Seahawks vs Panthers: A strength on strength matchup

Streeter Lecka

Re-watching the Seahawks' Week 5 matchup with the Panthers from last year, one thing that kind of stood out to me was how ineffective Seattle's run game was. It was early in the year so obviously things weren't humming along like they were toward the end of the season, but 34 attempts (35 if you count an 18 yard loss by Jon Ryan on a botched punt, which I don't) produced 116 yards - a 3.4 YPC clip - both well below Seattle's year-long 4.8 YPC and 161+ yards per game average. I can see that being a similar stat line this week, and in some ways, this matchup feels like a strength-on-strength bout - Carolina's top-tier front seven against Seattle's top-tier power zone run game.

Football Perspective's Chase Stuart listed Carolina-Seattle as an underrated matchup this week, for the same reasons I've laid out above, and though many Seahawk fans might be looking ahead a bit to Week 2's rematch with the Niners, I'm a little bit worried about what Carolina's strength on the DL may do to get Seattle out of rhythm and out of character.

The Football Outsiders Almanac describes Carolina's defensive front seven as such:

Defensive tackle Ron Edwards started 11 games in 2012 before his season ended with an elbow injury. The Panthers finished out the season with some bottom-of-the-roster filler, then doubled up on the position in the draft, taking Utah's Star Lotulelei in the first round and Purdue's Kawann Short in the second. Lotulelei, former defensive lineman of the year in the Pac-12, might have been a top-five pick if a pre-draft physical test hadn't revealed a heart condition. Further testing found nothing wrong with Lotulelei's heart, and he should be a (ahem) star for Carolina, a one-gap or two-gap player who will start next to Dwan Edwards from day one. Edwards, signed just a week before the season after Buffalo cut him in camp, was one of the most active tackles in the league last year. Just ask the Bucs-in two games against Tampa Bay, Edwards collected 11 tackles, two sacks and a pass defensed. He signed a one-year contract to stay with the team this year, so Short will spend at least one season as rotational depth before entering the starting lineup. Meanwhile, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy were both in the top 15 in sacks and top 35 in hurries. This should be one of the league's elite lines.

Per the above mentioned Stuart:

"Underlooked matchup of the week: Seattle's power offense against Carolina's physical front seven. Lynch vs. Kuechly."

Elite running back Lynch vs elite linebacker Kuechly; and again, per FO:

Speaking of elite lines, take a gander at Luke Kuechly's stat line as a rookie. Our individual defensive numbers go back to 1996, and in that time the only other rookie to lead the NFL in percentage of his team's plays was Patrick Willis with the 49ers in 2007.

I'm not going to assume anything, but if we were to assume that Seattle might have some issues getting their traditional tight/wide zone ground game going on Sunday against Carolina's elite front seven, that means Russell Wilson's arm will have to help the Seahawks score points. Fortunately, while Carolina has a great front-seven, their secondary seems to be their weak link.

Per FOA:

Before the draft, Andy Benoit dubbed this "the worst secondary in football." Since the Panthers selected no defensive backs on draft day, it's safe to say the gap between them and the rest of the league has grown since then.

So, what will Darrell Bevell do if Seattle's stubborn adherence to the zone running game stalls the offense? He's not going to go away from it completely - he demonstrated that much last year - but there are some bootleg, moving pocket, and misdirection elements of the play-action game that Seattle can use to keep Carolina's excellent front seven honest and exploit their weakness on the back-four. This goes back to the constraint play idea - if your bread and butter isn't working, what can you do to re-set and put the defense on their heels?

Russell Wilson has shown the ability to use his mobility and accuracy throwing on the move, which really puts stress on a disciplined defense. We've seen a good amount of it in the preseason, so let's take a look at a few things Seattle may do in the middle ground, between all-out deep bombs and the grind it out run game.

THE BOOTLEG

1-10-SEA 20 (7:31 1st Q) R.Wilson pass short right to J.Kearse to SEA 40 for 20 yards (J.Patrick).

Seahawks vs. Chargers. This is the Seahawks' first play from scrimmage in 2013, and unsurprisingly, it's a play-action bootleg. This is one of Darrell Bevell's favorite play calls, a call that you'll frequently see scripted in to the beginning of games - and he drags Jermaine Kearse across the formation, essentially parallel to Wilson's movement just behind the linebackers. Wilson's read is fairly simple here - Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate draw the attention of the corner and safety to the play-side, and Wilson must read the middle linebacker to determine his throwing lane.

