I wrote about the NFL 'chess match' between offensive and defensive coordinators a bit during the offseason and those basic theories and questions posed were put into real-world situations on Sunday. One of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators face these days revolve around defending multifaceted tight ends and their growing functionality in offenses. The Patriots and Saints are probably the two most celebrated organizations for their use of the tight end with Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez and Jimmy Graham, respectively, presenting major matchup headaches for opposing coordinators. The question, in most basic terms, is -- who do you want matching up with these players?
Greg Cosell, for me, is unsurpassed in his ability to explain some of these intricacies of the game in layman's terms, and he wrote about this very question this summer. 'How do you respond, personnel wise, when the Saints have Jimmy Graham split outside the numbers as a wide receiver?' He asks. "Do you feel good with a linebacker, outside his in-the-box comfort zone, playing Graham? When the Patriots align with one back, two wide receivers and Gronkowski and Hernandez, how do you match up? Do you treat Gronkowski and Hernandez as tight ends and stay with your base defense? That means a linebacker must play one of them." (You have your corners on the two receivers, one safety responsible for the running back, the other safety on one of the tight ends, leaving a linebacker to pick up the other - Gronk or Hernandez).
"Are you comfortable with that? Do you play nickel as your base? How about when the Packers align with three wide receivers and Finley? Do you go with a linebacker or a safety on Finley? Do you treat him as a fourth wide receiver and play with six defensive backs?" These are the personnel decisions that keep coordinators up at night and call for them to substitute intelligently throughout the game, in response to opposing teams' personnel groupings, depending on down and distance.
Though the Seahawks remain fairly vanilla in their offensive scheming, one change that they incorporated into Sunday's big win against Dallas was the frequent use of '13' personnel, or one back, three tight end groupings. They utilized Zach Miller, Anthony McCoy, & Evan Moore as moveable chess pieces and incorporated Marshawn Lynch and Golden Tate or Sidney Rice into the formations to give Dallas problems with matchups. This is something we've heard the Seahawks coaching staff talk about over the past two seasons with reference to, originally, Zach Miller and John Carlson, then with Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow after Carlson left. Tom Cable talked about it over the offseason -- as far as the types of things Seattle wants to do with their tight end group.
"There are a lot of similarities [to what New England does with their tight ends]. Our mindset of trying to pound on you and run the ball, what this is going to allow us to do is to get both of those guys in some space down the field to get your explosive plays and your chunk plays and help that run game. So, it's going to be very similar to what New England is doing in terms of what you might see formationally and that sort of thing, but obviously our mentality is to try to beat on you a bit and then throw it over your head, so I think Kellen kind of helps Zach be what he can be, and what he was in Oakland." This, of course, was before the Seahawks cut Kellen Winslow in favor of Evan Moore, who should and will play a similar role.
"I think you have to make a decision as a defense now," Cable explained. "Do you want to play these guys in base defense? If you do, then you're going to have a linebacker covering those tight ends. If you're going to go the other way, -- say they're going to put nickel in the game, then we're going to try to shove the ball down your throat running it. For us, it kind of puts us back into a position of power, where we're going to play off of how they want to substitute and how they want to match up. If they stay in base, you might see us attack them more and throw the ball more, if they get in nickel, you might see us run it more."
The Seahawks took this tight end heavy theory one step further by incorporating 3TE sets into their playbook on Sunday, and fairly often. I haven't finished tracking the personnel groupings, but Evan Moore played 22 snaps -- about one-third of all Seahawks' offensive plays -- and a gross estimate would be that a majority of them were in the '13' look. Even more interesting was that -- and again, I'm really conservatively estimating here -- but about half of those 3TE sets went for runs and half for throws (though don't quote me on that, that's just initial perception). This ratio is pretty much ideal. As a defensive coordinator - good luck trying to decide which personnel to send out to match up with this grouping in the huddle.
Nickel looks will typically get run on, as a linebacker leaves the field and is replaced by a DB. Base looks will get thrown on, as you find size/speed mismatches with your tight end receiving options. Let's take a look at a few of these plays...
3-3-DAL 22 (13:28 1st Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short right to S.Rice to DAL 16 for 6 yards (A.Spencer).
