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Seahawks on tape: Tuff alignments and coverage mistakes

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NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Coverage mistakes happened in week 1. After writing in the preseason that three preseason errors were “valuable learning moments,” the Seattle Seahawks messed up in football that actually mattered. And they got away with it.

The gameplan Pete Carroll opted for was one of disrespect for Andy Dalton. Nothing of a particularly juicy nature was shown versus the Cincinnati Bengals. This was Diet Mountain Dew—on both sides of the football. Defensively, two touchdowns were gifted to the Bengals. They both screamed of miscommunication and unfamiliarity that should not be happening amongst veterans. Week 1 was a let off.

In the post-game aftermath, Carroll blamed those two plays:

“When you look at this game from the defensive side of the ball, we really blew it on the long one that they get, it’s third and 18 or something like that. That’s one. And the other one was a flea flicker that they got us on which was a really nicely executed play by them, and give them credit for it, but those are two big plays and we found a way to get off the field.”

“Two terrible big plays,” was how Carroll summarized the first two Cincinnati touchdowns the next morning, speaking on 710 ESPN Seattle’s Pete Carroll Show. Yet the second-deepest play of the game came the play before the Bengals’ first touchdown. Miscommunication and misunderstanding was to blame; a terrible duo that is inexcusable from NFL veterans in meaningful football.

It was a 36-yard ball down the seam to tight end C.J. Uzomah that did it. There’s been much talk about the Seahawks sending more blitzes with the aim of getting more pressure on quarterbacks. On this 2nd and 4, Carroll and Ken Norton Jr. opted for a 3-deep, 3-under pressure from base personnel. K.J. Wright at Weakside Linebacker was added to the pass rush from the short side of the field.

Cornerback Tre Flowers and down safety Bradley McDougald were not on the same page. At all. Flowers played the coverage as though no blitz was being sent. The technique he employed was more like a cover 1/3 read, a style that sees the cornerback play man-to-man coverage on any routes into their deep 1/3—essentially Man On Deep.

With Flowers playing a 1/3 read—almost playing off man-to-man coverage on the #1 receiver—he would have assumed that Bradley McDougald was matching the seam route of the #2 receiver: Uzomah. Against 2x2 formations, Seattle will often have a “seam alert” that sees the down safety run deep with seam routes.

However, because Wright was blitzing, McDougald was simply playing as a “hot to 2” defender, playing a more aggressive spot-drop hook that saw him match the final #2 receiver more aggressively once the patterns had distributed.

McDougald expected Flowers to be the deep coverage and take Uzomah. To the tight splits of the offense, Seattle sometimes puts their cornerback in a deep half with this kind of defensive front. But, the more likely scenario was that McDougald expected Flowers to be in a deep zebra/comet (used against nub formations) 1/3 with the blitz, essentially moving from the #1 to #2 receiver with a “midpoint” technique.

There’s a chance Flowers thought McDougald’s “hot 2” assignment had him take the seam route. Or perhaps his eye discipline failed him. The most realistic situation is the one outlined above though, with Flowers not realizing that a blitz had been called before it was too late.

Carroll on Flowers:

“His game didn’t come out the same [as Shaquill Griffin]. You know, he had situations where he, and I’ve said earlier I think, that, coverage-wise, he had some different opportunities than Shaq had.”

The result was a wide open Uzomah up the seam. This is an absolute sin in Carroll’s defense, one that stresses no seams and no posts. Ordinarily, this would have been the chance for an interception or a sack. Instead, it presented Dalton with an easy blitz-beating throw and Cincinnati with huge yardage.

The very next play was smart football, one of the best offensive play-designs of week 1. Head Coach Zac Taylor deserves massive credit. For almost the entire game, the Seahawks decided to have their WILL and SAM linebackers down at the line of scrimmage in Tuff alignments. In addition, while Seattle came out in base personnel for the vast majority of the time; Bobby Wagner (Mike) played 77 out of 77 snaps while K.J. Wright (Will) and Mychal Kendricks (Sam) played 69 snaps each.

Reflected Taylor:

“They played base to 11 every snap. So they got you pretty much outleveraged in every gap you’ve got. So we did some 12 personnel and run it a little bit. Good gameplan for them with Clowney in there, he creates some issues believe it or not, and so your best chance is really to throw the ball. That’s not how we want to win every single football game, but when a team has chosen to take your running game out of the picture then that’s just the reality. And we had a chance to win. So credit to them. Good plan. Hard to run the ball but we still put ourselves in a position to win, really proud of the coaches and the effort that they put into this plan.”

“It’s difficult when they set out and say ‘You’re not gonna run the football, we’re gonna put more big guys out there than you can handle and you’re not gonna run the ball you’re gonna have to throw it every snap.”

