It’s been one week since fans watched the Seahawks, cocked their heads to the side and said, “I’m angry”. Five days since Pete laughed at me, saying “Get that together, we’ll come back you see”. Three days since the strength room. I realized it’s all Brian’s fault, but couldn’t tell you. Yesterday, you’d forgotten me, but it’ll still be two days ‘til I say . . . scratch that, I’m never saying sorry. Big thanks to the Barenaked Ladies, but this is not a story about forgiveness.
This is not a story with a happy ending. It’s a story about loss and about how even multiple adjustments during the course of the game couldn’t fix the Seattle Seahawks ground game. It’s a story about how trying to out execute a superior opponent with significant portion of the front line injured seems to be a bad idea. I’ll go into more details about this idea sometime later, but for now let’s take a look at the adjustments the Hawks tried.
The most readily apparent thing about the Seahawks attempting to run the ball, or in trying to pass the ball against the Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card game is the simple fact that the Hawks did not spread out wide and attempt to run by stretching out the defense as they had done for much of the season. Here’s a look at the pre-snap alignments on the first four running plays of the game, all four of which were parts that of the two three and outs with which the Seattle offense opened the game.
Then, after having already gone three and out twice to open the game, they finally attempted to spread things out and stretch the field some on the third drive.
Still unsuccessful and still a three and out.
Thus, we move to the team’s first first down of the game, which the Hawks gained through the air. The Seattle offense gained 66 yards on consecutive completions to Ed Dickson and Tyler Lockett, and then promptly returned to the run game. On this series the Hawks attempted, with extremely limited success, to run out of a three tight end formation before trying to run out of two tight end formation.
After this fourth possession led to a field goal, the Hawks had two more possessions before half, with the first starting with just over three minutes remaining in the half. As such, they didn’t attempt to run much on those two possessions. Thus, it seems appropriate to move to the second half at this point.
Having deferred to open the game, Seattle got the ball to start the second half and came out of the locker room once again trying to establish the run. They opened with two straight running plays, which are shown here.
In both of these formations we see them trying to run out of three receiver formations with the tight end a step off the line of scrimmage at the end of the line. Once again, the offense went three and out. On the second drive of the second half they abandoned the first down run, and the result was a nine yard gain.
On this drive they had also made another adjustment, pulling starter Chris Carson in favor of first round draft pick Rashaad Penny. Penny was given the ball on three straight runs, gaining first downs on each of the first two runs, including a 28 yard scamper on the second. That 28 yarder was made possible in large part by Germain Ifedi doing a great job getting to the second level, engaging Sean Lee and then releasing the block before getting called for a holding penalty. However, praising Ifedi for being one of the two best offensive linemen on the team this game is a different story for a different day.
That last play is the ill fated toss to Penny, where the team tried to cram everything in tight, forcing the defense to stuff the box and open up the runs to the outside. This is exactly what Seattle did against the San Francisco 49ers in the Week 13 victory in Seattle, where Penny recorded this touchdown run.
Touchdown Penny!!!!!!! #GoHawks pic.twitter.com/2kHURBz8Cn— Christopher ✌ ☕️✌ (@Harleyriders76) December 2, 2018
Dallas was not fooled.
Unfortunately for Seattle fans watching the game, the toss play against Dallas was emblematic of the problems all game long. There’s no debate that the sweep against the Cowboys was sniffed out and destroyed by Randy Gregory after Ed Dickson whiffed on his block, however, even if Dickson had made the block, the Cowboys had both Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee ready to clean up because neither guard had successfully neutralized their assignments in the second level.
This does not come as a surprise, as both D.J. Fluker and J.R. Sweezy were playing through injury, but that leads to questions about why the Seahawks continued to pursue a rushing strategy in spite of Fluker and Sweezy’s ineffectiveness. Further it leads to the question of why they were on the field if they were so ineffective - are the backup options that much worse that even a hobbled Sweezy and Fluker are better than a healthy Pocic or Hunt?
In any case, here’s the play where, in spite of the fact that it followed a 28 yard run, I lost hope for the run game to ever work on this night because the ineffectiveness of Fluker and Sweezy was on full display.
In that image it’s readily visible that Dickson has whiffed on Gregory. Ifedi is doing a quality job of keeping his man engaged, Justin Britt has been blasted backwards, but is still in position to seal his man off from pursuing Penny to the outside and Duane Brown is pulling and setting his sights on a poor defensive back.
However, it’s apparent that Fluker is not going to get to Sean Lee in order to effectively remove him from the play, while Sweezy is attempting a cut block on Jaylon Smith. Unfortunately for Sweezy, Smith was not playing through a broken bone in his foot, and he is athletic enough to simply jump over Sweezy’s cut. Here is how things look just a moment later.
And then as Gregory starts to wrap up Penny.
There we see both Lee and Smith at the line of scrimmage and moving into the Seahawks backfield, where even if Penny could break away from Gregory, he would be forced to make more defenders miss just to get back to the line of scrimmage.
Obviously, a game is not lost on a single play, but this play is simply emblematic of the bigger problem overall for the Hawks all game against Dallas - the interior of the offensive line was ineffective. Yes, both Sweezy and Fluker were playing through injury, but the coaching staff knew that, and in spite of attempting to run the ball from different formations with different backs against different box counts, they were repeatedly out executed up front. It’s that simple.
One can blame the playcalling for not changing to a more pass based approach since the interior of the line was getting beat all game. Or one can blame the coaching and training staffs for using injured players. Or one can blame the players themselves for failing to execute. At the end of the day it’s a veritable buffet of blame that can be dished out to any of a number of parties.
But the simple fact is that it comes down to execution, and in spite of making adjustments to formations and personnel, the Hawks were out executed by a stout front seven. Which should not be a surprise, because as one observer put it back in August, “You don’t out execute teams with any regularity in the NFL.”
If you can spot this.. Any half decent DC can spot this and so can the players. You don't out execute teams with any regularity in the NFL— Andre Forbes (@andref1989) July 20, 2018
The adjustment that finally saw the ground game get some traction came with three and a half minutes left in the third quarter when the Hawks finally let Russell Wilson carry the football. The Seahawks gained a total of five first downs on running plays in the loss to Dallas, and those were:
- Mike Davis converting on 3rd & 3 with 0:06 left in the 2nd Quarter
- Rashaad Penny converting on 2nd & 1 with 10:34 left in the 3rd Quarter
- Rashaad Penny converting on 1st & 10 with 10:01 left in the 3rd Quarter
- Russell Wilson converting 3rd & 5 with 3:24 left in the 3rd Quarter and
- Russell Wilson scoring a touchdown on 2nd & Goal with 2:03 left in the 3rd Quarter.
The adjustment that worked was unleashing Russell, but as we’ve seen all season, they did not unleash Russell until his contributions were a necessity. They did not start using his legs as a weapon until they were 2-3 and looking at potentially being on the outside looking in come playoff time, and then in individual games they would keep his legs tied together until late in the third quarter. Over half of Russell’s runs during the 2018 season came when there were 20 minutes or less of game left, and that doesn’t seem to be a coincidence.
That was the adjustment that was available not just against Dallas, but all season. The team held off letting Russell run as long as they possibly could, however, and now they are sitting at home this weekend instead of playing in a divisional round playoff game, potentially in part because of a reluctance to make the one adjustment that worked all season long.