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The Drive: 2 plays sacrificed but not squandered

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

I have precious little time this week and so though I wish to ask a big question, I will only be able to answer that question anecdotally.

Hello, all. My name is John Morgan and I deeply enjoy analyzing game tape. More than 10 years ago, that meant analyzing a VHS tape playing back the broadcast of the game on a 20” Sylvania television/DVD player that my wife had fished out of a dumpster. But the world has changed. My world has changed. And now I have access to coaches film. That is why I will attempt to answer a question best answered by coaches film: Can a team temporarily lose scoring potential in order to make a strategic gain which more than balances out that lost potential?

That’s a big question best answered by a comprehensive review of the entire game. I have about five hours free this week. Let us instead look at a short drive in which the Seahawks ran twice unsuccessfully, converted the first by means of Nick Vannett stumbling over his feet just far enough, and hit a bomb to Tyler Lockett matched against Marcus Peters, whom looked to me as if he had maybe suffered the “dolorous wound.” That is to say, he was running a bit awkwardly.

Throughout this drive, the Rams played Cover 1 Man. The only real variable in this coverage is free safety Lamarcus Joyner. Little m is free to read and react. His primary responsibility is a deep zone, a kind of umbrella coverage which allows him to double on the fly, but which also empowers him to fly up in run support. Seahawks fans are so very glad he did.

As we go, I will also perform a little light tape analysis and statistical analysis. For instance, from now on, the state of Oregon has ordered Ndamukong Suh to refer to DJ Fluker as “Papa.” That is because Suh, who “prides [himself]” on his run defense, and who when asked how LA might improve its run defense answered in part that Rams players must “be where we’re supposed to be” was not at all where he was supposed to be on this play, if ya dig.


Is roughly where Suh is supposed to be, maintaining gap integrity and maybe making a play on the ball carrier. If after the snap he were further in the backfield or closer to the ball carrier (again, while maintaining gap integrity), we might say he had improved where he was supposed to be. He would be better than break even. But if Suh failed miserably, if he were wedgied, purple nurpled and shoved in his locker, what might that look like? Let us time travel ahead a couple of seconds.

It’s even more marvelous from the behind-center camera angle.

The salient facts here: Fluker had to angle block Suh, which is very difficult. He, y’know, does. Chris Carson is afforded a massive hole. Something about the angle at which Russell Wilson hands the ball to Carson (Wilson appears to be “freezing” #50 Samsom Ebukam, and in attempting to do so, postures as if the run will go left, and only hands it to Carson on his right at the last moment), and something about how Carson either initially spotted the hole to his right, or attempted to set up inside linebacker #58 Corey Littleton to get bunched up by Germain Ifedi and Aaron Donald, causes him to initially miss a hole which is pretty much straight ahead. He instead slashes into the hole, losing much of his momentum so doing, and costing enough time that Ebukam et al recover and close the hole.

But, if you only saw that above still, would you think that Carson had rushed for one? I don’t mean to overgeneralize based on limited information, but it’s my hunch that Seattle’s run blocking right now far surpasses the performance of its running backs, and that the development of Rashaad Penny could be absolutely transformative to this offense. That’s All-Pro blocking by Fluker—Hutch-like.

Those two little legs you see at the top of the frame belong to Joyner. For now, he stubbornly refuses to fly up in run support. Good for him.

Next play:

More good run blocking, a sizable hole (there’s also a crease to Carson’s left, but Donald looks like he could separate from JR Sweezy at will and Mark Barron has flown up to support, so the play’s to the right, where there is both push and a one-man-to-beat situation developing), (Wilson should’ve kept this, natch, and you can tell teams have begun ignoring him), but again that hole is largely wasted, as Carson rushes for two.

Here’s what this looks like statistically.

Because of a very good return by Tyler Lockett, the Seahawks begin its drive with an expectation of 2.26 points scored. That might seem like nonsense, to a degree, a nonsense value of points which will never and could never appear on a scoreboard, but it’s meant as an intelligible means of understanding field position. It’s a way of saying, a touchdown is not merely scored by crossing the goal line, but by first earning all of the yards to get there, and a drive which does not result in actual points still has value. The value of Seattle’s initial position is 50 yards, plus four downs, which equals 2.26 points.

The first run cost Seattle 0.41 expected points. It reduced the Seahawks’ chance of scoring. It reduced Seattle’s chance of retaining its good field position, should it have to turn the ball over through punting. There are other considerations (like the higher likelihood of turnover on second and long versus first and 10) but that’s the meat of it.

