RENTON, Wash. — When the Seattle Seahawks reconvened for the start of their offseason program in mid-April, running backs coach Chad Morton had a sit-down with Chris Carson to discuss what might end up being the most significant shift to Seattle’s offense in Year 2 under coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
Morton’s message: Expect to be used more often in the passing game.
As in about twice as often.
The Seahawks might or might not throw the ball more in 2019 after dropping back on the lowest percentage of their offensive snaps (50.5%, per ESPN charting) of any team in the NFL last season. But they will throw the ball more to Carson and their other running backs, including 2018 first-round pick Rashaad Penny.
If that wasn’t clear from watching the offseason program and the first three weeks of training camp, comments from the coaching staff have left no doubt.
“That’s something that we went to right after the season ended and said, ‘Hey, look, Chris can help us win games a lot of ways and one of [the] ways that he wasn’t last year was in the passing game,'” Schottenheimer said, recalling the April meeting between Carson and Morton. “He and Chad, the minute Chris came back, had something to talk about. Chris was really excited about it.”
Schottenheimer then sounded the fantasy football siren when he said the ideal number of targets for Carson is “up around the 50s,” which would more than double the 23 he got last season. That total was tied for 56th among running backs. It was second fewest among the nine backs who rushed for at least 1,000 yards, and it was less than a fifth of Christian McCaffrey‘s 125 targets, which led all running backs.
Mike Davis, who left for the Chicago Bears in free agency, led Seattle with 42 targets last season while handling the majority of the third-down snaps. As a team, the Seahawks’ 85 targets to running backs were the second fewest in the league and down from 109 during Darrell Bevell’s final season as coordinator in 2017.
“Because we have such good receivers,” Morton said when asked why Seattle incorporated its backs so infrequently into the passing game last season. “It’s hard to get the ball to everybody.”
Indeed, Tyler Lockett had the best season of his career and Doug Baldwin remained an impact receiver despite a handful of injuries that led to his unofficial retirement. And there are only so many targets to go around in an offense as run-heavy as Seattle’s.
Baldwin’s departure changes the dynamic of Seattle’s receiver corps. Quarterback Russell Wilson might have the best collection of deep threats he has ever thrown to in Lockett, David Moore and rookie DK Metcalf. But the short-to-intermediate passing game — where Baldwin used to make a living — might need the running backs to pick up the slack.
Penny was split out wide on the final play of a practice last week when Wilson hit him for a touchdown against an all-out blitz. During an earlier practice, Carson caught three TDs in a red-zone period, then hauled in two screens during a team drill, including one that he plucked out of the air with his left hand on a throw that was behind him. He makes one-handed grabs with the same ease as some of the NFL’s stickiest-fingered receivers. Coach Pete Carroll has said Carson’s hands are as good as anyone on the team.
“Oh, he’s freaky with that kind of stuff,” Morton said. “He’s got unbelievable hands, and it’s just a shame because we just haven’t put him on a lot of the passing stuff. It just wasn’t a huge part of our offense last year, but now we’re seeing what he’s able to do, him and Penny. Penny can catch. All those guys can catch really well. Now it’s just a matter of showing it and just doing it every day, just being consistent with it and just knowing when we call your number of some of these one-on-one routes that you win and that you catch the ball.”
Carson will remain the clear-cut No. 1 option, but Penny is expected to be a bigger factor that he was during his underwhelming rookie season. Davis’ departure clears the way for Penny to assume the No. 2 role, and Carson’s long injury history suggests it’s anything but a given that he’ll be available for all 16 games.
Penny has shared his vision of he and Carson becoming the new version of the one-two punch the Saints had with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Those two helped New Orleans lead the league in receptions by running backs over the past two seasons.
“I’ve been saying that since Day 1,” he said of the Kamara-Ingram comparison. “They’ve just gotta go out there and prove it now. The biggest thing is that those guys can’t press trying to do too much because that’s what always happens when you start splitting the backfield. When they get their chance, they want to make a big play. Just stick to what you’re doing, stick to the details of the position on each play and you’ll be fine, and we can start putting up those kinds of numbers. That’s what we expect from those guys.”