The first year of an offensive coordinator is supposed to be wrought with regression and acclimatization issues. Just look at the data. And yet, with game 13 approaching, Russell Wilson’s maiden season with Brian Schottenheimer calling plays looks to be a career-best.
Having just turned 30 and playing his seventh campaign, the signal caller is flourishing behind Mike Solari’s fantastically transformed offensive line. Nowhere was this more apparent than the comfortable win over the San Francisco 49ers. The 7-5 Seahawks have a potent attack.
Particularly striking was the way in which Schottenheimer broke the coverage laws of Robert Saleh. With Saleh’s scheme largely mirroring Pete Carroll’s, you would’ve been forgiven for thinking Wilson’s success was guaranteed. However, despite facing a version of the defense every practice, Russell has historically struggled against similar teams.
He thrived against the 49ers though. Schottenheimer’s usage of personnel, trips formations and route combinations shattered the cover 3 rules of Saleh. Mable and skate were dealt with. Schotty out-adjusted his opposing tactician. Finally, coverage identifiers were given to Wilson at the goalline. Let’s get to the tape of the San Francisco dissection. (Free band name)
Throwback Wheel Against Nickel Mable
Seattle’s opening drive stalled early with a run, run, run sequence that saw the Seahawks go three and out. On the next drive, the offense redeemed themselves by faking the handoff. Off that, Schottenheimer drew up a euphoric throwback wheel on 2nd and 6.
Seattle achieved this via 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end and 3 wide receivers). The 49ers responded to the trips bunch singleback formation with nickel personnel and 7 in the box for 6 Seahawks blockers. Seattle putting their tight end as part of the trips side ensured San Francisco would regard the right side of the offense as the strongside—whether they were lining up off box strength or receiver strength.
The 49ers decided to run a common Carroll-style defense against trips: cover 3 mable. “Mable” is a Saban word; the coverage is certainly called something different in the Seahawks and San Francisco playbooks. Still, the rules are very similar to the Saban drawings below:
In mable, the down safety—the safety closer to the line of scrimmage—is aligned on the strongside. In this instance, that man was rookie safety Marcell Harris. As Wilson performed the inside run-fake to Chris Carson, the offensive line executed a full slide to buy him plenty of time in protection.
Harris, responsible for a typical hook zone, got sucked into the play-fake hard after spinning downwards late pre-snap. Part of the reason Harris bit so aggressively was the way tight end Darrell Daniels stayed in to block. Wide receiver Jaron Brown appeared to move as though he was downblocking too.
Brown’s movement inside and shallow saw him get lost by the man assigned to take all crossers to the “zero” side of this defense. (On the backside, there is no deep zone as the corner is in man-to-man with the isolated receiver)
ROBOT defender Fred Warner instead dropped deep and turned to look for the yankee crosser run by Tyler Lockett, after wrongly reading that his primary responsibility—to rob and get underneath crossers from the trips side—wasn’t required. Wilson’s eyes also fooled him. The QB was helped by the fact that a staple Seahawks play fake is a full slide and bootleg with the tight end pass protecting to hit a two- or three-level route design.
Lost by the over-the-top defense, Brown started to release upfield on his wheel route unabated deep, after Lockett’s over route was followed by the man-to-man of weak corner Ahkello Witherspoon. The reason Brown was so wide open was due to Malcolm Smith’s underneath layer of coverage vanishing too.
That was because Smith’s responsibility on this play was to match any release to his side from the running back. As Carson leaked into the flat, Smith crashed down. Wilson lofted a nicely placed throwback—completely against the defensive flow and coverage strength.
The quarterback intentionally underthrew the ball, removing any chance for the deep middle third safety Jaquiski Tartt to make a crazy play. The 49ers executed their assignments just how the playbook and coaches would teach them. Yet Schottenheimer’s concept wrecked it.
Deep Crosser Against Base Skate
While Schotty guaranteed the strongside on the previous play by positioning his tight end on the trips side, this time he guaranteed a match-up to target through his personnel usage. On this 1st and 20, he plumped for 12 (1 running back, 2 tight ends and 2 wide receivers) in another trips bunch formation. This forced San Francisco into base (3 linebackers and just 4 defensive backs).
Nick Vannett and Daniels ran vertical routes designed to occupy the 49ers’ zone defense. Rather than going for mable again, San Francisco picked “skate”. Skate is the exact same as mable other than the down safety’s position. In skate, rather than the down safety being on the strongside he aligns to the weakside.
Again, a linebacker was left responsible for any deep crosser from the trips side. On this occasion, that responsibility fell to Smith. Though the coverage was well equipped to deal with a three-level strongside flood, it put Smith in a nightmare direct match-up with Lockett’s deep crosser—the deep safety fully occupied by the other verticals.
The protection in the pocket for Wilson was fantastic, giving him time to wait for Lockett’s route to develop. As Wilson flashed his improved pocket navigation skills, moving upwards, he sensed pressure starting to arrive.
