Heading into Week 3 of the season, the Seahawks had an 0-2 record, and their offense, which was supposed to be getting back to its balanced ways of years past, was sputtering.
It was far too early to panic, but Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer also knew that some changes needed to happen if the Seahawks were going to get back on track.
"Pete and I came back from Chicago on Tuesday morning—it was a Monday night game—he and I sat down and kind of had a little heart-to-heart," Schottenheimer said. "There were things that he and I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page about. It wasn't just the running game, it was he and I continuing to build our relationship, and it was an awesome meeting. It probably lasted about an hour and we talked about a ton of different stuff. I know I came out of that meeting feeling really good just about the direction where we wanted to go. It's easy to do that and I think that speaks to Pete as a head coach that we could have that conversation. It was very open—I mean it was both of us speaking our mind."
Carroll added that part of that meeting was about simplifying things so the offense and the running game could get going: "We talked about the running game, getting that going. We had to let some things go to do that. We had to leave some things off the list that we had been working on to kind of get them out of the way so there wouldn't be distractions to us as we were pecking our way through developing the run game. The conversation started after Week 1. We adjusted from Week 1 to Week 2—it didn't look like it—and that's when we really had to make a shift. It was real clear to us that we needed to do something, so we did."
The result of that meeting and the shift that occurred has been a drastically improved Seahawks offense, one that not only leads the NFL in rushing with one game left in the regular season, but that has been the second-highest scoring offense in the NFL since Week 10 of the season, scoring 30.4 points per game over the last seven games. The Seahawks also have the most explosive plays (runs of 12 or more yards and passes of 16 or more) in the NFL since Week 10 with 68. And in part because of how the offense has turned things around, the Seahawks are heading back to the playoffs for the seventh time in nine seasons under Carroll and general manager John Schneider.
The Seahawks beat the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3 and begin establishing their offensive identity behind Chris Carson's first 100-yard game of the season, then a week later they rushed for 171 against the Cardinals, the first of 11 games gaining over 150 rushing yards in their last 12 games.
But even though the Seahawks have run the ball so well, and even though they lead the NFL in rushing yards and produced their first 1,000-yard rusher since 2014, it really became evident just how good this offense could be not when the Seahawks continued to pile up rushing yards week after week, but when they demonstrated in a win at Carolina that they can produce when an opposing defense is able to slow down the running game.
In Seattle's Week 12 win in Charlotte, the Panthers loaded the box to stop the run, and with a talented front-seven, they were able to make things tough on the Seahawks, holding them to 75 rushing yards, Seattle's lowest rushing total since Week 2. With the Panthers doing a good job stopping the run, Russell Wilson threw for 339 yards and two touchdowns, Tyler Lockett and David Moore each eclipsed 100 yards, and the Seahawks scored 30 points to earn a big road victory. As Carroll noted after that game, the ability to win through the air when the running game struggled was the true sign of the type of balance he wants from his offense. It isn't that Carroll wants his team to run the ball a certain number of times each week to show its balance, it's that he wants the offense to do whatever is needed to score points.
"On a day when we couldn't run the ball like we had been, we needed the throwing game, and Russ came through and had a great day throwing the football," Carroll said after that game. "… We love to run the football, but balance is what's really the essence of this thing, and I'm thrilled we were able to do that."
That indication of Seattle's balance is also what convinced Schottenheimer that Seattle's offense was starting to live up to its potential. Already by that point in the year the Seahawks had shown they could run the ball as well as any team in the league, but to Carroll's point about balance, the win over the Panthers showed the Seahawks had the ability to win in multiple ways.
"Honestly Carolina was big just because we were running the ball so well (before that game)," he said. "But then to go and play a really good defense, to have them challenge us in the running game, and to have us be able to go and make those plays. I'm not going to say I was surprised by it, but that's kind of when I was like OK, we're really pretty hard to defend because we're going to run the ball well and then if you want to stop that or you're going to load up the box, we've got weapons that can do that. That's probably the game I look back on where I was like 'we're pretty difficult to deal with.'"
