Seattle Seahawks: Deciphering the Changes at Offensive Skill Positions for 2011

Charlie TodaroAnalyst IIIJuly 13, 2011

Seattle Seahawks: Deciphering the Changes at Offensive Skill Positions for 2011

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    The offense is undergoing a substantial transition into 2011 with assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tom Cable and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell now jointly running the show. With the input of Pete Carroll, the Seahawks are focused on creating a power running game and a dynamic, ball-control offense.

    To this point, the potential changes on the offensive line and at quarterback have garnered the majority of outside attention; less focus has been pointed towards the offensive “skill positions”—running back, fullback, H-back, tight end and receiver (this article will not be including the quarterback). This group is one of the team's youngest and most competitive groups.

    The changes start with Cable’s attitude, experience and expertise as a run game coordinator and head coach. Bevell is more even keeled and balanced, experienced as a former college quarterback at Wisconsin and a career offensive position coach/coordinator.

    Given both the changes to the coaching staff and the group Seattle has headed into camp at these positions, with free agency to come, let's focus on four major questions surrounding the skill positions heading into the 2011 season.  

1. Can a Young, Diverse Group of Receivers Take a Collective Step Forward?

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    If Seattle doesn’t bring back veteran Brandon Stokley—arguably their most efficient and definitely the most experienced receiver on the roster in 2010—they will have a young, talented, unproven receiving corps that will need to step up.

    Every player has an asterisk next to their name, a question mark that will loom heading into 2011. Let’s take a quick look at the presumed main candidates for the receiving corps, as it currently stands:

    Ben Obomanu

    Obamanu is done paying the dues of being a late-round pick and a special team’s star. The question now: Can he prove to be a solid all-around receiver? The team likes his physicality as a blocker, his work ethic and toughness. He registered a 41” vertical at his pro day; some of that athleticism was shown last season. He must prove he is durable and consistent enough to be a starting receiver.

    Mike Williams

    His renewed dedication to his calling as an NFL player over the past year has been a comeback story to watch. During this offseason, he is continuing to show he is indeed committed to his duty as player. But, he still needs to prove he can shake the early-season drops and remain healthy.

    If those two can stay on the field and give the Seahawks consistent production—say, 130 catches for 1,600-plus yards, up from 95 catches for 1,245 yards—the secondary members of this receiving corps will be able to grow in more complementary roles.

    Golden Tate

    Tate will have the opportunity to play a large role for the Seahawks, including as a primary slot receiver. He is talented and tough with the ball, but raw as a receiver. He could become a versatile weapon used in a variety of roles, but he must make strides in his second season.

    Kris Durham

    Durham was drafted because of his strong hands, straight-line speed, “wiggle” in his route-running ability and size at 6’5”. He battled injuries in college and didn’t have much production until averaging 20-plus yards per catch his senior year, but his ball skills as a downfield receiver—who can lineup inside and outside—complement Williams’ possession receiver skill set. He’ll be given a chance to prove he should be active on Sundays.

1. (Part 2) Injured Veterans To Compete for Those Secondary Roles?

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    The final two guys I’d consider wild cards even though they are both more experienced than Tate or Durham, as injuries are a factor for both; one is a proven Seahawk, the other is a proven Husky. 

    Isaiah Stanback

    Stanback is a former University of Washington quarterback who is determined to make noise as a Seahawks receiver. John Schneider’s praise of Stanback's ball skills, leadership and work ethic this offseason were somewhat unexpected, and his non-contact ACL injury during 2010 camp is concerning. However, he’s been rehabbing like mad and the Seahawks re-signed him before the lockout. He is a sleeper to watch within the organization.

    Deon Butler

    Then there is Butler, who is rehabbing from the same compound leg fracture injury Leon Washington recovered from in 2010, suffered in December at San Francisco. He has great downfield speed, but has been inconsistent on the field. If Durham proves to be a legitimate downfield and/or red-zone threat, does Butler’s future with the club become hazy?

