The numbers and the eyes say what the Seahawks will not.
There’s an evolution underway with Seattle’s offense.
Almost a revolution, in fact.
For six years, coach Pete Carroll’s philosophy has been to punish foes with a running game that controls defenses and contests.
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This season, it’s been Russell Wilson’s Pass-a-palooza. At least by Seattle standards.
The Seahawks are 4-1 and leading the NFC West entering Sunday night’s test at top division-rival Arizona (3-3) despite dropping from first in the NFL in rushing offense this time last year to 25th now. Seattle is gaining just 88.8 yards rushing per game. That’s down from the 142.4 yards it was averaging last season after five games.
But that 2015 team was just 2-3, irreparably behind the Cardinals for the division title. Seattle was 26th in passing offense at this time last season. Now the Seahawks are 11th in the league in passing.
Wait, is 75 percent of the Seahawks’ 1,763 yards on offense (1,319 yards) through the air? Is Carroll’s run-first philosophy of his first six seasons leading Seattle now debunked?
The Seahawks’ offense is doing what its current roster is better at and more able to do right now because of injuries. .
This time last season, Thomas Rawls was leading the team in rushing with Marshawn Lynch out injured. Rawls was on his way to leading the NFL in yards per carry, and Christine Michael was on his way to getting cut by both Dallas and Washington that upcoming fall.
This year, Rawls missed three of the four preseason games coming back from a broken ankle that past December. Then, on Sept. 18 at Los Angeles, he got a crack in the fibula bone of his leg and hasn’t played since. Rawls, who is due back sometime in November, has just 25 yards rushing, while Michael has been almost all of the running game (354 of Seattle’s 444 rushing yards) in his second Seahawks’ go-round.
Wilson has played most of the season with either a sprained right ankle or a sprained ligament in his left knee. That has all but eliminated the quarterback’s running.
That’s a big deal to a rushing attack. Wilson’s 553 yards last season was just under one-fourth of Seattle’s total rushing in 2015 (24.4 percent). This season he has just 35 of the Seahawks’ 444 yards on the ground (7.9 percent) and is averaging just 1.7 yards per 21 carries. Last season he averaged 5.4 yards per rush.
Wilson is not even running on pass plays this season, which is partly why he is throwing more. He has scrambled for just one first down, whereas last season he scrambled for 19.
Wilson looked more mobile last weekend against Atlanta and said after the game, “I felt great.” But he was not at full speed; not with a brace still on his left knee, both ankles still heavily taped and him still doing rehabilitation on both legs.
Carroll was asked Monday if Wilson was getting close to a healthy point that he can be more of a factor in the run game.
“Well, I don’t know that it’s a question about that,” Caroll said. “We are calling the plays. We are calling stuff, and then he’s running boots (bootlegs) and nakeds (bootlegs with no blockers) and stuff like that, scrambles and all that.
“We are in the middle of it. He should be OK.”
But are they really calling the running plays?
At halftime Sunday, up 17-3 on Atlanta, Carroll and line coach/running-game coordinator Tom Cable made a plan to run the ball in the second half to shorten the game and protect the lead. Yet seven of the first eight plays offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell called after halftime were passes.
The ninth play showed how far the run has sunk. Third and 1 at the Atlanta 45 in a tie game, Michael took a handoff from Wilson and ran left -- but not for long. Left tackle Bradley Sowell’s block never mattered. Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett had already sliced through the middle of the line to drop Michael for no gain.
The Seahawks punted. The Falcons sustained their third-quarter momentum on the ensuing drive, scoring their third touchdown in the period for the lead.
Seattle gained 29 yards on 10 offensive plays in that third quarter while getting out-scored 21-0. Eight of the Seahawks’ 10 snaps were called passes; Wilson scrambled for 2 yards on the final snap of the game-turning quarter.
“We just didn’t run it enough,” Carroll said Monday.
“We were going to come back in the fourth quarter and run it 15 times in the fourth quarter and put the game away, which we always do. That’s how we do it. But the game didn’t go that way, and so Bev really sensed that we really were on it protection-wise, and so he was comfortable to throw the ball a lot in the second half. And we were moving the ball by controlling it that way. And so, that’s why we went that way.
“Then in the fourth quarter, we needed to come back. And I think it was really the confidence in the protection that allowed us to go the way we went. If we’d had stayed ahead, we’d had run the ball a ton in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t get a chance to do that.”
But the Seahawks were ahead for the final 41½ minutes of their previous game, Oct. 2 in the win at the New York Jets. Yet Wilson dropped back to throw 35 times that day while the Seahawks ran it 26 times.
The game before that, the blowout win over San Francisco, the Seahawks passed 34 times with 31 rushes – even though Wilson was out injured for the final 21 minutes with a sprained knee. The 49ers ran it as many times as Seattle did Sept. 25, despite trailing by two scores 11 minutes into the game and later by as much as 37-3.
