One of the big coaching changes the Seattle Seahawks made during the offseason was to replace offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell with Brian Schottenheimer, and following his lack of success in six seasons for the New York Jets and then St. Louis, but now Los Angeles Rams, many of us were highly critical of the move. I remain highly critical of the move for reasons that I believe will begin to show in the second half, but that discussion is for tomorrow, as today’s discussion is to give a very, very high level overview of how the Hawks offense is attacking defenses through the first half of the season.
So, before I get too far off course, the Seahawks are of course running a variant of the Air Coryell offense, a system that has been used by offensive coordinators you’ve heard of such as Al Saunders, Norv Turner, Mike Martz, Cam Cameron and a host of others. The goal of this piece is not to give a breakdown of the specifics of an individual play or a series, if you want those, Matty Brown’s breakdowns are where you should turn. The purpose of this article is to simply foster an understanding of the Air Coryell system at the most simple conceptual levels.
The most basic premise of Air Coryell is to stress the defense by putting all five skill positions players into the pattern as receivers. Then based on reading the defense pre-snap, the quarterback should be able to anticipate which matchup is most likely to be open, thus becoming the first read for the quarterback.
Of the five skill position players who should be in the pattern as targets for the offense, the routes they are running will be broken down into three different categories. Those categories are
- a deep route (go, corner, post, etc),
- a two receiver combination that should be successful against zone defense and
- a two receiver combination that should be successful against man defense.
It is this set of three different route options, in connection with a run variant that makes up what has been referred to as the "high-tech" component of the Air Coryell offense. When Russell Wilson gets to the line of scrimmage after breaking the huddle, he effectively has three plays to choose from - a running play, a passing play designed to counter zone coverage and a passing play designed to counter man coverage. So, what happens is that Russ gets to the line, reads the defense, and based on what the game plan calls for him to do when he gets specific reads, he then makes his line calls to let the rest of the offense know what’s coming.
This system allows Russ to pick and choose the matchups that are most advantageous to the team, and to effectively target where the weakest point in the defense will be. If the defense is in a zone, putting two potential targets in the area of a single defender, or flushing a defender out of an area and then filling that area with another target is the type of route combination that will be used against zone coverage.
Against man coverage, Russ should know ahead of time where he has one on one coverage in an advantageous matchup. The team showed this repeatedly in the Week 8 game against the Detroit Lions, picking apart the Lions defense repeatedly when they would go into man coverage. According to former Field Gulls author Samuel Gold, now of The Athletic, the Lions were in man coverage on 16 of Wilson’s 19 dropbacks against Detroit. This man coverage allowed the offense to take advantage of the mismatch of David Moore being covered by second year cornerback Teez Tabor and simplified Russell Wilson's job.
In any case, so far this season it seems as though the Seahawks are using the running game almost as a stall tactic while they wait for the defense to show the desired matchup, at which point they shoot for the big play deep to Tyler Lockett or one of their other receivers.
In the past I’ve referred to the running game as a similar to sitting at the slot machine, and the offense as a person sitting there, feeding it money and pulling the handle while waiting for a big payoff, and this remains true. However, what it appears the Seahawks offense is doing this season is that rather than simply sitting at the slot machine feeding it money and hoping for a big play, that’s not all they’re doing. At the same time, they have a spotter standing watch at the blackjack table counting cards, and when the count becomes advantageous, the offense is jumping over to the blackjack table to bet big and go after the big play. (Author's note: I don't recommend you ever actually try that in a casino because odds are you will be very hastily removed from the premises.)
That philosophy has so far led the Hawks to a 4-3 record, with a very important four game stretch starting in Week 9 against the Los Angeles Chargers. The next month represents the most difficult stretch the Hawks are likely to face over the 2018 season, and in particular the defenses the Hawks face could pose an issue to the success of the offense not because of talent, but simply because of scheme. For much of the next four games it will be all about execution for the offense, and in Saturday's piece I'll go into greater detail why.