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Seahawks on tape: Robert Saleh slowed Russell Wilson with disguised two-high coverages

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Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The box score says Russell Wilson had a solid game against the San Francisco 49ers. Completing 23 of 31 passes for 237 yards and 2 touchdowns is nice reading. Indeed, the bigger issue for the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday was the defense. And they were still only a missed PAT away from winning the game in normal time.

Yet the 49ers had intelligent gameplans on both side of football. The under pressure Robert Saleh employed various coverage concepts that slowed Wilson’s process and made the signal caller play with a distrust that damaged the passing game. Once a member of Pete Carroll’s training school, the former padawan caused “I HATE YOU” Anakin Skywalker pain to his old Jedi master.

The defensive coordinator’s deployment of triple stud variations, Tampa-2, match quarters and two-high cover-3 brought out the quarterback’s weaknesses. Like chocolate’s impact on a greasy adolescent’s skin; it was spotty. Brian Schottenheimer’s adjustments presented openings, but Wilson—slowed earlier—appeared to not trust what he was seeing. Let’s get to the tape.

Triple stud

In the first encounter with the Seahawks, Saleh was gashed running cover-3 matching concepts like three mable. It was clearly apparent that this is what Wilson wanted to face heading into the second match-up. Saleh denied him that opportunity right from kickoff.

In the following example, Schottenheimer faced a 3rd and 7 with 5:39 left in the first quarter. He aligned the offense in a gun trips formation via 11 personnel (1 RB-1 TE-3 WR). Saleh responded with nickel personnel; his two linebackers sugared the a-gaps. The single-high safety look pre-snap would have encouraged Wilson that he was going to face a preferred coverage.

Instead, Saleh rotated his other safety high post-snap. San Francisco ran their version of triple stud. We’ve covered this pass coverage from Seattle’s perspective in a previous iteration of Seahawks on tape. I’ve long suspected, after much tape grinding and “my wife left me” moments, that both Seattle and the 49ers don’t have the exact same rules as Nick Saban when it comes to the style of pass defense.

This was confirmed to me by Scott Geelan, an expert on San Francisco’s scheme. There are still matching rules, but it’s looser than Saban’s triple stud and “clamp”. For instance, Richard Sherman played more of a “read” assignment on this 3rd and long. This saw him drop into a deep quarter rather than jump on Tyler Lockett’s quick out route—as clamp rules would dictate.

Lockett’s pattern into the flats formed part of one Schottenheimer’s favorite concepts from the past few weeks: stick. Doug Baldwin’s stick route was the primary read for Wilson; the 49ers took this away with two defenders. Their slot defender, D.J. Reed—rather than fully clamping—went to a hook at the sticks (an example of San Francisco’s variation) that had him cover Baldwin. Meanwhile, Fred Warner was tasked with matching Baldwin’s route vertically.

Seeing Baldwin double covered and the two-high safety spin, Wilson may well have thought the coverage was a cover-2 that had Lockett dealt with too. Still, it was strange to see Wilson not execute the natural read progression; he locked on to Baldwin, never even glancing at Lockett. With Sherman occupied by David Moore’s go route, Lockett had catch-and-run room. Perhaps Wilson decided pre-snap not to test Sherman?

Instead, faced with the initially disguised two-high defense, Wilson decided to check the ball down to Chris Carson over the middle. Wilson must have sensed time running out, but a progression to Lockett would have required few additional milliseconds. The decision forced the Seahawks to punt.


In truth, the above coverage could be more of a Tampa 2-style defense—shaded towards the trips side. With one second left in the first quarter, Saleh called a pass coverage that felt more like a creative Tampa-2 pressure. Seattle’s bad 3rd and 10 situation enabled this.

Schottenheimer put the Seahawks in another 11 personnel trips formation—though on this occasion tight end Ed Dickson aligned to the trips side and David Moore was isolated on the backside. As Baldwin shifted into the slot, the 49ers once more showed a single-high safety. Their three down linemen look in the 3-3-5 had four second level players looking ready to tee off in two-point stances. Pre-snap, Wilson likely expected a type of cover-3 blitz.

San Francisco was deceitful again though. On the trips side, they sent their big nickel Reed from the slot. Behind this, they played conventional Tampa-2, with Sherman taking his hook to the sticks. Their three linebackers dropped into Tampa-2 style zones. To the isolated Moore, the 49ers pretty much played man-to-man.

Nevertheless, Schottenheimer adjusted well for such trickery. Layering off his stick concept, he had Baldwin’s stem look very similar. Rather than run a stick route though, Baldwin ran a crossing route. This was the perfect call to beat the Tampa-2, as it forced linebacker Warner to run with the route over the middle of the field. This was a great one-on-one mismatch for the Seahawks. Dickson picked up the blitzing Reed with little issue. Lockett and Moore occupied the corners on out routes. Baldwin only had to beat Warner.

