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Seahawks on tape: Russell Wilson, Brian Schottenheimer and the cursed switch concept

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 Seattle Seahawks finished as the second-highest scoring offense in team history, behind Mike Holmgren’s 2005 squad. That’s some accomplishment given Pete Carroll’s oft-tight management of games.

With that context, the following moan is going to feel odd, but for Seattle and Brian Schottenheimer to build on this remarkable first-year success they must continue to adapt and evolve. The Seahawks could start by completing a switch concept. Right now, their lack of success—with what could and should be a mightily effective play design—feels cursed.

The idea behind a switch concept is simple: It’s a two-receiver route combination that aims to generate confusion for a defense. Against man coverage, there is a rub-like element that creates natural separation. Versus zone, rules are stressed. For the quarterback, the pattern provides a coverage identifier and a simple two-read progression. One of the receivers will be open; it’s just picking the correct one.

Seattle runs their switch with the inside receiver running a wheel-type route and the outside receiver running a hitch or post—depending on the leverage of defenders. Using play-action and heavier protection to give Wilson the time to execute, Schottenheimer’s version of switch has been there for the taking. Yet the Seahawks keep messing it up.

Week 9: Seahawks v Chargers

The troubles with the play first became apparent to me on a positive gain for Seattle. This was a game where Wilson missed a few play-action openings after early pressure scrambled his clock and resulted in some premature dropping of eyes to the rush.

The Seahawks lined up in 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends and 2 wide receivers) and shifted Tyler Lockett pre-snap into the slot. The Chargers responded with base personnel, 8 in the box and a single-high safety. This gave Seattle a clear two-versus-two on the wide receiver side of the formation.

Wilson faked the handoff to Rashaad Penny and immediately looked to his two receivers, after both tight ends—George Fant and Nick Vannett—stayed in to pass protect. This gave Wilson a beautiful passing lane and lots of time to read the concept.

Los Angeles matched this by having their buzz defender run deep with Lockett’s wheel. That left Doug Baldwin’s inside nestling route open underneath and inside the over the top coverage but behind the linebackers. For Wilson, it would have been a marginally tight window throw, but it was the natural progression from Lockett’s route.

Instead, the quarterback made a sound decision to check it down to the flat. Given that Lockett had run off the flat defender, Penny was in plenty of room to catch-and-run for the first down plus more on the 2nd and 6.

In an isolated situation this was a perfectly good play, but it’s what happened next.

Week 12: Seahawks @ Panthers

Three weeks later in their glorious victory over the Carolina Panthers, the Seahawks came out in an 11-personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end and 3 wide receivers) shotgun formation. As a reminder, in this game the Panthers kept moving men who looked like they were in coverage into the box and into run blitzes. The defense’s single-high safety and 8 near the box hinted at an approach that subscribed to such thinking.

Carolina ran a form of cover 3, bringing box safety Mike Adams on a green dog pressure after Fant pass protected from the in-line tight end spot. It was Adams’ rush that pushed Fant wide. Fant coped well with it, but Wilson’s process appeared to become hurried by this and J.R. Sweezy being pushed back slightly.

The passer has massively improved his pocket presence and navigation, but here he unnecessarily rushed things despite having a clear passing lane. Rather than executing the designed read progression from Baldwin to the wide-open David Moore, Wilson locked on to Baldwin’s wheel. He threw the ball incomplete down the sideline, rather than reading Moore free underneath James Bradberry’s defense.

To Wilson, the Panthers looked like they were in cover 1 and he naturally liked the perceived one-on-one Baldwin’s wheel faced. But Bradberry’s nestling over the top enabled the corner to double-cover Baldwin once Wilson triggered. The two inside linebackers were occupied by the quasi-run-fake. No one was making a play on Moore.

Just a tad more patience and coverage diagnosis were required here. If Baldwin was the primary, Moore needed to occupy the attention of the cornerback by better pressing vertically in his route.

Week 15: Seahawks @ 49ers

The past two examples featured excellent pass protection. This one from Week 15 on the road in Santa Clara does not. The Seahawks faced 8 in the box and a single-high safety. They fully slid their protection from 12 personnel to create space for Wilson to the right after a wide zone fake to Mike Davis.

The issue with this was that San Francisco green dogged the defender responsible for Ed Dickson. (This was Robert Saleh’s best-called game of the year) Once Dickson had downblocked, box safety Marcell Harris was free to attack Wilson’s bootleg rollout from the shotgun. The switch concept, well covered by the 49ers, had zero chance of success and Wilson had to throw the ball away.

Week 17: Seahawks v Cardinals

Perhaps teams are catching up to the way Seattle wants to run their switch. Last Sunday, the Cardinals’ secondary had a solid plan for it. In cover 1 defense, slot cornerback David Amerson and outside cornerback Patrick Peterson switched their assignments.

As Baldwin ran inside, Amerson picked him up in man. Peterson took the outside running Lockett. Still, Wilson read this change in responsibilities brilliantly. Cover 1 seems like his favorite defense to dissect.

He opted to pass to Baldwin, who twisted Amerson up. Frustratingly, Wilson couldn’t connect with Baldwin. The usage of 12 personnel and max-protect gave Wilson the time to read the concept and get his throw off, despite the arriving pressure of Antoine Bethea. Perhaps Baldwin should have caught the pass—you know he would expect to—but the throw was low and away from him.

It must work soon…right?

As illustrated, there isn’t a sole person to blame for the failures of the switch concept so far. Schottenheimer doesn’t call the design often, probably because Seattle seems so terribly ineffective at taking the opportunities it creates. It feels like it must be due to work for the Seahawks soon, right?

Schotty should keep sprinkling the switch concept into the gameplan, because the effective max-protect, play-action concept takes advantage of the one-on-ones presented by 12 personnel and a running identity. It’s time for Seattle to capitalize on the opening just in time for the playoffs.