The middle linebacker, backpeddling at the snap, is stuck for a split-second looking in at Wilson, and Kearse sneaks behind him. Surprisingly 'easy' 20 yards here.

Note how the defensive line is almost immediately taken out of the play with Wilson's lateral movement, and the well-executed play-action also helps to neutralize the linebackers as well. This type of action negates a power/strength advantage that Carolina might have in the front four, and really stresses the linebackers as well, who are undoubtedly aware that Seattle will run the ball 30-35 times a game if they can.

Worst case scenario for this scheme, if Kearse is picked up well by that middle linebacker and Wilson has no where to go with the football, he has room to scramble for a few yards then run out of bounds (particularly with Golden Tate's excellent downfield blocking skills).

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Also worth noting that Luke Willson does a good job blocking at the point of attack on the defensive end. This was Anthony McCoy's specialty last year, so it's encouraging to see that Bevell and company trust Willson enough to call this play.

1-20-SEA 35 (12:03 1st Q) R.Wilson pass short right to D.Baldwin to DEN 49 for 16 yards (R.Moore).

Fast forward to the Denver game. Seattle runs the same 'play' but in a different formation, personnel, and with different route-starting points. Tough to defend against this particular concept when it's run from different groupings and personnel.

Compare and contrast. Above, Seattle is in 11 Personnel - one back and one tight end, three receivers - Golden Tate runs a short route to the sideline, and Doug Baldwin runs up the hashes to draw in the safety over the top. Golden and Doug's route combo creates a hole in the defense, and that's where Jermaine Kearse runs to after starting with a reduced split to the formation on the backside.

Below, the exact same concept, just in 12 personnel - one back, two tight ends, two receivers - and Sean McGrath plays the Doug Baldwin role, running up the hashes. Luke Willson plays the Golden Tate role, running a drag behind the formation and toward the short flats. Doug Baldwin, running from a very tight split into the formation on the backside, drags across the field and settles into the hole created by Willson and McGrath.

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Again, this scheme takes the defensive line out of the play immediately, and depending on defensive personnel, leaves defense in the hands of the linebackers or secondary. I think Phil Simms was on local radio last week talking about Russell Wilson's mobility, and noted that one of the hardest things to defend in the NFL is a guy that can move around outside the pocket and still throw with accuracy. He asked rhetorically, 'why wouldn't you do that all the time if you had the capability?'

Later....

2-3-DEN 3 (:37) R.Wilson pass short right to S.McGrath for 3 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Again, same play, different formation. This time Seattle is in 22 Personnel - two backs, two tight ends, one receiver. Luke Willson runs the flat route, Golden Tate runs the 'go' route, and this time it's Sean McGrath who plays the Kearse/Baldwin role as the backside receiver dragging across the field.

Play-action does its job adequately, and Wilson fits a pass into a tight window. Looking at the replay, Wilson actually could have led McGrath a little bit more and the ball would have arrived cleanly, but McGrath makes a nice play on the tipped ball. McGrath is obviously gone at this point, but in the regular season, this would have been, likely, Zach Miller instead. I'll take that.

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Moar....

3-1-OAK 23 (12:31 1st Q) R.Wilson pass short right to L.Willson pushed ob at OAK 3 for 20 yards (T.Branch).

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Not a ton to say here except that because no one picks up Willson on his chip/release flat route, Russell dumps it off to him instead of threading it though to Tate, who is running the dig route across the field.

THE SPRINT OUT:

You might remember - because I was harping on it on twitter - that in, I'd say, at least four or five 3rd- or 4th-and-short situations against the Raiders last week, Seattle ran bootlegs or sprint out plays laterally to get first downs.

This strategy gives the quarterback the option to pass or run for the first down and makes it extremely difficult for the opponent to defend. I'm pretty sure Seattle was successful on each of those short yardage rollouts.

Obviously, it works in the redzone for similar reasons as well. Seattle is taking the defensive line out of the action almost immediately, negating the (possible) opponent's strength, and they're spreading the field laterally, something that becomes extremely useful when you don't have a ton of room to work with vertically. Hell, I've seen the fricking Broncos run this style of play (sprint-out instead of bootleg but the same concept of stretching the field laterally) with 56-year old Peyton Manning. It's effective.

Examples from 2012:

Vs NYJ.

