On Jan. 8, 2011, Marshawn Lynch put together a historic performance for the Seattle Seahawks against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Wild Card Round of the playoffs.
We all know about the Beastquake run that happened in Seattle's 41-36 win, when Lynch went through what seemed like the entire Saints defense and stiff-armed cornerback Tracy Porter into oblivion. The win—and the run—set the tone for the Pete Carroll era and assured that Lynch would never have to buy another drink in the Emerald City.
What Thomas Rawls did against the Lions last Saturday night wasn't as buzzy, and didn't feature one seismic play, but the second-year undrafted back from Central Michigan did set a franchise playoff record with 161 yards on 27 carries in Seattle's 26-6 Wild Card win.
For a team whose offensive line has been a disappointment all season, and whose running back rotation has been compromised by injuries and ineffectiveness (18 different players have carried the ball for the Seahawks this season, the most for one team since the 1970 Saints), Rawls' performance hearkened back to the days of premium Beastmode. Rawls gained 72 of his yards after contact per ESPN Stats & Info, the most in any playoff game since Lynch in those fabled days of yore.
|Thomas Rawls Wildcard NFL1000 Scores|
|NFL1000 Scouts (John Middlekauff)|
As a rookie during Lynch's final, injury-plagued season season of 2015, Rawls was a beacon of hope touted as the future of Seattle's rushing attack in 2016 and beyond. But his powerful running style brought its own injuries—Rawls played in just nine games in the regular season and busted the 100-yard mark just once. The Seahawks' leading rusher for 2016 was Christine Michael, who is currently on Green Bay's roster.
Thus, it was tough to expect the performance Rawls put up against Detroit. Unless you're Pete Carroll.
"That's the game we've been looking for," he said after the Lions game. "That's what we were looking for a couple weeks ago, we just haven't been able to get him enough opportunities. You can see what happened, as soon as he gets going, and he gets feeling it, and he looks exactly like the guy that we saw last year. He just had a hard time getting rolling, for a number of whatever reasons, it doesn't matter now. The cool thing is the way it fit together.
"I'm really fired up for the guys up front. They had a lot of garbage come their way, a lot of talk about them, and they're really pumped up about what they did today."
Not that the guys up front—Seattle's much-maligned offensive line—put up a game for the ages. There was some above-average straight-ahead blocking and some good coordination on pull-blocks, but the pass protection was still a real problem (Russell Wilson was sacked three times and hurried a ton from his blind side) and Rawls had to break through contact to make the most of his opportunities, much like Lynch did for years.
Fortunately for the Seahawks, he was up to the task.
This 14-yard run early in the first quarter, however, was a fine example of a well-blocked play. Center Justin Britt (68) hit defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson (91) with a seal block inside as left guard Mark Glowinski (63) went up to deal with linebacker DeAndre Levy (54) at the second level. Glowinski overshot his block, but it didn't matter, because fullback Marcel Reese (44) got his own seal block on linebacker Tahir Whitehead (59), and Rawls (34) blew right through the gap with excellent acceleration.
The Seahawks haven't had a lot of "This is how you draw it up" run plays this season, but on this occasion, they did.
This 12-yard run at the start of the second quarter is a good example of quality man-blocking and running back power. Left tackle George Fant (74) buries the blitzing Levy downfield as Glowinski pulls to the right, Britt takes out the nose guard, and right guard Germain Ifedi (76) and right tackle Garry Gilliam (79) deal with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (92).
Rawls has his choice of gaps, and he cuts back to the hole established by Britt as he takes out Khyri Thornton (99). Seattle's line has had issues with zone coordination and more complicated line stunts, but here they show that they can play pure smashmouth.
Later in the second quarter, Rawls busted off a 26-yard run and frustrated end Ezekiel Ansah (94), who had tight end Luke Willson (82) moving on to the second level with nobody else blocking him. You can imagine that Ansah's eyes were lighting up here, but Rawls put a ridiculous spin move on him and did a great job of keeping his balance and accelerating into the open field. The ability to reset balance and hit top speed in a hurry is something that Rawls has in common with prime Lynch.
Rawls' longest run of the day, this 32-yard masterpiece late in the third quarter, had elements of the Beastquake run, though nobody got stiff-armed to within an inch of his life. Here, Rawls takes advantage of a missed tackle by end Kerry Hyder (61), and he's off to the races. Watch how he puts strong safety Rafael Bush (31) in a brain-lock with great footwork before quarterback Russell Wilson comes through with a block on Bush.
"I had flashbacks to my rookie year when I got a nice little block for Marshawn," Wilson said after the game. "I saw Rawls, he cut back to the right. I wasn't wearing the knee brace, I think that gave me a couple tenths back. So I was able to try to let Rawls get a couple extra yards and he did a great job."
Rawls got a bit banged up on that play but was able to stay in and score his lone touchdown of the day, with 8:49 left in the game.
Here, you see what an effective and powerful running game can do to a defense when an offense decides to stretch coverage. Seattle has a bunch right formation, forcing the Lions to extend the defense, and Rawls saunters into the end zone with little opposition.
The question is: Can Rawls extend this excellence long enough to help define another Seahawks Super Bowl run, as Lynch did in the 2013 and 2014 seasons? Carroll's team is best when it's leading with the run, winning the time of possession battle and getting big plays in the passing game off play-action and scramble drills.
The Seahawks will travel to Atlanta this Saturday to face a Falcons defensive line that struggled all year. It seems like another good opportunity for offensive line coach Tom Cable to load up on the man-blocking schemes and get ready to play bully-ball.
The counter argument to that fait accompli is that Dan Quinn, the Falcons' head coach, was Seattle's defensive coordinator in both Super Bowl seasons, and the defensive line coach in 2009 and 2010. Quinn is known for his creativity in line schemes and preserving gap integrity, and he was Carroll's go-to guy when it came to making the most of Seattle's front four.
When the two teams met in Seattle in mid-October, Rawls was hurt, and Christine Michael scored two touchdowns in a 26-24 Seahawks win. If Rawls is able to replicate that kind of production and establish the ground game overall with his natural advantages (he's a more powerful and decisive runner than Michael, and a much better blocker), he might be on his way to a new chapter in Seattle's Beastmode story.
All quotes courtesy of the Seahawks' media department.
All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.