clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Drive: Days of Schotty

New, comments
Minnesota Vikings v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

This doesn’t start well. In fact you might be kind of mad at me in a second.

Russell Wilson needs to throw the damn ball to David Moore.

This is a brilliant play call. Seattle has run play action and Minnesota has bit, hard. Tyler Lockett, by the 30, has drawn Xavier Rhodes and the deep safety. Safety Anthony Harris (41) is at the original line of scrimmage. He is about to pick up Nick Vannett in coverage. Vannett is running toward Harris. His feet look like neon green chromatids. The complete lack of underneath coverage is not a trick of parallax either. Here is roughly the same moment from behind center.

You can even see Justin Britt coquettishly bowing his left foot in both pics.

Brian Schottenheimer has schemed open David Moore. Moore is running a deep crossing pattern toward a cleared out middle of the field. Lockett’s speed is dangerous enough that both defensive backs covering him have turned their backs toward the line of scrimmage in order to keep up. Rhodes holds Lockett, meaning apart from creating a wide open deep route, Schotty’s call has rendered the play “free.” Some combination of the play fake, Rhodes hedging by means of backpedal while watching the play fake, and Lockett’s speed forced Rhodes to hold in order to avoid the blast furnace.

Underneath coverage is a marvel of disorganization and ineffectiveness. While Vannett is slowly escaping into an outlet, this was originally a two route play. Wilson had to look off Lockett, who is doubled teamed, see Moore, and sometime in what is an eternity of live action, target Moore. Florida was reclaimed by the Atlantic in the time it took for underneath coverage to recover. Rookie corner Holton Hill is beat from the moment Moore makes his break to the moment he breaks off his route outside the numbers on the right.

Back in my salad days, when a rare blood condition left me capable little else but non-stop tape watching and incoherent blogging about the vast untapped potential of Darryl Tapp, we had a nickname for Matt Hasselbeck. We called him the Objectivist, because cranky late-career Hasselbeck seemed unwilling to entrust his legacy to a receiving corps comprised of lesser mortals. Moore was open. Moore was primed for an explosive play of almost unlimited potential. But, alas, Moore was David Moore. I have no other explanation for Wilson’s decision making. He looks at Moore and sort of fidgets in his direction. Body language I interpret as repressed desire. Like people waiting at a crosswalk or dogs awaiting the signal in competitive dog jumping. Either Wilson needs to trust Moore, leveraging the extreme openness of Moore against whatever misgivings he has about Moore’s execution, or Seattle needs to draft or sign receivers Wilson can trust.

Anyway Joe Tessitore describes what Wilson does as magic and make a difficult throw to a somewhat covered Vannett—exposing the team to horrible consequences should the throw be off—is what Wilson actually does.

Schotty owns Vannett being open too, because while Anthony Harris is no world-beating superman, he’s only over top the much slower Vannett because the play design has cleared out half of the field.

This is not a Wilson hit piece. Everyone misses opportunity, Wilson had his reasons, the play was ultimately successful, but if you’re looking for potential growth, it would seem Wilson simply does not trust a player very often schemed as the number one receiver, the go-to target, and if he could, this already excellent offense could break out.

This is a celebration of an offensive coordinator too quickly written off. A miasma of hype, faddish thinking and bad research primed Seahawks fans to hate Brian Schottenheimer. All he has done is construct the most effective system of offense run by Seattle since the days of Mike Holmgren. Russell Wilson is excelling within that system, not bailing it out through his gifts, and that has reopened the Seahawks window of contention. Let us watch Schotty work.

1st & 10 at SEA 23

(5:30 - 1st) G.Fant reported in as eligible. R.Wilson pass short right to T.Lockett to SEA 25 for 2 yards (H.Smith).

Good call but better play by Harrison Smith. Smith really excels at task switching. Which the NFL Combine should really figure out a way to measure.

Rhodes could be on Lockett again, but coverage gets really messy here and quick.

It looks like Mackensie Alexander is matched against Lockett and Rhodes is matched against Moore, but Alexander is actually tracking Chris Carson. Everything looks pretty queer and amiss seconds after the snap.

Rhodes appears to be doubling Moore with (42) Ben Gideon—son of Jordache dweller of Oprah—but the sole purpose of Moore’s route seems to be to create traffic, a kind of amoebic moving pick, and further accentuate the asymmetry of the space behind the offensive line and the space behind the defensive line. It’s a dirty trick, much used. But long before Wilson targets Lockett, Rhodes has broken off in pursuit of Lockett.

Smith appears to be spying Wilson. He recognizes the play and picks up Lockett, spoiling everyone’s fun. In this way the play both works and is sniffed out. As my late cat Houdini would say: “consider.”

I appreciate Wilson’s gleaner-like willingness to get two yards where only two yards were available.

2nd & 8 at SEA 25

(4:55 - 1st) (Shotgun) G.Fant reported in as eligible. C.Carson left end to SEA 34 for 9 yards (E.Griffen).

Wilson’s aligned in a pistol but before the snap Carson moves from behind to his right.

Vikings make no obvious adjustments to this motion. Smith is defending Carson, which suggests Minnesota is anticipating pass or maybe a pitch. Nope.

