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Building A Game Plan Around Matt Hasselbeck

Now that we know the starter, I thought I would attempt to build a game plan around Matt Hasselbeck. We can probably shelve the run game, which is a bummer. Charlie Whitehurst was able to move around. The bootlegs complemented the stretches and inside zones, and though far from dominant, the Seahawks rush attack was viable. 16 of Seattle's 35 runs were successful (by the standard put forth in the Hidden Game of Football: 40% on first, 60% on second and 100% on third and fourth.) Seattle's best performance by my count is against the Panthers, when 17 of 31 rush attempts were successful. So maybe we can't throw out the run game, but I am not sanguine about its potential.

A few things need to be considered when creating a game plan around Hasselbeck. The first is his prior performance against the Saints. People seem to think Hasselbeck can duplicate that performance, but there are many, many reasons to believe that's not true.

Here's one:

Situation G
QBRat Comp Att Pct Yds Y/G Y/A TD Int   Rush Yds Y/G Avg TD   Sack YdsL   Fum FumL  
 Outdoors 11
67.1 192 330 58.2 2111 191.9 6.4 10 16   20 45 4.1 2.3 3   24 143   6 4  
 Indoors 3
90.9 74 114 64.9 890 296.7 7.8 2 1   3 15 5.0 5.0 0   5 32   1 1

And that's been true of Hasselbeck throughout his decline. Here's the three year splits:

Situation G
QBRat Comp Att Pct Yds Y/G Y/A TD Int   Rush Yds Y/G Avg TD   Sack YdsL   Fum FumL  
 Outdoors 27
67.4 489 850 57.5 5212 193.0 6.1 28 39   48 204 7.6 4.3 3   63 385   14 7  
 Indoors 8
82.2 179 291 61.5 2034 254.3 7.0 6 5   12 44 5.5 3.7 0   17 118   5 1

That probably includes an assist from playing the Rams. When you're working with already limited arm strength, anything that can push, slow or otherwise influence a football like rain or wind is going to be a big problem.

Hasselbeck hasn't played well outdoors and he hasn't played well throughout his career when playing in precipitation:

Precip. 12
72.9 166 297 55.9 1785 137.3 6.0 13 11   25 107 8.2 4.3 1   17 91   4 1

So the passing game probably doesn't look too viable either.

With a pair of power backs, maybe the run game is the call. Slippery conditions could help a bruiser like Marshawn Lynch, though his fumbling problems are not heartening. Maybe the announcement that Hasselbeck is starting is an elaborate ruse and Carroll will take New Orleans by surprise by starting Whitehurst on Saturday. Hmmm.

Probably not. Seattle was able to push the Saints corners back by dropping a couple bombs on them early. That allowed Hasselbeck to target underneath patterns for much of the rest of the game. Malcolm Jenkins was injured and that greatly weakened New Orleans deep coverage, and as it turns out, Jenkins is unlikely to play this Saturday. The problem with duplicating that strategy is the deep passing attack is volatile and if Seattle can not run or count on short and mid-range throws, and it can't, chucking it deep risks burning downs the Seahawks do not have to burn.

When you look at Hasselbeck's performance on deep passes over the last three seasons, it's pretty sad.

Pass Thrown: 21-30 20 74 634 27.0 8.57 4 10
Pass Thrown: 31-40 yds. 7 33 328 21.2 9.94 1 3
Pass Thrown: 41+ yds. 3 6 158 50.0 26.3 1 0

That final row represents four attempts in 2010, one attempt in 2009 and one attempt in 2008. Overall, Matt is completing only 26.5% of his deep passes, and so attempting to build through the deep passing game is burning a down hoping for a miracle.

You'll notice too that of those 30 completions, only six ended in touchdowns. If Seattle could complete a deep pass and finish the play in the end zone that would be stellar, but in this case, a deep completion is likely only to lead to tight coverage in the red zone. Hasselbeck has completed 48.9% of his red zone attempts, for 3.39 yards an attempt and 5.0 AY/A. Even assuming a short field, that's pretty lousy. The Seahawks are probably going to have to accept bending the Saints back and scoring field goals, and that winning will require keeping the lid on New Orleans explosive offense.

If Seattle can not count on the deep passing attack and Gregg Williams is committed to blitzing, what can the Seahawks do to counter? Screens and draws make sense. With Tyler Polumbus and Mike Gibson now manning the guard spots, the Seahawks should have enough athleticism to make a screen pass work. The Saints rank 26th in the NFL at defending passes to running backs. Swing passes and splitting Forsett and Leon Washington wide is another alternative, and Seattle did that effectively against the Rams.

Alternatively, Seattle has the kind of size in Ben Obomanu and Mike Williams to make a tunnel screen work.  Passing-wise, getting back to the Mike Holmgren days of stretching a defense horizontally seems like it plays to Hasselbeck's strengths; the pass catching ability of Forsett and Washington; the size of Williams and Obomanu; and targets the attacking style of Williams. Basically, what I am looking at is making Hasselbeck a point guard and relying on the skill position players to make the plays. 2007-style.

A dangerous alternative to screen passes is short passes like slants and hooks. Williams-led defenses live on minimizing run after catch and jumping routes. The short passing attack is playing into the Saints hands, and, in the rain, throws into traffic invite drops and fumbles. I think it would be a mistake to run too many short patterns with wide receivers. By short patterns I mean 5-15 yard down field. What I am advocating is something like a spread with an emphasis on passes behind the line to five yards down field.

Seattle has very infrequently run draws, and almost exclusively with Justin Forsett out of passing downs, but against a blitzing team and with an offensive line that is better at pass blocking than run blocking, it might work to catch the Saints chasing. I would love to see Washington worked into some draws. He is skilled at navigating chaos and has the kind of burst to bust one after clearing the initial wave of defenders. If Seattle used a high percentage horizontal passing game as the foundation of its offense, draws could be a valuable change of pace. It would certainly beat leading with the run and continually facing second and long and third and long.

So that about settles it. The Seahawks should not pass deep, because Hasselbeck struggles to pass deep and the conditions should only exacerbate that. Further, Seattle should not pass deep because it lacks the kind of consistent passing game and run game to recover after it has burned a down on an incomplete pass. Seattle could potentially bank on the run game, but that should be harder without Whitehurst to boot and stretch the field horizontally. Instead, Seattle should stretch the field horizontally through screen passes and swings, outs and flats to the backs. The Seahawks should complement this ball-control passing attack with draw plays. Overall the ratio of pass to run should probably be about 2:1.

It's not a game plan that will allow Seattle to hang with the Saints if the Saints offense is able to rain fire on the Seahawks defense, but it should limit possessions, keep the defense fresh, and keep the chains moving.

Or so's the plan.