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Seahawks on tape: Creative short play-action, RPOs are helping Russell Wilson

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Seattle Seahawks v Oakland Raiders Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Playing quarterback in the NFL is hard. I wouldn’t really know. Nor would the vast majority of you guys and gals. It’s an exclusive club. And yet, most of the membership struggles to play quarterback to a high standard in the NFL.

The best schemers ease their signal-caller’s job. The go-to example has become Sean McVay, where Jared Goff is persistently gifted a wide-open receiver off the play-fake.

This summer, I was in Russia for the 2018 World Cup. In Saransk, a host city, I was sat in a park as a team of eight workers came to cut the grass and clean. Their equipment seemed basic, making things trickier. I was left wondering why they didn’t have a ride-on lawn mower for the task. (Probably because that would make it a one-man job) The lawn mower would’ve sped things up and made their objective far more straightforward. Quarterbacks need lawn mowers.

Brian Schottenheimer’s attack has improved from the messy first two weeks. (Pete Carroll has taken the blame) Incredibly, the Seattle Seahawks offense ranks 1st in red zone conversion %, and other statistics are nicer once you exclude the opening duo of games.

Play-calling has been bettered throughout; Seattle now executes with an identity that seemed completely lost early on. Unsurprisingly, it’s seen Russell Wilson and the offense become more efficient, and the calls also have greater sequencing and nuance. Wilson looks far more comfortable.

What is most striking about the offense is the new layers that are added each game. Against the Oakland Raiders, the Seahawks continued this theme. Wilson struggles with conventional quick passing patterns—a combination of processing and height. Yet, as we all pleaded, Schottenheimer is now scheming designs for Wilson’s elite skillset. My main observation from attending the Raiders game was this:

Perhaps it was the last half of the Oakland obliteration giving Seattle a chance to try some different stuff for the future. Whatever the case, more layers became visible. It’s obvious that once an offense has hit a team deep, the underneath opens. The short play-action and run-pass option stuff the Seahawks showcased will aid Wilson into becoming an even more potent quarterback in 2018.

Bootleg Throwback Screen

Of course, there have been short play-action elements for some time. For instance, the typical play-action quarterback rollout. Yet the best play is one that Schottenheimer continued from Bevell’s tenure; a gorgeous throwback screen.

Running it with 11:00 left in the 1st quarter, as part of the opening script, is cunning from Schottenheimer. It reveals a lot about the type of coverage and personnel the Raiders are going to run facing a staple formation and personnel. Lockett’s pre-snap motion provides intelligence on how Oakland will respond to such things. Additionally, the play-type tells Schottenheimer what the linebackers are keying off and how they will react.

It is a slow-developer that relies on disciplined line play, something Mike Solari has managed to bring to the Seattle offense consistently. For the defense, it’s a “everything is a lie” situation. First, they flow to a mid-zone run play to their right. Then, they flow to the quarterback bootleg to their left.

The linebackers desperately try move from their run fit right assignments and shift their zone shells to the left. Meanwhile, the defensive backs surge across the field with the two crossers which Wilson is surely trying to hit on the quarterback rollout. The defense, having to run to the roomier field side, is in full-on panic mode.

It produces a beautiful alley on the boundary sideline for the Seahawks. Leaking their offensive linemen outside, they have a five versus two for more than fifteen yards after Rashaad Penny. As Wilson looks backs to the throwback and delivers a well-placed football, the blockers go to work.

Right guard D.J. Fluker punishes the backside pursuit. Right tackle Germain Ifedi seals the alley preventing anyone penetrating from the side. The only defender capable of making the stop for a short gain is linebacker Tahir Whitehead, who diagnoses the play well. Yet he gets mauled by the brutal double team of left guard J.R. Sweezy and center Justin Britt.

Penny, after transitioning from receiver to runner quickly, flashes his dynamism as he motors through the open crease for 24 yards. On 2nd and 7, coming after eight straight run plays to open the game, Seattle gives Wilson a simple short throw which picks up big RAC.

While this has existed for some time, there hasn’t been enough. Too frequently in Seahawks’ history the play-fake has felt like a deep shot or nothing. It’s been feast or famine. When Schottenheimer started running more intermediate play-action than Darrell Bevell, it was refreshing. But his overall attack still felt lacking in short concepts. Until now.

Split-Zone Play-Action

This was a far quicker developer which directly stresses the flow-side of the offense. Building off the rushing attack is a natural complement to the offensive identity which again alleviates the burden on Wilson.

Pre-snap, the running back shifting to the boundary is unfollowed. Combined with Doug Baldwin’s pre-snap motion being unfollowed, Wilson knows the pass defense is a form of zone coverage.

Post-snap, it’s a matching cover-3 that Wilson doesn’t really have to read. Whether it’s man or zone the flat defender, Marquel Lee, is in a dilemma.

Lee is put in great conflict by the split-zone action of Baldwin coming back across the formation. For Lee, this is a virtually impossible assignment.

