DK Note: From the archives -- I wrote and published this article back on January 14th, during the week before the NFC Championship Game. Whether you missed it the first time around or just need a refresher, hopefully you enjoy it.
The Seahawks are 14-3, are hosting the NFC Championship Game, and have, arguably, one of the most dominant pass defenses in NFL history. However, there's real concern that Seattle's lack of offensive efficacy of late will hamstring their ability to win Sunday vs. the 49ers, or in the Super Bowl, if they advance. The talk this week pertained specifically to the passing offense, as the rush offense did explode for 174 yards on Saturday, and Pete Carroll, ever the optimist, has been pretty frank about his opinion on the matter. Carroll, asked about the struggling pass offense, shrugged off concerns (as Haz did here) and reiterated the core philosophies of his entire program:
"We're trying to play really, really good ball. And that means you take care of the football and don't give it up. You don't give them field position situations and you get to hang on to it. You run the thing, and you get to play with the attitude you want. It adds to the overall makeup of our team. That's what's coming through.
"When we played San Francisco last time at our place, we beat them 29-3. We had 290 yards of offense that day. We threw the ball about 20 times (18, actually). To me, that's great football. That's us playing great football. We took it off ‘em, we took care of it. We played the field position game. We kicked it really well, and beat a really good football team with a good score with that amount of production. That's fitting it all together."
When asked about Russell Wilson's 9-for-18, 103 yard passing performance on Saturday, Carroll responded:
"I think he's doing great. I think he's doing what we need him to do in these games. One can always do better. He's very concerned about leading us in a way that keeps our philosophy intact - i.e., taking care of the football, and he's done a great job of that, and he's done that all year long."
As Wilson put it, "I'm competing to not turn the ball over."
Brock Huard brought this up on the radio this week, but think about a couple teams that lost last weekend. Andrew Luck threw four picks while Brady passed for 198 yards and no touchdowns. Patriots dominated, and frickin' Legarrette Blount had four rushing touchdowns. Cam Newton threw for a touchdown but had two picks, as compared to Colin Kaepernick, who threw for a touchdown, didn't turn it over, but ended up with 196 yards on 53% passing. Turnovers were absolutely the difference.
Carroll: "We're always looking for more, and [Russell] is too, and all that, but as long as our team is playing well and playing within the formula - playing good defense, we're running the football, we're playing well on ‘teams, taking care of the ball and getting it, we're going to have a really good chance to win. That's what's most important to us. It's not about the stats.
"We didn't put up a lot of yards when we played these guys (the Niners) at home and we didn't put up a lot of yards against the Saints to get our win there. [The stats have] nothing to do with what's important as far as the game's concerned."
As far as passing numbers, he's right. In pretty striking similarity, Wilson's numbers for the two mentioned games were:
8-for-19 for 142 yards, 1 TD 1 INT.
9-for-18 for 103 yards, 0 TD 0 INT.
Awful numbers. TD/INT ratio bore out, completion percentage was the same, yardage was pretty similar.
The difference of the game in Week 2 was that Seattle picked off Colin Kaepernick three times, recovered two Niner fumbles, and got a safety. They dominated because they took it from them, played awesome defense, and ran it down their throat to the tune of 172 yards. They won despite poor passing, a Wilson turnover, and despite a blocked punt.
The Niners' pass offense has come a long way since Week 2 and Kaepernick will likely be better this time around, but considering how well Seattle was able to completely bottle up Drew Brees and the Saints' potent pass offense for seven out of eight quarters of play in two meetings (as they did to Kaep in San Fran Week 14: 15-of-29 for 174 1TD/1INT), I would say, at least, it's going to be a challenge for the San Francisco's signal caller.
That means, likely, as long as they're not playing from a big deficit, Seattle's offense will continue to play conservatively. Don't give them the ball. Calculated risks only. Deliberate, safe scheming (specific play calling may be a culprit, but rest assured, whatever gets called will likely be conservative).
Go light on passes over the middle, those are more likely to be tipped and intercepted. Wilson noted after the game he was trying to keep the football down in the wind, so as to avoid having it sail on him, and this could have accounted for some of the accuracy issues that cropped up again - even thinking about or aiming the football can be what caused him to miss behind on two slants and low on a couple others. This can all be traced to a mentality for avoiding turnovers. In turn, Seattle's third down percentage ended up in the 30's. So, fail on third down? Punt it and play the field position game. Trust your special teams. Trust your defense. Stick to the bread and butter on offense, repeat.
The good news for this week? A rejuvenated Marshawn Lynch, along with a re-tooled offensive line grouping, made up for Wilson's inordinately-pronounced deficiencies throwing the football, and Seattle rushed for 174 yards on 35 carries against the Saints and that set the tone for the whole game. It's pretty clear to me that this will be the strategy again this week.
Bottom line: if Seattle can run, and/or if Seattle has a lead, expect a fairly ugly offensive passing game. I am. Anything smooth or efficient would surprise me. It's the playoffs. It's the Niners. Running. That is the name of the game.
So yeah. That was a long-winded introduction to where I break down some cool Marshawn Lynch runs from last weekend, because maybe you'd like to see how they'll hope to accomplish all this, from an Xs and Os perspective. To the tape!
On the whole, the story of the Seahawks' run strategy in this one can be summed up into two words: The cutback.
