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Run and Stun

Posted Jan 9, 2012

It took the Seahawks longer than they wanted or expected to get where they had hoped to be as an offense in 2011, but their stretch run gives them a running start heading into 2012.


While the Seahawks’ offense during the 2011 season was a work in progress, it also was a unit striving to make progress.

And after an oh-so-slow start, the Seahawks did finish with a flourish – including rushing for 100-plus yards in eight of their final nine games, capped by a season-high 178-yard performance in the season finale against the Cardinals in Arizona; and putting up 30-plus points in three consecutive games during that same stretch, with more than just a little help from the defense (three TDs) and special teams (one TD).

“The thing I liked the most was just our progress,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. “Our progress in terms of getting to the identity that we set out to get to at the beginning. It took us a little minute to get there, because we struggled early running it.”

To truly appreciate where the Seahawks’ offense finished – 28th overall, by averaging 303.8 yards; 21st rushing and 22nd passing – it helps to revisit where this group came from. There were new starters at quarterback (Tarvaris Jackson), tight end (Zach Miller), flanker (Sidney Rice) and on the line (left guard Robert Gallery, right guard John Moffitt and right tackle James Carpenter). There was a first-year starter at center (Max Unger) and a player in his first full season with the team at running back (Marshawn Lynch). There also was a former college QB (Michael Robinson) adapting to the role of fulltime lead-blocker at the fullback position and a rookie free agent (Doug Baldwin) who ended up leading the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.

There also was a new coordinator (Bevell) and a new man in charge of the running game (assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tom Cable).

What there wasn’t, because of the 136-day lockout, was an offseason to implement all this newness and infuse all the new faces. Instead, all of this had to come together despite the players being on the field together for the first time on July 30 and several of the new players not being able to practice until Aug. 4.

FIST-BUMPS AND FOREHEAD SLAPS

Here’s a look at five things that went right for the Seahawks’ offense during the 2011 season and three things that need work as they head into the 2012 offseason:

FIST-BUMPS
One. Marshawn Lynch. The Skittles-back shoved his Beast Mode self into a much higher gear down the stretch to finish with career-highs in rushing yards (1,204), rushing touchdowns (12) and total TDs (13). Lynch also set a club record by scoring in 11 consecutive games, as well as becoming the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Shaun Alexander in 2005.
Two. Doug Baldwin. The team’s “eighth-round draft choice,” as coach Pete Carroll has called Baldwin, became the first rookie free agent since the Oilers’ Bill Groman in 1960 to lead his team in receptions (51) and receiving yards (788). Baldwin also had a team-high four touchdown catches.
Three. Tom Cable. First, the team’s first-year assistant head coach/offensive line coach installed his zone-blocking scheme for the running game, without the benefit of an offseason program. Then, Cable had the patient to not only stick with it but preach patients as the running game averaged 77.7 yards over the first seven games. Finally, Cable gave the credit to Lynch and his makeshift line once the running game did kick in, as the Seahawks averaged 134.9 yards over the final nine games – including a stretch of six consecutive 100-yard rushing efforts, the club’s longest since the 2002-03 seasons.
Four. Tarvaris Jackson. The only thing more impressive than his determination in his first season as the Seahawks’ quarterback was his toughness. Despite playing the final 10 games with a strained pectoral in his right shoulder, Jackson passed for a career-high 3,091 yards and threw twice as many touchdown passes (eight) as interceptions (four) as the team won five of its final eight games.
Five. Paul McQuistan, Breno Giacomini and Lemuel Jeanpierre. As starting linemen John Moffitt, James Carpenter and Russell Okung went down with season-ending injuries, these three not only stepped in to start a combined 23 games, the running game found its legs after they took over.
FOREHEAD SLAPS
One. Slow starts. The Seahawks scored touchdowns on their first possessions only twice all season – in their upsets of the playoff-bound Giants and Ravens. They also scored 61 first-quarter points, which tied for 12th fewest in the league. By contrast, they scored six TDs and also had two field goals on their first possessions in the second halves of games.
Two. Scoring three points in a three-point loss to the Browns. Sure, they didn’t have Jackson or Lynch in the 6-3 loss in Week 7. But still …
Three. Penalties. This wasn’t all on the offense, of course, but the unit did have its share of the club-record 138 penalties for 1,047 yards – which is the second-highest total in franchise history. And it was the pre-snap procedural infractions that had offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and coach Pete Carroll shaking their heads.

