Back when Darrell Bevell was hired in early 2011, there was a growing sense among the 12th man that the Seahawks would be team that would establish their own identity. In a league where passing has begun to dominate the majority of the playbook and teams have emulated others' schemes, Pete Carroll called on Tom Cable and Bevell to return the team to its basic smashmouth roots - a callback to the "traditional" way to play the game - by running the football.
Flash forward to one and a half seasons later, it appears the plan is working quite nicely. The players, once assembled as a rag-tag team of backups and has-beens, has flourished. The running game, once dormant and almost worthless, has now become an area of strength. In turn, this has paid dividends within the passing game, and perhaps one of the reasonsn a rookie QB has been as successful as he is today. The offense's identity has been established.
Yet this path isn't without its shortcomings, and when we tend to look at the failures of the Seahawks offense we usually point the blame towards Bevell; after all, his play-calling has been predictable, and he seemingly does not adjust his gameplan in halftime - aren't those credible reasons to question his performance?
What we fail to realize is that Bevell, in my opinion, while traditional in terms of play-calling, has some of the best play design in the league. The creativity that sparks his ability as a coordinator and a coach is not what he calls, but how he calls it. In the brief glimpse of his best season to date - 2009 - he orchestrated amazing and noteworthy plays by taking full advantage of players like Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin. This helped them become the 2nd best offense in the league (and keep in mind, this was with a hampered, old Brett Farve at the helm).
The confusion lies in the recognition that there is a key difference between traditional play-calling and traditional play design. We lived through almost a decade of Mike Holmgren's West Coast Offense, and while it varied over the years in what the offense ran on the field, the design of the plays were all very similar. Matt Hasselbeck usually dropped back 3 steps. Bobby Engram would line up in the slot. D.J. Hackett or Koren Robinson would be the deep threat. Maurice Morris comes on third downs.
If anything, the plays worked and were pretty effective. But the problem with traditional play design is not only that it's boring, it's that it's predictable. The defense not only knew that the Seahawks were going to go run-run-pass, but they knew what was run, what was pass. There was no trickery, no BS - and its a reason why plays like these also usually don't last very long either.
This is a game where the defense responds to what the offense gives - and it is because of this reason that an offense has to be creative in outlining a full playbook. The game has evolved to where one can mix different schemes or even have multiple schemes outlined on a play.
Tom Cable was brought in at a "higher," and perhaps more important position than Bevell in creating and outlining the basics of the offense. The Zone Blocking Scheme, as I outlined previously here and here, is hard to fully master but is simple in terms of concepts; it's like Mike Holmgren's WCO - you can have it be effective, but it's boring and predictable in its design. Cable succeeded in building a base and layout for the O-Line but I don't think he's tinkered much with different things in creating a playbook - it's my opinion that Darrell Bevell has - and this is the strength that he brings with him to the Seahawks:
Bubble Screens, WR Passes and RB Runs
We open the second offensive series with some bubble screens thrown to Golden Tate.
Part of the reason this play continued to work throughout the game and the reason the Seahawks kept going back to it was because it was originally set up by this run:
You see here, the play is design to run both a bubble screen and a draw at the same time. Lynch, with the route in white, is going to run the ball. Tate will run the screen to the right and the rest of the wideouts will go deep and block. Miller has to sell the screen by pass blocking, so he's not doing anything important to affect the play.
Ball is snapped. Tate's screen route draws the Vikings OLB to immediately rush and cover him, leaving a gap wide open for Lynch to run to. This leaves the other LB wide open to a barge of OL coming straight for him. Miller's block throws off any type of stunt/pressure Jared Allen on the outside can get to, and the Vikings, already running a tight blitz, has inadvertently opened up a lot of holes.
An easy 7-yard gain there.
What follows after another set of plays is the Sidney Rice pass. Again, this is set up by both the original screen play to Golden Tate and the Lynch run I broke down above. The Seahawks line up in a similar formation to the one that show above:
The Vikings are coming in with an overload blitz again. This time, the WRs run similar routes - Miller and Baldwin go deep, Rice comes in with a screen route. Knowing that the defense's best player lies in Allen, the play is designed to isolate him by forcing him to guard the RB. Turbin, in his case, rolls out towards the left - and since the defense is coming in at the LOS hot, has to be covered by the last guy on the line: Allen.
The pass completes to Rice, and again, the Vikings defense pursue: the arrows indicate below that almost all White Jerseys are tucking in towards Sidney's position; the defense believes that the play is over, but it's very much not. This pursuit lets Miller get open deep down the field. Again, another easy play by the Seahawks.
