'Pizza theory,' 'iso lead' helped spring Seahawks RB Thomas Rawls

Thomas Rawls averaged 6 yards per carry in the Seahawks' win over the Lions this past Saturday. Steve Dykes/Getty Images

RENTON, Wash. -- In his first postseason game, Seattle Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls ran 27 times for 161 yards.

He was asked what it meant to break Marshawn Lynch's franchise record for rushing yards in a playoff game.

"It means a lot. Marshawn? Marshawn Lynch?" Rawls said before taking a long pause. "Looked up to him. Still do."

During the regular season, the Seahawks struggled to maintain any kind of consistency from their run game. They averaged 3.95 yards per carry (24th in NFL) and had 10 games in which they failed to rush for at least 100 yards. From 2012-15, that happened just nine times total.

So how did Rawls get going last week against the Detroit Lions? And can he deliver a repeat performance Saturday against the Atlanta Falcons?

Legendary offensive line coach Howard Mudd, who has a new book out ("The View from the O-Line: Football According to NFL Offensive Linemen and an Uncommon Coach"), helped break down Rawls' big day.

The pizza theory

When the Seahawks signed Marcel Reece before Week 14, there was little reason to believe he'd be a difference-maker down the stretch. Seattle had drifted away from runs that involved the fullback, and the team didn't add Reece until Will Tukuafu suffered a concussion.

During the regular season, Rawls ran the ball 109 times, and only seven of those carries (for 5 yards) came out of the I-formation with a fullback.

But this past Saturday was a different story.

"That was the plan going in -- to get [Reece] a little more involved now that he’s been here a couple weeks," said Tom Cable, assistant head coach/offensive line coach. "Just normal ball for us. If you think about it, we looked more like we’ve always looked."

Rawls ran the ball 10 times for 68 yards (6.8 YPC) out of the I-formation with Reece as his lead blocker. And their go-to play out of this look was "iso lead," a run that has been in the playbook but was rarely used during the regular season.

The Seahawks were in 22 personnel here (two running backs, two tight ends). Left guard Mark Glowinski and center Justin Britt executed a double-team, and Glowinski peeled off to block the linebacker.

Reece's job was to lead Rawls through the hole and block the other linebacker.

"The fullback is leading on the first linebacker, and the line blocks the second linebacker from the outside in, meaning from the left to the right," Mudd said. "They call it a 'bob' play. The old way, you called it something-bob -- 25 bob or something. Bob means back on 'backer.

"The linemen are zone-blocking, and the fullback’s man-blocking. Because the [left guard's] starting a double-team and he comes off on the off-side backer."

This play gained 14 yards, and the Seahawks ran iso lead seven times for 47 yards (6.4 YPC). Overall, they had a lot of success with Reece as a lead blocker.

"He knows how to target that thing," Cable said. "And he can do what’s called read off the block. So if a lineman’s in a combination, he can read off that. And if we take his, he takes ours. We call it the 'pizza theory.' If you take my piece of pizza, I’ll take yours. And he’s really good at it."

Suddenly, Reece, a player who was not even on the roster a month ago, looks like he will have a prominent role going forward.

Adding a wrinkle

The Seahawks' go-to run is inside zone. They got advantageous looks for this play and went to it often.

Here, the Seahawks were in 11 personnel (one running back, one TE), and the Lions had two deep safeties. This is a major difference from what Seattle will see in the divisional round. The Falcons are a single-high safety team, which gives them an extra defender to play the run.

Seahawks coaches talk often about how the run game is not just about the offensive line. Tight ends and wide receivers have to do their parts as well. On this particular play, the tight end is often asked to help block an edge defender.

But in this instance, the Seahawks had Luke Willson block the linebacker.

This was not a shotgun run in which Russell Wilson was reading the edge defender. And the scheme allowed Willson to get a favorable matchup.

"This covers everything so the tight end doesn’t squeeze down from the right," Mudd said. "If you had him squeezing down from the right, this would be full zone. And the tight end would stay out there. They can’t read the defensive end that’s outside the right tackle because the quarterback’s underneath center. So they just man-blocked that side, put the tight end in on the offside ‘backer and then took the center, left guard, left tackle and committed them to the defensive tackle, the defensive end and that ‘backer (No. 54)."

The Lions were in full pass-rush mode on this play, opening up a huge hole, and Rawls picked up 9 yards. It was a good wrinkle to an existing concept.

"What’s really different from last week than the whole year, we just did it better," Cable said. "We did it with more consistency. We were right more often. How we’ve looked, what we ran, absolutely nothing different than Game 1 or fall camp Day 1. We don’t do that. We don’t change."

What's next?

The Seahawks' best chance for beating the Falcons is to run the ball effectively. Stringing together long drives would keep Matt Ryan and Atlanta's high-powered offense off the field. And an efficient run game opens up Seattle's play-action passing attack.

The Lions ranked 32nd in defensive efficiency during the regular season, and certainly part of last week's success had to do with Detroit's poor execution.

The good news for the Seahawks is that the Falcons ranked 29th against the run and allowed opponents to average 4.52 YPC. But Dan Quinn's team improved defensively later in the season.

Reece is dealing with a foot injury, and even if he plays, he'll be banged up. Wilson ditched his knee brace last week, but he still has not been a factor with his legs. The offensive line, meanwhile, has struggled to find consistency all season.

Rawls played great versus the Lions, piling up 72 yards after contact. On several runs, the blocking was far from perfect, but he still picked up positive yardage.

The Seahawks will need another good game plan versus the Falcons, and Rawls will have to be just as effective if Seattle is going to pull off the upset.