    If the majority of these players prove worthy of being included in the weekly game plan, good health and adequate quarterback play could facilitate the growth of a diverse and potentially explosive corps; there’s also the chance they prove to be one or two years away from being a productive, noteworthy group. 

2010 Running Game Wrinkle: Percy Harvin’s Role as a Roamer and Runner

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    In figuring what we could see as a result of Bevell and Cable’s influence in 2011, I’d like to highlight one facet of each team’s rushing attack from 2010. First, we’ll start with the usage of Percy Harvin.

    In his two years with the Vikings, Harvin had 33 rushes for 242 yards and one touchdown; in 2010, Harvin had two or more carries in seven of the 14 games he played.

    Harvin was used as a receiver all over field, possessing the ability to line up inside and outside, but his versatility is what made him a factor in the running game. They would use him in a variety of ways:

    1) Keep him in the slot until the snap, then run an end-around, at times remaining very shallow in is route and strong in turning up field after the handoff.

    2) Motion him from the slot into the backfield as a running back, sometimes in the shotgun, and take the ball after the snap on a sweep or counter, depending on the path of the lead blocker

    3) Motion him across the formation, often lining up in varying positions around the line of scrimmage—either in the slot or off the hip of a tight end—only to come back across on an end-around or follow his lead blocker down the line on a pulling running play.

    4) Line him up in the slot of a trips set, the ball immediately thrown after the snap to Harvin; the receivers must block on the outside and Harvin’s job is to win the one-on-one matchup and/or break tackles.

    5) They didn’t hesitate to use him as a standard running back in a single-back set, either in initial alignment or through motion.

    One play of note was against Green Bay in Week 11. Harvin motioned out of a four-man bunch set to the left, showing screen, into a single-back formation; leading to a first-down run on the single receiver side of the formation, the play was called on a 2nd-and-14 out of the two-minute warning—you could see the smile on Brett Favre's face as he walked to the line against three-down lineman, with the linebackers off the line and defensive backs deep in coverage.

    The point: On all downs, distances and from a variety of formations, ranging from five receivers to two-plus tight end sets, Harvin was used in the running game.

    As a constant factor, the defense had to account for his movement; when he starts at wide receiver, the defense diagnoses him as that. But when he motions in, it forces the defense to adjust, sometimes incorrectly.

    Harvin averaged 5.9 yards per carry with one touchdown—he had one overturned—and was not relied upon as a big-play threat as a runner; instead, his combination of acceleration and toughness was useful as a change-of-pace back. 

2. Are the Seahawks Set at Tight End?

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    The tight ends were inconsistent in 2010, partly due to injuries on the offense around them. John Carlson had a down year, among the bottom 10 in drops at tight end for those receiving 25-plus catchable passes. His two touchdowns versus New Orleans was his high point. 

    He also had to be used as a blocker in fullback Michael Robinson’s five-game absence—a free agent into 2011, his return up in the air—and was more consistent in an H-back-type role than in a traditional tight end blocking role.

    The team has Anthony McCoy coming off IR, a potentially strong blocker with soft hands, also a former Trojan; another former Trojan, Dominique Byrd has struggled to stay on an NFL roster, but is talented enough to push Carlson if Pete Carroll can get the best out of him.

    Seattle must find some answers, as blocking will be important for the tight ends, especially in the running game. Bevell used multiple tight end sets in Minnesota as part of a successful running attack, with a bruising blocking tight end in Jim Kleinsasser and a mobile blocker in tight end Jeff Dugan.

    Furthermore, Bevell and Cable both had talented No. 1 tight ends. Can anyone step up, namely Carlson, to be the consistent No. 1?

    What about Cameron Morrah, who came into the league talented but raw as a receiver, and notably inexperienced in his run blocking? Can he continue to progress, as he showed towards the end of 2010, and fulfill the new staff’s demands? Can McCoy stay healthy? Does Seattle address the position in free agency with a veteran? A talented group, but a lot of uncertainty exists. 

2. (Part 2) What About at Full Back/H-Back?

