The specter of seeing Seattle's offense without Marshawn Lynch or Jimmy Graham the rest of the season has become a distinct possibility. On paper, losing two All Pro caliber offensive weapons is a devastating hit, but there was the thought -- first posited by Mike Sando then discussed widely -- that despite the logic that the Seahawks would be worse off, it might free up offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell in his playcalling.
No more internal or external pressure to feed the Beast. No more weekly presser sessions defending the Graham trade. No more Mama Lynch storylines. Bevell could finally just run his offense in the flow of the game, and the former quarterback could design something that would get Russell Wilson into a flow of the game and playing in a rhythm.
Well, that sounded nice to me. I'm all about rationalization.
But, I admit, I was not (and am still not) convinced Seattle is "better" without Lynch and Graham. That said, the way the Seahawks ran their offense in Minnesota this last week has me becoming a believer in the school of thought that Bevell's freedom in playcalling -- where Russell Wilson is the sun and the rest of the offense is the orbiting planets -- could be more efficient and effective than ever before. There's a symmetry there. Lynch and Graham, who possess strong gravitational forces of their own, no longer have the ability to throw orbits out of whack. There's certainly no black hole like we saw with Percy Harvin. Maybe this metaphor sucks, I don't know.
Regardless. Against the Vikings, Seattle's offensive attack was varied, multiple, unpredictable, creative, and most important, logical.
I would have to do a deep, deep dive into Seattle's formations and playcalling to be sure -- but an offense that Greg Cosell recently described as the "most remedial pass game in the NFL," while "marveling" at its "elementary" simplicity and lack of sophistication -- well, it sure looked pretty creative and sophisticated to me in this game.
Maybe it's all relative. But, I found that Seattle did a good job of using their scheme to get players open, they used their scheme to fool the defense, and used their personnel in a way that they're built to be used. It was incredibly refreshing.
For an idea of what I'm talking about, let's go through some plays, and I'll give a few quick notes as to why I think Seattle used their scheme well and why Darrell Bevell's playcalling was brilliant this week. I want to issue the caveat here that it's always so much easier to say that playcalling is good when the players actually execute the plays, but in this case, I think Bevell's playcalling gave the players a good chance at executing because it put them in positions to succeed.
Situation: 2nd and 11 from the Seattle 48 yard line, 14:18 1st Quarter
Scheme it up: Quick boot action in run heavy personnel
Seattle comes out here in their two tight end set with Thomas Rawls as the lone back. It's a balanced set with Luke Willson on the left and Cooper Helfet on the right. Everything about the pre-snap look, the personnel, and the motion by Doug Baldwin into the formation -- scream "run" for Seattle. Additionally, the Seahawks are one of those teams that are more than willing to run the ball in a 2nd and 11 situation.
Instead, Russell Wilson fakes the handoff to Rawls, the backside safety (Antone Exum #32) bites on the playaction, and Helfet's open immediately. Important to the success of this play is how quickly Wilson throws it to him.
In the past, we've seen Wilson hesitate as he looks to other options further downfield, but in this case, I like that he throws it quickly so Helfet can get what he's given. First down.
In this case, it's not brilliant play-calling or scheming, but I always appreciate a good play-action bootleg, something the Seahawks really haven't had a ton of success with this year on the whole. Until Sunday.
Situation: Another 2nd and 11, this time from Seattle's own 18-yard line, 10:15 in the 1st Quarter
Scheme it up: Stack your receivers to help them get separation! It's so simple!
It's not like this is the first time the Seahawks have stacked their receivers to help create separation, but when you hear Greg Cosell talk about a remedial pass game, a big part of that is the failure to use formations and motion to free up receivers. In this case, the idea is to give Russell Wilson a quick option outside, mitigating the Vikings pass rush and the Seahawks' lack of consistent pass protection.
Pete Carroll has talked about how the focus of late has been on quicker throws and getting the ball out in rhythm, and for that to be successful, it really helps to use receiver stacks, trips formations, and to scheme your players open using route combinations that make it hard on the defense. This instead of just asking a guy to "get open." "Hey, go get open!"
With Baldwin's motion, the two defenders must first assign coverage responsibilities. Their reactions also give away some clues as to the coverage. In this case, as CB Terence Newman (#23) backs off and out toward the sideline, it's pretty clear that the nickelback (#24 Captain Munderlyn) will be on Baldwin because he stays up on the line and adjusts to press over Baldwin. I'm guessing that Baldwin has an option route in this situation, but when it's pretty apparent that Munderlyn is in man on Doug, he runs a quick out, which is a very tough coverage ask for Munderlyn (who has to defend the middle of the field too).
