Trigger warning: Super Bowl XLIX replays
Richard Sherman got mad at Darrell Bevell for calling a pass play on first and goal from the 1-yard line Thursday night with the Seattle Seahawks leading the Los Angeles Rams 10-3 in the third quarter. With a key opportunity to turn a tight game against a dangerous foe into a much more comfortable two-touchdown lead, Russell Wilson’s throw toward Jimmy Graham in the corner of the end zone hit Graham in the hands but the Rams’ Cody Davis snatched it away for what looked like an interception.
The turnover would have been excruciatingly costly given the situation, but it was compounded emotionally by concerns after Wilson’s five-interception game against the Green Bay Packers a week earlier—and of course another Wilson interception from the one, with even higher stakes, nearly two years ago. Referees called the attempt incomplete giving Seattle another two cracks at the end zone but, like the Super Bowl pass that Malcolm Butler intercepted to give a fourth title to the New England Patriots instead of the Seahawks’ second straight championship, the choice to try a pass instead of running it in such close territory left Sherman scratching his dreads.
“We’ve already seen how that goes,” Sherman told reporters afterward, indicating the Super Bowl giveaway was on his mind. In the moment, I was also one of those suggesting Seattle keep it on the ground.
just run the football seahawks— Beat Valley (@beat_valley) December 16, 2016
The Seahawks’ red zone struggles—they’re 25th in the league in 2016 at touchdown rate inside the 20-yard line, just under 49 percent (closer to the last-place New York Jets than the NFL average)—form part of the standard critique against Bevell as offensive coordinator. Wilson entered the Los Angeles game completing just 39.6 percent of his red zone passes, a rate lower than every primary starter except Cam Newton and Case Keenum, and was even worse inside the 10 with just 6 completions in 17 tries (35.3 percent).
Inside the 5-yard line, to that point on the season, Bevell had ordered up 10 passing plays compared to 11 rushes but Seattle had scored six of its eight touchdowns from that short distance with runs.
Of course there’s more to play-calling than basic run-pass binary opposition. There are also matchups to consider—the Rams defensive line has the best stuff rate according to Football Outsiders—and situational expectations. Risk of interceptions is an inherent vice of throwing the football on any first down, but it’s possible that Davis’s near-interception (and it really probably should have been called an interception) created flashbacks that for Sherman and the rest of us watching created a false equivalency to the play that cost the Super Bowl that the one against Los Angeles didn’t merit.
If you remember, Sherman wasn’t too keen on the choice of pass against the Patriots the first time.
But it is not fair to say we’ve seen this before. There really isn’t otherwise too much similarity between the plays, beginning with the fact that the Super Bowl interception came on second down—after a first down run that put the ball so close to the goal. Here, the Seahawks were set up with a fresh set of downs after a defensive holding call against Troy Hill. Now watch the full play unfold:
The next thing that’s different is the formation. Seattle comes out in a “jumbo” alignment, with Rees Odhiambo inserted as an extra tackle on the left side opposite Graham, and Luke Willson as a “third” tight end to Odhiambo’s left. That’s eight potential blockers on the line of scrimmage, plus fullback Marcel Reece in front of Thomas Rawls in the I. There are no receivers split wide or flankers to the outside.
All 11 offensive players are visible in this tight camera angle. The formation screams run. Wilson takes the snap from under center. Contrast that to the alignment on the Seahawks’ last offensive play in Super Bowl XLIX
This isn’t exactly five wide, but it’s comparatively spread out. Baldwin is at the top of the screen in the slot, with Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette in a twin set to the bottom. Wilson is in shotgun next to Marshawn Lynch. Seattle could easily run or pass out of this configuration, and with the clock running that possibility is meant as a challenge to the Patriots’ consideration of the time remaining in the event of a touchdown.
In Seattle Thursday, time was not a factor at all. Bevell is only trying to manipulate the defensive alignment by exaggerating the expectation of a first-down run. Willson’s motion confirms the coverage is man, and by crowding all the defenders close to the hashmarks, Bevell opens up space for Graham to release into one-on-one coverage. The play also doesn’t rely on any quick timing route with Wilson having to anticipate his receiver getting to a spot in traffic: Instead, Bevell has Wilson roll out in a bootleg where he can survey the options and select between Graham and Reece in the flat.
Hurried by perceived pressure from his left, Wilson releases the ball before he needs to (the nearest defender is four yards away and twisting down). He underthrows Graham, who is five inches taller than Davis and should have won a jump ball. Wilson also might have made a much safer pass to Reece, who is both shallower and can be reached with a ball low and away that if off target has no chance of interception. The risk on this play is generated by Wilson’s throw, not by Bevell’s call. It’s a good play design, and a good way to use personnel to take advantage of the situation.
Wilson was fortunate referees ruled Davis didn’t secure the football before he went out of bounds, or Graham touched it while he was on the line rendering the ball incomplete—or something—and did not see enough on replay to overturn the call. It likely should have been a pick but, though the placement isn’t perfect, I can’t really blame Wilson too much either. After all, Jimmy Graham was acquired specifically as a remedy for the disastrous lack of physicality that resulted in the Super Bowl interception. You can’t be the sort of person who argues Graham should get more targets in the red zone, and then say not to throw at Graham in isolation coverage at the back of the end zone. At least not if you want to be taken seriously.
Bevell took his chance to run the ball on the following down, and that too failed.
It’s very hard to evaluate the play call here. Yes, I’d like to see Rawls get the ball rather than Reece, but again I think Bevell gets undermined by the execution of his players. Germain Ifedi appears to freeze and gets crumpled by Ethan Westbrooks when Bradley Sowell blocks down inside. Watching Sowell’s block it seems like Ifedi is not supposed to double Westbrooks and should instead have charged up to the second level to engage Alec Ogletree, who does a good job extracting himself from the cluster and meeting Reece as he bounces out behind Sowell.
I’m not an offensive line expert but judging from Sowell’s block and Tanner McEvoy’s motion toward the formation, the play was meant to go outside all along. If you study this still it looks like Reece has a clear path off tackle, and the fullback should even be able to bounce off Ogletree’s contact when it comes.
Instead, T.J. McDonald quickly discards Willson’s attempted seal and joins Ogletree just enough to shift Reece’s inertia sideways to the goal.
Anyway, blocking schemes and coordination of the run game are Tom Cable’s department, not Bevell’s. The postgame run versus pass debate would have had a different color to it had a second rushing attempt been stuffed on third down, but the good news was that Baldwin should have erased the need for that conversation with his annihilation of Hill with a quick first step.
It’s hard to credit Bevell for this play, because Baldwin’s move getting off the line is so nearly extraterrestrial we might as well be watching LeBron James isolated against Steph Curry on the left wing. And wouldn’t you know it? Los Angeles had even won three of its last four over the Seahawks.
But if Bevell’s run call got betrayed by the inadequacy of Seattle’s offensive line talent on second down, the pass here is validated by talent supremacy on third down. Which is why it is always best to remember, whether you’re just an idle fan or a cantankerous, esteemed member of the locker room, that football is rarely decided by the action of a single play, run or pass. Football is instead the intricate weaving of situation and sequence to tease out and exploit accumulated advantages—so long as you protect the ball.
Remember those bleak goal-line and red zone stats for the Seahawks and Russell Wilson I cited above? Wilson finished Thursday night 4-5 on passes inside the Rams’ 20-yard line with two touchdowns—both TD passes completed from inside the 10. He also hasn’t officially thrown a red zone interception all year. Let’s just hope the season doesn’t come down to a pass at the 1-yard line.