First off - look at down and distance. Seahawks driving, deep into Dallas territory. Third and three is an interesting situation, as the run/pass guess becomes a crapshoot for opposing coordinators. The Seahawks are certainly one of those teams that would just run the ball here and if they don't get it, settle for a field goal. That conservative nature is really not out of character. On the other hand, you know that any team is going to want seven instead of three, so you have to be prepared to defend against the pass. Further, what should you think when the Seahawks trot three tight ends onto the field and into the huddle. What do you call for in terms of your defensive personnel? You end up talking yourself in circles like this guy.
In this case, Rob Ryan sticks with his base personnel - and when the Seahawks go empty backfield with two tight ends on the wings, Sidney Rice in the slot right and Marshawn Lynch slot left, that leaves Rice matched up against a 250 pound outside linebacker in Anthony Spencer. This is the mismatch you're looking for. Seattle takes advantage of it, pretty easily, actually.
Ball is snapped.
Sidney Rice runs a little hitch route toward the sideline and Wilson feeds him the rock. First down.
Now -- this look isn't automatic, and doesn't always work, but the Seahawks got the matchup they were hoping for in that situation. Perhaps, if Dallas had substituted a nickel or dime look to counter the Seahawks 3TE set, they'd have checked the play into a run, right into the teeth of a smaller lineup.
Later in the game, the Seahawks actually ran this exact same look and had Rice wide open for a modest gain as Anthony Spencer blitzed, but Wilson pulled the ball down and didn't pull the trigger on his hot route. A mistake I'm sure he'll be beating himself up on.
Speaking of Wilson beating himself up over a play....
1-10-SEA 26 (12:04 2nd Q) R.Wilson pass incomplete short middle to E.Moore.
1st and 10 -- Seahawks come out in their '13' personnel and line up three tight on the line of scrimmage to the right. This down and distance, along with the tight grouping, screams 'run' to the Cowboys, along with the penchant for Seattle to run the ball on first downs.
Below, I've illustrated what each tight end will do -- McCoy will crack back across the formation, and Miller will step out on the edge to block, allowing Evan Moore to release downfield on a slant pattern.
Ball is snapped. Up top, Sidney Rice is matched up man-to-man on Morris Claiborne, and Evan Moore draws Brandon Carr on the bottom of your screen. The Cowboys send 8 into the box with a single-high safety and the play-action fake works like a charm.
I don't really have to say much, you can just look at the picture below. 8 defenders in the box, biting hard on play-action. Brandon Carr doesn't have much help over the middle, save for a single high safety fifteen or twenty yards downfield.
Wilson sails the pass.
Later that quarter...
3-3-DAL 19 (4:55 3rd Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short right to Z.Miller to DAL 12 for 7 yards (B.Carter; A.Spencer).
Going back to down and distance: I suppose when it's 3rd and 3, this look is at the top of Bevell's playchart. Same playcall, same personnel reaction by Rob Ryan. Cowboys in base personnel, with Demarcus Ware matched up with Lynch out in the left slot, and Anthony Spencer on Golden Tate on the right. This leaves Zach Miller matched up, likely, with an interior linebacker.
Ball is snapped; Bruce Carter spies Wilson, another wrinkle to this whole situation - as Wilson becomes a threat to run, and he's a step short in picking up Miller as Miller enters his zone. In bang-bang play, Wilson hits his best option quickly and decisively for a first down.
Finally, saving the best for last.
2-7-DAL 22 (5:12 3rd Q) R.Wilson pass deep right to A.McCoy for 22 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
This is a great call on 2nd down, and the Cowboys botch the coverage. Now, again, the Seahawks have absolutely no qualms with running the football on 2nd and long, and they did so fairly frequently on Sunday, so in the back of their minds, you have got to believe the Cowboys are seeing this alignment and thinking run. The reaction off the snap seems to support this idea.
On the snap, Anthony Spencer looks surprised - shocked, even, that all three tight ends run into a pass pattern - all three essentially running go routes, with varying angles toward the endzone. You can see Spencer realize what's happening but he's already out of position. Likewise, both Dan Conner and Bruce Carter, Dallas' inside linebackers, look a bit confused on coverage assignments and that split second of hesitation is all you need.
Lee is already out of position on a streaking Anthony McCoy and that leaves Brandon Carr with the unenviable decision of who to take. His responsibility is ultimately to the outside, so he turns his hips to run with Evan Moore - a legitimate deep threat, and that's all she wrote.
With Zach Miller running up the middle of the field on a post route, the single-high safety has to split the difference on the two routes and that leaves Anthony McCoy with plenty of open grass.
Above you see the safety trying to make up ground, but it's much too late.
Touchdown, which puts the Seahawks up 20-7.