The Seahawks showed that balance again in last week's playoff-clinching win over the Kansas City Chiefs. In piling up a season-high 464 yards, the Seahawks demonstrated balance throughout the game, rushing for 210 yards and passing for 254, and they also demonstrated the ability to go off script and win via the passing game late in the fourth quarter. When the Seahawks got the ball back with 4:36 left on the clock and a three-point lead, just about everyone in the stadium was expecting them to try to run out the clock with their ground game; everyone including the Chiefs.
With the Chiefs loading the box to stop the run, while still holding all three timeouts, and with the league's No. 1 offense on their sideline waiting for a chance to come back and take the lead, Carroll, Schottenheimer and the rest of Seattle's coaches decided it was not the time to be conservative. After one Chris Carson run, Wilson took a shot downfield to Doug Baldwin, but it went incomplete. Facing a critical third-and-6, Wilson connected with David Moore, who fought to gain seven yards. Two play later it was second-and-12, and Wilson dropped a beautiful deep ball into the arms of Tyler Lockett for a 45-yard gain. Two plays after that, Wilson went deep again, connecting with Baldwin, who made a ridiculous one-handed juggling catch for a 29-yard gain to the 1-yard line, setting up what was essentially a game-clinching touchdown.
"That was honestly kind of an adjustment to what they decided to do defensively," Schottenheimer said. "They were going to load the box, they wanted to try to stop the run. They kind of came out of the middle of the field and ran what we call cover zero, which is nobody in the middle of the field. There's not very many good runs, even for a good running team like ourselves. I was asking for some thoughts and it was very quiet on the headphones. Normally that means that there's not a lot of good ideas. It was something that we saw they had done. (assistant offensive line coach) Brennan Carroll did a great job in his advance work of it. We kind of knew that it was something that they might do and so we were prepared for it."
Add it all up—that impressive running game, Wilson's career-best efficiency, the historic lack of turnovers—and even with a bad start to the year, this is becoming one of the more impressive offensive seasons in franchise history. With one game left to play, the Seahawks rank sixth in the NFL scoring, and two teams ahead of them are within striking distance, meaning Seattle could finish in the top five in scoring for just the fifth time in franchise history and second time in the Carroll/Schneider era (2015). By scoring 23 or more points on Sunday, the Seahawks would also top the 2015 team for the second most in franchise history, trailing only the 2005 team. Seattle's 120 explosive plays are tied for eight most in team history dating back to 1996, and with a big game the Seahawks could move into the top two or three (the 2014 team leads the way with 135, while next on the list are the 2003 Seahawks, who had 129, then the 2015 team, which had 127).
The 2018 Seahawks also have a good chance to move into the top three on the franchise list for rushing yards in a season. Seattle currently has 2,378 rushing yards, well within striking distance of the 2005 team, which had 2,457. Also possible is No. 2 on that list, the 2012 team that rushed for 2,579 yards, though first place on that list, the 2014 team that rushed for 2,762, is probably safe.
Credit for all of that offensive production should be spread around to everyone from players to assistant coaches to Carroll, but the work of Schottenheimer in his first year in Seattle has definitely been a big part of that formula.
"I've talked about him a lot because it has been obvious that he has had an impact on all of us," Carroll said. "It started with, the conversation about Brian was that he was so well-versed in so many things, he really could interpret everything that we had done, bring the suggestions and stuff that he had done in other places and help us put it all together. I thought that was really obvious from the start. His effect on Russell started early, you could see that they were communicating on a really high level. You could see that there was going to be a lot of potential for growth there, which we've seen. Russell has really had a great year in all ways, but in terms of really just expanding in ball, he has taken into account a lot of things we didn't give him the chance to do in the past. He's demonstrated command of all that, that's been great. I think all of that has to do with Brian tapping into what made sense and what Russ could work with. He's been really demanding and tough on the whole offense throughout and he's brought us about. We've got some identity to us and we know who we are. We're excited about finishing up."
The Seahawks and Cardinals will meet for the 40th time in the regular season this Sunday in Seattle. Take a look back at photos from past games played between the two teams.