So Were Receivers Really Not Open Downfield?


TB Edit: An excellent discussion of a point Greg Cosell brought up weeks ago on the Seahawks offense. This is something I planned to look at myself, particularly once enough All-22 tape is available from Gamepass, but this is a great read on what is a highly interesting topic.

Pete Carroll's defense of Tarvaris Jackson includes the assertion that Jackson was not averse to taking chances downfield; that he would have taken shots had shots been there, but the receivers just were not getting open.

I tried to go by memory, but had to concede that nothing stood out either way. To the eyes of many, including myself, Jackson appeared tentative -- has always appeared tentative -- and seems to avoid targeting tight windows. Greg Cosell said it was so. The only likely outcomes, then, would seem to be either receivers consistently get open substantially, or pass plays result in check downs or scrambles. 

As we know all too well, that result is not a static thing. Defenses respond to your strengths and weaknesses, even within a game, and an offense incapable of stretching a defense vertically soon finds a much tougher row to hoe underneath and in the run game. If neither of those options are a strength of the offense, it's completely debilitating.

I also recognized how inclined I was to think Carroll's excuse for Jackson was a fabrication. But that's not how we roll, Field Gulls. We withhold judgment until accusations are corroborated, compressing the condemnation so that its vitriol will be that much more potent when we unleash it later.

Or something to that effect. So I took a look at pass plays to see if I can get a sense of how well the receivers served Jackson in Pittsburgh. Fox broadcast film is not coaches' tape. And neither are accurate descriptions of the modern medium in which they're captured. So I watched the digital video broadcast archive. "Video" still feels more like an adjective than a noun, must be the double-vowel ending. Which must contribute in part to the continued usage of "tape" and "film." 

Either way, the deeper routes and secondary play are the least viewed portions of gameplay. But in this game at least, most of the passing snaps told enough of their tale that little was left to ponder about what Fox didn't show us that affected the outcome.

Well of course the outcome wasn't affected, but you know. Affected the severity to which the Seahawk offense was going to suck.

1st Quarter
3-15-SEA 31 (1:13) (Shotgun) T.Jackson scrambles up the middle to SEA 39 for 8 yards (L.Timmons). 

2nd possession, already 3 of 4 passing with a 1st down, we get to 3rd & long. The prior passes had no deep routes, and in each one Jackson went to his first read, which was short. 

As someone who recently requested pre-snap images, I'm going to try to make this article a little shorter; it's got the content to run long. 6 Steelers stacked the line, Polamalu lined up as post safety. You see another Stiller in the bottom right there to give top help over Mike Williams. Steelers rush 4 and drop 2 back. Obomanu's release is quickest, but he's got the most cushion. What do you expect; there's 15 yards to the First.

Jackson is surveying his reads, mostly keeping an eye on Obomanu & Baldwin as he's dropping back.

Last drop step; you see Jackson's foot planting to step forward again. What you can't see in these images is that Jackson has moved from Obomanu to Baldwin. An obo catch will undoubtedly be stopped short of the marker. Thing  is, Baldwin has not looked back yet -- these are deeper developing routes of course -- and he's not the first option. Can Jackson go to Baldwin? He has to break his route off ready for the ball to be there -- this is the NFL. 

Jackson runs.

Baldwin breaks open as Jackson commits to run. It's not an awful decision as there's a big lane and the next level is 13 yards out, but of course they'll meet him halfway. Forcing a defense to defend a QB run can be valuable. Moving the sticks would be more valuable.

The pass wouldn't have been guaranteed to succeed, of course. The window was very short, given the length of the pass and where you can anticipate Polamalu to have been -- Williams did not need a 3rd man covering him -- the only successful pass would have been right next to the 1st down marker and would have required good body movement by Baldwin after the catch to get past the marker. No indictment of Jackson can be conclusively predicated on plays like this. But it does expose the suspected proclivity.

But that's only one play.

2nd Quarter
2-9-SEA 48 (10:18) T.Jackson pass short right to G.Tate pushed ob at PIT 47 for 5 yards (W.Gay) [B.Keisel].

2 passes prior to this one on this next drive. But yes, 20 minutes of gametime has elapsed and we've only one opportunity for a downfield attempt in this game, which was forced by down & distance. A big part of it is play design. The rest of it is pass protection and Pittsburgh's defensive execution. Pass pro was adequate, but they did keep a lot of people in coverage.

This pass is still a short one, but it's good to illustrate the little mistakes that a young team suffers, and how they can impede progress.

Target acquired.


Opportunity lost.

Lynch runs up as though faking a hand-off, though by Jackson's behavior the play is not play-action. Jackson snaps the ball looking forward left but catches Tate's quicker release than Miller's, and winds up to throw with good anticipation. Had he gotten the throw off it more or less would have come to Tate in stride, where the former RB could utilize his shifty moves, his greatest skill, to vie for the first and more.

Lynch gets in the way of the throw. He & Jackson know it instantly as it happens. Keisel now begins to storm Jackson. Tate comes back a bit and Jackson's persistance on this option pays off, just less so. Tate makes a good sideline catch for 4. It had the potential for more.

3-4-PIT 47 (10:10) (Shotgun) T.Jackson pass incomplete short middle to D.Baldwin (B.Keisel).
PENALTY on SEA-R.Okung, False Start, 5 yards, enforced at PIT 47 - No Play.

