Without Improved OL Play, Marshawn Lynch Won't Shine in NFC Championship Game

Tyson LanglandNFC West Lead WriterJanuary 16, 2014

Dec 23, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch (24) carries the ball against the San Francisco 49ers and later scores on the same play during the 1st half at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Make no mistake about it, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has put together a career year. In 16 regular-season games, he amassed 1,257 yards rushing, averaged 4.2 yards a carry and scored 12 touchdowns. Furthermore, he garnered 752 yards after contact and forced 75 missed tackles.

According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), there was just one player (LeSean McCoy) who finished with a higher run rating. That’s outstanding when you factor in the Seahawks offensive line and how poorly they have played.

Tom Cable’s unit has played well in spurts, but more often than not they underachieved in 2013. Injuries hurt them early on in the season, and instability at the left guard position hampered them down the stretch. Let’s not forget the fact that left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger haven’t played particularly well either.

Both players took a step back after Pro Bowl seasons in 2012. Yes, Unger was selected to his second straight Pro Bowl this year, but it was an undeserving selection. PFF graded him out as the 21st-best center in the league and awarded him with a negative-1.7 run grade during the regular season.

Yet, his negative-1.7 run grade was a bright spot compared to some of the other offensive linemen on the team. Of the 10 offensive linemen who took at least one snap in 2013, only two of them finished with above-average run-blocking grades. The other eight finished with substandard run-blocking grades. Seventh-round pick Michael Bowie tallied a plus-6.9 rating in the run game, while Okung recorded a plus-2.2 rating.

Without a doubt, numbers of that nature won’t be good enough against the San Francisco 49ers' front seven. Fans and media members alike always talk about how well the Carolina Panthers' front seven played this year, yet the finest front seven resides in San Francisco. The Niners’ front seven has five Pro Bowl members and five All-Pro selections.

To make matters worse, the 49ers’ front seven has controlled the line of scrimmage and the Seahawks’ offensive line in two meetings this season. When these two teams met Week 2, it proved to be tough sledding for Lynch.

Even though “Beast Mode” missed the 100-yard plateau by two measly yards, it took him 28 rush attempts to get to 98 yards. His most successful runs were off the backsides of left guard James Carpenter and right guard J.R. Sweezy. When Lynch ran behind Carpenter, he averaged 6.5 yards per carry. And when he ran behind Sweezy, he averaged 4.3 yards per carry, per PFF.

Marshawn Lynch's rush direction chart from Seattle's Week 14 matchup, via Pro Football Focus

Lo and behold, things got even worse for Lynch in his second meeting with the 49ers. He accumulated fewer rushing yards, broke fewer tackles, scored fewer touchdowns and averaged fewer yards per play. Moreover, he didn’t register one explosive play (a run of 12 yards or more). At that point in the season, that was only the second time he hadn’t registered an explosive play in a game.

Nevertheless, when one takes the time to look at the rush direction chart from PFF, it’s easy to see why Lynch struggled. The majority of his positive runs came on the right side of the offensive line. When he ran directly behind right tackle Breno Giacomini, he averaged 6.8 yards a carry. When he didn’t run right behind Giacomini, he averaged 2.7 yards a carry.

With that being said, it’s safe to say Lynch won’t shine in the NFC Championship Game without improved offensive line play.

Sure, some would say the offensive line played better against the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs, but that’s simply not the case. Lynch fought for every yard he was able to muster up versus the Saints. To get to 140 yards rushing, the All-Pro tailback had to force 13 missed tackles and pick up 96 yards after contact.

To put those figures into perspective, Lynch hadn’t ever forced 13 missed tackles in a game before. His second-highest mark came in 2010. He forced 12 missed tackles in Seattle’s Wild Card contest against New Orleans.

So, who were the biggest culprits on the offensive line last Saturday? Unfortunately for the Seahawks, the majority of the hog mollies upfront faltered. Unger concluded the game with a negative-3.4 run-blocking grade, Bowie finished with a negative-2.4 run-blocking grade, Giacomini wound up with a negative-1.9 run-blocking grade and Sweezy settled in with a negative-1.4 run-blocking grade, via PFF.

Pretty awful, huh? Okung was the one player who finished the game on a positive note.

Obviously, there is any type of quick fix 17 games into the season, but there is one thing Cable and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell can do schematically. If the Seahawks’ coaching staff wants to set Lynch and the offensive line up for success, Bevell has to call more run plays out of one-back sets.

According to Ben Fennell of NFL Films, Lynch struggled to find run lanes in two-back sets. When he was on the field with fullbacks Michael Robinson and Derrick Coleman, versus the Saints, he garnered 25 yards rushing on nine attempts. In one-back sets, he tallied 115 yards rushing on 19 attempts and scored two touchdowns.

For those of you who have watched Lynch since his inception in Seattle, the numbers shouldn’t surprise you. Why? Because No. 24’s most valuable asset is his vision. And it’s a proven fact that finding open running lanes is much harder to do when you have to follow a fullback through a particular hole.

Apparently, I’m not the only who feels this way. In response to Fennell’s tweet, here’s what Danny Kelly of FieldGulls.com had to say: “Lynch is better in a one-back [system] because he has such great vision.”

Surely, Bevell knows this notion is true as well. Yet, one can only hope he makes the necessary adjustments on game day. When the Seahawks and 49ers squared off against each other in Week 2, Seattle deployed the fullback on 42 percent of its run plays. In Week 14, the ‘Hawks used a fullback 39 percent of the time in the run game.

If Seattle is smart and wants to advance to the Super Bowl, it should continuously cut the number of snaps the fullback plays. By letting Lynch freelance in the backfield, the Seahawks are giving him the opportunity to create plays on his own and mask some of the inefficiencies on the offensive line.

For a case in point, look at Lynch’s 31-yard touchdown run from the divisional round of the playoffs:

NFL Game Rewind

As you can see, the run comes out of a single-back look, and Lynch starts to create just before he gets to the line of scrimmage. After he recognized the porous blocking that was taking place upfront, he sucked the defenders in, got a key block from wide receiver Jermaine Kearse and correctly utilized the cutback lane.

In all, this was a textbook example of how strong his vision is.

However, Lynch will still be limited to what he can do against the 49ers. The good news is he won’t need a miracle. The only thing he needs is more consistent play from Bowie, Sweezy, Unger and Giacomini. Those four players don’t even have to dominate San Francisco’s front seven. They just have to play an average game and win at the point of attack 50 percent of the time.

If they can manage to make that happen, Lynch will do the rest, and the Seahawks will be headed to the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history.