The Seattle Seahawks face a huge test when they head into the NFC Divisional playoff game this Saturday against the No. 2 seeded Atlanta Falcons. While the Seahawks are going to need a solid performance across the board to win, the X-factor could be one of the weaker links from 2016.
Last week in the NFC Wild Card game against the Detroit Lions, the Seahawks surprised everyone by sticking to what they’ve historically done, but have not necessarily been good at this season: running the football.
Seattle was able to establish a dominant running game early on. Thomas Rawls ran for over 100 yards in the first half alone and the Seahawks held a 13 minute advantage in time of possession, keeping the Lions offense off the field for much of the game.
While the ground explosion could be just a flash in the pan, similar weaknesses should benefit the Seahawks here in back to back weeks. Detroit was the 17 ranked rushing defense in the league, giving up 106.3 yards per game. Atlanta is just above them, surrendering 104.5 yards per game.
In 2016, the Seahawks running game was heavily criticized, and for good reason. Seattle finished with 99.4 yards per game on the ground (25th in the NFL) this season, a drastic decrease from 141.8 rushing yards per game (3rd) in 2015, 172.6 (1st) in 2014, and 136.8 (4th) in 2013.
To open the season, the Seahawks dealt with the fallout of losing their All Pro running back in Marshawn Lynch, an injured replacement in Thomas Rawls, an ailing dual-threat quarterback who was reduced to a single-threat QB in Russell Wilson, and an offensive line with a three first year players.
No wonder things were a mess.
Statistically, though, Seattle’s rushing attack may not be as horrific as the season numbers make things look. Through the final eight games in 2016, the Seahawks averaged 127.3 yards per game on the ground, which would have put them 4th in the league in rushing yards this season. What’s more, in the first half of the season, Seattle had six games with less than 75 yards rushing. In the final eight games, they had just one.
With the potential of rookie C.J. Prosise returning to the field for the first time since November, Russell Wilson and Thomas Rawls both being close to full health, and the emergence of fullback Marcel Reece, this running game could look completely different than when the Seahawks and Falcons first met.
And here’s why…
1. Thomas Rawls running up the middle is BeastMode 2.0
While the reality of losing Lynch set in the early months of 2016, the prospect of a new emerging running back helped ease Seattle out of one era and into another. In 2015, Thomas Rawls not only lead the Seahawks in rushing yards (averaging 65.3 yards per game), but led the NFL in yards per carry (5.65). The undrafted rookie out of Central Michigan wowed the Seahawks in preseason, and after losing Lynch to an injury, quickly became a fan favorite.
Unfortunately, Rawls’ sophomore campaign was not the productive one the Seahawks had hoped for. Playing in only nine regular season games, Rawls finished with 3.2 yards per carry and 38.8 yards per game. However, he has been a part of the Seahawks running game resurgence over the second half, leading Seattle to two of their highest rushing totals in Week 12 against Carolina (240) and Week 13 against Green Bay (136).
Rawls didn’t play in the earlier game against the Falcons, but they will no doubt still be prepared for him. Atlanta will look to stack the box with Rawls in the backfield and allow their linebackers to wait should he break past the first level. Still, Rawls is notorious for making first tacklers miss, having averaged a league high 2.68 yards after contact in 2015. Picking up chunks of yardage while helping the Seahawks move into third-and-manageable will play into Seattle’s success on offense.
2. Moving the pocket with Russell ‘Houdini’ Wilson
Unlike many teams in the NFL, the Seahawks possess the unique ability to capitalize on running the ball even when in passing situations. Russell Wilson’s mobility not only allows for extending plays, but also advancing the ball himself when nothing is open downfield.
2016 was the first season that Wilson was not one of the Seahawks top-2 rushers. Injuries played a large part as the quarterback, now in his fifth season in Seattle, struggled in a one-dimensional game without the use of his legs. In Wilson’s first four seasons, he averaged more than two rushing first downs per game. This season, however, Wilson was held to an average of just one running first down per game.
Wilson’s numbers have continued to go back up with his increase in health though. In the final six weeks of the regular season, Wilson was the Seahawks leading rusher in two games and, despite cautious game planning by the Seahawks coaching staff, has had double digit rushing yards in six of the last eight game.
While his injury limited him in their first meeting, the Falcons will no doubt have a plan for Wilson. Whether it be contained blitzes to keep Wilson in the pocket, or the linebacker spy in those moments when he does escape. Yet, the Seahawks can also plan ahead by implementing schemes to move the pocket around and keep Wilson one step ahead of the defense. Play action boots and roll outs that move Wilson away from pressure and put the ball in his hands to make decisions could keep the Falcons second guessing themselves.
Now, all this this doesn’t necessarily mean the rushing game is the only thing the Seahawks need to get right to win.
Does Seattle’s pass rush and secondary need to play lights out against MVP candidate Matt Ryan and the high octane Falcon’s offense? Of course.
Will Russell Wilson need to be accurate and efficient through the air in order for the Seahawks to score points? Absolutely.
Does the offensive line need to play their best game yet in order to contain NFL sack leader and All Pro edge rusher Vic Beasley? No doubt.
All of these aspects are key to keeping Seattle in the game. However, success in running the football is the final piece that should put the Seahawks over the hump and lift them to their 3rd NFC Championship game in four seasons.
PREDICTION: The Seahawks offense puts up points to keep pace with the high-flying Falcons, the defense forces a pair of 2nd half turnovers, and Thomas Rawls runs wild for 150 yards, capped off by a 40 yard run for the game winning score.
Seahawks 31, Atlanta 27