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Seahawks on tape: Pete Carroll’s safety creativity slows Matthew Stafford

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The primary coverages Pete Carroll has run with the Seattle Seahawks have been a single-high safety Cover 1 and Cover 3. There’s a perception of Carroll’s defense being simple. Though the overall rules of his defense are basic and consistent, Carroll is still an innovator. If a coach is too schematically simple in the NFL you die; just look at how Chip Kelly was dragged down by his overly predictable run game.

Carroll, then, uses a variety of coverages that have their basis in Cover 1 and Cover 3. Coming into the Detroit Lions game, the Seahawks ran Middle of the Field Closed coverages 77% of the time. The league average for MOFC was 64%. I posted various intimidating clips of Matthew Stafford dicing up MOFC in my Lions preview. Stafford ranked top 5 when attacking the deep outside of MOFC and averaged 89 Expected Points Added per 100 plays. His ability to beat the one-on-ones Cover 1 and Cover 3 grants an offense on the deep perimeters is elite. For that reason, it was my chief concern.

(Charting done by Sports Info Solutions)

Given the inexperience of sixth-round safety convert Tre Flowers at cornerback, consistently leaving him in one-on-ones against the talents of Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and Kenny Golladay seemed foolhardy. Flowers, impressive start or not, was still yet to be picked on by a quality quarterback. Furthermore, following Earl Thomas’ injury, Seattle’s safety group no longer has that Hall of Fame range. The duo is a new breed: hybrid sorts who are relatively interchangeable.

Thankfully, Carroll is not afraid to innovate further. He proved this in the preseason with his implementation of a double eagle/46 front to maximize the strengths of the defensive line. There’s also been hints of him playing split-safety coverages for some time. But I don’t recall a time where the Seahawks ran so much Middle of Field Open pass defense. The change up, combined with a staunch running attack that limited Detroit to as many rushing first downs as Michael Dickson (ONE), left Seattle reducing the Lions’ offense into a blowout that didn’t really show up in the box score.

Tampa 2 and Cover 2

“Of all the great coaches I have worked with, none would have a more fundamental impact on the tactical side of my coaching than Monte Kiffin.” Pete Carroll, Learning to Coach

Kiffin is one of the most influential schemers the sport has witnessed. That inspiration extended to Carroll running Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense a lot, particularly in his early days as a defensive coordinator. After all, the coverage is the original pairing for the 4-3 under front.

It was surprising how the Seahawks elected to run the Tampa 2 with no jam sometimes. That’s unrecognizably soft. Jamming needs to happen. Detroit’s first touchdown came facing only one jamming corner from 11 personnel shotgun trips. Pre-snap, Seattle shows little disguise—Flowers on the fieldside lining up in what looks like press man being the only semblance of deception.

Yet the nickel coverage gets it done initially. The Lions run a four verts passing concept that gives the slot the option of running a deep dig route if MOFO. The Seahawks shells initially take away the deeper crosser of Golladay that Stafford wants first.

Dropping 3-technique Branden Jackson into a low hole coverage then removes the natural progression for Stafford, the shallower crosser of tight end Michael Roberts. At this point, time starts running out for the quarterback as Jacob Martin narrows the pocket by pushing his opponent back and Frank Clark gets close.

But then Stafford shows his ludicrous talent. He escapes left as Clark gets blocked out of the play. In his deep shell, Tedric Thompson is initially in excellent position. But, as Stafford scrambles, Thompson gets caught looking into the backfield rather than at the receiver in his zone. As the alley run fit defender, this is somewhat understandable.

Jones improvises further, sneaking up field to get in behind Thompson. The safety is left recovering at this point, but only a few quarterbacks—even in the NFL—can make this throw. Across his body, Stafford delivers an absolute rocket over Thompson on the play-extension. The Tampa 2 did its job, Thompson in the tricky circumstances of the 3rd and 10 did not. Detroit scores the go-ahead touchdown.

The next play is a more conventional Cover 2 again from nickel personnel against 11 personnel trips. The difference is the corners matching further back and Bobby Wagner playing more shallow. As Stafford looks left to his drive concept, the underneath shells combined with the more over-the-top Flowers locks up the route combination.

Sensing time running out after the deep rush of Dion Jordan, Stafford moves off the drive concept early and hurries to his right. Jones has adapted his deep corner, which Shaquill Griffin was underneath, into an out-and-up.

