Since Rashaad Penny took over as the Seahawks' starting running back in Week 14, their rushing attack has exploded. From that point forward, Seattle finished the year averaging more expected points added per attempt in the run game over the pass: 0.16 EPA per carry (excluding quarterback runs) and 0.14 EPA per throw.
There is a narrative that the Seahawks faced a poor quality of run defense over this five-game stretch. In the basic yards per rush allowed category, that certainly looks to be true:
- Texans 4.62 yards per rush (27th)
- Rams 3.96 (5th)
- Bears 4.40 (19th)
- Lions 4.43 (21st)
- Cardinals 4.58 (26th)
Getting more advanced changes the picture slightly. Per TruMedia, here’s how the quintuplet of opponents finished in defensive total rush EPA (note: this includes aborted plays and kneel downs):
- Texans 33.10 (26th)
- Rams 65.69 (7th)
- Bears 43.05 (20th)
- Lions 41.45 (22nd)
- Cardinals 66.26 (5th)
That’s some variance for Arizona...
Anyway, regardless of opponent quality, in each week of Penny’s incredible performances, the Seahawks' offense looked to add wrinkles—or “dressing,” as center Ethan Pocic described in his end-of-season press conference—to the presentation of their core run concepts in order to stay ahead of defenses. The results speak for themselves.
The final game of the season versus the Cardinals saw the Seahawks attach routes to a pistol, 12-personnel slot trips formation wide zone run. This exploited Arizona’s defensive style, specifically its blitzing and bootleg contain. Seattle's crafty Xs and Os maneuver ended up providing the kill-shot: Penny’s 62-yard touchdown carry to seal an upset victory.
“I think Shane [Waldron] did a great job of mixing things up and keeping defenses off-balance,” left tackle Duane Brown said in his exit presser. “You know Arizona did a really good job of trying to blitz us up, and we made them pay for it.”
First up, we have a 1st and 10, six-yard run by Penny early in the game that could have been so much more. Arizona showed a pressure look off the trips-side edge.
Seattle, by having tight end Gerald Everett—aligned off the line of scrimmage in a wider, two-yard split—leak out on a route to the flat, removed linebacker Isaiah Simmons from the line of scrimmage and run pursuit. Simmons had to match this route as part of the pressure coverage, given the Cardinals were sending five rushers rather than four.
Meanwhile, quarterback Russell Wilson’s rollout after his wide zone handoff commanded the attention of Chandler Jones—the edge tasked with containing the quarterback first and foremost. This erased the other Arizona defender on the backside of the concept.
However, right tackle Jake Curhan was looking to reach block the man aligned on his outside in zone away, 5-technique Michael Dogbe. This saw Curhan lock out and finish with Dogbe on his outside, setting an edge to Penny’s potential cutback.
Penny still had a large lane to hit between Curhan on his right and the left-sided wash of center Ethan Pocic and right guard Phil Haynes. However, Pocic lost his block as Penny cut and, in a rare moment, the running back was brought down by an arm tackle. Nevertheless, the seeds for greater cutback potential were planted.
A similar near-miss for the Seahawks' offense arrived on a 2nd and 7 in the third quarter. Damien Lewis, at left guard, was matched up one-on-one and allowed penetration from an aggressive Dogbe, who was moving inside from 3-technique. That was okay! It just forced Penny to cut back.
While Everett’s wide split release on a route did not hold the backside edge defender, Simmons was instead occupied by Wilson’s deceptive bootleg rollout.
For the C-gap to be opened, Brown just needed to move and stick the head-up 4-technique Devon Kennard inside—easier said than done. Unfortunately, Brown was shock-and-slipped off his block as Penny executed his cutback to avoid the backfield presence of Dogbe.
Penny’s movement was so sudden and sharp that the leverage for Brown was difficult. Brown’s man, Kennard, ended up bringing Penny down, leaving the left tackle looking furious after the snap. This was another potential big gain just thwarted.
The big touchdown, then, was more a case of the Seahawks avoiding third-time misfortunes as opposed to getting lucky. On this occasion, Arizona did not have a 5-tech or 4-tech defensive edge, instead opting for a wide 9-technique and a 3-technique, with Simmons mugging the open C-gap.
Everett’s release into the flat removed Simmons from the play, with the Cardinals once more sending five other guys as blitzers.
Pocic secured nose tackle Rashard Lawrence. Haynes and Curhan beautifully double-teamed 3-technique Corey Peters. With Penny pressing his wide zone path, linebacker Jordan Hicks was left firmly pursuing the other A-gap and the run direction to his right—the offense’s left.
Then Penny cut it back, enjoying the wash of the Haynes-Curhan combo.
The only player that could have made the play was Kennard, yet he—already aligned in a wide 9-technique—was essentially stuck in the D-gap while worrying about Wilson as a runner.
This D-gap was already ultra-wide because of Everett’s two-yard split. Subsequently, the C-gap was gaping open for Penny thanks to the attached route of Everett. And from there, Penny’s staggering explosive ability dominated.
The size and speed combination of Penny was beautifully captured by the SeahawksVideos account on YouTube. Even in the NFL, that's a different level of athletic gifts:
In the Arizona game, Penny rushed for a career-high 190 yards—the second-highest total of any running back this season—and was named FedEx Ground Player of the Week for the second consecutive week. Penny ended the 2021 campaign rushing for 130 or more yards in four of his final five games. He also finished with six rushing touchdowns. Finally, his 6.3 yards per carry on the season finished on top of the NFL charts.
Penny’s explosion notwithstanding, it is virtually impossible for the Seahawks' offense to sustain this level of run game efficiency as they head into the 2022 season. However, if the front office is able to bring back the core contributors, the cohesion sticks and offensive coordinator Shane Waldron and run game coordinator Andy Dickerson keep tweaking elements for each opponent, then Seattle's rushing attack will still pose a lot of talent and schematic issues for defenses moving forward.
For more on Rashaad Penny and the Seahawks' run game explosion, read: