clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Closing the book on the Cardinals and 49ers: The transformation to the short game

Some thoughts about how Seattle is attacking defenses through the air in 2014

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It's been one hell of a week-plus for the Seahawks. Although not entirely in control of its fate in the race for number one seed in the NFC, Seattle controls its fate in the NFC West. The Seahawks are a game behind the Arizona Cardinals and a game in front of the San Francisco 49ers, sporting a win over each with another to play. What a transformation from the 3-3 club that looked near-buffoonish in a loss at St. Louis to the 8-4 team that looks like a threat to beat anyone.

In this Closing the Book post I want to focus on another quieter transformation: From the play-action deep passing approach that fueled a Super Bowl run to a short passing, yards-after-catch approach. The two most pertinent questions are (1) why has Seattle undergone this transformation and (2) how well has it worked?

Before getting into talk that necessarily focuses on offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, I have to give my preamble about "process guy" vs. "scab picker" coaches. To paraphrase SBNation's college football guru, Bill Connelly, process guys look to execute their philosophy through superior preparation. (You may have heard, "The separation is in the preparation" somewhere.) Bill Walsh is their patron saint.

Scab pickers, on the other hand, are all about matchups and less beholden to "Opponents don't matter; it's about what we do" thinking. They search obsessively for personnel/formation/play advantages, and cultivate enough breadth and diversity to exploit those advantages once discovered. Your nickel corner has trouble with crossing routes? Scab pickers will ignore their productive running back to go four-wides all day and pick at him incessantly, like a scab. Bill Belichick is their patron saint. Obviously, I'm pointing to general tendencies while acknowledging that all coaches do a bit of both.

I have raised the point before* that Bevell is a process guy, though hardly dogmatic. I repeat it here as a reminder that both styles come with built-in advantages and disadvantages, and it's unfair to consider only the advantages of the style you prefer. That said, I can't imagine a set of circumstances more crippling to a process guy like Bevell than those he has faced in 2014. Take an execution-reliant, simplistic passing game and introduce rampant offensive line instability. Start with inexperienced run-blocking specialists on the right side, then shuttle the other three linemen in and out all season. Then lose Zach Miller, arguably the best blocking TE in the NFL, as well as a quality outlet receiver. This is to say nothing of the Percy Harvin trade.

*Feel free to ignore the second half of that post where I all but called Beastmode washed up. Moving right along...

This kind of instability can easily happen to any team in an attrition sport like football, but it won't impact every coaching staff the same way. Even compared to 2013, Bevell's not had the talent or experience at receiver to really coach up superior execution. Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate may have been "pedestrian" but they were pretty good. Without a real replacement for their production, and a bunch of kids still trying to find their way, Bevell has had little choice but to go to Russell Wilson and ask him to to turn water into wine -- and to please bring the water.

So, Why Move Away From What Was Working in the First Place?

The past two seasons, Seattle finished 4th (2012) and 8th (2013) in pass DVOA. So to be perfectly honest I am not entirely sure why the Seahawks moved away from the deep game. There are, I'm sure, multiple reasons and some seem straightforward. For one, the short game, augmented by Harvin's unique talents, fit Bevell's West Coast Offense predilections. It also fits Pete Carroll's emphasis on ball security/efficiency, but in theory doesn't sacrifice big plays because of Harvin. I also wonder whether the staff anticipated more opponents adopting a blitz-heavy defensive gameplan against Wilson (a la Arizona), and sought to get the ball out of his hands more quickly.

How's That YAC Workin' Out?

The quiet change to the short game has been in the works since last season. It's evident in how the team used Harvin in the two playoff games. Carroll then signaled it even more strongly this past off-season, remarking that Wilson could be a 70% passer in 2014. Regardless of their reasons for changing, the team self-consciously enacted them. Unfortunately, the passing game has been sad trumpets until recently.

The omnibus stats say the passing game is barely even decent this year. The most recent DVOA slots Seattle in at 19th in passing (prior to the Thanksgiving game). However, on the specific issue of transitioning from a downfield to a YAC-oriented short-passing offense, it's done.

