SEATTLE – Turning points are often easiest to decipher in retrospect.
But even at the time, what the Seahawks did against the San Francisco 49ers at CenturyLink Field on Christmas Eve in 2011 stood out.
On that day, against a 49ers team at the time regarded as one of the best in the NFL, the Seahawks became the first team that season to score a rushing touchdown against San Francisco – with Marshawn Lynch becoming the first running back to rush for more than 100 yards against the 49ers in more than two years.
Seattle lost the game 19-17, but a statement of the kind of team the Seahawks wanted to be – a physical squad that would lead with its running game and defense – had been established.
“The way we played is who we are,’’ coach Pete Carroll, then in his second year, said afterward of a game that set the template for a team that the next season added quarterback Russell Wilson as the missing piece for a Super Bowl run two years later.
On Sunday, almost five seasons removed from that game, the 49ers again come to town with the Seahawks facing another crossroads of identity.
In what is the first full season without Lynch, and with a rebuilt offensive line, the Seahawks’ running game has looked nothing like its old self.
Seattle is averaging 89.5 yards rushing in two games, 18th in the NFL, after finishing fourth or better in each of the past four seasons.
Seattle’s 3.2 yards per rushing attempt is even worse, tied for 25th with three other teams, including the 49ers.
Seattle coaches and players haven’t been shy about pointing to the lagging running game as the most significant reason the offense has a mere one touchdown in 22 possessions and has scored 15 points, fewer than all but one other team in the NFL.
“It (the running game) gives us balance and we really miss that,’’ offensive-line coach and run-game coordinator Tom Cable said. “ … We need more consistency (in the running game) because it sets up the big ball, the play-action (pass) and all those things.”
Maybe seeing the 49ers on the other side of the ball will help – two of Seattle’s four-highest rushing totals last season came against San Francisco, including a season-high 255 in a 29-13 victory at CenturyLink Field on Nov. 22.
Thomas Rawls had 209 yards in that game, the second most in Seahawks history.
Rawls, though, is listed as doubtful to play Sunday after suffering a leg injury last week at Los Angeles, after he had been held to minus-7 yards on seven carries.
That will leave the bulk of the carries to Christine Michael, who despite being listed behind Rawls entering last week’s game has been Seattle’s most effective ball carrier this season. He has 126 yards on 25 carries.
As Carroll said Monday in a comment that seemed aimed at establishing the theme for the week: “We have to get our running game more effective like we’ve always liked it to be, and so we’re going to make sure we focus there.’’
It should help that Wilson will be healthier, playing 14 days removed from suffering a high ankle sprain in the third quarter of the opener against Miami. Wilson again practiced all week.
Wilson had 14 yards on five carries against the Rams when it seemed obvious from the first play Los Angeles wasn’t as worried as it usually would be about him keeping the ball on zone reads or bootlegs and scooting around the end for big gains.
Still, Seattle has won big before when Wilson has done little running – he had a combined 19 yards on six carries in late-season blowouts last year of Baltimore and Arizona.
Seahawks coaches know they can’t depend on Wilson to also carry the running game. A line featuring just one starter from last season at the same spot as a year ago and a Lynch-less running-back corps is going to have to lead the way.
“It’s really about blocking guys,’’ Cable said.
So far, that’s proven easier said than done for the Seahawks. And one direction or another, a game against the 49ers figures to again show which way Seattle is headed.
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