The second run cost the Seahawks 0.43 points. Run fever put Seattle in third and long. Joyner had stayed back, and the drive was awaiting an ambulance to rush it to the ER.

The next play is a cute little route combination which exploits LA’s perhaps rational dismissal of Nick Vannett, receiver. Mike Davis runs an option/out-curl route, and that clears out two defenders, opening a massive hole over the middle. Vannett “rush” blocks and releases into a crossing pattern like so:

And should Vannett ever master tying his shoes, I think he may one day take advantage of such opportunities. Not to rock the boat, but the tape is overrun with these kind of errors in which execution is undermining play calling.

The Ram farthest to the left of the image is Joyner. He cheated offensive left prior to the snap but has maintained his deep zone. It will be the last time in this drive he does so.

This bumbling reception saves the drive. Seattle’s EPA jumps from 1.42 to 2.98. And, to be less of a wiseacre, Vannett’s very good run blocking and how that frees him as a receiver, hints at his untapped potential, the team’s untapped potential, and illuminates why Jimmy Graham never quite worked in Pete Carroll/Darrell Bevell’s system. Vannett is not receiver enough (yet) to properly maximize his opportunities, but Graham was not blocker enough to ever be seen as anything but a receiver, and therefore never “disappeared,” could rarely ever be schemed open by releasing after a block. Graham really really struggled in transitioning from blocking to running a route. Vannett does not.

Joyner exists on a spectrum of defensive backs which runs maybe from former Seahawk Josh Wilson to former Seahawk Earl Thomas. Pre-draft, Thomas was sometimes discussed as a nickelback or situational nickelback, Wilson played most of his career as a nickelback but often seemed like a more natural fit at free safety, and Joyner played nickel and corner before Wade Phillips saw his potential as a deep cover man.

LA retained him with their franchise tag. The team is throwing money around while Jared Goff is cheap, but at the very least, it indicates that the Rams organization views Joyner as a very valuable piece of their overall excellent defense.

We’re back to first and ten. To this point in the game, Seattle has run on eight of ten first down plays, and had pretty good success. This is what Schotty II meant in his much maligned comment about running when the opposing defense knows you’re running. The Seahawks offense relies primarily on the binary deception of run or play-action pass. But unless Seattle can run effectively in obvious running situations, it cannot hope to influence the opposing defense in such a way that it can cash in play-action fakes. Step one in achieving Schotty II’s game plan is putting some teeth in the run game. All else follows.

The rest of this drive can be told in pictures (mostly):

Joyner, #20, is tracking Vannett and is up in run support.

From another angle and just after the snap.

Strong safety Josh Johnson is between Peters and Sam Shields and by the right hash mark.

The play fake has worked. The middle of the field is wide open. Both corners are isolated. Peters is beat. He should probably have the good sense to hold, but I am not sure if he’s even close enough to achieve that. And Wilson is probably a little bit slow on the uptake here, as the pass is late.

It may seem as if I am asking the superhuman of Russ to see that Lockett is beating Peters and throw the ball earlier so that Peters cannot potentially recover, and I am. Superhuman anticipation is one of the hallmarks of a great franchise quarterback and Wilson should expect nothing less of himself. Future defensive backs will not be so hobbled, and if you want to be exceedingly pessimistic about how Seattle’s offense performed in Week 5, you can go ahead and tally up just how much EPA Peters’ bad reads and disabled body are directly responsible for. I do not wish to sully this post with hyperbole, but it was all the EPAs, even the ones in DC and China, even the ones which contain Goldings and Fuggles hops.

2.98 points of possession, down and distance, and field position have been converted to six points of scoreboard with a one-point kicker an extreme likelihood. Seattle is on top. Seattle is favored to win. The lark’s on the wing. The snail’s on the thorn. And spinnings are underfoot at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Schotty’s play calling earned much of this. It is his logic, it is Pete Carroll’s logic, that rushes which do not have intrinsic value nevertheless have strategic value. It is perhaps not the soundest logic in this 21st century pass-happy NFL. But in my last 11 years of getting old, I figured out how to love not my idea of the world but the world as it is. Run-happy play-action football won the Seahawks a Super Bowl. Though I squandered the opportunity to celebrate on Twitter, lost in a haze of alcohol, Effexor and the mania which Effexor awakened in me, it was still a priceless gift given to me by football and earned with little but time, patience and passion. It is not my team to run but it is my team to love. And this, the greatest era of Seahawks football, is both a bit atavistic and, maybe, a bit brilliant in its unorthodox reversion to outdated ideas. We’ll see. I guess we’ll always always eventually see.