Lee is already shifted inside due to Baldwin’s motion. Versus the outside run faked to his right, he is responsible for reading and reacting to fill either the backside b- or a-gap. He’s tasked with flowing outside, but also for covering the spacy field flat in the opposite direction. Good luck!

Unsurprisingly, Lee gets outran to the flat by Baldwin—who gets a head-start from the split-action. Baldwin makes the catch. With the Oakland defensive backs run off vertically by the twins Seattle receivers, Baldwin has the room to turn upfield and easily pick up the first down on 2nd and 6.

Once more, Wilson enjoys the facile task.

Read-Option Play-Action

The motif of providing easy completions, while adding conflict and keeping constraint, was prevalent throughout the game. The first play of the fourth drive, 6.16 in the 2nd, was no exception. At first glance this might appear to be a run-pass option. But, “EVERYBODY STAY CALM” Michael Scott moment; it’s just a play-action. I’m not going to mis-brand a play-action as an RPO.

The Seahawks hinted at this in the Los Angeles Rams game but handed the ball off. Scott Frost, still a great offensive innovator despite his head coaching struggles at Nebraska, uses bubble screens on the backside of his runs as a similar constraint for the pursuit. Here, Seattle shows what happens if they fake the handoff and throw the ball. Call it a read-option play-action.

The pre-snap movement of Baldwin being followed tells Wilson the coverage is a form of off-man. Wilson acts like he is reading the end man, who keys off the tight end’s downblock. The fake even fools the end-zone All-22.

As Wilson rolls out, he hits the hitch of Baldwin which comes open against the cushion of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie—a corner undoubtedly wary of being burnt again by Baldwin. It’s a nice 6-yard play that keeps the offense ahead of the chains.

This is a simple one-read for Wilson. If the coverage on Baldwin had been tighter, Wilson could have run the ball outside. Baldwin would have been the perfect lead blocker and the rest of the man coverage was run off. It is, essentially, an elongated, inverted triple-option.

(The following play was a handoff with similar option-action for a gain of 7)

Actual Run-Pass Option

RPOs provide bountiful advantages. The main one is their impact on the time to throw for a quarterback. The dramatic reduction lessens the stress on an offensive line. It also gives them a chance to attack. These are things that can be said about the short play-action examples above too.

As is now tired knowledge, Nick Foles’ remarkable run to a Super Bowl victory was driven by RPOs giving him easy one-on-ones. Bleeding Green Nation’s Michael Kist spoke of some fantastic statistics relating to the magic. Foles was 0.2 seconds quicker to throw in the postseason. On play-action plays, including RPOs, the 2017 regular season average was 10.3 yards depth of target, 2.85 seconds down the field snap to throw. The playoffs’ play-action? That depth of target went down to 7.3 yards average, but the time to throw shortened to an incredible 2.27 seconds. To put that in context, in 2015 Foles was averaging 14.6 yards per target.

While the previous video is less RPO more play-action, the final clip is a clear pre-snap RPO. Ollie Connolly said to me: “any running play with off-coverage should really by an RPO, it’s one of those ‘why not’ things.” Why not indeed?

Here, Russell Wilson processes the off-coverage before the snap, when he makes the effortless decision to throw his “pass-option.” It’s based on the most common RPO read in the NFL: the leverage of backside linebacker Lee.

Pre-snap, the passing option is clearly coming open against the Raiders’ defensive look. They have seven box-focused defenders for six Seahawks blockers. Lee is clearly involved in the run fit. On RPO plays, you can’t be wrong as an offense. You can only be right. It’s about getting the defense to pick their poison and then making them chug it down.

Already out-leveraged to the outside by his alignment, Lee comes further inside in his run fit to play the inside zone the o-line blocks. With the ball in his hands, Wilson sharply fires to the perimeter bubble Baldwin runs.

The closest defender to Baldwin’s alley is about 10 yards away. The immediate two-on-two for Seattle allows Baldwin to get a new set of downs on 2nd and 5. The Seahawks beat a stacked box—something I’d previously worried they couldn’t do.

Lookout for more

The Seahawks choosing to give themselves a +1 in the box via the RPO rather than a read-option is a great change-up that should continue throughout the season. The further advantage of committing to this is will force teams to adapt, probably by reducing the box-focused defenders by one. RPOs create doubt in defenders’ minds. Doubt can lead to hesitant, slow, ineffective execution.

Play-action can also result in similar things. Adding different elements each week is brilliant. An offense must constantly adapt and evolve, as Wilson’s pick-six against the Chicago Bears proved. The way that Seattle wants to play, having these tempo-maintaining, chain-moving short play-action and RPO plays is crucial.

Moreover, it is dramatically easing the jobs of Wilson and the o-line. For the quarterback, the plays require minimal exertion and basic football intelligence. Against the Detroit Lions, and the liability of linebacker Jarrad Davis, Wilson should flourish via stuff like the split-zone play-action. If Schottenheimer can keep this up, the Seahawks’ offense will explode. Wilson’s developments in the pocket already show he’s due for his best year.