This formation comes out again - but now this time, the Vikings are playing their defense differently, stacking up 7 in the box:
The play here is a run, but again, it's also designed to fake the screen. You would think that running against 7 men might be difficult, especially when the formation is trips right.
Not for this team. On the snap, Wilson hands it off to Lynch before pump faking it to the screen WR, Tate. This pauses the DB's on the other side and again stopping them briefly for backside pursuit. Meanwhile, the OL is pumping the play forward, which draws the LBs as well. This makes it very easy for Lynch to cut it back to the left.
And if 7 men wasn't enough, what about 8?
The Seahawks want to run the ball, but instead of giving it to Marshawn Lynch, they are going to switch things up with Michael Robinson. The grandfather of the ZBS, Alex Gibbs, mentioned that an effective running team under his scheme has the ability to run successfully even admist 7-9 guys in the box.
The Seahawks did just that. On the snap, the play is split between two different directions. The RBs, Lynch and Robinson, both move to their right; Rice, the motion man, crack-back blocks towards the left while the OL block towards the middle. Tate, on the other side of the formation, banks hard on a slant, cutting the DB off. Okung, in his own manner, actually drops back into pass protection.
Within this contradicting set of directions the Vikings defense sort of end up running into each other:
Wilson fakes the toss to Lynch, who does a good job of holding the three defenders on the LOS's right. Meanwhile, the rest of the OL is able to sweep the Vikings and the LOS towards the left as expected. Okung's solo dropback fools Jared Allen convincly, and he over pursues his rush resulting in a large gap for Robinson to run to.
Another easy 6 yards for the Seahawks. At this point, deep in my gut, I felt that Seattle was outscheming the other team.
Here we have the formation being used for a red zone situation. Again, its very similar to the Lynch run, with a key difference: Wilson is in the shotgun vs. under the center.
This time, it's a screen play to Tate. The play is also designed to fake the inside run that Lynch burned the Vikings earlier. It's a key point to what made this "run" a TD rather than a short yardage gain.
Wilson takes the snap and immediately darts it to Tate. Lynch fakes the run, which is enough to briefly hold the LBs again. Meanwhile, Baldwin runs deep towards the endzone, drawing the DB with him because the Vikings don't want to be burnt by the Rice catch-and-throw play again.
It is Lynch's movement towards the middle that holds the LB, which make things easy for Tate to immediately run inside for a TD. It is Baldwin's deep route that backs the DB off deep into the endzone, making him a non factor until Tate has already crossed the line. It is Bevell's play design however, that ties all of these things all together.
Play Action and Short Yardage
One of the things that caught my eye upon watching the game film was how different and versatile the Seahawks offense was on third-and-short. For the past few weeks we were spoiled by Bevell in seeing empty set upon empty set, but we had little of those formations here.
What we did see for the past few weeks though was a lot more Michael Robinson. In this short yardage here, Bevell calls for a FB run - a logical, if not appropriate, choice. While the play is run as that (and not very well I might add), Bevell also, at the same time, implemented a play-action/option bootleg component. Upon handing the ball to Robinson, Wilson also has to fake the pitch to Turbin before rolling out himself.
Again, the play itself didn't get much, but Turbin's movement forces the Vikings to hold one of their players off. This will become more important later.
Later in the game, the Seahawks come upon another key short yardage situation. This time, the Vikings line up in an goal line set, only having one safety not within the box. The Seahawks, obviously wanting to take advantage of this, looks to use a play action pass.
Part of what makes P-A rollouts and bootlegs so effective is that the defense buys in to the fake, and that it makes them hesitate for just enough time for the QB to make the throw.
The ball snapped and the pitch is faked to Lynch. Since the Vikings were not playing very deep, the OL's movement towards the left as well as Lynch's obvious run out makes almost all of the defenders runs towards the left. Hiding behind this gigantic wall of movement TE McCoy and FB Robinson quietly move towards the right side instead.
The Weakside OLB, already playing out of his regular position, draws in too much to the movement of the play and does not readjust in time. The MLB next to him has to cover McCoy running deep down the seem. This leaves Michael Robinson open with...space and turf.
Traditionalism in play calling is important. It's needed to preserve the team's identity, to keep it consistent and to build continuity within the scheme.
But it's important to realize that how a team achieves that process, how it progresses this traditionalism - can be tailored anyway the coach wants it to be. You can have Sidney Rice throw the ball once a game. You can have Michael Robinson rush on short yardage. You can run bubble screens all day as long as you follow the ZBS rules Cable has set for the offense - throw to score, run to win.