Lost in all of the defensive dominance that propelled the Seattle Seahawks over the St. Louis Rams last Sunday was the substantial improvement in Seattle's running game in the second half against the Rams. After six weeks of struggling to move the football on the ground, the Seahawks were able to regularly pick up positive yards against a quality St. Louis defensive front.
This is an important development for the Seahawks. When the running game is working, their offense becomes much more efficient. Without the running game, the offense struggles to string together enough first downs to score points.
With a still-undertermined playoff opponent on the way to Seattle next week, the Seahawks must make sure that their rushing attack continues to play like it did in the second half against the Rams.
So exactly what changed to help Seattle's running game gain traction against St. Louis? The changes turned out to be much simpler than most might expect.
The biggest problem plaguing Seattle's running game has been the offensive linemen failing to block their assigned defender. This play is a perfect example:
The Seahawks run counter-left. The blocking goes right, and the initial motion by running back Marshawn Lynch and the fullback are to the right as well. The flow of the play then cuts back to the left.
When Lynch makes his cut, there appears to be a nice running lane to the left. Had the blockers been able to maintain their blocks, this would have been a successful running play.
Unfortunately, four different Seahawks lose their block on this play. By the time Lynch gets to the line of scrimmage, he is met by a host of defenders.
The Seahawks ran this same play later in the game, except they ran it to the right side.
The difference on this play was that the offensive linemen were able to execute their blocks. None of the blocked defenders were able to get into a position to make a play, and Lynch was able to pick up a nice gain.
This has been the single biggest problem for Seattle's running game this season. Lynch often has no running lanes to work with because one or more of his blockers have failed to block their assigned defender.
When the Seahawks offensive line is executing their blocks properly, Lynch and the running game are very effective.
One adjustment that the Seahawks made in the game against the Rams was changing which of the offensive linemen were used in double-teams on St. Louis' defensive tackles.
The Seahawks were having trouble at the point of attack and adjusted their blocking assignments to compensate. Here are a pair of very similar plays to illustrate this change.
The Seahawks use the I formation and run to the left. The play is designed to go through the B-gap between left tackle Russell Okung and left guard Paul McQuistan. Center Max Unger sets up to double-team the DT on the back side of the play and ensures that there is no backside pursuit along the line.
The problem is that McQuistan is driven backward by the other defensive tackle, and Lynch is forced to alter his path to the hole. This drastically lengthens the time it takes for Lynch to get to the line of scrimmage and gives the pursuing linebackers time to get into position to make a play.
Lynch is left with nowhere to go. He slows his feet, looks for a cutback lane that doesn't exist and then settles for crashing into an unblocked linebacker for a one-yard gain.
Later in the game, the Seahawks ran what was essentially the same play, but altered the blocking assignments. Instead of double-teaming the backside DT, they shifted the double-team to the defensive tackle at the point of the attack. This was made possible by the inclusion of a TE on the left side of the formation.
This adjustment ensured that Lynch would have a lane to run through. McQuistan had been unable to routinely maintain this block on his own, so the Seahawks provided him with some help.
The drawback to this alignment is that it makes it more difficult for one of the players that are a part of the double-team to release and get up onto a linebacker. The blocking adjustment worked, and the Seattle running game was able to pick up yards far more consistently.
Putting It All Together
Ultimately, the Seahawks didn't need to make drastic changes to finally get their running game going. Just a slight change in the blocking assignments combined with better execution by the offensive linemen led to considerable improvement in the team's ability to move the football on the ground.
Now the Seahawks have to demonstrate that this improvement is sustainable. Do that, and Seattle's will have a much better chance of hosting a parade in early February.