, Lynch would have been able to cut back and pick up a nice gain on the play.
Unfortunately, this is a rather common problem for the Seahawks. Sweezy was the culprit on this play, but he is far from the only player making these types of mistakes. Each of Seattle's linemen have been responsible for multiple similar mistakes over the last three games. It only takes one missed block like this to ruin a running play.
As the two starting offensive tackles continue to work their way back, some of these problems should begin to go away. The zone-blocking scheme used by the Seahawks requires a high level of precision, and both tackles were out for long enough that it will require some time before they are playing at their best. Just a few less missed blocks per game will go a long way to helping the rushing attack get back on track.
Disappearing Running Lanes
Another common theme throughout the last three games has been running lanes that close before Lynch can get through them. Here is a play that demonstrates this problem:
There is a clear running lane for Lynch to run through, but by the time he reached it, the defense had closed it off. Other examples of this problem can be found through all three games.
Again, the blocking created an effective running lane, and again it disappeared before Lynch could get through it.
Lynch and the blocking aren't in sync. Whether he is late getting to the hole or the running lane is opening up too soon doesn't matter. The overall problem here is timing. It should also be noted that almost every time Seattle has this particular problem, they are lined up either in the I-formation or with Lynch seven or more yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Fixing this problem isn't particularly difficult. The Seahawks need to bring Lynch up closer to the line of scrimmage to shorten the time between the start of the play and when he is getting through the running lane.
This isn't a foreign concept to the Seahawks either. Their playbook contains many quick-hitting running plays for Lynch. The most obvious of these are the ones in which Lynch lines up next to quarterback Russell Wilson in the shotgun, like this play from Week 11 that went for 23 yards.
Another problem, and one that is related to the slow-developing plays listed above, is plays being stopped by backside pursuit. This means a defensive end or linebacker has been able to chase down Lynch from behind the play before he can pick up any yards.
The obvious fix would be to either get Lynch outside the tackle faster or to use a tight end or receiver to slow down the backside pursuit. If Lynch can get through the hole just a fraction of a second quicker, the backside pursuit won't be able to ruin those running plays.
The Seahawks could also simply decrease the number of times that slow-developing outside runs are called. Lynch is a power back, and is at his best when he's running between the tackles. The outside runs are important to keep the linebackers honest, but there's no need for them to be such a large part of the offense.
Putting It All Together
The Seahawks need to simplify their running game and get back to doing what they do best. The play-calling needs to include more quick-hitting runs between the tackles and less slow-developing runs, especially those to the outside. Simplifying the running game should also help the offensive line by leading to less blocking mistakes.
There likely is no panacea for Seattle's ailing rushing attack. There isn't just one big flaw that can be fixed that will make everything better, and that is probably a good thing. Instead, the Seahawks need to just see a small improvement in a few different areas, and the running game will fall back into place.
One thing is certain, though, the clock is ticking. The Seahawks have just three games remaining to figure this out and get Lynch rolling like he was earlier in the season. Lynch is the engine that makes Seattle's offense work, and it is going to need him in the playoffs.