How Chris Carson became the Seahawks' latest punishing back

Chris Carson muscles into the end zone with a powerful second and third effort against the 49ers. Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire

RENTON, Wash. -- Chris Carson was stopped. Twice.

Early in the fourth quarter of the Seattle Seahawks' loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, he took a shotgun handoff on fourth-and-goal from the 1 and ran into a wall at the line of scrimmage. He looked so dead to rights that two 49ers defenders started to run off the field in celebration, figuring the play was about to be whistled dead. As Pete Carroll would later point out, Seahawks play-by-play man Steve Raible assumed the same thing on the radio broadcast.

But Carson kept his legs churning and briefly broke free before he was met at the 2-yard line by linebacker Elijah Lee. With Lee clinging to his right leg, Carson dragged him across the goal line with a final push from left tackle Duane Brown.

If you're looking for a play that epitomizes his rugged running style and how the Seahawks have ground their way to the most rushing yards in the NFL, Carson's third-effort touchdown would work.

"That's who he is," Brown said of that play postgame. "That's his identity, man."

More accurately, it's who Carson has become.

While it's hard to picture now, it wasn't that long ago that he was a different type of runner. His favorite running back as a kid was "Fast" Willie Parker, even though he grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn, Georgia, with no connection to the Pittsburgh Steelers. As Carson recalled his rushing style during his two years of high school and his first three years of college, he described a back who was more prone to spin away from a defender than to run through him.

"There was a time when he thought he needed to be a scatback, make-you-miss type of guy and use all of his shake-and-bake to make his style come to life," Carroll said. "I can't remember exactly what caused the transition, but he realized that wasn't what was best for him and he went back to hardball running and attacking and all of that and he showed his style."

The impetus for his change, according to Carson, was a challenge from one of his teammates late in his senior season at Oklahoma State, where he played following two seasons at community college. Fellow Cowboys running back Rennie Childs, a friend of Carson's, wondered why a guy who was strong enough to squat 600 pounds had more of a finesse style.

He told Carson that he had never seen him run anybody over. Carson took it personally.

"When he had said that in the meeting room, I kinda felt like he was trying me in a way," Carson recalled. "So I was like, ‘All right, I'm about to show you.' So I think the next week we played TCU and I had a run when I ran over a couple people. From then on, I was like, ‘Dang, I like that feeling better to run somebody over versus trying to juke somebody,' so I just stuck with that from there."

Carson had missed four games earlier in the season with a thumb injury and had split time in a crowded OSU backfield. At 6 feet and almost 220 pounds, he was built like the type of running back Carroll covets. But it wasn't until his performance against TCU -- 146 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries -- that he showed he could actually be that type of running back.

Leading up to the 2017 draft, Carson became a personal favorite of Carroll's the way Thomas Rawls had two years earlier. In Rawls, Carroll saw a physical runner in the mode of Marshawn Lynch, which has always been a staple of his ideal offenses.

He had one at USC with LenDale White, and for parts of his first six seasons in Seattle with Lynch. He thought he had one in Rawls, who looked like Lynch's long-term successor before his career fizzled out following a leg injury late in his rookie season in 2015. Carroll tried to get one by signing Eddie Lacy last year, a month before Seattle drafted Carson in the seventh round. Carson went from an afterthought to the starter when he beat out Lacy and Rawls, only to break his leg in the fifth game.

After holding off first-round pick Rashaad Penny for the starting job this past offseason, Carson leads the Seahawks with 913 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games (he missed two due to injury). His 462 rushing yards after first contact this season are sixth-most, while his average of 2.3 yards after first contact per attempt ranks eighth, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Lynch, by comparison, averaged 2.02 yards after first contact during his six seasons in Seattle.

Linebacker Bobby Wagner was reminded of Lynch when he watched Carson's touchdown run Sunday.

"It's a play that just ignites the whole sideline and you just appreciate him because you see how relentless he is and you see how much effort [he puts in]," Wagner said. "For me, it's something that you've seen before. You've watched Marshawn do it all the time, so when you see that, it's like, 'I know this feeling.' You're watching a person who is not going to be stopped to get to wherever he wants to go and you always respect that and honestly, you want to play against [guys] like that because that makes the game fun."

The Seahawks (8-6) have two regular-season games left to clinch a wild-card berth. They could do it with a victory Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, provided they get some help earlier in the day.

For Carson, that's two games to become the Seahawks' first 1,000-yard back since Lynch in 2014. Carson hasn't hit that mark since his senior season in high school. He came up 6 yards short during his sophomore year at Butler Community College, then didn't reach 600 in either of his two seasons at OSU.

"It means a lot, I would say," Carson said of hitting 1,000 yards, "but getting to the playoffs would mean more."