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Neanderball: The Niners did it better

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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of my last Neanderball column, I told you all that I’d be following up with a piece on the Seahawks’ pass coverage against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I also hinted that said pass coverage was a much bigger problem than our lemon of a defensive line, and promised that things were going to get spicy.

And you’d better believe I’m delivering.

I won’t keep you in suspense, either: It’s all Ken Norton Jr.’s fault. Not every yard the Buccaneers gained, of course, and not every defensive error. But Neanderball is a hunt through a wilderness of game tape for a slithering beast at the heart of Seattle’s problems, and this week I’m coming back to the Field Gulls village dragging KNJ’s pass coverage scheme behind me.

And Now For The Hot Sauce

The Seahawks couldn’t hold Winston under 300 yards, allowed him two touchdowns, and didn’t sack or intercept him once, but watching the defensive game tape, it’s often difficult to be sure what should have been done differently. The line between pointing out correctable error and demanding the impossible of a secondary tasked with covering a two-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro like Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans is hard to find.

So, just in time for rivalry week with the despised Santa Clara 49ers and their recently-loaded bandwagon of internet trolls energetic fans, I present this evidence-backed explanation of our failure to slow down the Buccaneers’ passing game - using the Niners’ dominant defensive performance against Tampa Bay in Week 1 as a comparison.

In a game the 49ers won 31-17, the NFC’s current first seed held Jameis Winston to 194 yards passing and a lone TD, while sacking or intercepting him six times, including two turnovers returned for touchdowns. We can (and probably should) hate the Niners, but we can also learn something from them - about what our defense can do better, and perhaps what to expect on Monday, when disgruntled former Seattle employee Richard Sherman jogs out onto the field and does his level best to kill the “Russ for MVP” campaign in its cradle.

Eliminating Plan “A”

Bill Belichick, widely considered the NFL’s top defensive mind, is famous for scheming to take away the opposing offense’s favorite weapon. Since erasing a team’s top player usually leaves a hole somewhere else in the defensive scheme, you can beat the Patriots if you can win using your Plan B. 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh invited Bruce Arians to beat San Francisco if he could do it without Mike Evans - who was held to two catches on five targets for 28 yards.

Evans is the receiver we should all hope DK Metcalf grows up to be. He’s 6’5, 231 pounds, and most of that body is big hands, long arms and longer legs. He runs like a gazelle. Beginning with his first college football start in 2012 and continuing after his seventh overall draft selection in 2014, Evans has never had a season in his football career in which he’s racked up less than 1,000 yards. He is God’s own prototype of an outside receiver, and very much Plan A in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive scheme.

Early in the broadcast, you might have heard whichever football luminary had the mic inform the audience that it simply isn’t possible to win NFL games by double-covering Evans, because Jameis Winston will just find 2017 3rd-round selection Chris Godwin instead. While it’s true that Godwin is also good at football, he’s not Evans-sized, Evans-fast, or otherwise on Evans’ level. He is, in other words, Plan B, and forcing Winston to throw to receivers like Godwin for 90 yards instead of to Evans for 180 yards is precisely how you win in the NFL.

San Francisco couldn’t blanket Evans with bodies on every play, but when they did, the results were impressive:

By comparison, the Seahawks double-covered Evans rarely if ever, and Bruce Arians wrung 180 yards receiving and a TD from Plan A:

Chewing Up the Cushions

My previous description of Mike Evans’ talents may have drawn your attention to what an immensely difficult job NFL cornerbacks have. Faced with the task of preventing people who are very talented at catching a football from making said catch, cornerbacks have a few options. They can get close to the receiver before the snap and try to stay on the receiver’s hip throughout the route, but this risks the receiver torching the cornerback with pure downfield speed, leaving the cornerback chasing helplessly behind.

They can also jam the receiver at the line of scrimmage, hoping to physically disrupt the receiver’s attempted route - but this can backfire if the receiver avoids contact or easily fights through it, leaving the cornerback flat-footed and once again chasing after their assignment.

The final option is to provide the receiver a cushion at the snap: A gift of around 5-10 yards that allows the receiver to perhaps catch a very short uncontested pass, but in return gives the cornerback a better opportunity to stay with the receiver near the top of their route. The length of turf the cornerback surrenders is a calculation that combines an estimate of how fast the receiver can run and a guess at how deep downfield the receiver intends to go on that play. As the receiver releases from the line of scrimmage, the cornerback will allow the receiver to chew through the cushion while gradually matching their own vector to the receiver’s, ideally ending up on the receiver’s hip just as the receiver reaches the critical part of their route.

