I have been a fan of the Seahawks since 1979 (my Jim Zorn poster had pride of place on my bedroom wall growing up), and am a long time FieldGulls reader, first time poster. After the Houston game, I noticed a disturbing recurring problem in games that the Seahawks have struggled in (most notably in Houston and Atlanta).
Simply put, when the vanilla offensive strategy is not working, the coaches are waiting far too long to make in-game adjustments and open up the offense to let Wilson use his skill, creativity and speed to break open the defense. Others have commented on the questionable play calling before, and Danny Kelly mentioned it in his "Tell the Truth" post after the Houston game, but it has mostly been glossed over in the euphoria after Sunday’s win, or explained away as being due to the injuries on the offensive line. Unfortunately, the "injuries" argument does not hold up, as I will explain.
Yes, the Hawks pulled off a huge comeback on the road against a good team, despite playing without 3 offensive line starters. That was an amazing win and shows that you can never count this team out. BUT, that is not the point. The point is that twice in the last five games, the Seahawks offensive strategy was clearly not working, and Carroll/Bevel did not make the adjustments to make the most use of their most dangerous weapon until very late in the game. Instead, they just kept trying the same things that were not working, over and over again.
Why is that? It is understandable that they want to protect Wilson, and are mindful that it is a long season and it would be best to keep the number of hits on Wilson down. But that does not explain what they did at Houston, when Wilson got hit repeatedly in the first three quarters while dropping back into the pocket. If they were focused on protecting Wilson, keeping him in the pocket was a bad idea.
I am not calling for them to run Read option plays over and over again, but I wonder why they didn’t call more designed roll out plays or quick screens??? (I just re-watched the Houston game. There was only 1 roll-out/bootleg and 3 screens in the first three quarters, all of which resulted in positive yards). With 3 back up O-linemen trying to protect against a fearsome pass rush, countering with designed roll-outs is Basic Football 101.
And when you consider that Wilson is excellent throwing on the run, then calling roll-outs (perhaps with short/medium receiver patterns) is a no brainer. If the coaches were very worried about Wilson getting hit on roll outs, they could have instructed him to either throw it, or run-and-slide. Instead, the play calling kept Wilson in the pocket where he had no time, and where he kept getting pounded. Why would Carroll/Bevel do this? And again – keeping him in the pocket was NOT protecting him, it was just making him fodder for Houston’s pass rush as he was hit or sacked on 16 of his 34 dropbacks.
One possibility is that Carroll/Bevel are overthinking things. Since it is Basic Football 101 to call designed roll-outs when you have a scrambling QB who throws great on the run and you have a patchwork offensive line, maybe Carroll/Bevel are being too clever for their own good? Perhaps their thought process was "Houston will expect us to roll Wilson out, so they will position their defense to counter that. So let’s not run roll outs, and instead call our offense expecting them to run a defense that will counter what they think we are likely to do (roll-outs)."
Fine, that is Basic Football 101 too - try to figure out what the defense will do to counter what they expect you to do, and then do something different. BUT WHEN THAT DOES NOT WORK FOR THE FIRST 3, OR 4, OR 5 OFFENSIVE SERIES, IT IS TIME TO TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT!! And if you only have 114 yards of offense at the end of the 3rd Quarter (as the Seahawks did Sunday), then you definitely need to try something different, and should have tried it a long time before.
But Seattle kept trying to do the same things that were not working, over and over again, and failing, over and over again. Until finally in the late 3rd Quarter (in both Atlanta and Houston), they decided "ok, screw it, let’s let Russell loose and see if that works." Why the hell does it take them so long to realize that they have to adapt their game plan? And in the Houston game, it is not even 100% clear that the coaches did deliberately turn Wilson loose.
In comments after the game, Wilson said that Lynch told him in the 4th quarter "Russ, just take over." Good for Lynch, but why the hell wasn’t it Bevel and Carroll telling Russ to take over??? Watching those late drives, almost all of Wilson’s runs were improvised after the initial play did not work – i.e. these were not bootlegs designed to give Wilson room to run or throw, he was STILL in the pocket to start most of those plays, and just scrambled out when he could not find an open receiver.
