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The Seahawks' Use of Play-Action and Explosive Pass Plays

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Tarvaris Jackson #7 of the Seattle Seahawks passes against the Arizona Cardinals during the fourth quarter at CenturyLink Field on September 25, 2011 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 25: Tarvaris Jackson #7 of the Seattle Seahawks passes against the Arizona Cardinals during the fourth quarter at CenturyLink Field on September 25, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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When the Seahawks' offensive identity is described here and in the media, a lot of the time you'll hear something along the lines of 'a run-first, zone-scheme offensive philosophy that utilizes play-action to take shots down the field and keep the defense on their heels.' Pete Carroll loves to run the football and you'll hear him hammer away at this constantly in interviews and press conferences -- it's one of his core beliefs. But, he also loves the 'explosive' play. Pick up 20 yards at a time, change the momentum, energize your offense. For Pete, grabbing these explosive plays a couple times a game is more than just a schematic thing - I think he really believes it does something special for his players' mindsets. Listen to the former sports psychology major describe his decisions to air it out, or take a shot, take a chance, and you realize he's constantly looking for ways to get his team jacked up and playing with energy.

You'll hear Carroll describe his philosophy on offense - run the ball, control possession, use the clock, grind away - as the 'all-time best way' to do things. People these days question this of course, as the league trends toward becoming more and more of a passing league. I'm sure this isn't lost on Carroll, Tom Cable, Darrell Bevell, et al, and the use of the explosive play would probably be their response to critics.

I keep going back to something I heard Greg Cosell mention in the Shutdown Corner Week 10 podcast that sort of sets my mind at ease about the obvious direction the Seahawks seem determined to take. Doug Farrar asked Cosell about the ability for teams to win a Super Bowl with a 'run first offense' instead of a 'pass first offense' in the modern NFL. He framed it, "Can you win a Super Bowl these days with the pass as, if not a secondary option, kind of a 1A thing?"

"Yeah, because I think what it comes down to, is generating explosive pass plays, Doug," Cosell replied. "As long as you get to that, and can do that, then you can, for sure. Let me make this analogy, in boxing, let's say. The object, obviously, is to hit the other guy in the chin and knock him out. To do that, you don't just come out and start swinging freely. You try to set that up, and maybe you use some jabs, maybe you use some body shots, and then, you can hit him on the chin.

"As long as you can throw the ball, and generate chunks of yards in the pass game, that's the important point. You don't just have to come out in four- or five-wide spreads and just start winging it."

One way to create these explosive plays is to effectively use play-action. The theory is simple - get the opposing defense to think you're going to run the football, make key defenders come into the box and commit to stopping the run, then throw it over their heads.

Football Outsiders recently put together their numbers on the use of play-action league-wide, with percentage of play-action, yards per play on play-action, DVOA on play-action, yards per pass on play-action, etc and so forth. See below.


The Seahawks finished seventh in the NFL in play-action percentage, behind Houston, Minnesota, Philadelphia, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Denver. Their DVOA - Defense-adjusted Value Over Average - on play-action plays in total was 21.5%, and on plays where they actually threw a pass (discounting sacks and throwaways) - 21.8% - both decent numbers.

Teams that ran a lot of play-action but weren't so successful at it include the Rams (-11.0%), the Jaguars (-60.9%), the Vikings (-1.6%), and Raiders (-0.2%).

The Seahawks' per pass average on play-action was 7.4 yards; on non-play action they averaged 5.3 yards per pass, which is a pretty big disparity. Their DVOA on play-action was 21.9% higher than on non play-action snaps. Meaning - play-action worked for Seattle. A lot of that probably has to do with the Seahawks' mid-season decision to commit to the run, something you'll hear the coaching staff say started at Dallas. In the first seven games of 2011, the Seahawks were running the football about 21 or 22 times per game on average. Over the final nine games, that number went up to around 32 times per game.

Still, despite being the 25th ranked team in terms of pass attempts on the year, and the 23rd ranked team in pass completions, the Seahawks ranked 17th in 'explosive pass plays' of 20 yards or more. They were 15th in pass plays of 40+ yards. Now, I don't have the numbers as to how many of these explosive pass plays came on play-action, but for a team like Seattle, whose offense isn't geared toward consistent downfield passing or empty-backfield spread looks, play-action can be an effective way to mix things up, get the defense on their heels, and move the ball in bigger chunks of yardage.

Tom Cable described the offense as it pertains to running with two tight ends on the field, something the Seahawks did a lot of in 2011. "I think you have to make a decision as a defense now - do you want to play these guys in base defense? If you do, then you're going to have a linebacker covering those tight ends."

"If you're going to go the other way, say, they're going to put nickel in the game, then we're going to try to shove the ball down your throat running it. For us, it kind of puts us back into a position of power, where we're going to play off of how they want to substitute and how they want to match up. If they stay in base, you might see us attack them more and throw the ball more, if they get in nickel, you might see us run it more."

"We have some beliefs here," Cable said in a separate interview. "I think obviously you have to throw the ball to score points in this league. I don't think there's any secret about that. But, I think in the end, you can be a flash-in-the-pan team, or you can be a legitimate champion, and not just go after it one year, but maybe two, three, four years in a row, and to do that, I think you have to have a physicalness to you, where you can close teams out. You've got to throw it to score points, but to win games, to me, you've got to be really good at the end of the season and really good in the playoffs, and be to be dominant, you've got to have a physical presence."

So you know that Carroll and Cable are on the same page. They will continue to run the football, but when the defense loads up to stop that, you have to be ready to throw it. The Seahawks ran the football 444 times in 2011, and they passed it 509 times. They took 50 sacks. That's 1003 snaps. We'll assume that on most or all of the 50 sacks, they were looking to pass it - so the run:pass ratio on the year was about 44% - 56%.

More specifically, approximately - 44% run, 22% play-action pass, and 34% straight drop-back pass. This is the baseline I'll be working with in 2012 to see how the Seahawks' offense evolves. My guess is that play-action will remain a staple, but it will be interesting to see if the run percentage inches closer to 50% as it did in the final nine games of the year in 2011.