The NFL Combine in Indianapolis has given fans of the Seattle Seahawks a brief respite from the extra long offseason, with the team having missed the playoffs for the first time since Barack Obama’s first term in office. With the combine sowing seeds of hope for the 2018 season and signaling that the time until free agency starts is growing small, it’s time to start one of the offseason projects I have promised. Over the next few months I’m going to be taking a quick look at every single rushing attempt by Seattle running backs during the 2017 season.
These are not going to be in depth looks or the type of great film room analysis like the phenomenal work of Sam Gold. These are simply going to be still shots of the running back at some point during the play with a brief explanation of what either led to the play working or failing.
For those plays where running backs are hit in the backfield, or otherwise encounter a defensive player prior to crossing the line of scrimmage, I’ll let readers know where the defensive player came from and who had been responsible for blocking him. For plays where it appears to me that the running back made the wrong read or missed a hole, I’ll point that out. Where I feel it will help, I will call on my mad Microsoft Paint skillz to further explain things. As for my order of progression, with Eddie Lacy the only running back from 2017 scheduled to be a unrestricted free agent, I’m going to start with him first.
I know both Thomas Rawls and Mike Davis are both restricted free agents, however, as RFAs, they are forbidden from speaking to other teams during the legal tampering period of March 12-March 14. That means the first either of those can discuss signing with another team is March 14, and as running back is not a heavily pursued position in free agency, I don’t expect either Davis or Rawls to be a high priority free agent for any other team. In addition, having watched both of them play during the season, I have a feeling there will be plenty of time once free agency starts to look into their 2017 performances.
Thus, without further delay, on to looking at Eddie Lacy’s 2017 performance.
Carry 1: Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers; 1st & 10 at the 50 with 9:26 to go in the 1st Quarter
On this play Lacy attempts to break the run to the outside to follow the blocking of Luke Willson and Paul Richardson, rather than where it appears the play should go behind Justin Britt and Luke Joeckel. The line blocked relatively well on the play, but Lacy attempted to get to the outside and turn the corner. The result was a gain of just two yards. One thing to note, and which I’ll get to later in this piece, is the size of Lacy’s step. Lacy appears to be taking full strides as soon as he gets the ball, which is a no no when running behind zone blocking.
Carry 2: Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers; 2nd & 8 at the 48 with 9:10 to go in the 1st Quarter
This play infuriates me every time I watch it. Jimmy Graham “engaged” the defender by launching himself like a missile and leaving his feet. Graham basically bounced off the defender, forcing Lacy back the other way. Lacy ended up gaining six yards on this play, but had Graham locked onto the defender properly, it potentially could have gone for far more yardage. Just for emphasis, here’s a better capture showing Graham with both feet off the ground and massive amounts of green space had Lacy not been forced back inside.
Carry 3: Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers; 1st & 10 at the 25 with 1:34 to go in the 1st Quarter
Lacy once again attempts to use his blazing speed to break this play to the outside, and ends up being taken down for a two yard loss. The crucial moment on the play is shown in the picture, as Lacy chooses to proceed outside of fullback Tre Madden’s block rather than inside. Lacy was not likely making much of a gain on the play even had he taken the inside route, with Clay Matthews coming in pursuit across the formation from the far outside of the opposite side. Tackle Matt Tobin was in on the play as a tight end, and Tobin ran a seam route without chipping Matthews in any way. I have no idea if Tobin was supposed to chip or run the route with a clean release, but in any case, Lacy likely should have tucked inside Madden’s block, lowered his shoulder and taken what he could. Instead, he unsuccessfully attempts to gain the edge by bouncing the run outside and is taken down for a loss.
Carry 4: Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers; 1st & 10 at the 32 with 7:13 to go in the 2nd Quarter
This play went for no gain, and that is largely on Germain Ifedi. Ifedi didn’t have an easy job on the play, as he was tasked with blocking Pro Bowl defensive tackle Mike Daniels, who was lined up on the outside shoulder right guard Mark Glowinski in the guard-tackle gap. Ifedi initially does a great job getting in front of Daniels, but he then failed to seal the inside once engaged. That failure allowed Daniels to read the play as Lacy takes the handoff from Russ. Once Daniels gains inside position on Ifedi, it leads to Lacy being taken down for no gain. Had Ifedi sealed Daniels to the outside, the play would have been Lacy with a full head of steam (whatever that’s worth, I suppose) in a good sized hole one on one against linebacker Jake Ryan (47).