When they did call roll-out, bootleg, read option, screen plays, they were almost all successful, or at least went for positive yards. In the 4th quarter, they ran one read option which gained 11 yards, 3 bootlegs (1 resulted in a 25 yard Wilson run, 1 was the successful 4th down Wilson run, and the third resulted in an incomplete pass), and 1 screen that went about 6 yards. I am not a stat freak as I think stats can be misleading, but in this game the stats definitely matched up with what we saw on the ground.
Meaning, when Seattle ran vanilla run (most out of I-formation) and pocket pass plays, production was poor and Wilson got hit a lot. When they ran plays designed to get away from the pass rush and cover for their problems on the offensive line (read option, roll-outs, bootlegs, screens), they were far more successful and Wilson did not get hit as much. But they only ran 4 of these roll-out/bootleg/screen type plays in the 1st half, and 2 in the 3rd quarter (1 read option, and one bootleg). In the 4th quarter comeback, they ran 6 of them, 5 of them which went for big plays (including Wilson’s successful 4th down bootleg, and the creative outside pitch to Lynch for his TD).
So again, why are Carroll/Bevel holding back like this and making what seem like obvious adjustments??? Was this a problem with Bevel in Minnesota too? I don’t remember Carroll being very adaptive at USC, but then the other teams rarely shut his hyper talented offenses down in the first place.
This Seahawks team clearly has the talent and chemistry to win a championship, but the unwillingness of the coaches to adapt their offensive strategy when things are not working and use their whole set of offensive weapons is a huge concern. The coaches have done a great job putting this team together, but if they do not win a championship, then this offensive stubbornness is very likely going to be the reason (unless injuries overwhelm them, of course) why they fall short. And if they do lose this way, that would be an agonizing defeat.
Of course only one team wins the SB. But when a team loses in the playoffs/SB after playing up to their ability and playing a good game, and simply get beat by a better team, it still sucks, but it is understandable. But when a team loses because they sleepwalk through half of the game, or the offensive play calling avoids using the specific strengths of its best players, or the coaches wait until the 4th Quarter to make adjustments when their preferred game plan is clearly not working….. then that is just brutal.
And that is what this team has done far too many times for comfort, and this is looking less and less like one-off "bad games" and more and more like a coaching pattern. This is not a slow starting team, this is a team whose offensive play-callers too often do not make seemingly obvious adjustments until late in the game. And it is not just down to injuries on the offensive line. It cannot be stressed enough that those injuries make this unwillingness to move Wilson outside of the pocket even more baffling, as keeping him in the pocket just magnifies the vulnerabilities of the offensive line.
This team looks good enough to get home field advantage in the playoffs. And everyone knows that gives them a massive advantage to get to the SB. But if they are down 20-3 at halftime in the SB against Denver, they are not coming back from that as "easily" as they did against Atlanta and Houston. And in response to those who might say "If they get to the SB, they are going to unleash Wilson from the start", the Atlanta divisional play-off was also a good time to go all out from the start, and had they done so they probably would have won that game.
I hope I am wrong, but this reliance on vanilla play calls and lack of adjustment until late in games does not appear to be a case of the coaches wanting to hold their cards close to their vest now, so that they can unleash creativity later in bigger, more important games. It appears that this is just the way they operate.
Great teams find a way to win like the Hawks did in Houston. But great teams also adapt to what they have, and what the opponent is doing. New England has won with Brady throwing 40+ passes a game and needing to outscore everyone they play, and at different times they have won with a strong defense and run game.
The great non-one-season-wonder teams of the past (like the 1980’s 49ers and Redskins) also adapted to their personnel, maximized the use of their offensive strengths and made quick in-game adjustments when things were not working. Carroll/Bevel pretty clearly are focused on winning on the back of Marshawn Lynch, and have shown too many times a stubbornness to change that strategy when it is not working. And the recent offensive woes appear to be caused at least as much, if not more, by the stubborn play calling as by injuries on the offensive line.
Please note, this is not a call for Carroll/Bevel to change their offensive philosophy completely and ditch the Lynch led run game in favor of Wilson running a Fran Tarkenton circus offense. Lynch is an awesome tool, and one of the biggest strengths of the team. But the offense needs to adapt quicker when things are clearly not working, or this team at some point (likely at the worst possible point…) might find themselves in a hole that they cannot dig out of.
Ok, venting over, and I hope that this is proven wrong in the coming months…..