Team Yards After Catch from

Rec Yards
Yards After Catch
1 Washington Redskins 245 3,006 7.04 1,726
18 Seattle Seahawks 200 2,247 6.59 1,318
8 Green Bay Packers 235 3,017 6.56 1,541
6 Detroit Lions 246 2,970 6.37 1,566
21 Tennessee Titans 204 2,631 6.34 1,294
12 Jacksonville Jaguars 233 2,559 6.26 1,459
19 Kansas City Chiefs 213 2,211 6.15 1,309
17 Cincinnati Bengals 220 2,530 6.09 1,340
4 Chicago Bears 270 2,867 6.06 1,635
3 Philadelphia Eagles 277 3,350 5.97 1,653
11 Buffalo Bills 246 2,648 5.94 1,462

Prior to the 49ers game, Seattle ranked second in the NFL at just under 6.6 YAC per reception (second column from the right in the above table). I didn't include the updated chart with the 49ers game stats since everyone hasn't played at the time of this writing. Including that game gives the Seahawks 7.0 YAC per reception. For reference, Seattle finished 2013 5th overall with 6.12 YAC per reception. I bet few of us would have considered YAC a strength of last season's pass offense, but on a per catch basis it was. Well, it's gotten even better with unarguably less receiving talent, almost a full yard better, an increase that should basically hold up over the last four games.

The difference in 2014 appears to be Marshawn Lynch, currently 12th in the NFL at 12.1 YAC/reception on 28 catches. (Compare to Darren Sproles average of 11.9 YAC/rec on 29 catches.) He's been quite active in designed routes, mostly screens, in 2014. Last season he averaged a good but more modest 8.1 yards on 36 catches. Sure, Wilson creates big play opportunities for Lynch with his improvisation. But, Wilson was a magician last year too. So that wouldn't explain any difference.

Additionally, Tony Moeaki (11.5 yards on 6 recs.) may turn out to be another Schneider home run. Even ignoring his 63 yard saunter, he appears to be a better dump off option than to Extra L (9.1), who seems much better on the move. Add to that, Robert Turbin (9.9) has emerged as a legitimate receiving threat.

How Will This Passing Game Evolve?

The Seahawks are probably a decent-to-good short passing team, and that may be their ceiling given the roster. With that in mind, I'd say the team's most significant challenges in the passing game for the remainder of the season are: (1) fixing random breakdowns and (2) creating space for receivers. I'll illustrate both with a single play from the 49ers game.

Fixing Random Breakdowns. I don't need film to establish that this offense leaves plays and points aplenty on the field. Blown blocking assignments, penalties, missed snap counts, and missed reads in scoring territory are keeping Seattle from being on a beastly tear reminiscent of 2012 when they removed the souls from bodies. The Seahawks are going to be high penalty team, but if they can just cut down on the false starts that lead to passing downs that would be quite helpful.

Creating Space. Although no single Seattle receiver is scary talented, creating space can offset talent/experience deficits to some degree. Interestingly, Bevell is trying 4 and 5 receiver sets to create space. Although many Seahawks fans hate no-back sets I think they are promising.

Bevell has used them in the red zone the past couple games, and I think cleverly. In two practically identical instances, one of which I detail below, minor breakdowns lead to field goals rather than touchdowns. Still, Bevell was able to scheme the space he wanted and get the ball to a WR headed to the end zone.

I like the formation and call here because 2nd and goal at the 7 is mostly a passing down. On this apparent TD, Seattle starts with Paul Richardson and Turbin split wide to the right (bottom). Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse are split wide left. At the snap Turbin and Richardson run a basic rub concept, where Turbin technically interferes with the defensive back. It's a ticky tack call, but correct. (Turbin acknowledged as much to Jen Mueller after the game.) Had he not extended the arm to knock the defender back it's probably not a flag.

In an almost identical play vs. Arizona, run to the offensive left, Turbin was the intended receiver, and in position to catch the slant. In that instance Wilson declined to throw. He tried to tuck it and beat the safety to the outside, but was sacked. The throw looked available. Maybe his throwing lane was obscured by Calais Campbell. Either way, it  was a win on scheme. I'll take those and wait on execution.

What's Next? Hopefully More Screens.

Moving forward, I still find myself excited about the prospect of involving Paul Richardson in the screen game. Based on what I have seen on kick returns, I think he may be better in traffic than Harvin. Richardson has better change of direction and better fluidity, while Harvin is the faster (I think) and more powerful runner.

Specifically I think the middle screen (good explanation of middle screens for WRs at link) could take advantage of his strengths in traffic. Obviously, I'm just a fan spitballing here but I think that's a play that capitalizes on Richardson as well as the offensive line's athleticism.

In sum, it looks like 12 games in, Bevell has a decent feel for what this group can do within the confines of the passing game philosophy. The pass will always complement the run for Carroll, even when the team throws to set up the run, and that's fine. As the receivers mature, if the line can avoid just the pre-snap flags that lead to passing downs, this passing game could get itself into the top 15 in DVOA. Considering that we're always a back spasm away from no Beastmode, I think we may need to get to that range for this group to make a deep run in the playoffs.