Chris Carson stood just as he did in Pittsburgh a week earlier. At his locker. And tall, every bit of his 5 feet and 11 inches.
He wore an expression that conveyed a clear understanding of what happened—and what must happen next.
For the second consecutive Sunday the Seahawks’ lead running back, the foundation of their entire, run-first offensive system, directly answered questions about again violating his coach’s first rule.
He owned full responsibility for more fumbling.
“I’ve just got to keep my elbow tucked. That’s it,” Carson said. “.I’ve got to protect the ball. That’s it.”
Carson fumbled for the third time in 2 1/2 games Sunday. It resulted in the Saints’ return for a touchdown and a gifted, 13-7 lead.
That as much as anything was why Seattle lost 33-27 in a game that wasn’t nearly that close at CenturyLink Field.
In a 7-7 game early in the second quarter Carson was churning with knees high, both arms across the ball, forearms forward at the end of his best run Sunday, 23 yards. Yet Saints cornerback Eli Apple still was able to punch the ball out of Carson’s right arm just before his knee hit the turf on a tackle to end the play. Safety Vonn Bell recovered and ran 33 yards for a touchdown. That put the Seahawks (2-1) in scramble mode against the 2018 NFC finalists the rest of the day.
It was clear Apple had watched game film from this month on Carson. Apple had one thing in mind at the end of that play.
“You see somebody fumbling, of course they are going to try to go after it,” Carson said.
Carson really has lost four fumbles in three games.
He and quarterback Russell Wilson botched a handoff while trying to salt away the previous week’s win at Pittsburgh in the fourth quarter, when a Steeler cornerback blitzed in free past tight end Nick Vannett and hit Carson in the legs just as he was receiving the ball. The official statistics for the game gave that fumble to Wilson, though Carson claimed it after that game.
Carroll’s cardinal rule is protect the ball. Fumbling by running backs is particularly damaging for the team that has run it more than anyone in the NFL in the last two season, and the league’s top rushing offense a year ago.
After Carson’s latest fumble, Carroll benched him.
Rashaad Penny would have replaced him, but the 2018 first-round draft choice was inactive for Sunday’s game. He oddly injured his hamstring in a light, walkthrough practice Friday.
So it was C.J. Prosise who entered in the second quarter.
What did Carroll tell Carson then?
“To get ready to get back into the game, and just do right,” Carroll said.
“He’s had three, remarkable, remarkable punches (by defenders) that have knocked the ball out. He was covering it up, and he knew. He was conscious. It (Apple’s hit) was right in the right place, and it happened again.
“So, we needed to get him out of there some, just give him some time or whatever. Separate from it, and then put him back in.”
Carson stood on the sidelines near Carroll, blue paint from the field smeared across the C and A on his name across the back of his jersey. He kept his helmet on while he watched Carson run three times for 6 yards on the ensuing drive.
“It’s one play. It’s a long game,” Carson said. “So you have to have a short-term memory and keep going.”
Prosise, a former Notre Dame wide receiver and Seattle’s third-down back, is more of a slashing runner, less powerful than Carson. So on third and 1 from the Saints 41-yard line, Carroll sent Carson back into the game. He ran up the middle for no gain behind no blocking.
Carson stayed in for fourth and 1. The Seahawks sent rarely used fullback Nick Bellore in, put him on a wing left and sent him in motion short route, behind right tackle Germain Ifedi. Carson ran up the middle instead of behind Bellore, and was dropped for a 1-yard loss by New Orleans’ Demario Davis.
The Saints took the ensuing possession to the end zone. Bridgewater completed his first target of the game to star receiver Michael Thomas to convert a third down. Then his screen pass to running back Alvin Kamara went 29 yards for a touchdown. Kamara ran past flailing Seahawks cornerback Shaquill Griffin then bounced off safety Bradley McDougald’s shoulder tap on his way to the end zone.
Carson didn’t do his job twice. And Seattle was down 20-7.
Left tackle Duane Brown took the blame for not converting those third and fourth and 1s.
“That hurts. That hurts. That’s on us up front,” Brown said. “You get third and fourth and 1, you’ve got to convert them.
“We’ve been doing pretty good at that. But today, it didn’t happen.
“We’ve got to be better up front. That’s all on us.”
Carson had one net yard on his first five rushes against the Saints. He kept slipping on the home artificial turf on the rainy afternoon. Eventually, he changed his cleats to longer ones.
It wasn’t just the shoes.
The Saints did what the Bengals and Steelers did in the previous games: Stacked the line of scrimmage with extra defenders, linebackers and safeties pushes up, early in the game knowing Seattle would seek to establish the run with zone reads inside the right and left tackles.
“Yeah. We ran the ball quite a bit last year, and defenses are prepared for that,” Brown said. “They are prepared for certain kinds of runs, and they are loading the box up. We’ve got to be prepared for that, as well. We can’t let it stop us. ...
“We moved the ball some. But, again, we had penalties. We had things that stalled our drives. And that’s something we preached all week to not do.
“It still happened. We’ve got to eliminate that in order to be successful.”
Wilson said he talked to Carson after the latest fumble.
“I just told him I still believe in him,” Wilson said. “He’s one of the best running backs in the league. Plays happen. There’s never been a player who’s never fumbled. That’s just reality.
“I think more than anything else, we’ve just got to continue to believe in him. He’s got to continue to believe in hismelf, which he will.”
That’s all good to say and hear. But what’s next for Carson on the field, next Sunday at Arizona (0-2-1)?
Carroll said Penny, who ran for a game-high 62 yards on 10 carries with an impressive cut-back touchdown run of 37 yards last week against the Steelers, ran well in pregame work Sunday morning.
“So he’ll have a chance by Thursday, probably, to show us how he’s doing,” the coach said. “We won’t rush it along.”
That’s because if you believe what the coach was saying after Sunday’s game the Seahawks are sticking by—and for now, with—Carson as their lead back.
No, that running game isn’t going away. And, the coach said, neither is Carson.
“He’s been a marvelous player on this team. And he has to fix this,” Carroll said. “I can’t fix it for him.
“But we’ll help him—and count on him to come back and play good football for us.
“I just want him to get back out there and get going, so he can show himself that he can take care of this. He’s a great, competitive kid. He cares. He wants to. He did everything during the week to do a great job throughout the week. And he’ll need to do all that again.
“I’m going to help him believe in himself, because he’s a fantastic competitor and ball player. He deserves that support.”