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Clayton: What Seahawks need from run game to return to playoffs in 2018

Seahawks RB Chris Carson had a strong 2017 season cut short by injury. (AP)

During the Seahawks’ OTAs, new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer talked about the importance of a running game. Part of the reason Schottenheimer was hired, of course, was to bring back the running attack that has been missing since Marshawn Lynch left the team after the 2015 season.

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Some national writers criticized Schottenheimer for being outdated and old school, saying his philosophy fits the 1970s, not the late 2010s.

That criticism is wrong. The importance of the running game has become more pronounced in the past couple of years even though the NFL is a quarterback-driven league.

The running game will be the thing to watch this year if the Seahawks hope to make the playoffs. Though the numbers didn’t show it last year because of bad blocking, running back injuries and some poor running, the talent in the backfield isn’t bad. In fact, it’s pretty good.

I still go back to last year’s training camp. Most observers thought the backfield was talented enough that Alex Collins was the fifth-best back on the roster behind Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise, Chris Carson and Mike Davis. Collins was cut and ended up gaining 973 yards with the Baltimore Ravens.

Carson ended up being the starter and he might have had a 1,000-yard had he stayed healthy. There’s hope he can do that this year, and he and Rashaad Penny have been the stars of this year’s offseason program.

Here is the challenge. Going back to the Lynch days, the Seahawks figured to get between 500 and 525 rushing carries. They had 403 and 408 carries the past two years.

Now look at what that has done to their point differential.

In 2014, the Seahawks outscored teams by 140 points. In 2015, they outscored opponents by 144 points. But they dropped into the 400s for total points over the past two season, the differential fell to 62 in 2016 and 34 last season. That’s the difference between an 11-win season and a nine-win season – and it was only nine because of Russell Wilson. A great quarterback can get a less talented team to at least eight or nine wins.

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The Seahawks rushed for 1,629 yards last year. If they can get to 2,000 – and it is possible – they could end up getting point differentials back towards 100-plus. If that’s the case, the Seahawks could figure to win between nine and 11 games in 2018.

Look at the impact of an improved running attack. The Dallas Cowboys got a 1,631-yard season out of Ezekiel Elliott as a rookie in 2016, and their point differential jumped from minus-99 the year before to plus-115. In 2017, Leonard Fournette rushed for 1,040 yards, giving the Jaguars the ability to have a ground game. They went from minus-82 in point differential to plus-149 – and ended up in the AFC title game.

If you look at fantasy projections for backs, many sites are saying Penny might gain over 900 yards. Penny isn’t a guarantee to start because Carson looks so good, but he will see plenty of action as a rookie. C.J. Prosise and J.D. McKissic could be third-down options while Mike Davis is a quality backup.

The ideal would be for the Carson-Penny combo to come close to what Saints had last year – Mark Ingram rushed for 1,124 yards and Alvin Kamara rushed for 728. That’s too much to ask, but don’t forget the Seahawks can expect more than 300 rushing yards from Russell Wilson. If they can get 1,500 yards combined from Penny and Carson, the Seahawks could get the team back to nine- or 10-win level.

Which Seahawks are in the hot seat in 2018?

John Clayton on 710 ESPN Seattle
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