2-1-NO 15 (14:23 2nd Q) (Shotgun) M.Lynch up the middle for 15 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
I made three gifs of this play because the way that Lynch moves is absurd. Early in the 2nd quarter, Seattle rolls out a 'packaged play' that sees Percy Harvin in the slot along with Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate. The New Orleans defense is frantically communicating with each other prior to the snap to get aligned correctly and so everyone knows their responsibility. This is awesome, because the ball is not going to Percy Harvin, it's going to Marshawn Lynch.
With the linebackers crowding the line to stop the dive, the backside corner respecting the read option element, and the playside safety biting on the Harvin fake, Lynch cuts back and finds himself a giant run lane. What he does once he's there is nothing short of brilliant, as he defies the physics of acceleration to break what probably should have been four tackles.
Here's another angle.
David Hawthorne fills toward the backside B-gap and Lynch cuts it back around his tight end, Zach Miller. The jump cut to get past him is cool enough, but what impresses me the most about this run is the one step he takes with his right to get back up to full speed downhill. With this burst of acceleration, Lynch eludes the oncoming corner (#24), breaks the oncoming safety's ankles (#25), then shows his patented hover step to avoid ankle tackles at the second level.
Not to pick on Robert Turbin, but since Turbin is Lynch's backup, it's apt: Lynch is important to this offense because he can do this. Turbin, from what I can tell, is not physically capable of this, and that's to be expected - Lynch was a first round pick and is one of the more talented backs in the league. I think sometimes we concentrate on Lynch's Beastmodeness though and forget about his great vision and how athletic he is in space. It would have taken me about 12 steps to get back to the speed it takes Lynch about two steps to get to.
1-10-SEA 21 (11:01 2nd Q) M.Lynch right guard to SEA 28 for 7 yards (R.Harper, M.Jenkins).
Below, early second quarter. Seahawks running out of the I-formation and they execute an inside zone run off the backside A-gap. With Wilson's reverse pivot and Mike Rob's lead to the left, the Saints flow with the offensive line in that direction. David Hawthorne attacks downhill as J.R. Sweezy and Breno Giacomini fake the wide zone left then seal to the right.
I'm trying to remember if the Seahawks have run with this specific footwork and scheme at any time recently I can't think of anything off the top of my head. If this was a new, specific wrinkle to introduce in this game, kudos to the Seahawks' offensive staff.
Lynch with the hover step. Again, this looks it should be a loss. Instead, Hawthorne is caught lying there, catchin' the vapors.
Here it is from the All-22 angle:
1-10-SEA 29 (6:02 2nd Q) M.Lynch right tackle to SEA 47 for 18 yards (C.Lofton).
Later in the 2nd quarter; this is just a standard inside zone run to the right, with J.R. Sweezy and Breno Giacomini both sealing their defenders perfectly. On the wing, first watch Luke Willson drive LB David Hawthorne out of the way, then see how Golden Tate does a good job of reaching then blocking his defender. Running in this scheme is truly a full team effort.
After Lynch jukes the lone unblocked man (#27) out of his knickers, he picks up another 8 or 9 yards.
Here's the endzone angle: the Lynch juke toward the backside A-gap sets up #50 perfectly.
2-3-NO 8 (1:58 2nd Q) M.Lynch left end pushed ob at NO 8 for no gain (D.Hawthorne).
This play ended up going for no gain. For a second there though, it looked like it would be a loss of seven yards. It didn't work in this case, but Lynch's backwards hover-strafe-stiffarm that allows him to work his way back to the line of scrimmage is honestly absurd.
3-9-SEA 7 (9:14 3rd Q) (Shotgun) M.Lynch left tackle to SEA 19 for 12 yards (R.Harper).
This play on 3rd and 9 is all about Max Unger and Michael Bowie. Watch Unger specifically - he engages then turns his body perpendicular to the line of scrimmage to completely seal the defender off. Bowie does a great job of using leverage with his long arms to take care of the defensive 3-technique, and Lynch hits the crease at full speed.
It's a nice playcall against what looks like an overload blitz to the defensive left. I'm guessing the Saints were expecting a pass here.
2-10-SEA 38 (3:46 4th Q) M.Lynch up the middle to SEA 45 for 7 yards (M.Jenkins, R.Harper).
This is a classic zone run left. Lynch breaks off from Mike Rob's route when he sees the cutback lane open up - this was caused by the defense flowing too quickly to their right at the snap. This is the goal of the zone blocking scheme, of course, and Lynch then shrugs off Akeem Hicks, the three-tech in this front.
Breno was unable to reach Hicks, it looks like he thinks briefly about cut blocking him, and thus gets stuck in no-man's land. Luckily, Lynch is Lynch.
1-10-NO 31 (2:48 4th Q) M.Lynch left end for 31 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
This is a nine-man box. With 2:48 on the clock, and a first down, the Saints load up to stuff Lynch so they can get the clock stopped. Seattle is running out of a three tight end look and the play design, I think, it meant to go off left guard and behind a pulling J.R. Sweezy.
Watch Sweezy pull, and watch Zach Miller set the edge and Luke Wilson combo then move downfield. The Saints get penetration at the point of attack - I suppose you can credit them for that - but totally lose contain with a crackback by Jermaine Kearse.
At that point, Lynch jukes outside, and showing almost uncharacteristic speed, gets the edge. He then does the old basketball 'rocker-step' for about fifteen yards on Keenen Lewis, and that's all she wrote.