It seemed so easy for Kenneth Walker III when he took over as the Seahawks starting running back in the fifth game of his rookie season.
On his third carry after Rashaad Penny went out with a season-ending fibula injury at New Orleans on Oct. 9, Walker dashed 69 yards for a touchdown.
Two weeks later, in just his second start, he turned in a 74-yard run to clinch a win in Los Angeles against the Chargers, part of a game in which he rushed for 167 yards. For context, that is more than Marshawn Lynch ever did in a game as a Seahawk.
But maybe it all came too easily for Walker, the 41st overall pick in April out of Michigan State.
Or, maybe, those runs and performances compelled opponents to take an even closer look at what they’d need to do to contain Walker.
Something, certainly, has changed since that Chargers game, after which Walker had the same yards per carry — 6.1 — as did Penny.
Because since that Chargers game, it’s been mostly a slog for Walker and Seattle’s running game.
Walker has just 203 yards on 68 carries in the four games since the win over the Chargers — 2.9 per attempt.
That includes 43 yards on 24 carries in losses the last two games against the Bucs in Munich and Sunday against the Raiders at Lumen Field, all of which has brought his yards-per-carry down to 4.5.
So who or what is to blame?
Coach Pete Carroll largely put it on the offensive line for Sunday’s game when Walker had touchdown runs of 14 and 12 yards — and a combined zero yards on his other 12 attempts.
“We struggled a little bit on some pickups and stuff that we haven’t been (struggling with),” Carroll said. “They were able to get some penetration that we haven’t seen and they did a nice job with that. We couldn’t get Kenneth started as well as we had. Again, that was not the same case with what happened a week ago, but they are all things that we know how to do and have done well, so we have to get back at it.”
One way to measure that Walker often had little room to run the last few weeks is Pro Football Reference’s Yards Before Contact stat. Seattle is averaging 3.0 yards before contact for the season, tied for eighth-best in the NFL.
But Walker has averaged just 0.9 and 0.8 yards before contact the last two weeks, his two lowest totals of the season. He averaged 2.9 against the Chargers and 3.2 when he had 109 yards rushing at Arizona on Nov. 6. He is now at 2.6 for the season. Penny averaged 3.0 yards before contact before he was injured.
Carroll, though, didn’t let Walker totally off the hook, indicating that at times Walker maybe has to be content with taking a shorter — but surer — gain instead of aiming to break a big one.
“He’s trying,” Carroll said Monday. “He’s really going for it. He’s going to find more consistency for us. And there are times when he is looking to bust something when we could maybe hit it up in there. But we have to let him use his instincts because they are phenomenal. He’s going to scorch just like he did on the first touchdown play (a 12-yard TD Sunday), which was a phenomenal play. We just need to be more consistent. Probably more runs will help him. We had 20-something (23 as a team); we would like to get more. We need to balance the run and the pass better than we did over the last two weeks.”
Certainly, the Seahawks have to figure out something, While the run defense may be the bigger issue plaguing them right now, the inability to run on offense and sustain long drives hasn’t helped.
Seattle was 4 of 18 on third downs the past two games with the Bucs and Raiders running a combined 38 more plays than the Seahawks.
And a lot of that was due to an inability to run it well on first down, resulting in an inordinate amount of third-and-longs. Seattle converted on all three of its third downs of 4 yards or shorter Sunday, but failed on all six of 5 yards or longer.
Nine of Walker’s 14 rushes came on first-and-10, and five resulted in a gain of three or less, with a total of 19 (though one of his first-and-10 runs was his 14-yard TD in the third quarter).
And the tasks don’t necessarily get easier as Seattle heads into the final six games of the season.
Four of Seattle’s final six opponents rank seventh or better in the NFL in yards allowed per carry — the 49ers (first, 3.3), Rams, whom Seattle plays twice (fourth, 3.9) and Jets (seventh, 4.1). The Chiefs also rank 14th at 4.3, essentially tied with the Raiders (12th at 4.3).
The only team left on Seattle’s schedule not to rank in the top half of the NFL in fewest yards allowed per rush is Carolina, which is 21st at 4.6. The Panthers, though, two weeks ago held a Ravens team that ranks third in the NFL in yards per carry at 5.3 to just 115 on 30 attempts.
Seattle may catch a break against LA with star tackle Aaron Donald dealing with a high ankle sprain and possibly out for Sunday’s game at SoFi Stadium.
Still, a Rams defense led by former Seahawk Bobby Wagner figures to present a stiff challenge against the run, having just held the Chiefs to no run of longer than 9 yards in 26 attempts from its running backs.
But while Walker may have had little room to run against the Raiders, to what Carroll felt was Walker’s immense credit, Walker shouldered his share of the blame.
“I just feel like we haven’t been executing well,” Walker said. “The running backs, myself included, we just haven’t executed well in the run game.”
And to Carroll, that comment spoke volumes.
“He’s really team oriented; he holds himself accountable,” Carroll said. “There’s an illustration of that. He’s not going to try to duck and dodge anything. He is going to take it right on, straight up. It’s going to accelerate the process. He’s not going to be ducking and dodging the issues. He’s going to be going right at it, and give you everything that he’s got, and he won’t back away.”