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Seahawks on tape: Brian Schottenheimer and running backs in the passing game

NFL: SEP 22 Saints at Seahawks

Running backs being more involved in the passing game is a very good thing for the Seattle Seahawks’ offense. In the offseason, there was much consternation over more targets to running backs.

The play is inefficient.

Many also wondered if offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was exaggerating his intentions. However, a quarter of the way into the 2019 season, the more frequent release of running backs into the passing pattern has seen opposing defenses put under great stress.

It’s working for Schotty.

The red zone has been the most immediately obvious impacted area. In his Week 4 presser, Schotty talked about calling plays inside the 20:

“Those plays are always closely game-planned. Teams will change up some down there. But they kinda all have a fingerprint. They all kinda have a finger print of ‘Hey, here’s who they are.’ Like, whereas third down defenses will change sometimes week-to-week, really in the red zone you get kinda a feel, there’s only so many things that they can call.”

Using his information of what the defense is likely to be doing has seen the running back flood the expected zone coverage and cause serious issues for the rules of the defense. In the Week 4 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, the Seahawks faced a 2nd and 9 on the 9-yard line with 10.53 left in the first half. They led 10-3.

The Cardinals were in a red zone version of their cover 2 defense. Schotty described it like this pre-game: “You’re not gonna get cover 2 and even if you do the safeties are different types of 2.”

In most types of “Red 2” versus 2x2 formations like Seattle was in, the safeties will look to locate the #1 receiver if the #2 receiver releases outside.

With Will Dissly running a wheel route, that is exactly what Arizona safety D.J. Swearinger (now cut) did in his deep half. He got his eyes towards #1 receiver Jaron Brown. (Editor’s Note: #1 does not mean “number one” in the sense of the best receiver on a team. It’s formation style.)

Brown, meanwhile, had run a clever post route that stemmed as though it was going to break outwards. This commanded the eyes of the cloud cornerback Byron Murphy.

With Murphy lacking eye discipline, he was slow to get to the wheel of Dissly. But this wouldn’t have mattered if Chris Carson had not run a swing route into the flat. Curl defenders in Red 2 are taught to own the #2 receiver with eyes on the quarterback. That’s what linebacker Jordan Hicks was doing.

However, with Carson in the flat, Hicks was conflicted in a high-low conundrum. Rather than running all the way back with Dissly’s wheel, Hicks passed it off to what he presumed was Murphy’s zone. Hicks then nestled, waiting to break on the throw to Carson.

The end result was a wide open Dissly in the back corner of the end zone, the throwing window made so large by Brown’s intelligent stem and Carson’s conflicting swing route. We can presume that Swearinger failed to communicate that #2 was running a wheel to Murphy too.

In Week 2 on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers, more zone defense was shredded thanks in part due to a Carson swing route. Defending a 1st and 10 up 10-7, the Steelers opted for a 3-deep, 3-under nickel zone blitz. The return motion of Tyler Lockett told Wilson the coverage was zone and highlighted the blitzing slot corner pre-snap.

By running off the deep third cornerback with the go route of Lockett, Seattle was then free to play havoc with the “hot” underneath defenders, Pittsburgh linebackers Mark Barron and Devin Bush. A hot defender on a zone blitz is a player tasked with dropping to a landmark and then playing their designated receiver “hot”, essentially matching them aggressively to remove the “hot” read for the quarterback and therefore enabling the blitz to get home.

Barron was the “hot 2”, tasked with dropping to a seam curl and playing the #2 receiver hot. Bush was a “hot 3”, assigned dropping to the high hole against the 2x2 formation and matching the final 3 receiver. Carson’s presence in the flat commanded the attention of both Barron and Bush

Typically speaking, the running back releasing to the flat from a 2x2 look would make him the final 3 receiver, the responsibility of the hot 3 defender Bush. Yet Barron as the hot 2 defender also came crashing down on the flat, leaving Dissly free in the honey hole of the zone defense. Wilson enjoyed another simple throw for the blitz-beating touchdown.

The above play was a design that got the ball out of Russell Wilson’s hands fast. Wilson has improved in this area in 2019, ranking 12th in time to throw at 2.56 seconds. He has never ranked higher than 16th in TTT or had a lower TTT than 2.65s in his career. Getting the ball out fast is a nice way of targeting a blitz-heavy team like the Steelers, but also an effective measure for overcoming a struggling-in-pass-pro offensive line.

Week 1 at home to the Cincinnati Bengals was a rough first showing for the o-line and the deep play-action game; both were out-schemed and out-played. Thankfully, targeting running backs as the primary option in the passing game was a way of getting the ball out fast too.

Behind by three points, 10-7 with 1.53 left in the 2nd quarter, the Seahawks started their two-minute drill with a chunk of easy yardage. They aligned in a 3x1 11 personnel nub formation that, through a safety being aligned over the tight end, told Wilson the coverage was likely to be man-to-man.

By first shifting Carson to the strongside and then releasing him behind the trips receivers, Seattle flooded the coverage with a quasi-quads look that conflicted the Bengals defense and created easy, simple room. Carson was given a head-start on the linebacker covering him – by the shift, not having to get set, and also by the run-pass assignment that Nick Vigil had.

Wilson knew where he was going with this football immediately. The spatial and assignment advantage of this play, exploiting defensive rules, is best illustrated by Coach Dub Maddox’ HALO system. HALO breaks up the football field into 15 areas of space that can be targeted. Given the defense only has 11 players, there are always at least 4 bubbles of space that are “uncapped” for the offense to attack.

Post-snap the defense can move and shift to change which bubbles of space they are surrendering, but there are still at least 4 always open or “uncapped”. Given the Bengals were in a cover 1 robber pass coverage that looked to cut the crosser, they were run off to the “hard deck” (separates deep versus shallow space by splitting field at seven yards) by the route combination of the trips receivers.

This left massive amounts of outside space for Carson, two bubbles in fact. In addition, the Bengals had tasked their linebacker, Vigil, with two-gapping in the A-Gap. Previously, the other linebacker would probably have handled Carson man-to-man and had less of a run-pass conflict. The shift happened so fast that Cincinnati was unable to adjust their front, and the linebacker was momentarily held by his run gap even though Carson was away—he had to somewhat honor counter action or the more unlikely quarterback run. The result was a simple eight yards, with Vigil missing a massively difficult tackle in cavernous room.

Schottenheimer releasing his running backs into the pattern is a way of stressing defenses that Wilson can enjoy throughout the season. It’s an easy hot read for Wilson to beat blitzes, but also a way of adding conflict that gets receivers open in big space.

Long may it continue.