BY Doug Farrar 08:17PM 12/05/2010

Hawks gain momentum with redefined running game

Marshawn Lynch tallies three touchdowns behind dynamic blocking as the Seahawks mount a late comeback

Marshawn Lynch scores one of his three rushing touchdowns against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, December 5, 2010, at Qwest Field. (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

Inspiration can come from interesting places. Perhaps Justin Forsett, who stands 5-8 on a very good day, might have seen Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew — the new patron saint for all vertically-challenged running backs at 5-7 – put up a career-high 186 yards against the Tennessee Titans’ fast front seven. If so, maybe he thought he might have a similar story to tell against the Carolina Panthers if the Seahawks’ long-dormant running game could establish itself in time to continue an improbable playoff run. Or maybe it was just time for Seattle’s vision of Pocket Hercules to zoom through a few overwhelmed lines once again.

And perhaps the presence of Walter Jones, who had his number retired at the game, got Seattle’s long-beleaguered offensive line in step just enough to put up the best single-game rushing total enjoyed by the Seahawks all season.

When Big Walt is watching, you never know.

Regardless of what informed this change in latitude and attitude from the Seahawks team that had been tripping over itself most of the last month whenever it did try to run the ball, it’s safe to say that everybody got their heads straight about it in Seattle’s 31-14 win over the 1-10 Panthers. Despite an embarrassing 14-0 deficit through most of the second quarter, the Seahawks stuck with a balanced game plan they haven’t had in recent weeks and dominated on the ground with a season-high 161 rushing yards. Just one week after the offense’s 20-yard debacle against the Kansas City Chiefs, a return to form was mandatory against a Panthers secondary that constantly challenged, and with a Seahawks receiver corps missing Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu with in-game injuries.

Justin Forsett dared the Panthers to take him down all day. (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

“Well, we know what we’re capable of when we do it, and we had the opportunities today,” said Forsett, who gained 60 yards in just six carries. “We maximized those opportunities – the O-line did one heck of a job – and it’s good when you get the chemistry of the guys who have been here for a while. This is the second time all year that our guys have been together in back-to-back weeks, and it’s been crucial to us. It’s definitely motivation and confidence for next week.”

For Marshawn Lynch, who led the team with 83 yards on 21 carries and was finally able to show the famed “Beast Mode” version of power running he claims as his own for the first time in a long time, that kind of run game brings a sense of security to the whole team.

“You know when you get your car, sometimes you’ve got to click the starter a couple of times to get it going. But when you jump in there and it gets going, you just say, ‘Yes, I know I can get to work in time; I know it’s going to be a good day.’ And that’s how I felt with the running game when we had it going.”

And it was a good thing thay did have it going. Beyond the specter of getting an averse start turned around, there was also the matter of some very leaky pass protection from a line that has done fairly well over the last few weeks. Matt Hasselbeck was sacked twice, but he was hit far more often when trying to release the ball, and that led to misfires and interceptions. When tackle Sean Locklear allowed a pressure from end Charles Johnson with 3:54 left in the first quarter, Hasselbeck’s delivery was altered on what otherwise may have been a successful deep route to Deon Butler. Charles Godfrey’s pick of a Hasselbeck throw to Ben Obomanu late in the second quarter was yet another example of this phenomenon. The Panthers’ linebackers drop more than they blitz, and they have into this game with just 18 quarterback sacks. But there were times when Seattle’s line seemed all too eager to show them how to bring pressure with four.

Still, that second-half comeback, in which the Seahawks scored three touchdowns in less than five minutes of third-quarter game clock, was a template for how winning teams, even 6-6 teams doing so against 1-10 squads, are able to persevere.

“We came in at halftime; we had already lost our two starting wide receivers, and we were already without (inactive tight end) John (Carlson),” Hasselbeck said of how the challenge was answered. “Pete (Carroll) was in the locker room, called up the offense, called up the defense, and really was just preaching what he was preaching all week about finishing. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. You can’t win in the first, second, and third quarter – you can win in the fourth, so it’s how you finish … the coaches came out with probably the most adjustments we’ve made at a halftime in terms of running the ball, formations, personnel – mostly because of injury but also because some things popped by accident. We were able to focus on what we were doing going forward and not dwell on anything else.”

That worked for an offense that enjoyed two Lynch touchdown runs of the one-yard variety; those plays seemed to negate some of the legitimate concerns about the team’s inability to sock anything in when needed in goal-line and short yardage situations. But it was just as much about the defense — especially when Lofa Tatupu jumped a Jimmy Clausen pass to fullback Tony Fiammetta and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown with 9:26 left in the third quarter. It was the score that put the Seahawks up for the first time in the game with a 17-14 mark, and the team never looked back. Lynch’s second one-yarder, and a third touchdown run of 22 yards in the fourth quarter, made the game all but academic.

“We just played a lot of things out, and I was fortunate enough to be the man with man coverage on the fullback at the time. It was kind of a pick route, which usually allows the fullback to get out over into the flat, usually by himself or with a man trailing. I just got over clean enough where I said, ‘If the quarterback throws this ball and I turn around, I’m going. And I’m just going to take my shot.’”

However, the Seahawks couldn’t call their shots in defense early in the game. Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart was a particular problem on every kind of run. He and the powerful Carolina line seemed to have their way inside, with center Ryan Kalil exhibiting particularly powerful blocking; and outside, when Stewart would bounce outside with broken tackles as his accompaniment. Even star defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, who was very familiar with the Oregon alum when he tried to stop him back at Cal, saw a different back in this case.

“Man, Stewart is just a really good running back,” Mebane said after the game. “We didn’t really underestimate him, but we really didn’t look at him like he was one of the premier backs in the NFL. Not to say he wasn’t good in college, but he’s a totally different back now. He keeps running – just because you hit him once doesn’t mean he’s slowing down.”

This was proven especially true on a run Stewart had halfway through the third quarter in which he covered about 25 yards going back and forth, evading tackles. Though the Seahawks defense did start to shut things down in the second half, they were also the beneficiaries of a Panthers team that started to throw more and more as the game got out of hand. The Seahawks still have those same issues with opposing offenses getting yards per line push off the snap, and that problem isn’t going away anytime soon. The Panthers were clearly probing the 5-tech right defensive end gap that the Seahawks are still trying to fill in Red Bryant’s wake. And Seattle’s final four opponents – the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and St. Louis Rams – are all known to run the ball fairly well.

Leon Washington is about to get caught short on a long punt return. (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

The Seahawks also mixed comedy and productivity when Leon Washington lost a sure 86-yard punt return touchdown by slowing down and showboating near the goal line, allowing Panthers punter Jason Baker to trip him up at the Carolina two-yard line. Washington was chastened, but kept a sense of humor about the whole thing.

“Next time, I’m just gonna pull a Forrest Gump and run clean through the stadium.”

With four games left in a season that keeps getting pulled out of the drain at the very last second, the Seahawks are still in control of their own destiny. And if the fans are driven somewhat batty by the “Cardiac Kids” nature of the division chase, they should seek solace in the idea that, at their very heart, the Seahawks don’t seem to mind at all. They’re just happy to win another round.