"The next generation will be the real victims."
Russell Wilson threw the ball more against the Miami Dolphins Sunday than he ever has in his professional career. Everyone expects the Seahawks will rely on the running backs more this week (here’s a sample: Eliot Harrison at NFL.com says, “Anticipate a ground-heavy approach for Seattle”), both to neutralize the Los Angeles Rams’ aggressive pass rush and protect Russell Wilson’s weak right ankle. But unless the Seahawks are ahead multiple touchdowns before halftime, they won’t do that. With Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn in his face and wrapped around his lower half all day, Wilson might set another new career high in passes. Huh?
It’s not a sign either that Seattle has transformed into a volume-passing offense, as many will say after the game. It’s just the way the Seahawks tend to attack penetrating defensive lines.
Despite having a rushing game ranked first in DVOA two of the past four years (including third in 2015), Darrell Bevell likes to combat surging rushers by throwing quickly and often to the edges of the field, with a hope to force defenses into smaller packages and more deliberation in pursuit. That doesn’t mean it works—Wilson’s previous two career highs in attempts came in both of last year’s losses to the Rams—but it’s why those gameplans went that way and why Seattle called eight straight passing plays and 11 of the first 12 overall to begin against Miami. It’s also a function of what the opponent makes available, as the Seahawks more frequently use run-pass options designed to read defenses and adjust the play call accordingly.
Against the 49ers Monday night, Los Angeles did play 79 of 81 snaps in nickel with three cornerbacks and safeties T.J. McDonald and Maurice Alexander in two-deep zone. That’s supposed to counter the pass but allowed wide gaps in the middle of the defense, with hybrid linebacker Mark Barron often looking like he was hanging out in San Francisco Bay, which Wilson ought to exploit with plenty of tosses underneath, as Joe McAtee points out in 5 Qs 5 As. It’s why the Rams’ red zone touchdown defense was second in the league in 2015, but the team was less successful (11th) in scoring drives allowed: They’re good at stopping opponents in close quarters, but not when they have to stretch out. This middle zone has been a weakness in Gregg Williams’ version of the Tampa 2 for a long time.
Chip Kelly’s offense is not Bevell’s, of course, so we may see Los Angeles in more different looks. One way Blaine Gabbert took advantage of this soft spot was with scrambles up the middle, and San Francisco also used Gabbert’s athleticism with great success in designed runs. For example, on the second to last play in the first quarter, Carlos Hyde starts out to the left until Alec Ogletree forces him into the cutback lane, where Hyde angles around the line of scrimmage, cuts back against the flow one more time about the midfield logo and finally straightens upfield to bowl into Alexander after 18 yards. It’s exactly the sort of play you would expect to imagine from Christine Michael, except that in the first cutback Hyde was able to get by Ethan Westbrooks (who you might remember as the defensive end the Rams chose over Michael Sam at final cuts two years ago) because Westbrooks was still shoulders-squared into the backfield reading Gabbert on his option fake. Because Gabbert was active as a runner—looked like a real 40 and niner, that is, rushing nine times for 43 yards. Unless Russell Wilson is likewise able to perform nimbly on his raw flipper, Westbrooks and Los Angeles won’t be honoring that keep Sunday.
Hyde and Shaun Draughns added 106 yards and three touchdowns, but they weren’t as efficient as Gabbert and not as impactful when not used in the zone read. With Wilson likely consigned to the shotgun rather than asked to execute the footwork needed for a power run offense, no amount of sending Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael straight into the likes of Michael Brockers, Quinn, Donald, and Dominic Easley (who forced a fumble Monday) will make Wilson any more comfortable late in downs.
The emphasis football coaches spend during the offseason and training camp gearing their players for week 1 is probably proportional to the energy football observers spend the following week reminding ourselves not to treat the happenings of the first weekend too seriously. But those are the reasons I figure Bevell and Wilson to nibble at the edges again, making the Dolphins game, not the 49ers’ rushing model, a preview of what we see in L.A.
This lack of any good early-season data set, by the way, is nowhere better reflected than the DVOA charts, which haven’t yet calculated opponent adjustments and so continue to express their longstanding crush on the Seahawks by ranking Seattle third even after barely escaping Miami at home—thanks to the Seahawks’ overwhelming defensive performance that blots out their 19th-place offense.