The aim was to stop the run. That part of the gameplan worked, with Cincinnati rushing for a measly 34 yards at 2.4 yards per carry.

The issue was the way in which the Bengals could exploit the defense in the passing game. The fake-fly sweep, to fleaflicker, to wheel play from Cincinnati was the ideal playcall.

The Seahawks aligned in their Cheat Stone front with the tuff alignments, which was an Over placing the nose tackle in a 1 technique (Cheat), the weakside defensive end heads up in a 4-technique and both the Will and Sam down.

The coverage on the backend responded to the motion by automatically checking into a cover 3. Then the issues arrived. Kendricks’ coverage assignment was to be a “buzz” defender, essentially playing the hook-curl. With the style of defense being run, he had to be more aggressive in the coverage and carry stuff further.

The Bengals faked the fly-sweep to John Ross to the side of Kendricks, bringing him up as an EDGE-setter and hammer in the fit for the wide run. After seeing Ross did not have the ball in his hands, Kendricks then bounced and saw the ball handed off to the running back. Even though the offensive line was giving “pass” keys, Kendricks still saw the ball in the back’s hands and was held by the run—he’s still involved in the fit.

Meanwhile, in the deep coverage, Tre Flowers was busy being run off. He was playing a cover 1/3 read technique. The deep post route of the #1 receiver required Flowers to turn his deep third zone into man-to-man technique, especially with Tedric Thompson forced to help Shaquill Griffin on the other side of the field.

By the time Kendricks realized that Ross had got behind him on a wheel route, it was far too late. Kendricks’ hesitation, schematically natural, and then the resulting speed mismatch, athletically natural for pretty much anyone, left Ross wide open down the sideline.

The Bengals conflicted the potential underneath match, giving Ross time to flood the deep part of the coverage and Dalton one of the easiest long touchdowns of his career. The 35-yard touch pass was made disappointing from a Seahawks perspective due to the missed tackle from Flowers.

Carroll confirmed certain schematic weaknesses:

“I thought [Flowers] played fine. We did not spend a lot of coverage underneath those guys. That was not part of the plan. So they were kinda hung out and they took advantage of it a little bit. More scheme than anything else. Both the corners played aggressive.”

The final play is as simple as it being a terrible error. A team can have all the scheme in the world but if one player doesn’t execute everything can come crashing down. This was one of the few plays that Seattle chose to come out with nickel personnel on the field; Akeem King filled in for the banged-up Ugo Amadi.

With the situation factored in, the Seahawks played a cover 6 (quarter, quarter, half) with a green front (9, 3, 3, 9)—designed to stay over-the-top of everything while generating some one-on-one pass-rushing opportunities. “Here’s where we have the chance to just finish plays,” Carroll commented. Seattle, specifically Tedric Thompson, didn’t get that done here.

Thompson, playing in a deep 1/4 zone over to the trips side, was responsible for the inside routes of #1 after the Bengals’ distributed their pattern. Though Flowers in OTIS technique had bit somewhat on the quasi out-and-up move from Ross, he was still in an okay trail position given the Seahawks essentially had a two-on-one.

Thompson did everything right until it came to playing the football. Situationally, swatting the ball incomplete would have been fine. The horribly mistimed jump and shallow depth at the catch-point was not fine.

Carroll answered:

“We throw the ball deep to those guys all the time, in every day of practice, and he just misjudged it. He’s a terrific ballhawk guy and he just misjudged it. He just left his feet too early. And it’s too bad. That never should have happened. Obviously.”

The head coach’s comments to 710 ESPN Seattle, where he responded to a question about competition across from McDougald with Lano Hill praise and a Marquise Blair mention, were illuminating.

“Well we’ll just keeping going. Lano Hill is back and he’ll be back and he’s working. He deserves a chance to play. He’s a really good ball player. We’ll see where he fits in to it and Blair is working his way back too. So we have big competition at the safety spots now.”

Deciding to go with Lano Hill versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, “a totally different game, a different style of time” according to Pete, would essentially mark the end of the Thompson-era in Seattle. The confidence of Thompson would be totally ruined. When questioned on Monday about the possibility of playing Hill, Carroll was short-lipped: “We’re playing ball, we’re not talking about that. Seriously,” he retorted.

The trip to Pittsburgh won’t just provide answers on the future of the safety position in Seattle. With slot cornerback Jamar Taylor re-signed and Parry Nickerson ‘enjoying’ another week with his head buried in the playbook, the Seahawks’ nickel usage is likely to rise to far more like the 66% figure of last year. Like the eradication of certain mistakes, it’s something that must happen if Seattle is to have a successful defense. Carroll’s calculated gamble, against a team with no game tape, paid off in week 1 though.