Ground Greg

Posted Jun 24, 2009

Who will run the ball for the Seahawks this season? It’s a question that won’t go away, as some fans are wondering when the club finally will address the running back situation.

Matt Hasselbeck is back where he belongs, and the Seahawks need him – on the field, rather than in the training room.

The offense also got bigger and faster at wide receiver this offseason with the additions of T.J. Houshmandzadeh in free agency and Deon Butler in the draft.

Seahawks 2009

This is the third article in a series of eight articles sizing up the Seahawks by units for the upcoming season.

From the past
Defensive line
Offensive line

Running backs

To come
Defensive backs
Special teams

An offensive line ravaged by injuries last season is getting healthy, and whole.

John Carlson has increased his weight while lowering his body fat and the second-year tight end appears ready to build upon a rookie season when he led the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.

But who will run the ball for the Seahawks this season?

It’s a question that won’t go away, as some fans are wondering when the club finally will address the running back situation.

Answer: The Seahawks already did.

It was last year, when running backs Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett were signed in free agency and running back Justin Forsett and fullback Owen Schmitt were added in the draft.

“I’m not going to say that there’s a marquee name in our backfield that the whole nation knows, because there’s not,” coach Jim Mora said. “But hopefully at the end of the year there is a marquee name, and it’s one of the three running backs we have on our roster right now.”

So do Jones and Duckett. They were underutilized last season, when coach Mike Holmgren had a difficult time defining a role for Duckett and leaned more heavily on since-departed Maurice Morris over Jones as the season progressed.

Jones rushed for 373 of his team-leading 698 yards in the first four games, when Morris was out with a knee injury. Over the final 12 games, Jones had 325 yards – and just 24 in the final four games.

Duckett was the short-yardage and goal-line option, producing a team-high eight touchdowns despite carrying the ball more than five times in only three games.

Each should benefit from the zone-blocking scheme being installed by new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, not to mention Mora’s commitment to them.

Speaking of Knapp, he is another large piece of this equation. Knapp has had success running the ball in his previous eight seasons as a coordinator in the NFL – regardless of the team (49ers, Falcons, Raiders) or the backs (Garrison Hearst and Kevin Barlow in San Francisco; Warrick Dunn, Duckett and Jerious Norwood, as well as quarterback Michael Vick, in Atlanta; Justin Fargas, LaMont Jordan and Darren McFadden in Oakland).

“I don’t see that being any different here,” Mora said.

Seahawks 2009 Running Backs

A look at the unit as the team takes a break before the start of training camp practices on July 31:

Running back: Julius Jones, T.J. Duckett, Justin Forsett, Devin Moore

Fullback: Owen Schmitt, Justin Griffith, David Kirtman

The word: The switch to a zone-blocking scheme should help, because the back is asked to take only step in getting through the line and up the field. Despite a slow start in his first season with the Seahawks, Jones did average 4.4 yards per carry – which ranked seventh in the NFC among backs with at least 650 yards. Duckett, meanwhile, is a big back (254 pounds) who doesn’t necessarily run like a big back. In the one game where he got double-digit carries, Duckett ran for 79 yards and a 4.2-yard average. Forsett was impressive in the spring minicamps and the coaches are finding ways to utilize his quickness and elusiveness. As for the combination of Schmitt and Griffith, coach Jim Mora says, “We’ve got two very, very good fullbacks that fit this system very well.”

The fullback position also has undergone a makeover. Schmitt, a fifth-round draft choice last year, is penciled in as the starter after the team decided against re-signing Leonard Weaver when he became a free agent. Instead, Justin Griffith was added in free agency to mentor Schmitt, and because he played for Knapp in Atlanta and Oakland.

“Owen is our starter right now,” Mora said. “He had a really good offseason. He’s committed. He made a lot of progress. We have high hopes for him.”

As for the just-in-case signing of Griffith, Mora added, “Justin understands his role. Although he is a competitor, so he’s not just going to concede anything. Which is what you want. You want competition.”

That’s what the Seahawks have, at fullback and also running back – where the smaller, more elusive Forsett is pushing for playing time after a rookie season when his contributions were limited to returning kickoffs and punts.

Knapp believes in using a rotation with the backs, for the obvious reasons.

“I definitely prefer that,” he said. “I think it’s important, because the game has gotten so physical. The defense has gotten so strong and so fast, it’s hard for one back to carry the load.

“So I’m a big believer in having two, if not three, backs involved as the season goes on.”

Also count Mora among the believers in the new system, and the backs who will be featured in it.

“I believe in our running backs,” he said. “I believe in Julius Jones. I believe in T.J. Duckett. I believe in Justin Forsett. I believe in those guys. I think they’re good players.

“I believe in our offensive line and our tight ends and our receivers, and their ability to block. I think with a healthy Matt Hasselbeck and his ability to stretch the field – not only vertically, but horizontally – that that will open things up in the running game. So I believe we’ll be able to run the ball, and I’m pleased with our running backs.”

Now, it’s up to Jones, Duckett and Forsett to make believers of the skeptics who can’t believe the team hasn’t done more to bolster the position.