Not exactly ideal conditions, but after surviving at times during the team’s 2-6 start the offense thrived at times as the Seahawks went 5-3 in the second half – including a stretch of five victories in six games.

“It just took us longer than I wanted, but the fact that it’s emerged here in the second half of the season is really crucial for us as we move forward,” coach Pete Carroll said.

So is getting healthy – or as healthy as possible – before the offseason program begins in April, the club holds the only mandatory minicamp it’s allowed in mid-June and training camp opens in late July. The intended starters missed a combined 39 games due to injuries, including two by Jackson (both losses), 23 by the linemen and 16 by wide receivers Mike Williams and Rice.

“You’re just never able to get into a consistent groove with all your guys,” Bevell said. “You formulate what you think they’re going to become. But then when guys are in and out so fast, what you’re really trying to do is the things you believe in so that there’s some consistency someplace.”

All this newness and all those injuries created a situation where a team that intended to run the ball in order to set up the play-action passing game was forced to revert to a no-huddle approach before finally becoming determined to run the ball – regardless of the situation, or the opponent.

Carroll’s optimum approach is to get a combination of 50 plays that are runs and complete passes.

“If you make that number, you’re pretty much going to win football games,” he said.

From his lips to the win column. The Seahawks achieved that formula six times and won five of those games – with the one setback the overtime loss to the Cardinals in the finale.

But back to the running game that was running on empty for so much of the first half of the season, and then gave the Seahawks a running start to their much more successful second half of the season. It was just before they were preparing to play the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens in back-to-back games that Cable put it on the line and his backs.

Against a Cowboys run defense that ranked fourth in the league, allowing an average of 93.9 rushing yards, Lynch and the Seahawks had 135 and 162, respectively. The following week, against a Ravens defense that ranked third in the league against the run, allowing an average of 86.8 rushing yards, Lynch and the Seahawks went for 109 and 119.

“It’s important to do the best for your players – what’s the best situation you can put them in,” Bevell said. “You don’t want to put a square peg in a round hole.”

Square. Round. Oblong. Triangular. Rhomboid. Whatever the shape or size of the hole, Lynch continued to run with a determination and desire that had to be seen to really appreciate. In a season where he compiled career-high totals in rushing yards (1,204) and touchdowns (13; 12 rushing), some of his best efforts came on runs where he should have lost 2 or 3 yards but somehow found a way to get a yard or two.

“We just kind of made it a conscious effort to really get back to our philosophy,” Bevell said. “Deciding to go with the run and stick with the run took us to another place and let everybody see another part of our offense – things that we can do.

“Our philosophy – from Tom’s, and from mine and what Pete wants to get to – we want to be a tough-minded team and we want to be able to run the football and be physical and get after people.”

And with Lynch doing his Beast Mode thing, it also made life easier – and more productive – for Jackson. His passer rating in the first seven games was 73.2, compared to 85.3 over the final eight games.

“When you can run the ball, it helps you be more successful all the way around,” Bevell said. “It’s a little easier in protection, because guys rush different – they kind of stutter and stop. And then you become more explosive because you get those seams between the linebackers and the next level.

“So there’s big-play opportunities there.”

Like the 18 completions of at least 20 yards that Jackson had over the final five games.

“Even running the ball as much as we ended up dong, you can still make big plays,” Bevell said. “Which is something we need to continue to look for.”

And speaking of looking forward, Bevell has aspirations that are much higher – which starts with being more consistent – for the 2012 season.

“I am excited, and I’m optimistic about where we can take this thing,” Bevell said. “Just getting all our guys back, and then with whatever pieces we’re able to add, there’s optimism.”