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There is more to the Seahawks’ pressure problem than just the offensive line

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals
Seattle offense prepares for the snap against Arizona in week 10.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

With the Seattle Seahawks shoring up the left tackle position with the addition of Duane Brown in the trade with the Houston Texans at the trade deadline, many fans expected an instant improvement to the offensive line. While Brown has undoubtedly improved the line in the games since he was added, Russell Wilson has still found himself under pressure a significant amount of time, but while watching game film one thing becomes readily apparent: The Seahawks coaching staff is not trying to maximize its protection of Wilson.

To understand what is meant by this, taking a look at the Washington game shows that protecting Wilson does not seem to be the primary goal of the playcalling. In reviewing the film, the Washington defensive line basically used three different alignments depending on the personnel and formation that the Seahawks utilized.

In far oversimplified terms, when Seattle lined up in shotgun formation without a tight end, the Washington defensive line would typically set up wide, with a large gap in between the defensive tackles who would set up to the outside of the offensive guards. This picture is an illustration of this alignment.

Washington defensive alignment versus Hawks with TE split wide.

When the Seahawks came to the line with Wilson under center and a single back in the backfield, the defensive tackles took a more narrow alignment, with the defensive tackles lining up directly across from the guards.

Washington defensive alignment with Russell Wilson under center

And lastly, when the Hawks used an in line tight end, the defensive line would line up in a much more compressed form in order to clog the middle.

Washington defensive line alignment when Hawks went I-formation with a FB and in line TE

Washington showed these alignments early in the game, and by the end of the first quarter it was largely possible to predict the defensive alignment the offense would face on any snap given the formation of the offensive playcall. And what the Seahawks did from there was to continue to utilize playcalls and formations from which any observer would know that Wilson would likely be under duress. For example, here is the presnap alignment on the first of Wilson’s two interceptions on the day:

It’s not a good situation when there are six defenders for five offensive linemen to block.

That’s six defensive players - four defensive linemen and two linebackers - with only five offensive linemen and Eddie Lacy to protect Russell. That means if Lacy or a single lineman fails on their block, Wilson is in danger. On this play, the linebacker that is off the line in this picture scoots up closer as the snap draws near, and blitzing through the opening created when Britt engages the defender just to his left while Oday Aboushi blocks the defender lined up in the gap between he and Germain Ifedi. It is left to Lacy to come across Wilson and pick up the blitzing linebacker, which he does, giving Wilson time to deliver the pass. Unfortunately for Seattle, the Washington defensive back makes a phenomenal break on the pass once Wilson sets to throw, and steps in front of Doug Baldwin to make the interception.

Now, this is not a new concept for creating pressure on Wilson. While fans and commenters have long lamented the inexperienced line’s ability, or perhaps inability, to handle stunts and twists, a delayed blitz such as this is something teams have used with great success against Seattle this season. Harking back to the week 2 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, this concept is seen on the sack Arik Armstead collected on Wilson.

On that play the linebacker steps up to the line late, just before the snap, in order to blitz. Ifedi adjusts and picks up the blitzing linebacker, while Mark Glowinski initially helps Justin Britt with a double team before proceeding to the second level to block no one. This allows Armstead to come in untouched and leaves Thomas Rawls as the last line of defense for Wilson. Rawls gives a half spirited attempt at blocking Armstead to no avail. Whether it was related to this in any way or not, there is no way to know, but within two weeks both Rawls and Glowinski would be healthy scratches for the game against the Indianapolis Colts.

This method of attacking the gap just before the snap or just after has been seen multiple times throughout the season. The Colts did it with a corner blitz to get Wilson down for a safety in week 4. The Los Angeles Rams did it in week 5. And Washington did it in week 9. This is not a deficiency in the ability of the linemen, and, rather, is a deficiency in the scheming and playcalling of the team. The Hawks are effectively inviting this kind of pressure. It is almost as if the team wants to see this from defenses.

And again, same concept.

There is a limited amount the offensive line can do about it when a defense schemes such as Washington does in these examples, especially when the back basically sprints out into the pass pattern as Rawls does in the next to last example. (In the last example, Rawls does go to chip the end, but the end is dropping into pass coverage, which is what allows the linebacker to come completely untouched through the line.) At that point it becomes less a matter of whether there will be pressure, and more a matter of where the pressure will come from. Now, for the most part, the line is doing its job when it comes to providing a pocket for Russell, especially since Ethan Pocic was installed at left guard full time in advance of the week 8 matchup against Houston.

One item PFF Signature Stats evaluate is the amount of pressure that comes from the offensive line failing, and what portion of pressure comes from other areas. For example, according to PFF in week 10 against the Cardinals, Wilson found himself under pressure on 40% of his 40 dropbacks, for a total of 16 pressures. However, of those 16 pressures, only 8 were attributed to the offensive line according to PFF (Brown and Matt Tobin with 1 pressure allowed each, while Pocic, Aboushi and Ifedi each allowed 2. Britt did not allow a pressure). The remaining eight pressures were attributed elsewhere - whether that be to a tight end, a running back or elsewhere. Over the past three games (Houston, Washington and Arizona) PFF attributes less than two thirds of the pressure Wilson has faced to the offensive line. Now, that is not saying the line does not need improvement, but it does show that the problem with the pressure Wilson routinely faces is not all coming as a result of the play of the offensive line.

Coming back to the defensive alignment Washington showed when the Hawks would go five wide out of the shotgun, it becomes readily apparent how defenses are scheming to create pressure against Seattle this season. Here is the picture once again so that scrolling back up for reference is not required.

Alignment of Washington defensive line alignment when Hawks flexed TE wide.

Using this alignment the defense achieves multiple objectives, including

  • Minimizing the influence of the best blocker on the line (Britt),
  • Creating isolation matchups for the four weaker members of the line (all but Britt),
  • Creating unobstructed blitz lanes for the LBs in either G/T gap,
  • Creating 2 on 1 situation in center gap for Britt should Washington desire (as was seen on the first Wilson interception)

And that’s not even an exhaustive list. In short, many of the offensive formations the Hawks have used this season have been minimal protection alignments that place the maximum amount of pressure on the offensive line. While the line has had struggles at times, it has also shown substantial improvement from the start of the season until today. Further, a good portion of the stress placed on the offensive line has come as a direct result of the offensive playcalling and scheming the team has used. I’m not going to posit why the team would utilize a system that would place as much stress as possible on the unit of the team that most pundits feel is the team’s weak link, so you can formulate your own hypotheses on that.

All I will say is that while there is, no doubt, a significant amount of work remaining for the offensive line to reach the level of performance the team desires, the progress is in the right direction. Now that simply needs to continue, as the line will need to be on its game when it faces off against Adrian Clayborn and the Atlanta Falcons defensive front hot off an eight sack performance against the Dallas Cowboys.