The 49ers’ cornerbacks often chose to give the athletic Bucs receivers a cushion, and their technique seemed flawless. Note as you watch how the pass coverage created problems (including a turnover) further up the production line:

Stick-to-it-iveness

Of course, sometimes defending a pass is as straightforward as plastering yourself to the receiver from snap to whistle and making as big a nuisance of yourself as possible. It’s a method of pass coverage so primeval that anybody who remembers high school gym class is familiar with it.

After this week’s film review, I suspect that tight pass coverage, however achieved, has more benefits than just putting a defensive back in position to make a play on the ball. It seemed to me like Jameis Winston throws passes that are more difficult for his receivers to catch when his intended receiver has a defender clinging to him, perhaps in an effort to put the ball in a place where only the receiver can catch it.

I’m also left in no doubt that Winston hesitates to throw and grows visibly anxious when faced with tightly recovered receivers, which increases the likelihood of Winston throwing the ball away, scrambling, making a bad decision, or giving the pass rush time to get home.

Playing Scared

Now that the image of how the league’s second-best defense handled the Buccaneers is fresh in your mind, let’s jump into the Seattle footage.

You will immediately notice that our defensive backs are surrendering an astonishing amount of real estate pre-snap, especially Tre Flowers. You’ll also notice that where the Niners DBs chewed up the cushion they initially granted Bucs receivers, Seahawks DBs tended to maintain those cushions throughout the route, often leaving them 3-5 yards away from the receiver when Winston released the pass.

Finally, you’ll notice our safeties often playing very deep - not just setting up deep and then decisively breaking on a route post-snap, but staying deep throughout the play. While I suppose that tactic prevents back-breaking 40-yard completions, it often leaves one or both of our safeties too deep to make a play on anything short of a 40-yard pass, or perform various other mundane tasks like rotating down to cover for a blitzing linebacker or corner.

All of this made life very easy on Winston, and it made Buccaneers plays very efficient: Catch the snap, drop back, see the open receiver, hit the open receiver. Winston makes bad decisions when he’s forced to make any at all, but if the intended receiver is open where and how they’re supposed to be, that’s not going to stress his crisis reasoning, or force him to delay or abandon the throw.

A New Hope

Near the end of the first half, on the drive following Tampa Bay’s third touchdown, the Bucs ran the ball for no gain on first down and then set Mike Evans up they way they like him best: Isolated against Flowers on the perimeter. But this time, Flowers changed it up: He stayed tight to Evans the whole way through Evans’ crossing route. The pass fell incomplete. Winston didn’t throw a very good football, but the timing is conspicuous: The first time all game Flowers attempted to cover Evans tightly, the Buccaneers’ passing game suddenly threw a track.

So I started looking for instances where Seattle defenders did glom onto their receivers instead of treating them like fine china, and what I found was that (i) when our cornerbacks felt free to stick directly to Tampa receivers, they all of a sudden looked pretty good. Not perfect, of course, but far better, and (ii) somebody on the sidelines agreed with me, because as the game went on, I started noticing tight coverage far more often.

The defensive roster isn’t perfect, but it has too much talent for the sad-sack results it’s offering up this year. Others with more experience breaking down defensive game tape may spot more player errors, but to my eye, the issues against the Buccaneers were mostly schematic. Since I praise Brian Schottenheimer when the Seahawks perform well on offense, I’ll stay consistent and put defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. in a chokehold for Seattle performing poorly on defense. Whatever his playbook looked like last Sunday, I hope he’s spent this week tearing the pages out one by one and feeding them into the shredder.

The Seahawks play substantially better football when the defense doesn’t hand opposing receivers a free lunch, and I for one would like to see that observation reflected in the defensive play calls this coming Monday. If KNJ sticks to his guns, Kyle Shanahan may gobble our defense down whole.

Odds and Ends

This Neanderball had a theme, but that also means there were one or two fascinating moments from the game that you deserve to see but won’t fit anywhere else.

I feel somewhat traitorous saying it, but this is a really cool play design by Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. It looks like it’s going to be a screen pass to Bucs receiver Breshad Perriman, who’s in motion in the flats behind Godwin and Evans, who’ll act as his blockers. If a Seattle player sniffs out a screen, they’ll presumably close on Perriman. But! Godwin stops on a dime and turns for the ball while Perriman keeps running. Now Perriman and Evans are blocking on a screen for Godwin, who’s wide open for the pass.

Now watch this. Same play, right? Perriman goes into motion, then converts his motion into a run into the flats to catch a pass. Godwin and Evans go out ahead to block for him, just like last time. And just like last time, Godwin stops on a dime and turns to look for the ball as Perriman keeps on running to become his blocker. Except this time, Perriman bolts past his defender instead of blocking him - it’s a pass to Perriman. For those keeping track, that’s three levels of deception: the producers of Inception would be proud.

Thanks for reading, everybody. I’ll see you all Monday night for our chance to take down the 49ers.