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    The first question here is can 2010 seventh-round pick Jameson Konz, now recovered from a hip injury that landed him on IR last season, make an impact at tight end, H-Back or fullback? He’s an athletic freak who is reportedly adding a little bulk to his 235-pound frame this offseason.

    Michael Robinson was adequate as a run blocker in 2010, but his receiving woes were a determent during crucial times; he also missed five games due to injury. Seattle is unsettled at fullback.

    Does Robinson re-sign—I don’t believe he is a “must” re-sign—or does free agency bring a new veteran? Or can Konz actually become a factor as a receiver and blocker?

    In Oakland, Cable converted former UW receiver Marcel Reece into a dynamic and improving fullback/H-back, a factor in the screen game and he provided versatility as a receiver, a role I highlighted before the draft as one I hoped to see in Seattle in 2011.

    Throw in the wrinkle that Seattle signed tight end Caz Piurowski to become a tackle--not surprising given Oakland's  NFL leading usage of six offensive linemen sets in 2010, producing five plays of 40 yards or more—and it looks like some innovative changes may be coming to a stagnant Seahawks running attack.

    But with the lockout and inability to see these players in their new roles, the pressing question is does Seattle have a talented group that fits this new scheme? Or is turnover to a presumably up-and-coming group needed?

    Seattle will aim to create a group of tight ends and blocking backs that is well rounded and consistent in the passing game, and tough and nasty in the running game—a bridge between an explosive passing attack and dynamic running game. 

    This group is under pressure to perform in 2011; otherwise, the Seahawks offense may struggle in its first year under new coaching.  

2010 Running Game Wrinkle: Jacoby Ford Truckin’ to Big Plays Behind Six Linemen

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    Albeit to a lesser extent than the Vikings with Harvin, the Raiders running game featured a receiver-based rushing package with Jacoby Ford, often from the slot; the major variation was the use of six linemen instead of two tight ends.

    One notable difference in effectiveness is Ford averaged an explosive 15.5 yards per carry, though he had 10 carries to Harvin’s 18.

    Against Denver in Week 7 Ford had a 23-yard run on a reverse—coming off the snap from the left slot—out of a six lineman set, with Marcel Reece throwing a key lead block to seal the edge and the first down.

    In Week 12 versus Miami, Oakland used a six linemen set for an end-around that featured Zach Miller as the lead blocker, Darren McFadden the single back; this run sent Ford in motion to the left before the snap and resulted in a 13-yard gain.

    One of the 40-plus plays with six or more linemen was a Jacoby Ford 71-yard reverse for a touchdown in the second meeting with Denver Week 15; this out of the same six linemen set, Ford again starting from the left slot and Darren McFadden receiving the fake handoff, center Samson Satele pulling out in front.

    Week 17 brought variation; the Raiders motioned Ford to the right and paired his post-snap movement back left on the end-around with a pulling Samson Satele, but this time with the decoy of Reece leading the way for McFadden on the right side. The run was for a gain of 12.

    The Raiders had one of the league’s top-ranked rushing attacks in multiple categories; the use of Ford’s speed in the running game, with the extra blocking on the field, proved to be a factor in their elite ranking. 

3. What Role Do Golden Tate and Co. Play in the Running Game?

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    As we’ve seen, both coordinators are creative in using their receivers as runners. So hence the question: Will we see this in Seattle in 2011?

    I’d be disappointed if something similar to these wrinkles weren’t worked in over the course of the season, and into year two, if they aren’t already in place to start the season. But as noted earlier, the coaches will need to be confident they have the right personnel on the roster and more importantly, the lockout could temporarily hinder the implementation of the offense.

    Why Golden Tate as the main candidate for this receiver/running back-type of role? First, he was a running back in high school; second, in highlighting Tate a few weeks ago I raised the possibility he could indeed give Seattle near Harvin-like production, given his history as a rusher at Notre Dame and Pete Carroll’s recent comments regarding Tate’s expanded role as a slot receiver.

    Last week, I found this in-depth interview piece in which Tate reveals: “When I'm lined up, I'm a wide receiver, but as soon as that ball is in my hands, I become a running back and I think that's something that I bring to the table that not a lot of other guys can.”

