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Schottenheimer’s route combinations on the strip sack against the Rams

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Seattle Seahawks v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Wednesday I authored a piece about the importance of a quarterback getting the ball out quickly, and many fans interpreted the piece as placing the blame for the play squarely on the shoulders of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson shoulders. That is not the case at all, as there is plenty of blame to go around for the play, as well as credit to Wade Phillips, the defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams, for using pre-snap scheming to create the opportunity for Dante Fowler to generate the turnover that changed the course of the game.

However, as far as the players on the field, I’d place a decent amount of the blame on Wilson, but he’s certainly not the only one at fault. Let’s jump right into things and take a look at the alignment a couple of seconds before the snap from the All-22 film.

Here we can see all 22 players on the field, and the pre-snap read is pretty basic: the Rams most certainly appear to be in man coverage with a single high safety. Just moments after this, middle linebacker Cory Littleton, who is seen standing at the 35 yard line directly across from center Justin Britt, steps up to perform what is called sugaring, as Field Gulls author Matty Brown pointed out a couple of days ago on Twitter.

And what Matty meant by this is seen immediately pre-snap, where we see that Littleton has stepped up and is lined up on the line of scrimmage in the gap between Britt and left guard J.R. Sweezy.

Sugaring refers to a linebacker stepping up to the line of scrimmage and effectively acting as a defensive lineman in a two point stance. It forces the offensive line to account for the linebacker as a potential pass rusher, and in an empty set situation, that is most certainly a possibility with no running back to whom Russell could hand the ball off.

In any case, here are two images of the same shift by Littleton from the end zone angle leading up to the snap. In the first image we see him lined up a couple of yards off the ball.

And then just before the snap when he has stepped up to the line of scrimmage.

The motivation behind this and the effect of it are fairly obvious. It forces the offensive line into a one on one situation where the linemen have no choice but to attempt to block the Rams pass rushers one on one. With five offensive linemen and five potential pass rushers, this means it is each offensive lineman for themselves. What this also does to the offensive line becomes readily apparent immediately post snap.

Right tackle Germain Ifedi is setting up to take on defensive end John Franklin-Myers (94), right guard Jordan Simmons, who is making his first ever start in the NFL is tasked with blocking Ndamukong Suh (93), center Justin Britt is setting up to block Littleton in case he rushed, left guard Sweezy is dropping to block Aaron Donald (99) and left tackle Duane Brown is dropping to block Dante Fowler (56), but he is looking straight at Donald, presumably because he believes Donald is a bigger priority than Fowler.

What this means is that Fowler is planting to take the third step of his pass rush before Brown even moves to square up on Fowler, by which time Fowler already has the drop on Brown.

And when Fowler takes his third step, it isn’t just a regular step, he explodes out of his third plant to the outside and upfield, blowing right past Brown and taking outside position.

By the time Fowler’s foot comes down on that fourth step, he’s moving upfield at a good speed, while Brown is flat footed and in order to keep up with Fowler, he’d have to be sprinting sideways fast enough to keep up with a player who ran a 4.60 forty at the NFL combine in 2015.

And with his fifth step Fowler turns the corner with a plant on his inside foot.

At this point Brown is beaten. The split second of watching Donald has cost Brown dearly, as by the time Fowler takes his sixth step, he’s completely turned the corner and has a straight shot at Wilson, just as Wilson is finishing his drop. Brown’s only hope for recovery is to push Fowler up the field and away from Wilson, with Wilson stepping up to avoid the rush. Unfortunately, this does not happen.

The speed and efficiency of Fowler’s rush is impressive, and it is only six or seven steps in a matter of barely two seconds when Fowler’s arm appears out of the mess like a dorsal fin on a shark ready to strike.

And that’s that. Strip sack. Recovery Rams. Touchdown Brandin Cooks on the next play and a two score lead for Los Angeles.

Now, that was a lot of looking at Fowler and what the offensive line did on the play, but let’s take a look at the Seahawks playcall and see what offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was trying to accomplish here. We’ll start by stepping back and looking at the alignment before the snap with the routes the receivers ran drawn in highly accurate red arrows.

I’ve mentioned a few times that the “high tech” nature of the offense as it has been described comes from the fact that Wilson effectively has three plays to choose from at the line of scrimmage on each play. Those are a run play, a pass play that should work against zone and a pass play that should work against man defense.

