If the Seattle Seahawks are able to beat the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, it will likely be in part because of their ability to run the football. The Seahawks are a run-first team on offense, but poor run blocking by the offensive line has meant that they haven't always been good at running the football this season.
Running back Marshawn Lynch averaged 4.2 yards per carry this season, but much of that number came from success early in the season. Seattle's running game faltered late in the season, and Lynch managed to break four yards per carry just once in the team's final six games.
However, the trend changed once the playoffs began. Lynch has averaged five yards per carry in each of the team's playoff games, and Seattle's running game has looked as strong as it has at any point this season.
It should also be noted that both of those games were against defenses that finished the season in the top five in total defense. This recent success has come against the toughest competition.
The game tape suggests that a good portion of the newfound improvement has come from one of the most unlikely of sources. Right guard J.R. Sweezy has picked a very opportune time to elevate his game.
Over the past few games, his play has gone from being a major liability to being a strength on Seattle's offensive line. Some of the things he has done in those games has been truly impressive.
Throughout the NFC Championship Game, Sweezy simply proved to be too much for San Francisco's Ray McDonald (No. 91) to handle. Sweezy was able to continuously push McDonald out of his spot, creating massive holes for Lynch to run through.
Here is just one example. Sweezy pushes McDonald five yards to the outside from where the pair lined up.
Take a look at just about any running play and you'll see similar results. On one play in particular, Sweezy took it to an entirely different level.
With quarterback Russell Wilson in the shotgun—with Lynch beside him—the Seahawks run a simple inside-zone play. Sweezy is able to push McDonald about 10 yards, taking him completely out of the play.
Not only that, but Sweezy was also able to push McDonald so far out of position, the pair ended up blocking linebacker NaVorro Bowman (No. 53) as well. Lynch was able to cut through that hole for a big gain.
Getting To The Second Level
Sweezy didn't physically dominate in that same way in the divisional-round game against the New Orleans Saints. He played well overall, but mixed in with some impressive plays were mistakes he didn't make against the 49ers.
However, Sweezy was still responsible for some of the team's most successful running plays. The game plan also asked Sweezy to get upfield more often and block linebackers. Here is a play demonstrating Sweezy's impact on the running game that week.
This play is designed to run directly behind Sweezy, but the Saints have the advantage in numbers on that side of the line. To make the play work, the Seahawks need center Max Unger to be able to block the defender who lines up over Sweezy.
At the snap, Sweezy explodes into the defensive tackle, who staggers backward a step. At this point, Sweezy can pass him off to Unger and move up to the second level.
Unger is able to pick up the block, and Sweezy steps up onto the linebacker. This give's Lynch a nice hole to run through, and he blasts through it for an 11-yard gain.
Even On Broken Plays
There was a play against the 49ers where everything for the offensive line went terribly wrong, and Sweezy and Lynch managed to turn it into a four-yard gain.
The Seahawks were running zone-stretch to the left. Right tackle Breno Giacomini was supposed to cut McDonald, with Sweezy stepping out to block linebacker Patrick Willis. Those two blocks are designed to eliminate the back-side pursuit and make sure Lynch has a cut-back lane.
The problem is that McDonald was able to get a good jump, and get himself engaged with Sweezy. This prevented Giacomini from cutting McDonald, since doing so would have resulted in a clipping penalty.
The play-side blocking is a mess, and there is no running lane for Lynch to work with. Luckily, Sweezy is able to shed McDonald, despite an obvious attempt at defensive holding, and get up on Willis. McDonald is left off balance and cannot make a play, despite no longer being blocked.
Lynch then cuts back and runs upfield directly behind Sweezy for a four-yard gain. On a play when nothing seemed to go right, Sweezy's determination and Lynch's vision created something positive for the Seahawks.
Putting It All Together
Sweezy is an incredibly athletic player for an offensive guard. His history as a defensive player shows up in his overall power at the point of attack and his ability to physically dominate opposing players.
The problem for Sweezy has always been his technique. He leans on defenders too much, doesn't use his hands well and doesn't always keep his hips aligned properly. He's only been an offensive lineman for two seasons, and it shows at times during games. Because of that, Sweezy struggled for most of the season.
However, Sweezy appears to have turned the corner late in the season. His last five games have been some of the best football of his young career, and he has been even better since the playoffs have begun.
If Sweezy continues to dominate like he has in the playoffs this year, it can only mean good things for the Seahawks in the Super Bowl against the Broncos.