Sorry, Mom. Chris Carson may be leaping again as Seahawks throw to him more this season

By Gregg Bell

The News Tribune

Chris Carson has promised his mother. Again.

Dina Rowe picked up this spring where she left off last season, when her son was romping—and leaping—to 1,151 yards rushing for the Seahawks and the NFL’s top rushing offense.

“Stay on the ground,” Carson’s mom told him on the phone in Seattle’s visiting locker room on the Sunday last November her son astoundingly leaped over Carolina safety Eric Reid.

Carson flipped feet over head, landed on his feet and continued running for a first down in that win at the Panthers.

“You give me a heart attack,” she told her son.

So is Carson going to shut down the leaping in 2019?

“No,” he said.

“I mean, I promised her that. But it is what it is. If it happens it happens.”

If the Seahawks’ plans become reality this season, Carson will be taking to the air even more in year two with Brian Schottenheimer as his offensive coordinator.

Asked what he sees as the biggest difference in the Seahawks’ offense this year after Schottenheimer’s initial season calling the plays for Seattle, Carson shook his head approvingly.

“He’s doing a lot with he running backs. He’s splitting them out wide, putting them in different spots around the field,” Carson said.

“He’s using us more for pass catching than what he did in the previous years…

“It’s fun for us.”

Mom may be relieved to know when Carson is lined up outside as a wide receiver, as he and number-two running back Rashaad Penny have been far more this summer, he’s less likely to try and leap a defensive back or linebacker while running a pass route.

Of course, if Carson catches a pass from Russell Wilson, makes his cover guy miss and gets into the open field, well…as he said, “I can’t make any promises.”

Schottenheimer splitting out his backs more and increasing their involvement as receivers is part of Seattle’s goal to become more diversified in Wilson’s passing game this season. The biggest pass play Seattle had last week in the preseason opener against Denver was to a running back: Penny, on a screen pass from backup quarterback Geno Smith for 27 yards in the first half.

Last season, no team in the NFL ran it more—and, thus, threw it less—than the Seahawks. When they did throw, it was often short to intermediate passes to Doug Baldwin in the slot on third downs or in the red zone and deep downfield shots to Tyler Lockett off play-action passes set up by all their running.

This year, Schottenheimer and Wilson don’t have Baldwin to trust on third downs in the slot; Lockett is poised to take over as slot receiver. That means more variety, and creativity, in getting more targets more passes.

And that means running backs as receivers. Not just screens and swing passes as outlet receivers for Wilson outside in the flat. As down-the-field threats. Schottenheimer intends to put his backs in favorable matchups against linebackers or safeties, by formation (splitting them out wide, in the slot or on a wing just off the tight end) or in pre-snap motion out of the backfield.

In a matchup-driven league, the Seahawks think they have aces in their running backs creating mismatches all over formations as receivers.

Last season, Seattle’s backs usually stayed home in the backfield. Wilson threw 427 passes last season. Only 24 (5.6 percent of all throws) targeted Carson. Carson caught 20 of those 24 targets, with a productive average of 8.2 yards per reception.

“Chris is really, really good,” coach Pete Carroll said of Carson’s pass receiving. “Chris might have as good of hands as anybody on the team.”

So, yes, Carson is now becoming more of a part-time wide receiver, depending on down and distance, and on matchups.

Going into Sunday night’s second preseason game, at Minnesota, Schottenheimer said he wants to get Carson 50 pass targets this season.

“That’s obviously 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 a lot of ways that he wasn’t last year was in the passing game,” Schottenheimer said. “He and (running backs coach) Chad (Morton), the minute Chris came back, had something to talk about (this offseason).

“Chris was really excited about it. Again (though Schottenheimer has never said this before), we need to get that number up around the fifties. Would be a great situation for us.”

Yes, that’s more than double the chances Carson got last season in the passing game. On a team that threw the ball the fewest times in the league last year. Fifty targets this season for Carson would be 18 more than he’s had in his NFL career.

That would indeed be a change.

Penny has shown far more flexibility, catching radius and ability to snag errant throws than he slowed in college. Before Seattle drafted him in the first round last year Penny was major-college football’s leading rusher in San Diego State’s I-formation, power-rushing offense. He was rarely a receiver.

Wilson targeted Penny just 12 times in 14 regular-season games last year. Penny caught eight of those. Like Carson, Penny was productive on those few throws, gaining 8.3 yards per catch.

Mike Davis led Seahawks running backs with 42 targets last season, still only 10 percent of all times Wilson threw. Davis was third-down back by default, because C.J. Prosise was hurt again. Seattle let Davis leave in the spring; he signed a free-agent contract with Chicago.

This month in camp, Prosise has been hurt yet again, while Carson has been all over the field. He’s been outside as a wide receiver and in motion out of the backfield to a wide-out position before the snap. He’s been running deep, intermediate and short routes.

“We are still getting his yards on the ground and he’s still helping us in the passing game,” Schottenheimer said.

On the final play of Tuesday’s practice, Penny split out wide left, far to the sideline. Rookie middle linebacker Cody Barton went out to cover him. Wilson noticed the mismatch of running back on linebacker in open field. He took two steps, beat a blitz and threw a touchdown pass to Penny on a quick out route that Barton couldn’t cover.

Beyond Carson and Penny, the Seahawks have a few running backs who could specialize in passing situations.

But Prosise, the team’s 2016 third-round pick, cannot stay healthy. The former Notre Dame wide receiver has missed practices the last two weeks with a sprained hip. This is his 10th injury in his three years plus one offseason and training camp with the team.

Rookie sixth-round pick Travis Homer was impressing teammates and coaches with his pass blocking. That skill can get him on the field for third downs right away this season. But Homer has a strained quadriceps. He’s also missed two weeks of practices and the game last week.

J.D. McKissic, a former wide receiver with Atlanta, has returned to the roster after playing in only five games last season because of injury. He had 46 targets out of the Seahawks’ backfield in 2017.

“He’s got great hands,” Carroll said.

But McKissic is also hurting right now. He’s missed the last two weeks because of what Carroll has said is a “sore foot.”

“Yeah, we have no hesitation to throw the balls to our guys,” Carroll said of his running backs as receivers.

“They’re all good.”

They just need to stay healthy.

That’s all Carson’s mom really wants.

“She’s talked to me about that almost every day, especially when she sees in the interviews talking about not jumping she brings it up,” Carson said.

“But,” he said, “I can’t make any promises.”