It’s probably not a great practice to preface articles like this, but I’ll level with you: this might not help you. Like at all. It might not help any of us, and that’s the point.
Right now, the Seahawks’ running game is in a bit of a transition stage. That’s a noticeable change from past years when Marshawn Lynch’s smash-mouth presence has been one of the few constants in an ever-changing running back landscape.
No position in today’s NFL, it seems, has more turnover than running back. Think of C.J. Anderson and DeMarco Murray. Both were incredible last year. Now where are they? If you own either in fantasy, they’re probably in your doghouse. And what about Devonta Freeman? A plodding underachiever in his first season, he’s taken the league by storm in year two. This position, for better or worse, is the ultimate dice roll.
With all that said, Thomas Rawls looked pretty darn good Sunday against the Bengals. That’s no small feat—Cincinnati entered Sunday’s game having allowed the sixth fewest rushing yards in the NFL on a per game basis. More importantly, the Bengals hadn’t allowed a rushing touchdown since last year’s Wild Card loss to Indianapolis. But enough about Cincinnati—Sunday belonged to Rawls.
Before delving into Rawls’ career day, it’s important to understand where he came from. Seattle made seven picks in this year’s draft. Rawls wasn’t one of them. The Seahawks signed Rawls, a Michigan transfer who wound up spending his senior year at Central Michigan, as an undrafted free agent.
In other words, Seattle didn’t bet the house on this guy. He was a dart throw through and through. Even when it looked like Rawls might make the team, Pete Carroll still had him pegged as the No. 4 back behind Lynch, Robert Turbin and Christine Michael. The latter two have since been traded.
The odds of Rawls becoming a fantasy asset were about as far-fetched as Tom Brady admitting fault in the Deflategate scandal. Yet here we are, five weeks into the season, asking ourselves without a shred of irony if Rawls deserves to be the Seahawks’ No. 1 running back.
It still feels borderline blasphemous to suggest such a thing given Beast Mode’s utter dominance over the last half-decade. But if you compare Lynch and Rawls side by side, you’ll find more than a few similarities. Take this first-quarter run, for example.
Our own Evan Silva did an insane amount of work prepping for this year’s draft. Here’s what he wrote about Rawls: “An angry, aggressive runner and consistent finisher, Rawls is extremely physical, almost to a fault.”
Sound familiar? Rawls is a Marshawn Lynch clone. They’re even listed at the same weight (215 pounds). Watch how many tackles Rawls breaks on his way to a 23-yard gain.
According to Pro Football Focus, Rawls has averaged 2.8 yards per carry after contact this year. Last season, Lynch averaged 3.0, third-best in the league behind Jordan Todman and Roy Helu. While smaller finesse runners will shy away from contact, Lynch and Rawls welcome it. That’s why they’re so hard to bring down.
There’s nothing special about this next run. All Rawls does is dive forward for two yards.
But in its simplicity, there’s a certain brilliance that’s being overlooked. The Seahawks aren’t going to wow you with big plays. They span the field incrementally, stacking run after run until the other team cries uncle. Efficient, chain-moving runs like this are the bedrock of Seattle’s offense.
Think of it this way. Every third-down conversion keeps Andy Dalton and A.J. Green off the field for another two or three minutes. That extra two or three minutes also gives the defense more time to recover. Of Rawls’ 23 carries Sunday, a whopping 21 of them went for positive yardage.
Rawls ran a 4.65 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine last winter. From that measure, it would be safe to assume Rawls isn’t especially fleet of foot. That’s a pretty massive shortcoming for an NFL running back and probably one of the reasons Rawls wasn’t drafted.
But as usual, 40 times don’t tell the whole story. Rawls looks plenty quick on this run to the outside for seven yards. Maybe he appeared faster because he was being chased down by 300-pound Geno Atkins, but I still think Rawls doesn’t get enough credit for his speed.
Speed and upper-body strength aren’t enough to ensure NFL success. To be an effective bellcow, you need great vision. Rawls took what the defense gave him on this play and turned it into 12 easy yards. Right tackle Garry Gilliam actually received a negative rating from Pro Football Focus for this game, but he did a nice job shielding Rawls on this play.
If you turn the volume up on this clip, you can hear Troy Aikman explain how this play came to fruition. Because Russell Wilson is always a threat to tuck and run, the Bengals are expecting a bootleg. Instead, he hands it off to Rawls for a big gain.
This is why mobile quarterbacks are such huge weapons. It was the mere threat of Wilson running that led to this first down. Give Rawls credit for squeezing every yard he could out of it.
As I mentioned earlier, there were very few instances when Rawls was stuffed at the line of scrimmage Sunday. In fact, this was the only play Rawls lost yardage on.
It looks like Rawls lost his footing, though Gilliam deserves some of the blame for letting Brandon Thompson reach the next level. Thompson didn’t end up making the tackle, but his presence was enough for Rawls to admit defeat before taking a one-yard loss. The good news is, this only happened once.
A whopping 116 of Rawls’ 169 yards Sunday came after half time. Eight of them came on this next play, which set up a third-and-short early in the third quarter.
Again, it’s not a highlight reel run, but there’s a lot to like about it. For one, Rawls gets a great block from center Drew Nowak, who completely takes Domata Peko out of the play. Then Rawls does exactly what a great runner should. He gets low to the ground and drives ahead, finishing about two yards shy of the first-down marker. Rey Maualuga has Rawls wrapped up at the 25 but Rawls is so strong he carries him forward for another two yards. In the NFL, those two yards are the difference between good and great.
Here’s another play that impressed me. Plays like this never get much attention but they’re so critical. As you can see, the Seahawks are pinned deep inside their own territory. It’s an awful scenario for an offense. Usually when this happens, the offense has no other goal in mind than to give the punter a few extra yards to boot it downfield.
The Seahawks did end up punting on this possession but not before getting a first down. Running the ball out of your end zone is a lot like walking a tight rope but Rawls does a nice job to plow forward for a positive gain. That extra breathing room, though seemingly insignificant, gave Wilson the confidence to throw on third down, leading to an eight-yard completion to Jermaine Kearse. Kudos to Rawls for grinding out those tough yards and avoiding the safety.
Now here’s the play you’ve all been waiting for. The Vine I made for this play didn’t do it justice, so here’s a better view from NFL.com.
— NFL (@NFL) October 11, 2015
A lot has to go right for a play like this to happen. Rawls gets a good initial block and cuts to the outside. When he gets there, Jermaine Kearse shields Rawls from Pacman Jones, essentially turning the play into a foot race between Rawls and Reggie Nelson. Nelson goes for broke and tries for a diving tackle, which doesn’t faze Rawls in the slightest.
Rawls’ 69-yard touchdown on this play stands as the second longest run in the NFL this year behind Ronnie Hillman’s 72-yarder in Week 4. It was a perfect storm of blocking, elusiveness, power and speed. Rawls exhibited all of these traits Sunday and he did it with ease.
Lynch could be back from his hamstring injury as soon as next week so this might be the last we see of Rawls as the workhorse. But if Sunday’s game was any indication, Rawls will be ready when it’s his turn to carry the torch.