Before I get into breaking down how the route combinations appear designed to have worked, let me go through the receivers and who is in coverage. Starting at the top of the screen and working down to the closest receiver last, we see:

  • Mike Davis who is covered by linebacker Mark Barron,
  • Nick Vannett who is covered by safety John Johnson,
  • Tyler Lockett who is covered by defensive back Sam Shields,
  • Doug Baldwin who is covered by Nickel Robey-Coleman and
  • David Moore who is covered Marcus Peters.

So you don’t have to scroll back up, here is the pre-snap image again with the routes drawn.

My guess as to the intention behind the route design is as follows:

  • Against man coverage Vannett is the primary read, as Lockett’s route should pull the middle linebacker just enough towards that side of the field to create a throwing lane to Vannett. I know in my piece yesterday that Sam Gold’s tweet indicated that his opinion was that Lockett would be the primary option, but I would differ. I think the combination of routes between Vannett and Baldwin are designed to force the safety to make a choice between stopping Vannett on a seam route and Baldwin going deep. As we’ll see, there was a big missed opportunity to Baldwin on this play.
  • Davis’ role appears to be to keep Barron on the outside and away from being able to make a play. If Davis were in the backfield on Russell’s right side, Barron might be sitting right in the throwing lane to Vannett. If he is on Russell’s left, then it’s possible Littleton slides over into the throwing lane to Vannett.

In any case, let’s take a look at the play as it develops. Here is the play just as Wilson reaches the bottom of his drop, with Moore and Lockett both making the breaks on their routes. Neither is particularly open, and we see Littleton shaded to the near side of the field, leaving the throwing lane to Vannett open.

Also important to note is the Rams defensive back at the forty yard line on the near side of the field playing inside leverage to force Baldwin outside on his route. Robey-Coleman has a two or three yard cushion between Baldwin and himself, and we see that the safety at midfield is facing Vannett, as if he’s expecting the action to come from that side of the field.

Now, just a split second later we see how quickly the cushion between Robey-Coleman and Baldwin has evaporated, while Vannett has turned on his break to put himself between Wilson and Johnson.

Baldwin has effectively reduced the cushion Robey-Coleman had to nothing, and Lockett might just be breaking open on his route (but he stumbles on his next step, so it’s a good thing Wilson doesn’t go his way). Further, it’s seen how Moore is holding Marcus Peters out of the play at the bottom of the screen, while Davis is keeping Barron out of the play at the top of the screen. Littleton is sitting just inside the hashmarks as a spy, watching to make sure Russ doesn’t pick up the first down with his legs.

In the next image we see how Baldwin is simply blowing past Robey-Coleman and looking back for the ball because he knows he’s open. Meanwhile the deep safety has his back turned toward Baldwin and it appears he is squared up anticipating a throw to Vannett. From the previous image to the next Baldwin has covered six yards (from the 41 to the 47), while the man covering him has only covered about three yards (from the 43 to the 46).

In short, Baldwin is about to be completely wide open.

But that’s irrelevant because Fowler has already knocked the ball out.

So, what would I have liked to see happen on this play? Let’s step back to the image I showed earlier of Fowler reaching out to strip the ball.

As noted yesterday, I would have liked to have seen him deliver a bullett to Vannett, but obviously he didn’t do that. Thus, given the way the play unfolded, it’s my belief that if Wilson takes a step or two up in the pocket and slides to the left offensive side, he’ll have all the time in the world, and with Baldwin seemingly breaking open, this may have had the opportunity to be a huge play. To illustrate what I would have like to have seen in an ideal world, here’s a rough approximation of what I think Wilson could have done.

So, to summarize, there’s plenty of blame and credit to go around, specifically,

  • Wilson’s hesitation in throwing to Vannett is partially to blame,
  • Brown paying more attention to Donald than Fowler initially is partially to blame,
  • Wilson not stepping up is partially to blame,
  • Lockett stumbling out of his break may be partially to blame,
  • Schottenheimer not doing much with his outside receivers could get some blame and
  • I’m sure there’s more but this is enough for now.
  • Meanwhile, there is certainly credit due to the Rams, as it was Wade Phillips that schemed to get an advantageous matchup which allowed Fowler to make a great play against a Pro Bowl tackle.

It’s a game of inches, and a game of split seconds, and in dissecting this single play we can see several instances of how the game turned on actions and decisions which were made in fractions of a second.