UPDATE: 10:45 p.m. Tuesday: Multiple reports Tuesday night said Penny has a broken finger. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network said the rookie running back is headed to Philadelphia for a Wednesday surgery and is expected to miss three to four weeks. That makes Penny unlikely to play in Seattle’s opening game Sept. 9.
It has replaced “When is Earl Thomas going to show up?” as the most common question of this Seahawks preseason.
How is rookie Rashaad Penny’s pass blocking?
The most recent practice of training camp offered answers. To both.
Thomas is as far away from rejoining his team as he’s ever been. The All-Pro safety’s holdout to get a new contract reached its 15th practice day on Monday; Tuesday was a players day off from practicing. Thomas is up to $600,000 in daily fines for missing camp beginning on reporting day July 25.
The team can also fine Thomas now 24 percent of his prorated signing bonus for 2018, 24 percent of $1.9 million. That’s another $456,000. So Thomas is up to $1,056,000 in fines for camp, plus another $84,000 for skipping mandatory minicamp in June. Precedent with Kam Chancellor’s holdout in 2015 suggests the Seahawks are also going to collect from Thomas whenever he shows up.
Coach Pete Carroll had this terse answer when asked Sunday if the team had any recent conversations with Thomas or his representatives: “No.”
As for more pressing matters on the field with the players who are here: Penny, the running back and first-round draft choice from San Diego State, has shown improvement in his pass blocking in just the two practices since last week’s preseason opener against Indianapolis.
It’s the aspect of his game Penny must improve upon to cut into Chris Carson’s undeniable status as Seattle’s lead running back entering the regular season. That begins in 3 1/2 weeks, on Sept. 9 in Denver.
“It is a big deal,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said at the start of training camp about pass blocking by his running backs.
“It is really important. And it’ll keep a guy off the field if he can’t do it.”
Penny, major-college football’s national rushing leader last season with more than 2,200 yards and 23 touchdowns, had an impressive, 6-yard run past three Colts defenders late in the first quarter against the Colts. Two of those defenders could have tackled him in the backfield for a loss, but Penny’s vision and speed got him to the Indianapolis 5-yard line instead.
But on the next play, Penny had a highly visible miss on a pass block to end the first and only drive by Seattle’s starting offense. But quarterback Russell Wilson does what he’s often done the last three seasons. He escaped a pass rusher, scrambled to create a play and found tight end Nick Vannett on an improvisational route back to him in the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown.
Affer the game, Penny was asked the No.1 question of Seahawks camp, of course.
“To be honest, I really didn’t have a chance to pass protect today, because nobody blitzed,” he said.
Well, technically that’s true, at least the nobody-blitzed-him part.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said Monday the 5-foot-11, 236-pound Penny was assigned to cut block Colts defensive end Anthony Johnson after the Seahawks’ scheme sent right tackle Germain Ifedi blocking down and Penny out alone to stop Johnson, who was not blitzing on the play but playing his normal end responsibilities on a roll-out pass his way.
That’s an extremely tough ask: a running back blocking a defensive end who is four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier, in the open field near the goal line.
Penny whiffed on the block. He tried to take on Johnson with his hands and arms up high. Fortunately for Wilson and the Seahawks, Johnson moved inside Penny, who then got in enough of Johnson’s way that Wilson could run outside of them. That created the time for the touchdown pass.
“Yeah, again, he could have cut that guy. The design of it was to kind of cut him down and take his legs out,” Schottenheimer said. “He stayed up, but he finished. Russ kind of did what he does. He moved out of the way but that’s a good example for sure.”
A good example, that is, of what Penny must do better to be nearer the No.1 back many assumed he’d be when he became only the third running back Seattle had drafted in the first round. Curt Warner and Shaun Alexander were the others.
“I’ll tell you what, he’s really smart with all of the blitz pickups. He sees things really well. It’s just the technique stuff that he’s got to get better with,” Schottenheimer said. “Again, it’s just a whole different animal once you find your guy. Then you’ve got to be able to go move your feet, get into position, kind of take away his inside strike. There’s an art to it. And unfortunately it’s hard to practice that until you get pads on.
“So I will say again, from a knowing-who-he-has (standpoint), he’s been doing great. When they do the one-on-one pass-pro stuff, he’ll get beat from time to time. But I haven’t seen him check up one time. He wants to get back in there, and that’s when you know you’re going to have a great pass protector.”
Penny got back in there in practice on Monday. The Seahawks did a pass-rush drill of blitzing linebackers at running backs in the backfield. It’s another tough assignment: the backs are in a two-point stance, standing up behind the line. The linebackers sprint at them with a 5-yard head start then unleash an array of rip, swim and spin moves to get around them to the quarterback.
The linebackers do this all the time, and get paid handsomely for it. Most running backs do it only because they have to. Most of them get paid for how they run the ball, not block.
Penny got matched up with rookie linebacker Shaquem Griffin, a star of this Seahawks camp, heck, a star of this NFL preseason. Griffin has been sprinting through and past offensive players all month; he had a game-high nine tackles in his first pro game last week against Indianapolis.
Penny stonewalled Griffin. Twice. The first time, Griffin tried a quick spin move. Penny moved his feet smoothly to keep his shoulders squarely in front of Penny while parrying him away with his hands. The second time, Griffin tried to use his speed to get around Penny. Penny was equally quick and rode Griffin outside well past the would-be quarterback.
Penny was the first one of the running backs to win his pairings. He also repelled undrafted rookie linebacker Jake Pugh, whom the Seahawks in May paid the largest signing bonus of any rookie free agent, $15,000.
A few reps after Penny stopped Pugh, Pugh ran over running back Mike Davis. Davis was the Seahawks’ starting running back at the end of last season, after Carson got hurt.
That performance Monday may have come at a cost. Penny left practice soon after the drill. Reports Tuesday night said Penny has a broken finger. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network said the rookie running back is headed to Philadelphia for a Wednesday surgery and is expected to miss three to four weeks. That makes Penny unlikely to play in Seattle’s opener.
Tre Madden, a former linebacker then tailback at USC, is the Seahawks’ fullback because of his blocking. He’s noticed Penny’s rapid improvement at pass protection.
“He’s definitely impressed everyone,” Madden said. “He’s learning, fast. That was his focus coming into camp. You can definitely tell he has taken strides since day one.”
Penny was a tailback in a power-I formation at San Diego State. His college coaches didn’t need him or ask him to pass block much. Just run and catch the ball and gain yards.
So this pass-blocking aspect of the top rookie’s game is as new to him as it is vital to his playing time with the Seahawks in 2018.
“Throughout the whole camp, I think I’ve been doing a great job,” Penny said. “I’ve definitely improved from college.
“I know what’s at stake for me in pass protection. And I think I’ve been doing a really great job, just noticing the guys and me being physical and playing my game.”