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The Seahawks' Issues With Pass Protection, Part I


The Seahawks had some major issues with protection on Sunday, giving up three sacks, seven QB hits, and forced Russell Wilson to scramble another half-dozen or so times to avoid an onslaught of mean, angry Cardinals. This problem is likely going to rear its ugly head again this week as the Seahawks face off against Rob Ryan and his overload blitz schemes. I'm going to break down the Seahawks' issues in a two-part series, I think, and then try and preview what to expect from the Cowboys later this week.

The first play I became intrigued with came in the mid third quarter. The Seahawks were driving, down three, and well into Arizona territory before they came upon a third and long situation. The Seahawks came out in '11' personnel, with Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin formation-left, and Braylon Edwards out to the right as the X. The Cardinals' pre-snap movement was what made this play so interesting and ultimately, unsuccessful for the Seahawks.

Let's take a look.

3-10-ARZ 34 (6:01 3rd Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson scrambles up the middle to ARZ 29 for 5 yards (D.Dockett; Q.Groves).

Here's a look as the Seahawks come to the line. You can see the Cardinals' defenders milling about; no defender has yet put their hand on the ground. I'm just going to use positions instead of names because that's really what the Seahawks will be doing when setting protections. Find the Mike, determine the five defenders that the five offensive linemen will be responsible for and then assign Robert Turbin a man as well.

From the Seahawks' vantage point, they see a cornerback heading out to mark Sidney Rice, a nickel defensive back heading out to the slot to cover Doug Baldwin, four linemen, two linebackers, two safeties and a weakside corner up on Braylon Edwards. Wilson is going through his pre-snap read checklist and I imagine Max Unger is doing the same.


The Seahawks take their time getting set up so they can designate protections upon the line and then they send Sidney Rice in motion toward the formation. All the while, the Cardinals' have three linemen with their hands on the ground and the de facto 'linebackers' are still milling about, changing positions to confuse Wilson.


As Rice goes into motion, with :06 seconds on the play clock, the Cardinals defense rotates on its axis and throws any protection scheme the Seahawks had set into the dumpster. Below, you'll see their strongside cornerback drop back into zone, their nickel/slot defensive back drop back as the strong safety, the defensive end/OLB underneath the nickel rotates out onto Doug Baldwin and is replaced by an ILB.

The original strong safety drifts back into deep free safety zone on the weakside, and the original free safety runs to the bottom of your screen and becomes a cornerback. The weakside cornerback sneaks in on an overload blitz.

See picture below.


Russell Wilson is hearing alarm bells ringing full blast in his head at this point.


We've talked about these 'amoeba' or 'psycho' fronts before and though technically, this isn't quite the same thing, the concepts behind the pre-snap movement are the same. Greg Cosell explained it to Doug Farrar on Week 7's Shutdown Corner Preview Podcast from last season, when asked why quarterbacks, even of Tom Brady's ilk, have had so many issues with the Cowboys, Packers, and a handful of other teams, including the Cardinals, use of these amoeba fronts (WARNING - COWBOYS WILL DO THIS TOO).

Cosell responded, "It's really common sense, if you think about it. Tom Brady sets the protection at the line of scrimmage, and here's how you set the protections -- you have to choose the five players the offensive linemen are going to block.

"And then, when you get to six and seven rushers, backs and tight ends become responsible for them. When there's no defensive linemen, and nobody with their hands on the ground -- they're kind of milling around in undefined, kind of amorphous positions -- who do you designate as the five defensive players to be blocked by the five offensive linemen?

"So now, Brady comes to the line, and he sees seven or eight people -- at least -- standing up. How does he set the protection? How does the offensive line know who to block?"

This is the same concept -- how are the Seahawks supposed to set protections when the Cardinals are running around all willy-nilly just prior to the snap? It works, and it's hard to plan for on the blackboard, because, as Cosell explains, "you don't know how they're going to move. ...You're dealing with human beings moving around. So, Brady comes to the line -- let's say that there are six guys to the right side of the offensive line, and two on the left. Brady sets the protection. Then, just before the ball is snapped, four of those six on the right side move to the left side. The protection has been set, and the ball has to be snapped because there's two seconds left on the play clock. What do you do?"