Wilson just gets the ball out quickly. Easy. It also helps here that there's a great big throwing lane. It sets Seattle up into a 3rd and manageable situation.
Situation: 2nd and 8, from Seattle 32-yard line, 9:03 1st Quarter
Scheme it up: Another smart piece of play-action!
This was Luke Willson's ridiculously awesome one-handed bobble catch.
What I liked about this: Again, Seattle does a great job of selling the playaction. There are two keys here for the defense:
1), Luke Willson motions in toward the line after starting out on the wing. Typically, this is a tell for a run.
2), watch J.R. Sweezy pull from the right guard spot to the left side of the line.
The Seahawks do this is pass protection at times but a lot of the time when you see a pulling guard it's on a run play. I think this is instrumental in drawing the linebackers forward toward the line. Watch them react at the snap.
The linebackers crashing up toward the line of scrimmage is the variable that Seattle needs here. Without the successful "sale" of play action, that Luke Willson route likely wouldn't be there (the linebackers would be dropping into the zone where Luke catches the ball).
The third thing that happens here is that Luke first pretends to do a little arc block on Harrison Smith (the safety), which helps him get inside leverage. That quick fake allows Willson to get Smith onto his hip and into his route. Russell Wilson zings it in there, the linebacker actually does a good job of getting a finger or two on it, but somehow Willson adjusts and makes the catch.
Overall, I just like the scheme. Again, it's designed to get the ball out quickly.
Situation: 1st and 10, Seattle 41-yard line, 8:23 1st quarter
Scheme it up: The Seahawks ran a screen play! To a tight end!
The Seahawks rarely have success in the screen game, and one of the reasons for this is that on screens, linebackers are often taught to follow the running back (it's why K.J. Wright constantly sniffs out screens). In this case, Seattle runs a screen to their tight end, which is much less common and thus more easily disguised.
Now, I like the playcall, but the execution is not necessarily perfect. However, Luke Willson does what he can do and powers through a few tackles on his way to a big gain. I like the idea of getting Willson involved in things like this because he's such a good athlete.
Situation: 3rd and 6, Minnesota 28-yard line, 6:07 1st Quarter
Scheme it up: A legal pick-play.
One of the reasons you go out and get a guy like Tyler Lockett is because he is perfect for quick hitting plays like this. This is the Randall Cobb special -- set up a screen on the outside and just have Cobb/Lockett simply beat his defender outside with pure explosiveness.
The key for this play to succeed is to catch the Vikings in man coverage on the outside, and based on the pre-snap look that you see from the Vikings (a deep safety with everyone else up on the line) it looks like "man-free," which basically means that everyone is in man except that free safety.
You never really know, but in this case, the play-call works perfectly against the defense that the Vikings play.
Situation: 1st and 10, Seahawks 39-yard line, 14:58 2nd Quarter
Scheme it up: End around!
The Seahawks rarely run end arounds. But with a guy like Lockett, even when it's defended "well," he can make things happen. In this case, Minnesota does a fine job, and Cooper Helfet has the choice between blocking two different defenders. He kinda fakes taking the inside guy and instead mans up on the downfield guy. Lockett then simply beats the inside guy and picks up a nice chunk of yardage after it looked like the play might be dead to rights.
One thing I like about the design of this play -- not that it necessarily made a big difference here (but could have in a different defensive look, where, say, the cornerbacks are in trail coverage downfield) -- is that Helfet starts on the left side of the formation before "swapping" over the top of the offensive line to block downfield.
Because the Vikings are in zone here (the corner on Lockett's side sticks to his side), the corners have their eyes in the backfield, and see the reverse coming pretty clearly. Seattle still gets a good gain, but if this were man defense, it could've been huge. Keep an eye on this.
Situation: 1st and 10, 20-yard line, 1:06 2nd Quarter
Scheme it up: Cover-3 zone beater!!
When Russell Wilson sends Tyler Lockett into motion and sees that the defense does not react by sending a corner with him, he knows that the Vikings are in a zone here, and it looks like a single-high cover-3 look.
That means that Doug Baldwin's route, which is behind the dropping linebackers but in front of the deep middle safety, will in theory be the zone beater here. The two defenders outside will have the two Seahawks receivers outside, while the deep safety will be in charge of picking up Baldwin after the linebackers pass him off.
It's crazy how quickly you have to react in the NFL.
