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Do we need to talk about offensive line coach Mike Solari?

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In the wake of the Seattle Seahawks season finishing in a disappointing 28-23 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs, fans were quick to point a finger at various factors. Some blamed Pete Carroll and his antiquated beliefs, others placed the blame squarely on defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., while others pointed to injuries or offensive line coach Mike Solari and the team’s poor pass protection.

Solari had been touted by many as a savior of the line when he arrived following what many termed a disastrous 2017 campaign, but in his two seasons as the offensive line coach Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has taken the most and second most sacks of his career. Specifically, in 2019 Wilson led the NFL by taking 48 sacks, though he was tied with Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals and Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons. Wilson has remained one of the most pressured quarterbacks in the entire NFL, and in particular in 2019 was one of the quarterbacks most pressured in two seconds or less, better than only Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Miami Dolphins in that category per Timo Riske of PFF in mid-December.

In addition, most other metrics have the Seahawks line below average when it comes to protecting Wilson, including:

  • PFF’s Pass Blocking Grades (30th)
  • PFF’s Pass Blocking Efficiency (25th)
  • ESPN’s PBWR (28th)
  • Football Outsiders Pass Blocking Ranking (24th)

In short, most metrics have the line as, quite frankly, bad. Thus, the question becomes whether Mike Solari is the man for the job. Social media has, of course, already started discussing this.

Getting back to one of the metrics listed above, in particular ESPN’s PBWR, many fans have noted that the Seahawks line - in spite of being among the worst in the league at surrendering instant pressure, seemed to hold up for longer periods of time better than in the past. There are a handful of reasons that contributed to that, including Wilson developing better pocket presence than in years past, but there is one big reason, and it won’t likely change anytime soon, or at least as long as Solari remains as the offensive line coach.

First, however, let’s look at the data that shows that the Hawks line is indeed below average in the first 2.75 or so seconds after the snap and above average once that 2.75 second threshold is reached. The following is a tweet sent by the aforementioned Timo Riske which looks at offensive line success for every team in terms of a survival curve against time passed after the snap. Here’s the original tweet.

And since it’s tiny in the lower left hand corner, here’s the survival curve for the Seattle Seahawks blown up so that it is actually able to be read.

Specifically, this involves getting into technique. The eyes of most fans will glaze over when discussions turn to the specifics of offensive line play and technique, so this will stay extremely high level and I’ll keep it the Reader’s Digest version. So, before I jump into the explanation of why this survival curve makes sense given the technique Seattle offensive linemen use, let me explain very basic differences between a couple of different pass blocking techniques.

There are, of course, various techniques that can be used when pass blocking, but I’m only going to focus on two. The first is Indepdendent Hands, and the second is Two Hand Punch. The names imply basically what the differences are, but here are some visuals just to help with the understanding.

First, Independent Hands is, as the name implies, a technique wherein an offensive linemen engages the defender with his outside hand first, then uses the inside hand. The outside hand first lands a less forceful punch and the lineman then maintains contact. This hand on the defender helps maintain range as a second, more forceful, punch is then delivered with the inside hand. The following clip shows a textbook example of this in action.

And then here’s another example from a college practice where the guard is using a mirror image of the technique in the first clip. The reason it’s a mirror image is that as the technique calls for the use of the outside hand first, then inside hand, when flipping sides linemen must flip the order in which they punch the defenders.

Now, the second technique I’ll talk about, as noted, is the Two Hand Punch. This entails, exactly as it sounds, using both hands at the same time on the defensive player. This is what the Seahawks do, so here are three clips that show this. In particular, Mike Iupati in the third clip is a fantastic visual example of both hands being used at the same time to jolt and control the defender.

So, with the difference between the two techniques laid out, let’s get to why the survival chart for the Seahawks makes sense.

For starters, it’s obviously easier for an offensive lineman to put his hands on a defender if he’s only using one hand because it’s possible to stretch further with just one arm than with both. That translates to a greater reach and range for linemen using independent hands, and then once that first hand is in place it allows for greater accuracy with the second punch. Obviously, however, two quick one-handed punches will not be as powerful as one punch with two hands.