Bradley McDougald is in superb position to play this. He opens downfield with the route well, glancing to check with Stafford and then continuing on his path. Perfectly in phase with Jones, he smothers the route and the ball falls incomplete.

The ticky-tacky flag from the officials with 4:12 left in the game is very harsh given that Jones tried to hook McDougald too. How McDougald can improve is contacting the receiver before the ball arrives. But, really, it’s a call that reeks of ‘evening up’. Once again, the coverage did its job perfectly—flummoxing Stafford—but the deep safety’s execution wasn’t quite there. This is a sign of the defensive backs being less familiar with the assignment. The deep half should essentially turn into man once a lone receiver enters the shell.

The reason for the coverage’s virtual disappearance from the NFL is that no linebacker is athletic enough to cover the deep hook zone that Tampa 2 asks of its middle linebacker given the speed and spatial advantages modern offenses have over defenses.

Yet Wagner can almost get it done. He’s a unique linebacker who in the constricted space of the red-zone can play the high hole zone. The Lions discovered this when in the desperation mode of only 3 minutes 51 remaining down by 14 on 2nd and 4—it’s the same drive as the previous play.

As Seattle’s corners play to the goal-line given the ball being on the 10-yard line, the Lions look for their spot concept to the boundary. Stafford’s primary read is his tight end’s option route. Roberts can choose to either bend his route to the corner or run straight down the seam. His read is based on McDougald’s leverage.

Seeing McDougald outside in the deep half, he bends his stem to the seam. As Stafford tries to zip in the throw, Wagner breaks on the window and deflects the pass incomplete. This is chalkboard play for his assignment.

In the tighter confines of inside the 10-yard line with the corners going to the goal-line, Tampa 2 is a near-shutdown coverage. One of the biggest things I have learned in my time coaching is that no defense can stop every single play, even if the execution is impeccable.

Still, Tampa 2 defense in the open-field is something I don’t like. Stafford “throws a gorgeous pass in the honey-hole,” and it’s a throw most NFL passers can hit. The dilemma the almost three-deep coverage can be put in is too easy, plus it’s very tricky to disguise pure Tampa 2.

Delano Hill discovered that issue. Two plays before this, Detroit had held him with a post from the slot and the outside go was open. Stafford didn’t spot that, but with 10.41 to play in the 4th, he registered it for his second touchdown on 2nd and 10.

Hill doesn’t gain the depth and he doesn’t possess the recovery speed to even get close to making a play here versus the doubles shotgun formation. Griffin’s jam of Jones at the line of scrimmage misses due to the clever release. As Griffin can’t delay Jones, the free release gets the receiver rapidly moving to the corner of the end-zone.

Hill stays with the seam of the play-action verticals, can’t get over to Jones and Stafford completes the wide-open toss.

Cover 6 Matching

What Tampa 2 does is take away flood concepts and Stafford’s favored drive concepts against two-high looks. But it is susceptible to verts, especially with multiple receivers on one side. The Seahawks being relatively vanilla in the open field surprised me. I felt they could mix it up and match into a defense that took away all three things: flood, drive and verticals.

Does that sound too complicated? Well Seattle called a matching coverage that achieved this against Oakland. In last week’s Seahawks on tape, I asked for answers on a postcard regarding the coverage they ran against trips.

I was lucky enough to receive an answer, from the best signature move in the game, Twitter user and Beast Pode contributor @cmikesspinmove.

Rather than the solution arriving on the back of a nice picture of the Space Needle, or a lovely shot of Mount Rainier, the remedy to my nagging schematic headache came at 6am via direct message.

Still, the response was glorious and I’m grateful to Mr CMikesSpinmove. Plus: it was a hell of a lot quicker than mailing it 4700+ miles across the pond.

The coverage is very similar to that of the master of pattern-matching defense; Nick Saban. Saban’s Triple Stud coverage is beautiful versus trips formations. Here’s the play:

A lot of jargon, I know!

Let’s break down what you need to know. On the “Kathy” side, it’s just Cover 2 with the cornerback in the flat and the safety getting the deep half. On the “Stallion” side, Saban has his defensive backs play Clamp. Clamp coverage is broken down beautifully in this article from Cameron Soran.

Corner – Soft (off) alignment. Man on #1 for everything except when:

#2 is out in first 5 yards, then take #2.