Carry 5: Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers; 1st & 10 at the 18 with 7:27 to go in the 3rd Quarter
The fault for this play falls on center Justin Britt and, as I’ll explain, Lacy. We saw Mike Daniels blow up the last play, and on this run Daniels has blasted Britt three yards into the backfield before Lacy even gets the ball. Luke Joeckel comes to help Britt double team Daniels, unfortunately, because Britt was pushed so far backwards it doesn’t help. Instead of joining forces with Britt on the double team, Joeckel’s attempt at blocking Daniels results in pushing Daniels out of Britt’s control and directly into Lacy’s path. The play results in a three yard loss.
However, while this play went for a loss, as a result of Britt being pushed backwards, as a result of the massive disruption of the play side blocking, a good sized cutback lane developed and was available had Lacy seen it.
That cutback lane is the beauty of the zone blocking scheme and why patience is required from the running back. In ZBS, even when the play is destroyed play side, there is often a cutback lane available, but the running back has to have the patience and vision to run within the system. My highly artistic blue arrow is far more rounded a route than a running back would be expected to take on a cutback, and in actuality Lacy should have likely cutback and run right off the hips of Britt, Joeckel and Odhiambo as they would have been expected to continue to push the defenders playside. Packers linebacker Kyler Fackrell (51) likely makes a play on Lacy before getting a huge gain, but if Lacy is able to break a single tackle in the cutback lane, the play could have easily been a respectable gain of a handful of yards.
The basic rule of thumb for running backs within the ZBS is that once they get the ball on the handoff they should take two steps to survey the blocking on the play, using the third step to plant and go. On this play Lacy committed to where he was going well before his third step.
Phenomenal example of third step plant and go
Because Lacy had only five carries in the Week 1 loss to Green Bay, I’ll take a moment to give an example of the patience and third step plant I just mentioned. For this, I’m going to use a Chris Carson run from the same game that nearly perfectly illustrates the concept. The first image is Carson at the moment he gets the ball from Russell on a handoff where there is not a running lane immediately readily apparent. As we can see, Carson is at the 45 when he gets the ball.
And here’s the same point of the play from a different angle showing all eleven Packers defenders.
The line of scrimmage was between the 40 and 41, meaning of all the linemen in the play, only Joeckel has gotten push on the defender he’s blocking. However, this play perfectly illustrates the need for patience in the ZBS. As noted, Carson is receiving the ball at the 45 yard line and he takes two baby steps before planting his foot for his third step at the 43 and a half. He’s only covered a yard and a half before planting on that third step, however, the size of the cutback lane that has appeared is impressive. As Carson plants his foot to go, he has a hole large enough to drive a semi through, largely as a result of his patience and running within the system.
And here’s what it looked like as he was crossing the line of scrimmage through that cutback lane without a defender anywhere near him.
Now, I’m not trying to give the impression that such a cutback lane appears on every play, as that is most certainly not case. As was seen on the Lacy run that went for a loss of three, though, they do often show up even when blocking breaks down and defenders gain penetration. In fact, in particular when defenders have gained penetration, there are often cutback lanes as the penetration creates increased spacing between defenders. However, if the back is too impatient (looking at Rawls with that comment) and commits too early, they will often find themselves running into the teeth of the defense playside just as the cutback lane develops on the opposite side.
The cutback lane is part of the reason why, statistically and in theory, the ZBS should generate fewer carries that go for a loss compared to other run blocking schemes. Obviously that was not the case for the Seahawks this year, but over the next five months I’ll be digging into each and every one of the 295 rushing attempts by a Seattle running back over the course of the 2017 season that I didn’t look at here.
As I did in this piece, when there is blame to be assigned, I’ll do my best to assign blame, obviously within the constraint that I don’t know the exact assignment for every player on each play and so it’s largely an educated guess. Readers who have different interpretations of what they see on a play are more than welcome to offer their opinions and insights as well. It’s five more months until the preseason, so we’ve got plenty of void to fill with discussion and looking at every rushing attempt should certainly fill some of that time.