If there such a thing as a playoff MVP in the NFL Marshawn Lynch would surely be the lead candidate so far as a one-man wrecking ball on offense for the Seattle Seahawks, powering their progress to the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
Lynch has always had a mythos around him as a player capable of astounding individual games and memorable plays such as the “Earthquake Run” against the New Orleans Saints back in 2011. However, he has not consistently put together that sort of form week in and week out in the same way that he has this season, delivering regularly with power and precision.
In the playoffs those performances have stood out all the more with Lynch pushing the Seahawks past the Saints and the 49ers, making the ground game the driving force of the offense in spite of the fact that the run blocking in front of him has been far from the top drawer. In the postseason, Lynch has faced first contact in the backfield on 18 of his 50 carries (36%), almost double the league average for the regular season and nearly 13% higher than the Seahawks’ rate in the regular season (98-of-428, 22.9%) which itself was already one of the worst in the league.
On those 18 carries Lynch has still gained 13 yards despite being met an average of 2 yards behind the line, breaking 11 tackles to even make a success (in yardage terms for the offense against the down and distance) out of three of those carries.
When the blocking has got Lynch to the line of scrimmage and beyond (32-of-50) in the past two games, he has taken full advantage, gaining 236 yards and averaging better than 4 yards per carry after contact as part of a 7.4 yards per carry average; well in excess of the league average of 5.2 yards per carry on such plays during the regular season.
To give a little context of the streak Lynch is on, he has earned a positive PFF rushing grade in six straight games and 12 of his last 14. The two negative grades coming against Minnesota (-0.2) and New Orleans (-0.5) in back-to-back outings when he lost his last fumble of the season and he still scored two touchdowns, so even the down games in his long streak of form aren’t exactly down.
He has forced multiple missed tackles on the ground in every game except one this season (just the one in St Louis in Week 8) and, if he can break five against the Broncos at MetLife Stadium this Sunday, he’ll be the first back in the six-year history of PFF to break 100 tackles on the ground in a single season. He broke that mark, if you include the passing game, against the 49ers. Even with the inconsistent aid from his offensive line Lynch has consistently provided a ground game for the Seahawk offense and even more so as it has tailed off towards the end of the season.
So what are the odds that he continues his incredible run of form against the Broncos and what sort of a task will he be facing if his offensive line doesn’t raise its game on the biggest stage of all? Well, one thing that Lynch’s missed tackle numbers will tell you is that he doesn’t go down on first contact too often. In fact, during the regular season he only went down in the grasp of the first defender to make contact with him 67% of the time (202 of 301 carries) which only two backs who carried the ball more than 75 times (Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory) bettered. On these carries Lynch’s performance was roughly in line with the league average, collecting 3.3 yards per carry with just more than 20% (46 of 202) of those runs resulting in a tackle for a loss or no gain.
An Unforgiving Foe
Up against the Broncos he faces one of the league’s better defenses in terms of the first contact defender finishing the play and making the tackle on the ball carrier. On 78% of the backfield carries they faced in the regular season (285 of 365) the first contact defender was also the tackler with the defense surrendering less than 3 yards per carry on those plays and little more than a yard after first contact. Certainly a meeting of fire and ice then with a Broncos defense that is also one of the league’s better defenses at getting contact on the runner in the backfield and finishing plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.
However, the Broncos’ run defense isn’t impregnable as the Chargers’ showed in Week 15 when their running backs made the most of plays where the Denver defense didn’t complete their first-up tackles, gaining almost half of their rushing yards on nine carries when Denver didn’t finish the deal with the first defender on the scene.
This offers the real chance of seeing yet another signature play from Lynch which he has given us at least three of already in this postseason, even if they don’t quite matchup to the earthquake run of three years ago. Against the Saints and 49ers he came up with long touchdown runs, making the most of plays where his offensive line got him back to the line of scrimmage clean to break through tackles with a head of steam and carve a route to the end zone. Or, as he did against San Francisco, to use his vision and capitalize on poor run fits and pursuit angles to break an inside run outside into space and get him into favorable matchups against defensive backs.
Will Lynch be shutdown this Sunday in New York? In his current vein of form that would seem extremely unlikely but the Broncos have shown throughout the season that they can be a run defense that disrupts and finishes rather than simply disrupts and lets a back freelance which against Lynch could be fatal.
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