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Carroll glad Seahawks rookie 1st-round pick Rashaad Penny ‘frustrated’ at lack of playing time

Week 6 Players To Watch: Seahawks vs. Raiders

Here's Gregg Bell's players to watch as the Seattle Seahawks travel to London to take on the Oakland Raiders.
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Here's Gregg Bell's players to watch as the Seattle Seahawks travel to London to take on the Oakland Raiders.

Rashaad Penny is the same way you are about the Seahawks’ first-round draft choice.

“He’s frustrated,” Pete Carroll said. “And that’s exactly what I want. I want him to be frustrated. I want him to be anxious to get out there.

“I want him to be unsatisfied with what’s going on right now.”

So you and Penny have that in common, too.

This spring, the Seahawks made Penny among the elite rushers in franchise history—before they even assigned him a uniform. He is only the third running back they’ve ever drafted in this first round. The leading rusher in major college football last season at San Diego State joined Curt Warner and Shaun Alexander in that distinction.

So far, the similarities between Penny, Warner and Alexander end there.

Penny has 92 yards yards rushing through five weeks. Warner had more than that in his first NFL game, in 1983. Alexander had more than that in games four and five, in his Seahawks rookie season of 2000.

Last weekend the Seahawks impressively ran with the the Los Angeles Rams, but without Penny. He had as many snaps on offense as you did.

Yes, Seattle’s first-round draft pick had zero plays on offense in the biggest game yet this season.

Penny has not been a part of the revitalization the Seahawks’ rushing offense has had over the last three games. The emergence of Chris Carson and Mike Davis as 100-yard rushers in three consecutive games, the first time Seattle’s had such a streak since 2012 when Marshawn Lynch did it five times into the playoffs, has come at Penny’s expense.

“It’s definitely a learning challenge,” Penny said, seated at his locker before practice this week. “I mean, just sitting back waiting for my opportunity.

“I’ve been in this situation at San Diego State (waiting behind Donnel Pumphery, the career rushing leader at the top level of college football). When you’ve got two backs that are rolling, that are hot, you know all you can do is support them and just wait for your opportunity.

“I want to be on the field. I want to prove what I can do. But you’ve got two good backs that are rolling right now. You’ve got to stick with who’s hot. And those two are hot.

“It’s just something that I’ll get used to.”

Good luck with that.

Penny’s disappearance last weekend during the Rams game continued a trend of Seahawks running backs getting sporadic, even erratic, playing time this season.

After seven carries for 51 yards in a splashy start to the opener at Denver, Carson vanished in the middle of the game. Penny also rushed seven times in his debut game on Sept. 9, for 8 yards. So it was clear Carson remained the lead guy.

But with only 14 total carries by running backs among Seattle’s 55 total offensive plays that day, edge rusher extraordinaire Von Miller and his Broncos swarmed quarterback Russell Wilson without regard to Seattle running the ball. They sacked Wilson seven times in Seattle’s 27-24 loss.

The following week at Chicago, Carson had six rushes for 24 yards — and none after the 11:51 mark of the second quarter. Seattle did not run Carson, Penny or anyone else from the second quarter through the start of the fourth. Penny finished with 10 carries for 30 yards, the Bears swarmed Wilson and sacked him six times just as Denver did the week before, and the Seahawks lost again.

When Seattle finally followed through on its nine-month promise to run the ball more in week three, Carson romped against Dallas. His career-bests of 32 carries and 101 yards led the win over the Cowboys. With Carson rolling, Penny mostly watched. He had three rushes and 5 yards in that game.

When Carson missed the following game at Arizona with a hip injury from all his grinding against Dallas, the Seahawks trusted Mike Davis more. Davis, claimed off waivers in the spring of 2017 from San Francisco, impressed the Seahawks as the fill-in starter for Carson at the end of last season. So he, not Penny, got the start and the bulk of the work at Arizona Sept. 30.

Davis responded with his career day: 102 yards on 21 carries. Penny had 49 yards on nine runs, and the Seahawks won again.

Then Carson and Davis rolled on against the Rams. Seattle gained 190 yards on the ground for their best running day in three years. The fact it happened without Penny contributing at all doesn’t increase the Seahawks’ urgency to use Penny more in London against the Oakland Raiders (1-4) and their 30th-ranked defense on Sunday.

As for Penny being frustrated, Carroll said: “That’s fine. I think that’s the only way he should be. He’s classy and he’s for the team and every time he would say anything, he would always talk about the team first. So he’s got his priorities in line and I expect him to keep battling.

“He’s just looking for his opportunity. He’s dying to get in there. He’s just scratching, clawing to get back out there and get more turns.”

Coach Pete Carroll on the extensive planning Seahawks have done for Sunday’s game in London against the Raiders. He’s forcing players to stay awake all day after they get there to set an England sleep schedule.