And then Wilson blew it. Maybe it was the twist up front that spooked him (Mike Davis picked this up well). He had plenty of room and time in the pocket to hit Baldwin but was frightened by pass rushers who weren’t close to arriving. As Baldwin came wide open after cutting across the field, Wilson had already decided to run to where the actual pressure came from.

Wilson probably felt Elijah Lee was going to keep dropping underneath Baldwin’s route. However, there was no deep safety on that side of the field, given the way San Francisco had matched the pattern. Schottenheimer’s design worked, Wilson just didn’t process it.

By running towards the pressure, Wilson shortened his available time considerably and made only one route available. As Wilson vacated the pocket, Sherman sagely flattened the improvisation of Lockett and Wilson threw the ball away. This was another opportunity wasted. Saleh’s disguise befuddled Wilson into a missed 3rd and long.

Speed bootleg brainfart

There isn’t much more to be said about this play. The main difference in the game was the 49ers playing assignment sound football on defense, whereas Seattle made numerous mistakes—more on this in the next Seahawks on tape.

Wilson overthought this play. All he needed was a yard. San Francisco camped well in the flats and caused dire hesitation for Wilson in throwing to Carson. He didn’t notice the open wheel of Tre Madden downfield after taking too long to dump the ball to the flat—surely this was a simple low-high read of Sherman?

Wilson’s hesitation in releasing the ball to the flat led to a near disastrous attempt to a well covered Jaron Brown over the middle of the field. This was a terrible failure to convert on 3rd and 1. Again: the play-design worked. Again: was Wilson scared of Sherman?

Cover-3 cloud/quarters

The previous play was a cover 1/3 warped by the short yardage situation and reaction to the bootleg. Throughout the game, Saleh didn’t solely run cover 2/4 coverages. Of course, cover-3 was featured! Saleh just did it less obviously with some aggressive rules. Really, it played out more like quarters.

Versions of the Y-Cross concept are what Schottenheimer and Wilson love in the passing game. Nonetheless, through capable linebacker coverage and some forced missed opportunities, the 49ers were able to contain it early. Schottenheimer’s solution was to use play-action to remove the linebackers from getting underneath the crosser.

Seattle’s 20 personnel I-formation on 2nd and 12 trailing 17-13 saw Saleh respond with a cover-2 man look. This was—to borrow cockney rhyming slang--another porky-pie from San Francisco’s defensive playcaller.

Following the snap, Wilson faked the handoff to Carson. This halted the linebackers from getting depth in their hooks. But the 49ers were playing what matched into a cover-3 cloud zone, not cover-2 man. This placed Sherman, Antone Exum and Marcell Harris in deep matching shells. The corner to the single receiver side, Moore, played the “buzz” role (hook-curl, buzz to flat).

This initially two-high look slowed Wilson and highlighted how quickly he gives up on a play if his pre-snap indicator doesn’t materialize. Baldwin’s crossing route is open in behind the linebackers, even with Exum matching it aggressively over the top.

Wilson, though, seemed to think that he was facing another Tampa-2 and that Warner would drop deep to get underneath Baldwin. The quarterback rapidly checked the ball down to Carson. He had time to process the coverage and hit the open Baldwin.

Schottenheimer moving forward

Saleh had a crafty game against the Seahawks, Schottenheimer and Wilson. His positioning of linebackers at the line of scrimmage combined with his disguised coverages made life tricky despite the overall lack of talent on San Francisco’s defense.

Moving forward, Schottenheimer’s concepts do still work. He, of course, needs to keep adjusting in-game and adding more layers. But he’s done a solid job of that this season, while maintaining a clear identity that has seen the attack tie in with a head coach’s goals and produce an ultra-efficient quarterback.

Finding a way to halt linebackers from getting underneath the favored crossing route is tricky, other than play-action. Wilson’s height limits the threat of shallow crossing routes considerably and, frankly, you’re approaching a different concept when you start talking shallow crossers anyway.

Wilson is a top five quarterback who, like any passer, has his flaws. Well disguised coverages will make every signal-caller uncomfortable. Fortunately, Schottenheimer has proved effective at providing numerous pre-snap coverage indicators which lessen defensive camouflage.

Wilson’s development behind Mike Solari’s offensive line has been remarkable in both its quickness and its extent. He will still act skittish though, particularly when a third string right guard is playing. Learning to wait on concepts a bit longer still has room for growth, but we must learn to accept that processing a defense after the snap is a weakness of Wilson’s that will see him slowed by intelligent schemers.