    He’s been cast by many, including myself, as a fit for the “Percy Harvin-type” role. Unprompted in the interview: “I see myself as being able to do a lot of the same things that Harvin does…”

    I do think we see Tate in a similar role as a rusher; it makes too much sense and would be a detriment to the offense if the wrinkle wasn’t installed at some point. And for the sake of "what if" Tate can't step into the role, then what?

    As noted previously, Isaiah Stanback brings the potential as a Wildcat quarterback, an effective runner from the position in college. Ben Obomanu had two carries last season and Leon Washington was used as a potential thrower, runner and receiver in gadget plays. Deon Butler had Jacoby Ford-like speed.

    Could we see Seattle experiment with a Wildcat package involving extra linemen or tight ends, maybe Stanback at quarterback with one or two of the other mentioned players—or whoever else Seattle may choose to feature—as part of the backfield, in motion or split out wide in a bunch?

    Carroll has continually referred to the extra time the coaching staff has had to evaluate and scheme during the lockout; given the combined expertise and creativity of Cable and Bevell, I wouldn’t put anything past them—and we know Pete Carroll likes to maximize his players and isn’t one to shy away from trickery.

    Before the trickery, however, they must first improve a near-bottom-of-the-league rushing attack. Recent history shows the receivers could be a key factor, helping to maximize the running game’s potential. 

4. Will There Be a Balanced Act in the Backfield?

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    Part of the reason why Bevell was a smart hire for Seattle is because he is a coordinator that strives for balance. I believe if the Seahawks are to achieve balance on offense, they must implement a well-rounded running game.

    Marshawn Lynch was the primary back in 2010, his “Beastmode” attitude an embodiment of the toughness the Seahawks want. However, he isn’t best fit to be the featured back; rather, the Seahawks have to find balance with Lynch, Justin Forsett and Leon Washington.

    I’d like to focus on a couple stats from the 2010 season:

    In comparing Lynch’s 188 total carries with Seattle (playoffs included) to Forsett’s 126 carries—51 of which came in the four weeks before Lynch’s arrival, an average of 4.2 yards per carry prior to and 4.5 after—the following stood out: The only area that Lynch had a higher yards per carry running between the tackles was between center and left guard, a .9 yard difference.

    Forsett averaged 1.9 yards more per rush between right guard and tackle, .4 more per rush on the left side, same positions; Forsett also ran better of the center's right shoulder.

    They both out-dueled each other considerably off tackle; Lynch winning off right tackle, 4.6 to 1.8; Forsett doing the same off left tackle, a staggering 10.7 to Lynch’s 5.7. Forsett was also better both outside the tight end and with a fullback.

    Forsett’s combination of acceleration, vision and toughness creates a capable inside runner, a strong complement to Lynch—as he has been since their days together at Cal.

    Forsett’s shiftiness should be an asset in a primarily zone-blocking scheme, especially as a player who slips through small creases. His major limitation lies in that he lacks breakaway speed, a player who is very good at getting chunks of 10-30 yards.   

    And while Lynch is an adequate blocker and receiver, Forsett proved strong in pass protection in 2010 and has shown the past two seasons to be a very solid receiver out of the backfield. He also didn’t fumble in 2010, compared to Lynch’s three with Seattle. 

    Forsett is a well-rounded back that needs to be a regular part of the offense, a consistent one-two punch with the battering ram Lynch. But as noted earlier, Washington is too talented to be left out of the backfield, one year further from his injury and equipped with a new contract.

    He proved to be an asset for the Jets as a receiver out of the backfield, particularly on screens; he also has the speed to leak out of the backfield on a wheel route if matched up with a linebacker. His speed on the edge is most dangerous of the three backs and he is strong enough to handle running inside.

    While the exact blocking schemes and personnel are still in question, there is little doubt that the Seahawks have a potentially dynamic trio in the backfield; they can do a lot of the little things well and win one-on-one matchups with varying styles.

    The question is, will the Seahawks use all of the available parts to create a balanced, whole backfield in 2011?