Carroll said in the Rams game, when Carson ran 19 times and Davis 12 times, there just weren’t enough carries for Penny.

“But this is a long season. There’s a lot of carries. There’s a lot of running to be done,” Carroll said. “I can’t wait to see him get in there and get going, too. He’s done nothing but good stuff for us.”

Penny was doing great stuff early in training camp, impressing coaches with his speed, size and his pass blocking, the one unproven aspect of his game.

Blocking, plus Carroll’s trust in Carson from his impressive rookie season last year, were why Carson was ahead of Penny entering the preseason. Pass blocking was something Penny did not have to do a lot of as the featured back in San Diego State’s power-running, I-formation offense.

One morning in mid-August during a pass-blocking drill against charging linebackers, Penny held his own. Penny twice stonewalled rookie fifth-round pick Shaquem Griffin, and also stopped undrafted rookie Jake Pugh. Penny was the only back in the drill to win each of his turns.

But after it, he and the Seahawks learned Penny had broken an index finger. He flew to Philadelphia to have surgery by a hand specialist. The gains he felt he was making in early August were gone, as he missed weeks of practices and the final three preseason games. Carson took advantage of Penny’s absence and further distanced himself ahead of the rookie.

Penny admitted this week the injury was a blow to his mind as well as his hand.

“I personally think, for my behalf, it really set me back,” Penny said, “because obviously I’m not playing as confident as I should. And I’m pretty much confident in my ability, but you’ve got to gain the trust (of coaches and teammates).

“And that’s something these older guys have. They have that trust with the coaches. It’s just the little things for me. I’ll probably be fine in a little bit.”

It’s far too early, five games into his career, to declare drafting Penny was a mistake. The Seahawks chose him in the first round after deciding to return their offense to one based on power running again in 2018. They’d watched runner after runner get hurt over the previous two seasons, from Lynch’s heir apparent Thomas Rawls in 2015 and 2016 and Carson in October 2017.

Odds and recent history suggest the Seahawks are going to have another injury, and another need for another running back.

Also, Seattle didn’t have a second-round pick because of trading for defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in September 2017. They assumed Penny would not be around for them to draft in round three if they didn’t take him at 27th overall in April.

GM John Schneider, coach Pete Carroll after Seahawks drafted RB Rashaad Penny in 1st round

And, of course, the Seahawks didn’t draft Penny for just this season. They have him under contract for four years, with an option for 2022 since he’s a first-round pick.

Yet it’s fair to question why the Seahawks didn’t prioritize what was their biggest and more pressing issue then and still is now: the lack of proven, consistent pass rushers. They had lost Pro Bowl ends Michael Bennett (in a trade) and Cliff Avril (in retirement) this offseaso. Yet with their first pick they went first with a commodity fading if not approaching extinction in most cities outside Seattle in the pass-happy NFL.

And not that first-round pick isn’t even on the field.

“He’s worked really hard in the last few weeks, the last three weeks, to make sure that he wouldn’t just arrive (after the surgery),” Carroll said. “But he’s there in shape ready to go and ready for the opportunity to come. He’s taking a good step forward.”

Asked what his expectations were and are for his rookie season, Penny said: “Just to produce. Know the game. Be more of a student. And from now on just be one of the best to play. Help the team win games. That’s what every running back wants to go through.

“You know, as a rookie you are going to have a learning curve. But as I was hurt, I felt I was studying more than anything. It’s just all about opportunities, and once you get the opportunities you’ll play well.

“Hopefully, down the line they will come. But right now I am happy to be where I’m at.”

VANNETT’S BACK ISSUE

Starting tight end Nick Vannett had a back issue this offseason that he said physical therapy and Pilates helped alleviate.

That issue seems to have returned.

Vannett missed practice Wednesday. The Seahawks listed him with a back injury, his first such listing this season.

The Seahawks are playing one more game Sunday before Ed Dickson, the tight end they signed in free agency from Carolina in March to replace departed Jimmy Graham as the starter, becomes eligible to debut off the non-football injury list. The Seahawks are targeting the game at Detroit Oct. 28 after their bye for Dickson to play.

In the meantime, the position is thin. Rookie Will Dissly went on injured reserve two weeks ago with a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee. He had surgery and is out for the year.

The team re-signed former University of Washington tight end Darrell Daniels last week, and Wilson targeted him on an incomplete pass deep down the hash marks. Seattle also used reserve tight end George Fant as a second, blocking tight end for 12 snaps last weekend against the Rams.

If Vannett’s back stays hurting into the weekend following the team’s nine-plus-hour flight to London Wednesday night, Daniels and Fant may get many more snaps on Sunday.

Carroll had already said Pro Bowl outside linebacker K.J. Wright (recovering from August knee surgery) and rookie defensive end Rasheem Green will not play against Oakland.

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