Next snap. This play didn't count but I wanted to highlight how it also didn't succeed. It illustrates one of Jackson's shortcomings, but I have to say, this and the whole of my study of this game also illustrate how Jackson does so many of the things a QB must do to be successful, well enough, but just a couple of tendencies can separate marginal QBs from all-time greats. The results turn out stark but the difference in execution is just miniscule. The windows in the NFL are so short, in so many ways. His shortcomings seem chronic and likely insurmountable, but it's remarkable to me how close a guy can be as an NFL QB and still be so far away.

That point is the purpose of including this play, but this play doesn't exemplify that point as well as others. In this play, the hesitation was a lot more blatant and it solely yet utterly doomed the play.

Presnap. Behold! Versus a passing formation, a defense plays coverage close to the line to defend 3rd & 4. That Dick LeBeau, he never stops innovating.

That jab at Seattle's defensive coaches too subtle? Look again at the slide and tell me you don't see Marcus Trufant crouched at the 39 yard line.

Anyway point being, the windows are gonna be tight. And they are. But there are two people who already know exactly what Doug Baldwin does next. And one of them should already have thrown the ball.


Too late. Those are Brett Keisels hands that will deflect the pass. They weren't there a moment ago. These are tenths of seconds, mind you. Assuming the pass was on target -- Jackson appeared to anticipate Baldwin's break to the inside just fine -- and assuming a catch, Baldwin would have picked up the first and possibly gotten 2 yards after the catch. That's assuming Pitt tackles him, which is a fair assumption. At any rate Okung false started the smoothest false start I've ever seen, which accounts for why the play wasn't blown dead. But it just shows you: the hesitation again.

3-9-SEA 48 (9:52) (Shotgun) T.Jackson pass incomplete deep left to B.Obomanu. Coverage by #24 Taylor.

Next snap. Again presnap is useful here to see what Jackson sees.

This play turns out to be a little bit bold. It works well; protection is there, they only rush 4. Three receivers head out, and each of them are headed for the sticks. It's 1st down or bust, because 5/8 of the game is gone and it's still 14-0, and the underneath routes aren't working.

So we see Jackson has an inexcusable situation to not take a shot downfield. The cushions, the protection, the down & distance and the game situation. What we don't see from this angle is the secondary. But Fox gives us a good angle on the replay.

Obomanu breaks open to the right, and not simply after the 1st down marker, which played nicely in Polamalu forsaking him. Baldwin's curl just after the marker must be the play and Obo's just a route to clear out the top. But it didn't work!

Or actually, Obomanu is just the most skilled among the receivers along with Zach Miller in getting open. He also has the speed. He'd be a complete wideout if he had better hands. He's been criticized a lot for the hands recently, but it's just an unlucky spell. His hands aren't that bad. Just so-so.

So what we see here is Jackson anticipated the best and deepest route and threw it in good time. It could have been a split second sooner, but for this play that makes no difference. The difference is the pass isn't completely on target and Obomanu's hands aren't forgiving enough for that. Possibly the best opportunity all day for a big play, wasted by an iffy throw and iffy hands.

One more snap, no slides necessary, to underscore the same point:

3rd Quarter
3-5 SEA 25 13:48 (Shotgun) T.Jackson pass incomplete short left to D.Baldwin [A.Smith]. Pressure by #91 Smith, Coverage by #22 Gay.

Jackson continues to find his receivers quickly, anticipating Baldwin's break and subsequent openness well enough. He just once again doesn't throw it soon enough. It's evident that some part of his tentativeness that we've all seen is a bit of a lack of faith that his receivers are there for him. While in this game I see evidence why that's reasonably warranted, that is no way to QB in the NFL. He has to get the ball out, and if they aren't ready for it, their err needs to be exposed to the coaches so they can develop, or get cut so receivers he can use can be brought in. 

That's speaking only in absolute principle, however. The receivers on the team are fine, generally speaking, talented, and something Seattle can win with. Jackson and Whitehurst are both in their final realistic opportunities to start in the NFL this year, and there will be no building around what either needs. And it's all beside the point for this particular play: despite the habitual hesitation, Baldwin remains open and Jackson is able to get the ball to him in time to make a play. Problem is, it's high and Baldwin can't bring it in. While catchable, the opportunity was wasted by a poor throw. 

So I have to say, Carroll's contention that there is no problem with Jackson not taking shots downfield is actually corroborated. To an extent. He puts the blame on the receivers, tacitly. I wouldn't say he threw them under the bus. He knows the Steelers kept a lot of guys in coverage all game.  He knows their offense and our offense combined to give way too few opportunities to take shots downfield to begin with. The receivers did not get open as much as they ought to have.

But the receivers were open enough that it shields Jackson not, from his own tendencies. He will take some of the shots. To the extent that he ignores tight windows as Cosell said, this game didn't completely bear that out but certainly did not invalidate it, either. Most likely over the course of the season we'll see that more.

For now, what we see is the hesitation to throw, period. It has been a significant impediment. Success often begets success, and I have to concede there's a chance this hesitancy will ebb some if a few throws lead him to trust the receivers more.

Or just snaps, if not outright success. My prior disappointment in Jackson, while not yet wrong, hasn't been very well-directed. It has been 2 games on the road, against two very tough defenses, starting with awful protection, with new teammates, after a lockout-shortened training camp and a preseason incapacitated for all on the offense save the line, for the purposes of maturing the line. It's so hard to be as patient as this team is asking us to be. Tarvaris will look much better against Arizona, which proves little. But patience is truly warranted until at least October.

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