However the DVOA ratings themselves aren’t totally useless; they still give a reasonable portrait of the effectiveness of a team’s performance even if for now they don’t account for degree of difficulty of that effectiveness. So even if the 49ers of Santa Clara aren’t truly the best team in football heading into week 2, their top rating (also buoyed by defense) aligns with the scoreboard in showing they had absolutely no trouble with the Rams (the worst offense in week 1 by a long, long way).
Los Angeles looked terrible, but will look better at home on Sunday, if only because it wears the brighter blue and yellow throwbacks instead of the hideous sedan-colored gold they sported to fit in in the lower Midwest. As Eileen Myles said, fashion is invisibility.
Except Jeff Fisher must have told his team to arrive to the season fashionably late. I can’t blame him. I don’t fully truck with theories that the Rams save special vigor or exotic scheme specifically to humbug Seattle, but this occasion might be atypical. The Rams’ return to L.A. has more to do with L.A. than it does the Rams, and especially with that other storyline coming full circle there’s cause to believe Fisher might have primed his boys all summer not for a Monday night road showcase but to steal this show this Sunday.
The peak of Fisher’s career was another Rams win, but the bummer for Fisher is he was on the opposite sideline coaching the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. It’s certainly not the saddest thing that ever happened involving Steve McNair if true, but is it possible Fisher owes his entire career to the 2003 NFL MVP and 2017 Hall of Fame nominee? Fisher’s remarkable 22-year head coaching record is still more than 10 games over .500 despite finishing with a winning record only six times in more than two decades, but he’s gone 93-102-1 when McNair wasn’t his starter. And yet he’s presided over two franchises deciding they’d rather part ways with whole populations devoted to them before ridding themselves of Fisher.
If Fisher, who grew up in Los Angeles, could topple the grey-haired assassin at his Memorial Coliseum homecoming, wouldn’t that be worth skipping prep on a division opponent, California rival, and season opener on national TV to double down on inserting yourself into a triumphant narrative the following week? Noooo, I don’t really believe the Rams were sandbagging in San Francisco. If they did, they gave away their best weapon!
The one area Case Keenum had success against the 49ers was in the right seam, where he connected three times with Kenny Britt and once with tight end Lance Kendricks for a total of 74 yards. These plays made more than half of L.A.’s 130 passing yards using only one sixth of Keenum’s 35 attempts—and aren’t skewed by exceptional gains either (Britt’s longest catch was 22 yards). You know what team has trouble guarding this part of the field? If the Rams can get away from their Tavon Austin addiction (4 catches for 13 yards on 12 targets—also a scary warning of how the Seahawks might muck around with these low-yield targets) and protect Keenum (the offensive line was also bad Monday) they might find an avenue to hurt Seattle through the air.
Then again, San Francisco also demonstrated an antidote for this sort of play. Keenum’s second interception came after Ray Ray Armstrong baited him into lobbing toward Kendricks on a curl into the seam before deftly stepping in front. You can’t see it on the NFL.com replay but, before the snap, the 49ers rotate defensive assignments creatively to generate this blind spot. Lined up as the weakside outside linebacker, Navorro Bowman creeps up and taps strongside ’backer Ahmad Brooks, angled in a three-point stance at the line of scrimmage, directing him into Bowman’s former spot across the formation. Bowman then fades back as the MLB leaving Armstrong to buzz the curl-to-flat zone on the strong side. But then nickel cornerback Jimmie Ward suddenly shifts to the line of scrimmage, blitzing Brooks’s old gap. Sensing pressure from the linebacker’s lane, Keenum threw where he assumed the linebacker wasn’t—except that Armstrong, floating near a convergence of three receivers between the hash and the number, reacts in time to break into the path of Keenum’s underthrown ball. Kris Richard has been known to deploy similar disguised coverages to sit surprise players in zones.
The Rams couldn’t be dumb enough to fall for it a second time. Right?
Los Angeles is a land run by mortgage loan officers, the Water Department, Acme Corporation and the highway commission.
There’s no time to be shocked by the truth.