Never mind what the Seahawks say, look at what they’ve done. Seattle has called 198 passes (which include 10 sacks and nine scrambles) and 131 runs (not including Wilson’s nine scrambles). That’s a 60.2 percent-to-39.8 percent split of pass to run in Bevell’s calls this season.
The Seahawks have gained 1,763 yards this season, 17 fewer than through five games last year. But Wilson is on pace for 4,269 yards passing. That would break his franchise record of 4,024 yards through the air in 2015.
The Seahawks are passing more because they are pass blocking better. The 2016 offensive line has new starters in four of the five positions: Sowell, Mark Glowinski at left guard, first-time center Justin Britt and rookie right guard Germain Ifedi. Only right tackle Garry Gilliam has returned from 2015. That much-maligned, scrutinized line has allowed 10 sacks through five games.
This time last year Wilson had been dumped 26 times already.
“Looks really good. Much improved,” Carroll said of the pass protection.
“Good improvement for us. At this time last year we were way above in the sack totals. So we’re well ahead and hopefully keep getting better and put together a good season of protecting the quarterback.”
Carroll was asked if this new line is simply better at pass blocking than run blocking. The coach wouldn’t go that far. He can’t – not with 11 regular-season games and perhaps the postseason ahead.
“No, no,” Carroll said. “I think the connection between how we are throwing the football and how Russell is getting the ball out has connected with the pass protection. This is not new this year. I keep telling you if you go back to the middle of last year and we made some great adjustments and some really nice decisions that were made by Tom and Darrell and the fellas on the offensive staff to put this thing in the kind of mode that it’s in now. What we really hope to do is really capture what had happened in the second half of the season. And we are on those numbers or maybe ahead of this numbers right now.
“So things are going in the right directions.”
For the passing game. And for the offense, in general.
That’s what makes these different – yet still winning -- Seahawks days.
SEAHAWKS’ NEXT OPPONENT
ARIZONA CARDINALS (3-3)
5:25 p.m. Sunday, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
Line: Seahawks by 6 1/2.
Against the Seahawks: This is the 35th meeting between the NFC West rivals, with each team winning 17 times in the series. The Cardinals have lost three in a row at home to Seattle by a combined score of 105-34. That includes Arizona’s 36-6 loss Jan. 3 in the 2015 regular-season finale after the Cardinals had already clinched the division title and took quarterback Carson Palmer and other starters out of the game after Seattle’s dominant first half. Arizona’s last home win was on Sept. 9, 2012, a 20-16 win in which quarterback Kevin Kolb rallied the Cardinals late in Russell Wilson’s first regular-season start for the Seahawks.
What to know: Still among the most talented teams in the league, the Cardinals have rebounded from a 1-3 start with two consecutive wins: Monday night in Palmer’s return from a concussion and one over woeful San Francisco while Drew Stanton completed just 39 percent of his throws. ... Arizona is just 1-2 at home this season, losing to New England without Tom Brady in the final seconds in the opener and then to Los Angeles when the Rams knocked out Palmer. … In a switch, the Cardinals are the NFL’s fourth-best rushing offense but only 18th in passing. … Palmer left Monday’s 28-3 win after his touchdown pass for Arizona’s final points, with what his team first described as a strained hamstring. Palmer said after the game he was cramping because of dehydration. He completed 23 of 34 passes against the Jets. Palmer is throwing for 19 fewer yards per game on average this season over 2015, and half the rate of touchdown passes. Last season, the 36-year old set career highs of 4,671 yards passing, 35 touchdowns and a passer rating of 104.6. He had 11 interceptions all of last season and has five through five games this season. He’s been sacked 12 times in five games, as opposed to 25 times in 16 games last season. ... Running back David Johnson has been a beast this season, with 558 yards rushing, 113 yards per game, and an NFL-leading eight touchdowns. He’s third in the league in rushing yards, and will be the biggest threat to Seattle’s league-leading defense on the ground yet this season. Johnson is also a weapon as a receiver, and leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage (833). … Arizona defensive back Patrick Peterson told NFL Network Johnson runs like Walter Payton. …Larry Fitzgerald, 33, remains Arizona’s leading receiver this season. He is third in the NFL with 37 catches and co-leading the league with five TDs receptions. … WR Jaron Brown has been the deep threat, averaging 17 yards per catch. … Arizona is tied for fourth in total defense and is third against the pass – but is 17th against the run, allowing 104 yards per game on the ground. ... The Cardinals are getting after quarterbacks again. Second-year LB Markus Golden is tied for fourth in the NFL with six sacks off the edge, and Arizona’s 19 sacks are tied with undefeated Minnesota for third in the league. Arizona’s secondary led by Peterson is allowing opposing passer a combined rating of 65.8, second-best in the league just behind Minnesota (65.3). By comparison Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” and defense is allowing a passer rating of 74.9, fourth in the NFL.
Quotable: 'It doesn't matter if it's on the road or at home, we've got to beat them. If we're going to win the division, we've got to beat them.'' – Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who has yet to beat the Seahawks at home in his three-plus seasons leading Arizona.