Seattle has numbers. If Jordan Simmons (66) can reach (55) Anthony Barr, Seattle has a hat for every hat, push and a damn good rushing lane. Wilson, as a decoy, critically slows Smith.

But already we can see Simmons block is glancing and leveraged for a counter—which will not occur. That may have something to do with Carson declining a pretty sweet looking lane and bouncing outside.

Which sorta works. I mean, I don’t have an enchanted looking glass with which to see outcomes in alternate timelines, but though Carson hustles for nine, it sure looks like he sacrificed time and momentum going horizontal. Maybe he just wanted to train the back judge’s eyes away from the rather obvious holding Simmons is perpetrating. Whatever the case, Carson’s burst right here is a good reminder that I very badly underestimated his talent. Even now, I think I am biased because I anchored my expectations to the round in which he was drafted.

Everson Griffen chases Carson down in the open field after a nine yard gain.

1st & 10 at SEA 34

(4:19 - 1st) G.Fant reported in as eligible. C.Carson left guard to SEA 41 for 7 yards (A.Barr, E.Griffen).

Mike Solari (presumably) designs a funky blocking scheme which works impressively well. Alternating linemen ‘X’. Game tape mostly obsoletes the need for squiggly lines, and so here is the sequence as it develops, unadorned.

The upshot of all this do-si-doing is a tonne of push. When George Fant’s block falls victim to a spin move by Sheldon Richardson, Carson has what we might call “initiative,” and that initiative translates into a nice cut.

The yellow line represents the original line of scrimmage. Backs look better when the backfield is free of bodies. Carson builds momentum. That momentum translates into the explosiveness of his cut. Carson has time to react. That time translates into the precise timing of his cut.

What follows is a fun bit of negotiating chaos. Carson is a deft rusher in tight spaces. He finds footing amidst the twisted roots of warring Gargantua. He continually establishes and re-establishes his center of gravity low and over his feet, rarely ever leaning, tottering or tripping.

2nd & 3 at SEA 41

(3:43 - 1st) G.Fant reported in as eligible. R.Wilson scrambles up the middle to MIN 49 for 10 yards (B.Gedeon).

Slow-ass developing play which works.

And which works because of the “gravity” caused by play action.

But which becomes a scramble because, I guess, this:

This run is deceptively low in value. Though Seattle converts the first and moves ten yards closer to the end zone, second and three is a valuable down and distance. Neither run nor pass is necessarily more likely. A missed deep shot only produces third and short. And, starting at the 41, the Seahawks are already “out of jail.” Which is more or less why Carson’s prior run of nine yards is more valuable (1.00 EPA) than this run (0.72). Wilson made something pretty good out of an advantageous position. Carson saved Seattle from the makings of a three and out deep in their own territory.

1st & 10 at MIN 49

(2:58 - 1st) G.Fant reported in as eligible. R.Penny up the middle to MIN 41 for 8 yards (A.Harris).

Three to four yards of push achieved by the entire offensive line ...

and Wilson and Lockett both freezing defenders through decoy motion ...

combine to create one heckuva opportunity ...

which ends rather abruptly.

Good play by Anthony Harris. Penny I think believed he could shoot the gap and attempts no move or even braces for impact. This might be one of those instances in which the game hasn’t slowed down. This might be one of those instances in which the game got damn quick damn quickly.

2nd & 2 at MIN 41

(2:22 - 1st) (Shotgun) G.Fant reported in as eligible. R.Wilson left end pushed ob at MIN 33 for 8 yards (A.Harris).

Harrison Smith gets caught guessing.

Dig that push Fant (74) gets on Danielle Hunter.

1st & 10 at MIN 33

(1:41 - 1st) G.Fant reported in as eligible. R.Penny right end to MIN 29 for 4 yards (S.Weatherly; B.Gedeon).

This time the run blocking does not succeed.

Penny is able to find a little daylight.

And a rare show of bad run blocking becomes one of our first instances of Penny succeeding in traffic.

Gideon notably does not bite on Lockett’s jet sweep motion. Lockett is mostly ignored.

2nd & 6 at MIN 29

(1:00 - 1st) R.Wilson pass short right to T.Lockett pushed ob at MIN 15 for 14 yards (H.Hill).

Schotty instantly takes advantage.

Previous play:

This play, from the opposite hash mark:

Ignore the play fake and it will cease being fake.

1st & 10 at MIN 15

(0:22 - 1st) G.Fant reported in as eligible. T.Lockett left end to MIN 14 for 1 yard (A.Harris).

Schotty’s bag of tricks is exhausted. After showing tremendous feel for the game, this rush is a bit like pump faking to a receiver and then throwing to that receiver. Lockett motions right before stopping and cutting back left. This loses Rhodes, but Rhodes proves irrelevant. Far from getting lost, Anthony Barr is waiting for Lockett to run back his way.

Nick Vannett moves into the second level to block Harris, assuming Lockett’s speed will allow him to run past Barr. It’s a good decision but a bad block, and soon Lockett is running toward bracketing defenders. A couple more surly looking dudes are in hot pursuit.

