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Seahawks on tape: Schottenheimer’s Tight Formation Spacing

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NFL and Matty Brown

Brian Schottenheimer has received some early criticism this season. Some of that has been deserved; particularly the play-calling on Monday Night Football against the Chicago Bears, which was a mess not helped by Pete Carroll’s interference.

But, with less of Carroll’s meddling, Week 3 against the Dallas Cowboys appeared to be better. The Seattle Seahawks played with a coherent offensive identity that matched their offseason moves, and attempted to fulfill their stated goals for 2018.

It was a run-heavy performance, with the Seahawks handing off 39 times for a paltry 2.9 yards per carry. However, what really impressed and stood out as something that Seattle should do more of was the way Schottenheimer deployed tight receiver splits in formations.

With tempo versus zone

The effectiveness of this was made most obvious on Jaron Brown’s touchdown. The score’s tied 0-0 with 9:37 left in the second quarter. Wilson, having just converted a 3rd and 10 on a 19-yard gain to Chris Carson in the flat, hurries to the line.

(His usage of tempo as a weapon was far better this game; the Seahawks should continue to utilize this.)

They align quickly in an under center doubles formation with two wingbacks. By going tight, they have the same 11 personnel (1 RB—1 TE—3 WR) on the field. Nonetheless, the alignment congests the defense’s nickel personnel into putting eight men in the box. The two extra gaps the wingbacks create—from which you can wham, crackback to outflank or split zone in the run game—have to be accounted for by the defense in terms of run fits.

(This was a favorite of Jim Harbaugh, and Sean McVay loves these kinds of formations.)

That therefore restricts the defense to a one-high safety. Furthermore, Wilson can quickly key things like a one-high safety. This is due to the crowded nature of the formation, reducing the area to scan pre-snap. The ramifications are the quarterback can get the snap off even quicker. Wilson can easily spot the one-high safety, diagnosing the coverage as cover-1 or cover-3. At a similar time, the leverage of the defenders against the tight formation tells Wilson that the coverage is going to be cover-3.

The snap ends up happening before the defense is properly aligned on the back end, giving the receivers an additional head start. They already have an advantage, because there is more room towards the sideline to run and establish leverage.

In cover-3, the outside cornerback has more horizontal grass to cover to get to his deep-third landmark. That sees the boundary corner widen, and Jaron Brown’s seam route come open up the hash. Xavier Woods, the deep middle safety, is already playing catch up after trying to get the coverage set in time. He’s left in a bind because there is another seam route in his zone, from David Moore up the opposite hash.

Brown slows well in the honey hole between the two deep-third zones. It’s an easy touchdown for Wilson, with the coverage uncomplicated to simplify run fits for the defense. If the coverage had been man, Wilson would have hit one of the switch-release wheels outside.

With normal paced play-action versus man

Tight formations are more likely to get defenses in zone coverage rather than man, because they require extra defenders to be involved in the box run fit.

A man coverage assignment puts a defender in direct conflict of his run responsibility. He can be run off, or he can be slow to fit his gap in the box.

This differs from zone where, in an underneath zone, the defender can read step and come down with more confidence, as he isn’t matched one-on-one with a receiver who he mustn’t let behind him on a pass.

Playing man on the wingbacks and everyone tight, like in the previously covered example, would be risky due to the possibility of jet motion and switch releases. Nevertheless, there are other instances where defenses do elect to run man against tight formations.

Seattle comes out in a gun doubles formation with 12 personnel on the field—just three plays before Brown’s touchdown. On the nine first downs they’ve had so far, seven have been hand-offs to a running back.

The defense again pops eight men in the box to deal with the two additional gaps the duo of tight ends creates. Their leverage on the pair of tight ends is forced into an outside shade, due to the defensive ends needing room to line up.

The Cowboys opt to go with a press cover-1, the two defenders over the tight ends presumably jamming and then keying on whether they need to fill the alley (D-gap) or not. This time they are in base 4-3 personnel, meaning Nick Vannett gets matched up against linebacker Damien Wilson.

The smash concept Schottenheimer calls is ideal for beating this man-free defense. However, Wilson, rather than looking to the mismatch Vannett faces first, instead chooses Will Dissly as his primary target.

That’s understandable given the early chemistry the two have enjoyed, except Dissly struggles to separate against the jam of safety Jeff Heath. Unfortunately for Wilson, it’s at this point the beating left guard J.R. Sweezy is handed by Tyrone Crawford starts to cause pressure.

That leaves the quarterback unable to step into the throw, so the ball sails over the wide open Vannett incomplete. An opening is slammed shut. That said, it was there and initially bright:

Keep employing tight formations

The effects of tight formations on the passing game that we haven’t yet seen are: The array of rub opportunities; the way that mesh isn’t telegraphed with a reduced split from one receiver; the shorter time it takes for receivers to run over and across linebackers off play-action; and the fully-opened route tree for outside receivers with multi-directional potential.

So, tight formations really should be employed more often by Schottenheimer. They ease Wilson’s job as a quarterback, blend well with tempo and fit nicely with the running philosophy. More please!