And that’s the advantage of the Two Hand Punch technique. There’s no question that if a 330 or 340 pound lineman like Iupati, D.J. Fluker or Germain Ifedi lands a hand on you, you’re going to feel it. However, one of those were to land both hands simultaneously, it’s game over. This is exactly what we see with the Seattle offensive line.

For example, we all remember the clip of Jamarco Jones holding off Aaron Donald with one arm while looking for someone else to block after the Seahawks win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5.

Well, it becomes a different story when we watch from the end zone angle of the coaches film and see that Donald hops right around Jones, but is met with a two hand punch from 6’6” 315 pound center Justin Britt.

And that’s the thing, when the two hand punch lands, that’s it. Game over. That’s all she wrote. Period, the end. Even against an All Pro pass rusher like Aaron Donald, when a two-handed punch lands squarely, that pass blocking battle is typically over. Very few front seven defensive players are going to be able to do much of anything if a two handed punch lands squarely from an offensive lineman the size of Fluker or Ifedi. However, because the range when trying to initiate contact with both hands simultaneously is, of course, shorter, it’s more difficult than landing one hand first and then the other.

Therein lies the trade off. The Seahawks use the two handed technique, presumably for a couple of reasons. First of all, it fits with their identity and mindset. They want to out hit and out physical the opponent, and two hands simultaneously are more powerful and more physical than one hand at a time. Effectively, it’s the body blow methodology of pass blocking.

Beyond that, when two hand punches land squarely, that’s what gives offensive linemen the best ability to take control of a rushing defender and to buy as much time as possible for the quarterback. Basically, if you’re looking to create a pocket quickly and then maintain that pocket as long as possible, the Two Hand Punch technique is likely the choice.

The downside of using the technique, however, is that because it requires the use of both hands at the same time, it’s going to have a higher failure rate than Independent Hands. That is what leads to the whiffs, the high amount of instant pressure and metrics such as PBWR coming in poorly for the Hawks, in spite of the fact that it is readily visible that the Hawks were above average for much of the period of time past 2.7-2.8 seconds.

What it comes down to is that the Seahawks use a high-risk, high-reward style of pass blocking. When it works, it’s glorious and can control defenders and protect Russ for several seconds. When the two handed punch fails to land, however, is when things quickly get ugly. Pressure often comes quickly because the block attempt becomes a whiff rather than a block.

For a simple analogy that’s easy to understand for many video gamers, think back to first person shooter game from the 90s like Doom. The Two Handed Punch is similar to the rocket launcher - it’s a slower to load and harder to hit the opponent, but when your shot lands, the opponent isn’t on the screen anymore. Independent Hands is more like the machine gun - it’s quicker and offers more accuracy, but isn’t nearly as likely to stop the enemy in their tracks.

Getting back to why the coaching staff chooses to use this technique, it’s likely because Wilson tends to hold the ball for a very long time. While other quarterbacks who held the ball for as long or longer than Wilson in previous seasons, such as Josh Allen and Deshaun Watson, have adjusted their game to get the ball out quicker, Wilson remained far closer to the slowest quarterbacks in 2019 than the fastest. At this point that appears to be a trait of the way Wilson plays quarterback, and it seems likely that as long as Wilson continues to hold the ball, the Seahawks will continue to employ a pass blocking technique designed to give him a clean pocket for as long as possible.

Basically, the trade off Solari and the rest of the coaching staff is making is whether to have an increase in instant pressure in exchange for the peace of mind of knowing that if a pocket forms, it’s more likely to stay formed. The technique, in effect, shifts pressure from later in the down to earlier in the down by pushing the fail point to earlier in the down after the snap.

Thus, we can talk about Solari coaching a line that has allowed Wilson to become the second most sacked quarterback in the NFL over the past two seasons, but no discussion about Solari and the job he’s doing would be complete without discussing the way and the why about how he’s doing it.