Lockett’s game enough to lower his shoulder and take what’s given.

2nd & 9 at MIN 14

(15:00 - 2nd) R.Wilson pass incomplete short right.

For whatever reason, Seattle goes straight drop back the next two plays. The results speak for themselves.

3rd & 9 at MIN 14

(14:53 - 2nd) (Shotgun) R.Wilson sacked at MIN 19 for -5 yards (D.Hunter).

Germain Ifedi is not the world’s most gifted pass blocker.

Rapidly, and for what reason I do not know, Schotty undoes a run of good decisions. Rather than break tendency, he repeats himself, and where play fakes have enabled the biggest plays of the drive, he abandons them. This got me thinking about research conducted by Ben Baldwin.

It would be exceedingly hard to prove that rushing success does not improve the effectiveness of play action. And by “success” I am not referring to the aged standard introduced in The Hidden Game of Football (or any modernization of that research). I have no evidence that defenders or defensive coordinators share that definition. In fact, it is pretty obvious that very, very good rushers contend with greater resistance which could lower their rate of success while in no way lowering their perceived threat. Success, as defined by a defensive coordinator et al, is not something which is stripped of, say, prime Adrian Peterson just because he ranked 29th in that particular stat in 2009. It is a measure of potential determined by many variables including scheme, tendency, blocking and, of course, personnel.

Super-abundant anecdotal evidence argues without deviation that play action depends in part on the defense’s perceived need to stop the run. It is possible the defense overestimates that need. That’s another question, not easily answered. It is also possible an offense overestimates its need to run in order to run play action, but that too has not at all been proven.

Each offense has different needs. The ability to cash in a play fake is always going to depend a great deal on the execution of that team’s passing offense. We should not expect a specific and not universally shared definition of “success” to correlate to a specific and not universally shared definition of “value.”

We also can not simply excuse the reasoning of coaches as Baldwin does here:

“At last, we have finally found an avenue through which rushing appears to affect play-action passing: through coaches’ beliefs about how often they can use play-action. (The numbers look fairly similar when looking at neutral game script situations.) While every piece of evidence we have points to those beliefs being misguided -- teams that don’t run at a high rate could also use play-action frequently -- they translate into differences in play-action utilization.”

Baldwin’s assumption seems to be that coaches are being irrational. Calling play action based on a belief that it will be effective because the run game has been effective. Whereas it is far more likely defensive play calling and personnel choices trigger the play action call. Hidden within a post arguing the opposite is evidence of just that.

“During these two weeks, the Seattle Seahawks barely ran the ball (38 rush attempts to 81 combined pass attempts and sacks), and perhaps as a consequence, only used play-action on 12 of 81 dropbacks (15 percent). In subsequent weeks, the Seahawks would become one of the most run-heavy teams in the league. At the same time, they started using play-action frequently.”

While the data might seem overawing and therefore (and I would say quite unfortunately) difficult to not believe, as far as I can tell, it only says this: Success at play action does not correlate to a particular definition of running success, and does not correlate to the frequency of rushing attempts overall or prior to play action. Whereas what we actually need to know is: What does a team need to create an opportunity for play action? And what does a team need to maximize the effectiveness of that opportunity? I’d imagine a good quarterback, good pass blocking and as many good receivers as possible are paramount to the latter, whereas the threat of rushing, however achieved, is paramount to the former question. Maybe a good enough running back or a good enough run game creates a persistent threat of rushing, independent of results. Maybe an opposing defense’s game plan, which may be built around stopping the run, causes the value of rushing to translate into a more effective passing game. &c.

Whatever the case, I am open to the possibility that teams could use play action more frequently, exchanging rush attempts for play fakes, and derive value from that exchange. It is possible. But we do not have access to data from that alternate universe, and it is also possible—especially given the impact of play action, which is to move defenders toward the fake and out of coverage while simultaneously freezing the defensive line and retarding pass rush—that calling play action on more plays, perhaps on plays in which the defense does not seem geared to stop the run, would result in a dramatic erosion of the value of play action.

I am totally okay with Brian Schottenheimer rushing as frequently as he does. If I could construct an offense, I would build the passing offense first, and Seattle has not done this. But given the makeup of this team, and given the sea change in effectiveness from those first few pass-happy iterations to now, it is difficult exceedingly to argue that Seattle is rushing too frequently.

Statisticians have long argued that passing is undervalued. The NFL has listened. Passing frequency is in the midst of a 40-year upswing. Seattle, perhaps incorrectly, has prioritized running the ball. A dearth of receiving threats and a quarterback mostly dependent on his pre-snap read probably have a lot to do with that. But if the Seahawks were right, if after decades of teams emphasizing passing and pass defense, rushing was regaining some of its value, it might look like this:

Courtesy Football Perspective

Fewer attempts; more value.

Let Pete and Schotty chase their folly. The best answer to whether rushing successfully, however defined, positively affects play action is “We don’t know.” Simpler, more rhetorically grand claims are interesting but hardly proven. This Seahawks team will not win aping wider trends. It is anachronistic—maybe outdated and maybe on the threshold of the next big thing.