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Seahawks on tape: Why Russell Wilson didn’t keep on the read-option

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Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It’s getting rather trendy to criticize Brian Schottenheimer. Now, the word “trendy” is something your grandparents might say—or at least my English grandparents (sorry Grandma and Granddad)—but you can’t deny “blame Schottenheimer” is in vogue.

There are indeed valid criticisms of Schottenheimer. Heck, I’ve pointed out his worrisome early flaws in previous iterations of Seahawks on tape. Yet to blame him for Russell Wilson not keeping the ball on read-options is nonsensical.

Maybe I’ve spent too much time on Twitter because of my job. But the app is slowly becoming a sadly necessary evil; a cesspit of false narrative and misinformation. You’ll find snarky jokes feeding incorrect viewpoints. You’ll find endless dogma. You’ll find little truth. Hence there were people full of snark asking why Schottenheimer didn’t call read-option keepers and other such “LOLZ.”

(Sometimes there’s great discussion plus content; I’m grateful for that.)

Here are the facts. Though Schottenheimer can suggest Wilson hands the football off in certain scenarios, the very definition of a read-option is that the quarterback is making the decision at the mesh point.

The idea of the play is often to remove a defender from the run fit by reading him. In Seattle’s case, that is an end man on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS)—a defender who is left unblocked. There is no need to waste a blocker on him. Wilson reads him. If he stays outside, Wilson will hand off to his running back. If he crashes inside, Wilson will keep the football. Simple. Consequently, this run gives you an extra player in the box count.

Now, with my curmudgeonly explanation over with and the responsibility established firmly away from Schottenheimer, time to get to what matters.

Having felt the Seahawks’ offense had nearly emptied its metaphorical chamber of bullets in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams, I felt the last shot might be the read-option keeper.

I saw reasonable people questioning why Wilson wasn’t keeping the football, because there appeared to be caverns of room outside following the hand-off.

Wilson’s hamstring

One theory was that Wilson’s hamstring injury—something that haunts the injury report like the grim reaper himself—was affecting his decision making. Wilson has looked uncomfortable in games. Against the Rams, it was particularly noticeable early on. Perhaps his hamstring still needed to loosen up a little? Observe this awkward, slow, galloping style of escape with 12:04 left in the first quarter:

Wilson’s mobility appeared more normal as the game progressed, his moving up in the pocket to find Tyler Lockett and his rolling out to hit David Moore standing out. Still, the worries were tangible. My colleague John Fraley, who was at CenturyLink Field, messaged me following the action:

“Teams aren’t respecting the keeper at all — either the Seahawks don’t want to take advantage of this (unlikely) or they feel like they can’t for whatever reason (more likely). Therefore, hamstring makes a lot of sense.”

I responded with this:

“I actually think the Rams contained it... We’ll see what the tape shows.”

The tape agreed and so did Pete Carroll:

Wilson’s gives

Since Robert Griffin III took the unimaginative league by storm running simple read-options, teams have been forced to find better ways of dealing with it. There’s been Green Bay Packers versus Colin Kaepernick-style implosions, but most defensive coordinators now have a clear, consistent plan for the read-option.

Los Angeles was no exception last Sunday. They frequently designated an EDGE player to contain the play on the keep side. Unblocked or not, his primary run assignment was to stop the quarterback keeper.

After the handoff, it did indeed look like Wilson had acres to run into. Yet, that’s because the defense focuses on the ball following the give. Instead, if you look at the mesh point and read moment, there was a guy waiting for him each time.

My charting shows that out of the 20 read-option plays Seattle ran, 17 gave Wilson clear give reads. Yes, 85% of all read-option plays told Wilson to hand the ball off.

(They ran 13 inside zones, 2 outside zones, 1 pin pull and 1 tackle wrap.)

False narratives

In some of these cut-ups, the Seahawks don’t leave a line of scrimmage defender unblocked; therefore, you can debate how genuine Wilson’s read is. (There could be so many other reasons for this, such as the landmark of a tight end influencing blocking rules.) Still, even on these plays, the Rams have their EMLOS attack firmly outside-in—to play the quarterback keeper first.

Wilson’s potential keeps

The three plays where Wilson could have read keep aren’t as clear-cut as the give examples. Getting pounded on the ground led to L.A. changing a few things up. These all come late in the game.

The first clip has the EDGE defender with his outside arm free, and there is a box safety ready to fill too. The second video Wilson switches the side of the run because he spots a favorable alignment for Chris Carson.

Realistically, keeping the ball would pass this created opportunity up, plus the Rams are muddying the situation again with a box safety assigned to Wilson. The final run might be the clearest keep opportunity, though once more there is the same box safety read to scrape to the keeper.

Speed inside zone

Seattle’s multiplicity in the run game is refreshing this season. Featuring a diverse gap and zone scheme that plays to their talents has unsurprisingly proved effective. One nice concept is the speed inside zone, which could be mistaken for a read option.

However, this is very much a “run to the running back with eyes away from the line of scrimmage, put the ball in his belly and get the hell out the way” play. There’s no read here. The advantage of this style of handoff is that it’s a way to get bootleg-ish action from a shotgun formation.

It’s clearly not a read from Wilson though. That said, once more L.A.’s designated backside player stays disciplined for the keeper.

Thanks Mike Solari

It’s important to remember this: just because Wilson didn’t run the ball, doesn’t make the run game any less effective. If you go back and look at some of the examples, the threat of the keeper created oodles of room for the backs and eased the offensive line’s task. The dangers of Wilson’s legs are something that should be attached to any pistol or shotgun run.

Averaging 5.9 yards per carry and rushing for 190 yards in total against an all-star defense—albeit one that emphasizes stopping the pass first—was massively aided by the read-option give.

A wider observation of the run scheme is that the blocking rules seem smarter and less plug-and-play than the days of Tom Cable. The Seahawks adapt on a front-by-front basis more often. For example, the play-side blocker adding to a combo before oozing on to the next level. It often feels like zone with gap principles.

So: thank you to Mike Solari and thank you to Wilson for making the correct read. And please, if people are going to knock Schottenheimer, at least make it a valid concern rather than an area of overall praise for the offense.