#1 breaks at 5 yards or less (e.g., shallow, 5 yard hitch), then zone to deep quarter.

Apex – Man on #2 except when #2 is out in first 5 yards. Then relate to #3. If no #3, then rob #1. You do not have #2 vertical.

Safety – Take #1 vertical if #2 is out in first 5 yards. Otherwise, take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1.

Hook – Take any #3 that will not be covered by the CB, Apex, or Safety. If none, defend the hook area deep to short.”

Essentially, it enables the defense to trap the quick out route to the #2 receiver, but the rules also contain verticals and drive. Moreover, it means the coverage can be shaded to the strength of the trips formation—something the near-symmetrical Tampa 2 does not do.

The Seahawks’ version appears to differ slightly in the fact the corner, Griffin, and the apex, nickel corner Justin Coleman, play a hybrid man-zone technique. The stack receivers also see the defense treat the first releasing receiver as #1.

On this 2nd and 10 in a two-minute drill, the Lions are primarily looking to get into a manageable 3rd down.

Seattle’s rules against Detroit’s route combination see them turn what could have looked more like a Cover 2 into a Cover 6. Notice the strong element of quarter, quarter, half. Stafford hates what he sees on the right, sharply moving to the backside dig route. But K.J. Wright’s hook is right underneath the route.

Shuffling up and looking down to the check and release of Luke Willson, Stafford is hit by Jarran Reed as he throws underneath, and the pass falls incomplete. Beautiful matching coverage.

Safety Rotation

Even with the Kam Chancellor and Thomas safety tandem, Carroll would occasionally rotate Chancellor deep to free up Thomas’ elite robbing abilities. The interchangeable 2018 Seahawks safety types means this still works.

Safety rotation is a simple install and an effective way of negating the numbers advantage that jet motion grants an offense. It doesn’t have to be a constant schematic feature, but as a one-game wrinkle it’s a way of confusing an offense.

Seattle here is showing a press Cover 1, but their man exchange and safety rotation against the jet confuses Stafford. As Golden Tate motions pre-snap, the movement is unfollowed by Griffin—suggesting zone coverage to Stafford.

Yet Griffin is just shifting his man coverage on to the tight end. Thompson rotates downhill to play the jet motion and McDougald sprints backwards to play the deep middle third zone. Where Stafford encounters difficulty is it looks like the wheel route out of the backfield is going to be wide open.

However, Thompson—rather than playing pure man coverage—is taking the first man out of the backfield downfield. So while Barkevious Mingo allows the running back wheel route to clear him—this frees him up to play run first—Thompson is actually taking the wheel.

Stafford throws the pass, Thompson jumps it and should come up with the interception. The play is proof of the clear rules that all Seahawks defenders play with. The Lions’ 2nd and 7 becomes 3rd and long.

All day, Stafford seemed surprised at the closing speed of the Seahawks’ defenders underneath, particularly when chucking it to hitches and having box defenders fire it loose.

Cover 1 robber does of course not contain the two-high safeties post-snap, meaning the cornerbacks are left alone outside once more. It does, however, stop a quarterback from pre-snap audibling to a MOFC beater due to the two-high pre-snap disguise.

Flowers coped well when tested. Note Mingo’s coverage ability allowing him to play man over the tight end after bluff pressuring. He walls the inside first then opens up fluidly.

Stafford shows his aggression against MOFC testing Flowers on the 3rd and 7 (the pass after the last video), but the step-kick transition is smooth from the corner despite the lack of contact at the line of scrimmage and the throw falls harmlessly incomplete.

More Safety Creativity Against the Chargers?

Josh Oster posed this question ahead of the upcoming game against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Philip Rivers has been masterful against Seattle’s Cover 3, orchestrating brilliance through rubs and picks, while layering off mesh concepts to tear it apart.

His ability against the Seahawks, combined with the less rangy backfield and still the inexperience of Flowers would make the matching of things like Seattle’s Triple Stud an intelligent strategy. While it’s a MOFO coverage—despite Wagner being used to somewhat close it by carrying crossers—it can match into what still ends up being a three-deep, four-under zone.

It’s exciting to think of the other ways the Seahawks and Pete Carroll can deal with Rivers’ abilities against non-trips formations. Their execution, with the teaching tape, should be more accomplished. Ultimately, the passing game is going to be where the encounter will be decided, given Seattle now looks to have an elite run defense.