On Friday I wrote a short piece about the theory behind the Air Coryell offensive system that the Seattle Seahawks are running this season under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, and what makes it work. In that piece I hinted at suspicions that the offense could struggle in many of the remaining games for schematic reasons, and in the game Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers we saw some of what I had anticipated.
What the Chargers do on defense is not a secret, especially for the Seahawks coaching staff. Los Angeles defensive coordinator Gus Bradley coached for Pete Carroll early in Carroll’s tenure in Seattle, and runs a system very similar to what the Hawks ran during his time in the northwest. So, if that is the case, why is it that the Seahawks coaching staff was not able to solve the Chargers defense during the game? Quite simply, it is due to the fact that schematically the Air Coryell system excels against man coverage, and is more prone to struggle against zone coverage in which there is quality over the top safety coverage. It’s no more complicated than that.
The Air Coryell system has been in use in the NFL for about four decades, from its origins for the Chargers to the Dallas Cowboys championship teams in the 90s through the Greatest Show on Turf Rams teams. The basic concepts are the same - stress the defense by putting five receivers in the pattern and take advantage of the matchup that is most advantageous for the offense.
The matchup for a specific play is determined at the line of scrimmage based on pre-snap reads. As I noted in the piece on Friday, there are effectively three choices for the quarterback each time he comes to the line of scrimmage, a run play, a pass play to counter zone coverage and a pass play to counter man coverage. As I also noted on Friday, what the Seahawks are doing this season is patiently using the running game to stall and buy time on a safe play that is unlikely to turn the ball over until such a time as they get the defensive look they want.
Well, what happens when the defensive coordinator is patient enough to avoid giving the offense the look that it wants? Well, that’s when the offense has a game like it did against the Chargers . Or it has a game like it did against the Arizona Cardinals. Or it has a game like it did against the Chicago Bears. Or it has a game like it did against the Dallas Cowboys.
In short, if a defensive coordinator is patient enough to play zone defense with quality over the top safety coverage, the offense will consistently check down to safer, short plays at the line of scrimmage and take away the big play on its own. This is a tenet of the Air Coryell system that has been in place for decades, and which I have been attempting to explain to fans for months, as evidenced by this tweet from the end of August.
The issue with the deep connection is the reads in the Air Coryell system.— tropical storm john (@SeahawksMachine) August 31, 2018
If there is a safety over the top in 2 or 3 deep coverage, the read is for Russ to adjust to the underneath route.
That's why TEs like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gatea were so prolific in the system.
In short, what the Air Coryell offense does is determined by the defense. The defense has the ability to dictate what an Air Coryell offense does and how it attacks, and as such it creates a situation where a patient defensive coordinator can force the offense into consistently having to execute in order to move the football.
This is the exact same premise around which Pete Carroll’s bend-but-don’t-break defensive philosophy is built, and it is the exact type of schematic disadvantage the Hawks will be facing in the second half. Many of Seattle’s opponents during the second half subscribe to similar styles of defense, including teams like both the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49er along with both the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers.
That’s not to say the Seahawks are doomed to lose any of those games, it just means that the outcomes of those games may not be as one-sided as many fans hope for, just as was seen in the outcome of the game Seattle played in Arizona earlier this season.
However, combining the knowledge that the Air Coryell offense can be slowed by a zone defense with quality over the top safety play with the fact that heading into Sunday’s game against Los Angeles that the Seahawks had scored over sixty percent of their offensive touchdowns on pass plays of ten yards or more, and all of a sudden the issue comes into focus. This was part of the reason I authored the Fast Facts piece on Sunday which looked at every touchdown pass Wilson has thrown so far in 2018, because it helped to demonstrate how what the offense has done and when the offense has scored has in large part been dictated by what the defense is doing on a play. In short, heading into the Chargers game, 81.25% of Wilson’s touchdown passes on the season had been from ten yards or greater, a career high, and that is a direct result of the result of the way the Seahawks offense is playing.
As I’ve mentioned, the Seahawks offense this season is using the run game to buy time while it waits for the right look from the defense. The analogy I used on Friday is that the offense is sitting at a slot machine pulling the wheel while waiting for its spotter at the blackjack table to let Wilson know that the count is advantageous. However, in games like the Sunday game against the Chargers, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is the dealer, and every time the count becomes advantageous, he’s shuffling the deck and simply forcing Wilson and the Seattle offense to stay conservative.