The key for this to work is first to hold that safety toward the middle of the field (and unable to drive on Baldwin's route). To do this, Wilson gives a subtle but effective look out to the left toward Kevin Smith and Tyler Lockett. It's not much, but it's enough to at least have that middle safety thinking about those two routes to the right (a seam and a sideline fade).
As Doug comes open in the middle of the field, Wilson hits him. Really, that look (shown above) was nothing more than a glance. But it works. Doug has enough room underneath, and the trailing backside cornerback (#23 Newman) can't get into the passing lane in time. It's f*cking close, but as they say, it's a game of inches.
One other thing I liked about this play was watching Jermaine Kearse (close slot to the right of the formation) put the defensive end on his ass. In this case, it slows the rush (obviously) but also potentially creates a passing lane through the tackle-guard gap there.
Situation: 1st and 10, Minnesota 42-yard line.
Scheme it up: "Swap boot" on play action
I like plays like this because it gives Russell Wilson options on three levels in the pass game, and worst case scenario, he's running the ball.
This concept is called a "swap boot" as Tyler Lockett runs across the formation and Wilson fakes the handoff to "bootleg" out toward his left. He now has pass options in the short flat (Lockett), a little deeper with Willson, and at the sticks with Doug Baldwin.
Those options are all covered up but the result is that no one takes Wilson. He simply runs for a gain of about six. Easy.
Situation: 2nd and 4, Minnesota 36 yard line
Scheme it up: The Naked Boot!
This is the very next play. I guess the Seahawks felt that the Vikings weren't "honoring" the bootleg enough, so Darrell Bevell dials up a naked bootleg by Wilson. This is a keeper the whole way. There's no pass option here.
Situation: 3rd and Goal, Vikings 5-yard line, 9:16 3rd quarter
Scheme it up: The legal pick play!
This one's designed to go to Fred Jackson the whole way. The Seahawks likely saw a tendency in the Vikings' defense where they'd assign a linebacker in coverage on the running back out of the backfield, and this was clearly a designed scheme to isolate that linebacker in coverage on Jackson. Seattle got the defensive look they wanted, then they exploited it.
How do I know that? Watch what Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett do.
Baldwin's first move is to try to get into Eric Kendricks' way. He just runs straight at him. But, he's careful to not "initiate contact" and make this an illegal pick play, instead, the goal is to simply force hesitation. Once he slows Kendricks up, it's Tyler Lockett's turn to carry his route into Kendricks' coverage angle. Lockett ducks away from contact at the last second as well, and by now, these two routes have completely taken Kendricks out of the play.
Meanwhile, Jermaine Kearse's route carries the cornerback on the playside way into the corner of the endzone. Wilson easily dumps it off to Jackson and he's in. Love this play design.
Situation: 2nd and 7, Seahawks 35-yard line, 15:00 4th Quarter
Scheme it up: Using trips formation to scheme players open
Using a trips formation (on the left) is a simple way to scheme players open because in situations like this, defenders cannot simply walk up to the line and press everyone. In this case, Minnesota plays off coverage in zone (the linebacker picks up Luke Willson out of the formation), and Seattle runs a simple six- or seven-yard out.
The key for this play is that B.J. Daniels carries the route up the hashes first before breaking outside. The corner in off coverage (#29) has to respect that he may go deep here (it's a good situation to do so), and thus does not camp out and drive at a throw for the sticks. This allows Daniels to run a crisp out with enough separation to make the catch.
I mean, this isn't ground breaking, but I have noticed Seattle using more trips formations lately. And I like it.
Situation: 3rd and 1, Minnesota 41-yard line, 14:16 4th Quarter
Scheme it up: Packaged play: Hey look, more trips!
Again, against Seattle's trips formation, Minnesota decides to play "off" quite a bit in a zone. They're likely expecting a run here anyway. Fortunately, Seattle has a "packaged play" set up here -- meaning, they can either run the ball or throw it, depending on what the defense shows. In this case, I think Wilson saw the off-coverage and decided to option into the throw. This is essentially a "smoke route," where you just swing the ball out to the wing against off coverage in order to keep a defense honest.
The rest is just Lockett making moves in the open field.
Situation: 4th and 1, Minnesota 33-yard line, 12:13 4th Quarter
Scheme it up: Boot action!
Seattle lines up with Tyler Lockett in the backfield and Fred Jackson out to the right wing. Jackson motions in and is assigned to crack-back on the defensive end, taking him out of the pursuit on the bootleg. Lockett runs a little route up the sideline, giving Wilson the throwing option.