What a difference a year makes: Seahawks' backfield at full strength entering January

RENTON, Wash. -- This time last year, Brian Schottenheimer had a couple of predicaments on his hands. Both were related to the Seattle Seahawks' depleted backfield, and both were tricky in their own way.

The first: how to devise a game plan, call plays and maintain offensive balance with his top three tailbacks on injured reserve.

The second: how to ask Marshawn Lynch if he could please, umm, find another seat.

The Seahawks had just lost starter Chris Carson, emerging backup Rashaad Penny and C.J. Prosise to season-ending injuries in the span of two weeks, a big blow as they went into their regular-season finale with the NFC West title at stake. When they brought Lynch out of retirement the week of that game, Beast Mode made himself right at home, plopping down in Schottenheimer's seat in the team meeting room.

"I was at a little bit of an impasse because I didn't know whether I should ask him to move or not," Schottenheimer said. "I mean, a little bit of Seahawks royalty there. But I found the courage to ask him to move, and he obliged. The problem would have been if he said, 'I'm not moving, dawg' ... Then I probably would have found a seat someplace else."

Schottenheimer has no such issues a year later as the Seahawks head toward the playoffs with the top of their tailback depth chart intact. Penny recently returned from last year's knee injury to join Carson and Carlos Hyde. That trio will be together for the third straight week Sunday when the Seahawks (11-4) close out the regular season against the San Francisco 49ers (6-9) (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox), a game Seattle needs to win to have a shot at one of the NFC's top two seeds.

It's a big deal for an offense that has recommitted to its run game after a pass-heavy start to the season.

"This is what we want to do each and every week," Carson said. "We want to run the ball. We've got me, Carlos, Penny -- we're stacked up at running back, so we've got the guys to do it, the guys up front, the receivers. So, this is big to have everybody healthy at this time of the year."

The debate over how much the Seahawks should let Russell Wilson cook shouldn't be conflated with the reality that their offense is better with its preferred tailback options.

Consider what happened in their first loss of the season, when they scored 27 points in the first half against Arizona, then only seven over the final two quarters and overtime with Carson sidelined because of a sprained foot.

Also consider what happened over the next three games, which Carson and Hyde (hamstring) both missed. With the Seahawks turning to backups DeeJay Dallas and Travis Homer -- plus a fresh-off-the-street Alex Collins -- they averaged only 4.04 yards per carry (20th) and went 1-2, down from 5.25 (second) during their 5-1 start.

And then there was the backfield disaster late last season.

Lynch scored four touchdowns in three games, which was all anyone could ask of a 33-year-old who hadn't played in 14 months. The return of a franchise legend was a feel-good story. But he averaged only 2.2 yards per carry, while the Seahawks as a team averaged only 3.74 over their Week 17 loss and two playoff games. Their average was 4.6 over their first 14 games, before Carson went down in game No. 15.

Their divisional-round loss to Green Bay marked another early postseason exit. It was their fourth trip to the playoffs in five seasons since they nearly repeated as Super Bowl champions, but the fourth time they fell short of the conference title game.

A few reasons this year could be different: They have more playmakers on defense and have undergone a major turnaround on that side of the ball, albeit mostly against below-average quarterbacks. They'll play at least one home game and have a chance at more -- for whatever that's worth with no fans at Lumen Field. Their special teams are excellent.

And, barring any injuries Sunday, they'll have a healthy backfield.

Carson has led the way since returning in Week 12 and averaged 4.9 yards per carry in those five games, though Hyde's presence has made it something of a timeshare. Carson's 16 carries (for 69 yards) last week against the Rams were his second-most this season. The Seahawks finished with 95 rushing yards on 24 attempts in their division-clinching win.

"We ran the ball fine for our attempts," coach Pete Carroll said. "We just didn't get as many attempts that we would like. That comes back to third downs and stuff. We would've loved to have another 10 or 15 attempts at it, just to keep rambling, because our guys can go. So, [we're] thrilled, thrilled to have our guys. All three guys are capable of doing damage ... Chris was marvelous again today. So tough and so physical, so secure with everything."

Penny has played sparingly in the two games since he was activated off the non-football injury list, carrying five times for 15 yards on 10 snaps as the Seahawks ease him back into action. At his best, the 2018 first-round pick adds an explosive complement to the power running of Carson and Hyde. It's not that they're plodders -- Hyde broke off a 50-yard touchdown run two weeks ago and Carson has plenty of speed for his size -- but Penny is the fastest of the three. It was evident as he was starting to break through last season before tearing his ACL.

"Like I was telling him on the sideline, he has a different type of attribute that a lot of people don't have," Carson said. "He can make guys miss, and for his size -- 230-plus, whatever he is -- he has speed that's ridiculous."

Lynch appears to be interested in another late-season comeback, but it would probably take another backfield emergency for that to happen in Seattle. The Seahawks have Collins on their practice squad as depth and hope to get Dallas and/or Homer back from injuries in the playoffs.

Which means Schottenheimer's only predicament is finding enough touches to go around.

"It's a good problem to have," he said.

Especially compared to this time last year.