The San Francisco 49ers travel to face the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13, and it might get ugly. The Seahawks sit at 6-5, but they are potentially better than their record indicates. Football Outsiders ranks them 11th in offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency through their first 11 games. Their five losses are to the Broncos, Bears, Chargers, and twice to the Rams. Those are “good” losses.
The 49ers are a ten-point underdog this weekend, and just looking at the Seahawks offense, we can see some difficulties. I sat down with Field Gulls site editor Kenneth Arthur to talk about the Seahawks offense because it has quietly been really strong. FO ranks them fifth in passing and 12th in rushing. Russell Wilson ranks fifth in passer rating and eighth in yards per attempt. Their ground game ranks tenth in yards per attempt and No. 1 in yards per game.
What about the run game has made it work so well?
A lot of things.
A) Fire the offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and hire Brian Schottenheimer. I don’t know that philosophically the two are vastly different, but Pete Carroll wanted to spark a change after two years of awful running. Basically he was trying to get back to 2011-2014 when they were first in rush attempts and last in pass attempts and changing the OC is one way to make that mission clear. In conjunction: fire offensive line coach Tom Cable and hire Mike Solari.
B) Move on from Eddie Lacy, Jimmy Graham, Thomas Rawls, Luke Joeckel, and Luke Willson.
C) Sign Ed Dickson as a blocking tight end, draft Will Dissly, a blocking tight end, Brandon Marshall, a blocking wide receiver, D.J. Fluker, a run-blocking guard, and guard J.R. Sweezy. Also getting a full season from left tackle Duane Brown, acquired midseason 2017, this can not be understated.
D) Draft Rashaad Penny in the first round.
E) The end result by Week 1 was the return of Chris Carson from a broken ankle and the emergence of backup Mike Davis, who had shown promise in 2017. Fluker did not return from his own injury until Week 3, and sure enough the run game was fairly bad in Weeks 1 and 2. This return pushed Ethan Pocic to the bench, who struggled at guard.
F) And this is perhaps the most important once you account for all the coaching and personnel changes: scheme. Seattle has gotten a ton of mileage (literally, not literally) from the zone read even though it’s not much of a read at all. It’s more of inside handoffs that look identical in formation to a zone read. Russell Wilson barely ever keeps the ball, but defenses have struggled to stop Carson from the inside handoff in shotgun formation. (note: I’m not an Xs and Os guy so excuse any rudimentary language.) But we know that this is something that’s worked a lot. The blocking is better with Fluker, Sweezy, Brown, and an improved Germain Ifedi. The running backs are way better with Carson/Davis/Penny over Lacy and Rawls. The tight ends are better at blocking by a huge amount. And so the playcalling works better. They didn’t run well against the Panthers though and Wilson still had an outstanding performance, so how much does it really matter? Somewhat, I guess, but the offense is certainly much more efficient than they were a year ago.
What can you tell us about the Seahawks passing game?
The Seahawks, like virtually any team, are going to be more efficient if they don’t have to throw the ball as much. In the last two years, when the running game was less of a threat because of the talent dropoff from Marshawn Lynch to injured-Thomas Rawls or Eddie Lacy, and the blocking suffered because of the open gate at left tackle and guard positions, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell tried to turn attention to Wilson and tight end Jimmy Graham in the passing game. This is somewhat fair because Wilson is a good passer, Graham is an elite pass-catching tight end, but ultimately efficiency dropped as attempts went up and defenses could more easily gameplan to stop the offense without a zone-read option or the threat of a run. As it stands in 2018, the running game is improved because of the health of Chris Carson and the additions of Duane Brown, D.J. Fluker, and J.R. Sweezy on the offensive line, which allows the zone read option and inside handoffs to gain yards on the ground again and put Seattle in a position to present multiple threats on offense. I also think that receiver Tyler Lockett is back at 100% after being slowed down in 2017 from a broken leg suffered in 2016, and Lockett is arguably the most efficient wide receiver in the NFL this season. Not to say he’s as good as someone like Julio Jones, who gets a lot more targets, but when the ball goes to Lockett this year, it’s often picking up significant gains. The team is also seeing big returns on 2017 seventh round pick David Moore, who is a better receiver than former number two Paul Richardson, I believe.
The Seahawks rely less on Wilson because that’s how they want their offense to run. The Saints rely less on Drew Brees over the last two seasons and look at how they’ve thrived with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas? Patrick Mahomes is only ninth in pass attempts. Jared Goff is 12th. Brees is 17th. Philip Rivers is 18th. All of these QBs play on balanced offenses, which is certainly symbiotic -- those running games may also do better because they have excellent quarterbacks -- but this is absolutely where Seattle wants to be on offense. They’re gonna run the ball on 1st-and-10. They might even run it on 2nd-and-10. They’re not gonna abandon runs. They’re not gonna fear third-and-medium or fourth-and-short. They’re gonna mix in play action. They’re gonna hand it off in zone read. They’re gonna look to take some shots downfield to Lockett and Moore.
It’s as close to a 50/50 run/pass team as you’ll see, and nobody runs it more often.