Through three weeks of play, the Seahawks have showcased an impressive number of top-flight abilities. One of the stoutest run defenses in the league? Check. An intimidating, physical secondary? Check. Great special teams play regardless of whether they’re on the giving or receiving end of things? Check. A pile-driver of a run game? You better believe that’s a check.
A yardage-chewing, big play passing attack? That, not so much.
Like most defensive-minded coaches, Pete Carroll prefers running the ball to throwing it. A solid rushing attack eats up time so the defense can rest, it’s much less likely to result in turnovers than the passing game, and instead of having to outthink your opponent in a route combo versus coverage scheme chess match you get to just overpower and beat them up. What can I say, defensive guys love a good brawl.
With rookie Russell Wilson under center this year, that preference has been exaggerated even more than usual. How exaggerated? Well, the average NFL quarterback throws in the neighborhood of 35 passes a game. Through week three, Wilson is averaging just 25.
As game plans go, it’s not a bad move. It takes some pressure off the quarterback to carry the offense, and once you’ve got the opposing defense fixated on just stopping the run you can toss some deep balls over their heads. Or at least, that’s how it should work in theory.
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The main drawback of this strategy is that in reducing Wilson’s attempts, Carroll has also reduced the number of opportunities the young QB gets to throw in a live game situation. That makes it more difficult for him to develop a rapport with his receivers, but to an even greater extent it slows the building of trust between Wilson and his offensive line.
A QB needs to know instinctively both where the vulnerable points are in his line’s protection and how his blockers tend to react to certain stunts and blitzes. Likewise, the o-line needs to develop a feel for how the QB is going to respond in those same situations. If they know for certain when he’s going to step up in the pocket versus when he’s going to bail out and scramble, they can adjust their blocking accordingly. And from what I saw on the film from Monday’s game against the Packers, that trust is not there yet. I’ll show you what I mean with two representative passing plays, both from the first quarter.
3-7 SEA 23 (13:17) 3-R.Wilson pass incomplete short right to 87-B.Obomanu.
(Note: Beyond the 45 yard line, Rice’s route angles inward toward the pylon on the opposite side of the field, while Miller’s becomes a deep square-in.)
For their first passing play of the game, the Seahawks went with an empty back set composed of two tight ends and three wide receivers. The play design is a straightforward right-to-left read with all routes extending past the 1st down marker at the 30 yard line. The first look for Wilson would be to the comeback and slant combo on the right side. If those aren’t open (and Wilson hasn’t been specifically coached to look to just one side of the field1), the next logical read would be Moore on the square-out, then Rice and Miller on the deeper routes if he still has time.
Against this play, the defense went with a single high safety on the back end with man coverage on the outside and what appear to be two short zones underneath.
Two seconds in to the play, Obomanu, Rice, and Miller are blanketed, while Moore is just beginning to get separation from the defender after making his cut toward the sideline. Tate, on the other hand, is doing a great Doug Baldwin impression by making a smooth, quick cut and settling into the gap between the underneath zones.
The problem is, Wilson doesn’t see Tate because he’s got this staring him in the face:
On the outside, Okung and Giacomini are doing their best to run the edge rushers wide of the pocket, but Moffitt appears to be rapidly losing his battle with an inside rusher. I say appears, because Moffitt quickly begins to push his man wide, a move that opens up a passing lane to Tate and buys the QB just enough time to make the throw.
But because Wilson hasn’t worked with Moffitt long enough to trust him to do that, all he sees is a mass of white and yellow barreling his way. Instantly, he scrambles to the right, and by the time he’s clear of the pocket Tate is no longer open and the only viable receiving option left to him is a well-covered Obomanu.
Perhaps I’m being too nitpicky here – it’s entirely possible that Wilson has already learned not to trust Moffitt in these situations, in which case scrambling was the better choice. That said, I have a hard time looking at this next play from the Seahawks’ third drive and not reading into it some discomfort on Wilson’s part not just with his right guard, but with the offensive line as a whole.
2-8 SEA 38 (:55) 3-R.Wilson pass short left to 24-M.Lynch to SEA 39 for 1 yard (50-A.Hawk).
The play design is a basic hi-lo setup. Against zone coverage, the idea is to get the ball to one of the crossing receivers as they’re being passed off from one defender’s zone to the next. Against man coverage (which is what the Packers use here along with a single high safety over the top) the offense tries to sneak the running back out on the swing route and give the ball to him in space with a couple of ready-made blockers downfield, but the option to throw to anyone downfield who gets a step on his guy is there as well.
As with the last play, this still was taken roughly two seconds after the snap. At this point, Moore and McCoy are covered and out of the picture, and Miller has been kept back to help deal with a blitz on the left side of the line. A moment later, Tate makes his cut and gets some separation from the defender – not a lot, but enough to get a pass to him on the outside for a 15 yard gain – but by this point Wilson has already sent the ball on its way to a Lynch, who has to fight for a minimal gain thanks to excellent containment by the two trailing defenders.
This time around, no one gets beaten up the middle, and every rusher gets routed wide and around the pocket. Had he stayed in the pocket, Wilson would have at least another second and a half to throw, but instead he runs immediately to the left edge of the pocket and locks in on Lynch. As you can see here, the ball is already in flight before McCoy and Tate have even arrived at the top of their routes. This is not the behavior of a QB who trusts his o-line to keep him upright for any appreciable length of time.
The good news is the season is still young, so Wilson and his blockers have plenty of time to get to know one another. How long that takes to happen will depend greatly on how long Carroll’s restrictions on the passing game remain in place. This week’s game against a rebuilding Rams team is a perfect opportunity for Wilson to take the reigns a bit and throw more attempts than the bare minimum. Yes, he’ll have to contend with Cortland Finnegan, who could make life difficult for the rookie by creating some turnovers, but the risk posed by St. Louis’ short passing offense is negligible. Starting left tackle Roger Saffold has already been ruled out with a knee injury, making it open season for Seattle’s unexpectedly ascendant pass rush. Training wheels are nice and all, but as long as they’re bolted on the Hawks will never get to see just how far their shiny new QB can carry them.
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1 I only bring up that possibility because Darrell Bevell’s offense is rooted firmly in the West Coast Offense. Limiting the QB to one side of the field was a favorite tactic of Bill Walsh’s, the idea being that a passer will make smarter, quicker decisions if he only has to worry about reading half the defense’s coverage while he goes through his progressions.