However, rather than ducking his eyes to the rush, Wilson kept his eyes firmly downfield. Having spotted the one-on-one mismatch of Smith desperately trailing Lockett, Wilson attacked. As the ball travelled through the air, Lockett subtly (enough) created separation from tight coverage with a crafty, three-year vet push off. The result was a long touchdown.
Fake Screen Against Skate Adjustment
The issue of both mable and skate requiring a linebacker to run with a vertical route from the trips side to the backside is apparent to all coaches. Every coverage, every defense and every scheme has a weakness, but measures can be taken to reduce the strain certain limitations present.
One such measure is aligning the down safety at the weakside linebacker position—making him the one to run with the crosser. Of course, Seattle has Bobby Wagner and Barkevious Mingo, both who are brilliant coverage linebackers. Plus, Austin Calitro has shown rapid improvement in this area. Yet, in a match-up league, even the Seahawks have put Bradley McDougald at weakside linebacker to get better crosser coverage.
Another adjustment to the weaknesses is one we saw Saleh resort to at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Rather than having his down safety take the running back if Carson decided to run to the weakside, Saleh instead—influenced by Carson being on the strongside of the formation—had Harris play a weak hook curl shell.
If we are looking for a name for this coverage, it’s more like 3 weak buzz. Harris in his weak hook curl continued going deeper into his intermediate looking for work. His primary purpose was to take away any crosser from the other side of the field. This freed up inside backer Smith to match Carson.
Wilson, following a fake receiver screen that halted the linebackers and forced pass rush patience, looked first at Daniels. But the man-1/3 zone coverage of Witherspoon remained disciplined and locked the go route up. Harris’ weak hook and Tartt’s middle third saw Doug Baldwin nestle rather than continue a deep crosser.
To Wilson’s right edge and after two reads, Germain Ifedi was finally beat deep. Remaining calm, Wilson moved up and right beautifully. Brown’s deep route to the front corner of the endzone had Richard Sherman open his hips to run and try squeeze the route towards the sideline.
Sherman initially had been drawn to Baldwin’s route in the seam, meaning he was forced to flip to face the sideline and Brown. As Sherman hurried to Brown, he assumed the receiver would keep running to the back corner. Then Brown cut across his face. The rolling right Wilson hit the improvised late slant for the touchdown.
Was Sherman beat? Well, Wilson took roughly six seconds to fire the bullet—a tough assignment for any cornerback. Still, I’m opting for a resounding “yes!” given the route was in Sherman’s zone and he read it wrong.
Pick Concept Against Man Free
Returning to the second quarter provides us with an example of Schottenheimer’s boldness. Passing on the one-yard line on third down after running the previous two occasions would be crucified if the result was an incompletion. “WHAT WAS THE POINT IN A RUNNING IDENTITY?! FIRE SCHOTTY!!!”
Instead, Schottenheimer flexed on his haters. (Honestly, it’s bizarre how much an effective playcaller is snarkily memed, criticized and scapegoated by a section of this fanbase)
Schotty provided Wilson with a facile task. He started with Carson split out wide. The fact that linebacker Warner aligned over the running back told Wilson the coverage was man. As Carson moved into the backfield to help with protection, he was followed by Warner. This was just further confirmation of the man coverage; the single-high safety revealed it to be man free (cover 1).
Schotty, therefore, had his twins receivers run a pick concept. Lockett set a slight obstacle with a spot route inside. Baldwin ran a flat route. On his release, Baldwin did a great job being physical and fighting through the contact of the jam.
Getting off the press coverage of slot corner K’Waun Williams quickly, Baldwin came wide open on the outside. The seven-man protection bought Wilson enough time to quickly fire in his third touchdown pass—on just his sixth attempt of the game.
A major objective for Schottenheimer following his arrival was to develop Wilson as a pocket passer. At this point, to say Schottenheimer is succeeding is an understatement. Issues that reappeared midway through the season—such as ducking eyes to the rush and appearing skittish—have been vanquished once more.
The remarkable turnaround of the pass protection by Solari plus the implementation of a strong running game has been a major reason for this. But it’s clear that Schotty is developing Wilson as a quarterback and holding him responsible for his errors. The pre-season talk of accountability wasn’t classic coach-speak. We are witnesses to its fantastic truthfulness.
Schottenheimer completely out-coached Saleh, a man who might land back in Seattle given the number of 49ers fans asking for his head. The offensive coordinator has out-adjusted numerous coaches throughout the season.
Rather than getting overly cute, Schottenheimer finds smart match-ups and understands how to beat different types of defense. His success and clear identity proves there are other effective approaches to attacking teams, rather than Sean McVay or Andy Reid having the only acceptable schematic tactics.
Wilson is going to break his single-season touchdown record—he’s currently 5 off his highest total. His passer rating of 115.5 currently places fourth in the NFL and it’s rising after a difficult first two games. Wilson’ll finish some way off his season-high yardage, but performance-wise 2018 is undoubtedly a career-best year.
The pocket navigation and presence on short, intermediate and deep targets is staggering. The longevity of Wilson’s career as an elite quarterback is burgeoning. The way the Seahawks’ offense looks right now, Seattle is a dastardly wildcard team for anyone to face.