Sometimes improvements made during a football season can be subtle. A player returning to health causes a slight uptick in production, or a schematic adjustment leads to a subtle improvement for an offense or defense.
Other times, that change is as blunt as a Thomas Rawls collision with a defensive back in the open field.
While the Seahawks have had some struggles of late, losing their past two road games, one clear area of improvement that bodes well for the rest of the season is the way their running game has turned a corner.
Nine games into the season, the Seahawks ranked 30th out of 32 NFL teams with 77.7 rushing yards per game, and their 3.3 yards-per-carry average ranked 31st. Over the past four games, however, the Seahawks have averaged 163.8 rushing yards per game and 6.1 yards-per-carry, both of which rank second in the NFL in that span.
Part of that increase has been a dramatic increase in big plays. By the measure of explosive plays used by the Seahawks and many other NFL teams (runs of 12 or more yards and passes of 16 or more yards), the Seahawks had just eight explosive runs through nine games, the second fewest in the NFL. They have 16 such runs in their past four games, the second most in the league.
"It has been a month of a big turn from what it was," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Thomas really ran hard again (against Green Bay). We feel like we could really find the balance that we like. Obviously we have to take care of the football better, but we made a big move in that regard. We have to keep going, keep pushing it."
The Seahawks were still able to win games without running the ball the way they'd like to—they were 6-2-1 through nine games with a 30th-ranked rushing attack—but a Seahawks offense without a potent rushing attack doesn't quite feel like the Seahawks offense. Since making a concerted effort to be a balanced offense midway through the 2011 season, the Seahawks have consistently had one of the NFL's best rushing attacks, finishing in the top four in rushing in each of the past four seasons, including a league-best 2,762 rushing yards in 2014 that is the highest total in the NFL since 2006.
The Seahawks' dramatic turnaround in the run game has happened for a number of reasons, two of which have to do with health. Thomas Rawls, who as a rookie led the NFL in rushing yards-per-carry after taking over for an injured Marshawn Lynch, missed seven games with a leg injury, and his return four games ago has coincided with Seattle's big spike in rushing yards.
"I think that's a big factor," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said of Rawls' return. "We have a solid runner, somebody that we were hoping to have the whole year. He's got good vision. You see how he finishes runs, we love his style. The Seahawk style is what we like to talk about—how he finishes the run, how tenacious he is. We've done some things scheme-wise to help us, so it's not all Thomas, but it's a lot Thomas. He's doing a great job. Our line has done a nice job, Tom [Cable] has done a nice job making some subtle adjustments. We haven't scrapped the whole thing, but just made some subtle adjustments and combinations are coming off really well and Thomas is seeing them."
But it wasn't just Rawls' return that sparked the turnaround, nor is it only the improvements of the offensive line, though that group deserves a ton of credit as well. Just as Rawls was getting back, quarterback Russell Wilson began to look like the dual-threat quarterback he has been throughout his career, something he hadn't been for much of the season due to ankle and knee injuries. Wilson being able to run helps the Seahawks offense not just because of the yards he can gain, such as his 80-yard rushing performance against Tampa Bay, but also because the threat of him running forces teams to account for him, at times making things easier on Rawls and the other running backs.
"I think that is specifically the thing we were waiting for, and Russell's involvement makes a difference," Carroll said. "Sometimes it's more subtle than obvious. A few weeks ago it was obvious when he gained 80 yards in a game, but that's part of it. Thomas has really found his legs now and he's ready to go, that's part of it. We're just continuing to improve. It's really important, I would love nothing more than to see us go out there and be able to run the football again this week and throughout the remainder of the regular season. I think that would be a great statement for us moving forward. We're excited about it and we look forward to it."