You are probably forced to improvise, which, generally speaking, is bad in a 3rd and 10 situation when the probability of a run play being called is pretty low.

As Chris Brown of Smart Football pointed out in a really excellent look at these types of looks, "it's difficult for the quarterback and offensive line to determine which of the potential rushers will blitz - other than through mind reading - and with so many of them there is a high likelihood that there will be an assignment bust. Further, although the defense might give away what deep coverage it is playing (in this case, two deep safeties), it's not clear what kind of underneath coverage it will be - man, zone, and if zone how many underneath? Two? Three? Four? These are real issues."

Below, you see just before the snap - weakside cornerback coming up into a bunch with the Cardinals' defensive end and outside linebacker. The Seahawks just simply don't make the adjustment, and Breno Giacomini and J.R. Sweezy downblock to the strongside of the field, away from the oncoming overload blitz.


Ball is snapped, Turbin takes the outside rusher and the former weakside corner blasts through the line. You see Giacomini and Sweezy downblock to the left, their original protection. Keep in mind this isn't really Russell Wilson or Max Unger (or whoever is setting the protections)'s fault -- the Cardinals turned their defense on its head with about three seconds on the playclock. I suppose, the mistake here was that Wilson should have called timeout.


Corner comes through untouched, Wilson evades and actually picks up a few yards on the scramble, but the damage has been done. Seahawks are forced to settle for three points.



Now, the first question is -- why don't teams just do this all the time? First of all - these fronts are susceptible to runs, as gaps and assignments can easily be exploited. Bootlegs work. Certain types of protections work. Because of their chaotic nature, these types of defenses are unpredictable and therefore not universally utilized. As I'm no offensive coordinator, I'll let Chris Brown's throw out several of his ideas on how to defeat 'psycho' fronts or "fronts where the defense simultaneously threatens all-out man blitz, confusing zone blitz, and no blitz, all at once." Because, frankly, these ideas, schemes, philosophies, will be key this week as the Seahawks take on another creative blitzing team.

Per Brown, ways to defeat these types of 'psycho' fronts or amorphous defensive looks:

- Run the ball at it. If they are in a true "psycho", it's worth trying to just physically get movement on the defense despite the numbers advantage. But even if not a true "psycho" look, it's important to see if their unsound defensive fronts present any obvious gaps to attack, particularly with the inside zone if they try to bring overload blitzes to one side or blitz off the edges. Trap is a good ideas as if you block it your players may be off to the races, but you may miss some assignments given their defensive movement.

- Gap protect (a.k.a. "slide" or an "area" pass protection scheme). It becomes very complicated to try and use man-to-man or BOB (big on big) pass protection against such a shifting defense given all the movement, as it takes a lot of sorting through on every play, though it can certainly be done depending on your rules. The problem with gap protection is you may lose a potential receiver to their pass protection, whereas with man pass protection, if the runningback's man doesn't blitz he can release into the route. But to me protecting the quarterback is job one, even if you lose a receiver. The quarterback knows if it is an all out blitz the extra rushers are his man, but I don't want five rushers beating our six pass protectors.

- Scale your protection to your throws. What this means is if you want to put five receivers out in the pass pattern, it needs to be a hot or quick pass thrown with quick timing. Same with six man pass pro. If you want to throw further down the field, think about seven man protections. Even if you can't block all of their blitzers, you can at least protect from inside to out and force them to take a longer path to the quarterback.

- Sprint out or quick bootleg from gun. Isolate run/pass defenders and attack them in the flats, on the corner, and so on. Get outside of the garbage inside. The quarterback must know he can't dilly dally, however. It must be first pass choice, second pass choice, run or throw it away.

- Screen them. Fast screens in particular, but also tunnel screens, runningback screens, and so on. Try to use their aggressiveness against them. Get to the perimeter and away from the junk and get the ball to playmakers in space.

Part II will be up soon....