3-2-SEA 48 (1:22 1st Q) R.Wilson pass short right to Z.Miller pushed ob at NYJ 47 for 5 yards (B.Thomas).

Seattle in a short yardage situation here against the Jets. Darrell Bevell calls a sprint out option for Russell where Zach Miller is the primary receiving option, I believe. The Jets actually play this one pretty well and have Wilson pretty bottled up - perhaps because of the lack of play action - but the threat of Wilson running for the first down makes #58 hesitate ever so slightly - letting Miller get a little separation and subsequently, a first down.

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Later that game...

3-2-NYJ 12 (3:29 2nd Q) R.Wilson scrambles right end to NYJ 3 for 9 yards (G.McIntyre).

Third and short. Redzone. Darrell Bevell dials up a play-action bootleg because everyone in the stadium believes Marshawn Lynch will be getting the rock. After faking the handoff and rolling out (Wilson rolls out very quickly, by the way, which is a key attribute - he has to be very fast in order to succeed in this situation), the defense is immediately out of position in anticipation of stopping Lynch.

The Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy crossing routes give Wilson a nice cushion in front of him to pick up the first down with his legs if need be, but obviously if either of those defenders had peeled off, Wilson could still pass. Pretty deadly.

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First down. Seahawks would score two plays later. By handing off the Marshawn Lynch. Tough.

Against San Francisco in Week 16...

3-1-SF 12 (5:53 1st Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson right end to SF 9 for 3 yards.

The nice thing about having a sprint out option in your repertoire is that even without it, Seattle was one of the better teams in the NFL in short-yardage 'power' situations, converting 69% of those runs for a first down. Of course, you don't always want to have to just run it up the gut, because that's what teams are inevitably going to be expecting.

Here, again, Bevell goes to a sprint-out option on third and short in the red-zone. Why? Because it stresses the defense laterally and gives Wilson a multitude of options. In this case, Wilson just decides to play it safe and move the chains by keeping it and sliding for a first down.

Aside - want to know why Pistol works so well? With no tipoff for play direction and an affected line of sight to the football, look at DT #95 and the middle linebacker dropping back - neither player can see where the football is going and both are extremely slow to act. There's a SoundFX floating around somewhere where you can hear Max Unger on the sidelines talking about how the Niners couldn't figure out where the ball is going in Pistol. This is a good example. Of course, this is one of the Niners' strengths on offense, so the Hawks will have to figure this out as well.

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Effective.

THE HALF-ROLL OUT:

I'm not sure this is actually called a 'half roll out' but it's essentially a shortened version of a bootleg - Wilson almost stays in the pocket here in the Hawks truncated iteration of the same concepts I pointed out above. One route up the hashes, one route out to the sideline, fit the ball in to the zone that's been vacated.

There's more than one way to skin a cat.

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Perhaps noteworthy in this is that the Saints seem to run a ton of half roll outs and little QB waggles with Drew Brees in order to get him nice sightlines and passing lanes. I'm sure Seattle has been studying Sean Payton's schemes in order to maximize Russell Wilson's skillset.

THE SCREEN:

I mean. I love the screen. Seattle has never seemed to be very good at it though. One thing I noticed when I went to training camp is the amount of time the offense spent on screen plays. This alone - not to mention the fact that Seattle ran successful screens in each of their preseason games - makes me think it's going to be more of a focal point in the offense this year.

Here's a great example of the power of the screen, when run properly. Seattle has an athleticism advantage on their offensive line that, in theory, means they might have more success with it. When you get a 300 pound lineman or two running downfield in front of Marshawn Lynch, it's easy to draw up ways to stop it, but harder in reality to get off of blocks.

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Again, this type of play takes pressure off the offensive line in getting push against the front seven, and takes an opposing defensive line out of the play. In fact, screens are most useful because they exploit the aggressiveness of a defensive line.

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All in all, the reason I went down this rabbit hole is that I could see Seattle struggle this weekend in their bread and butter. Lynch and company may very well end up running at a good yard per carry average, but as it's the first game of the year, I could see the offensive line and by extension, the run game, having their hands full. Zone blocking takes timing and teamwork, and cut blocking isn't something that just comes back immediately. To put it in layman's terms, I'd be surprised to see the run game in 'midseason form' in week one. That's where these constraint plays come into focus. Keep an eye on these types of schemes if the first couple of series don't produce much on the ground.

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