The Minnesota Vikings dared Seattle to pass. Seattle did. On average it didn’t work but in aggregate it did. Seattle won. The Seahawks called more than three times as many pass plays as run plays. That does not seem to me to be strategically sound but sometimes simple strategy is mistaken.
Every offense has its bad games. Even historically great offenses have bad games. Arguably Sunday’s win was only a relatively bad game for Sesattle’s offense. It took nearly every second of game clock but the Seahawks scored 27 points. They ended up with a positive EPA on offense. This is not meant as a referendum. It’s an attempt to answer a question.
Did running the ball make it at all easier for Seattle to pass the ball? A complete answer is not possible. Within a drive, Seattle only called a pass play six times after calling a run play. Scrambles are pass calls which turn into a run. Only four of those pass plays involved Wilson actually passing the ball. By results, Seattle did not seem to benefit from passing after running.
EPA on pass calls following run calls: +0.826, +1.730, -1.760, +2.800, -0.700, -3.150
Per play: -0.042
Per 50 snaps: -2.1
Those six snaps included some of the biggest swings of the game. Let’s take a look at them and see if we can learn anything.
My methodology will be somewhat loose. Mostly what I am looking for is whether a run play drew in the defense on the next play.
2ND & 3 AT SEA 32(08:28)
(8:28) (No Huddle) C.Carson right guard to SEA 37 for 5 yards (E.Wilson; I.Odenigbo).
1ST & 10 AT SEA 37(07:53)
(7:53) R.Wilson pass short middle to D.Metcalf to 50 for 13 yards (J.Gladney; H.Smith).
Here’s the All-22 at the snap for the Carson run:
Two high safeties. The other nine defenders are all within 5 yards.
All-22 of the next snap:
This time football 101 works. Minnesota puts the safety in the box on the very next snap. The corners are in off coverage to mitigate the danger, but eight defenders are within three to four yards of the line of scrimmage.
This sequence is particularly meaningful to me because it occurred before Seattle had established any tendencies. Minnesota did not have any reason to assume Seattle would be so pass-happy for the rest of the game.
Seattle runs play action. This momentarily freezes #50 Eric Wilson clearing underneath coverage against DK Metcalf. The other two linebackers are keying Chris Carson and Will Dissly. When they stay in to block, Eric Kendricks and Eric Wilson pass rush. Kendricks and Wilson are also frozen by the play fake.
Wilson finds Metcalf running a slant, a pattern particularly prone to underneath coverage, for 13 and the first.
1ST & 10 AT 50(07:12)
(7:12) (Shotgun) C.Carson left end to MIN 49 for 1 yard (J.Gladney).
2ND & 9 AT MIN 49(06:40)
(6:40) (Shotgun) R.Wilson scrambles right end ran ob at MIN 30 for 19 yards (J.Gladney).
The Vikings again match two deep safeties against Seattle’s run. This time the run is stuffed.
Minnesota keeps its safeties back when defending the next play. Wilson exploits the two-high man look for a long scramble.
2ND & 6 AT SEA 29(08:03)
(8:03) (No Huddle) C.Carson left guard to SEA 36 for 7 yards (A.Harris; C.Dantzler).
1ST & 10 AT SEA 36(07:20)
(7:20) (Shotgun) R.Wilson sacked at SEA 27 for -9 yards (E.Wilson).
The Vikings oppose the run with a single-high safety. The defensive backs covering Metcalf and Lockett are playing off coverage. The defensive back covering Freddie Swain is walked up tight.
The Seahawks rush at the softer side of the defense for seven.
The next play interests me greatly. Prior to Will Dissly motioning from left to right, free safety Harrison Smith is walked down close to the line of scrimmage. Something about the motion (maybe) triggers recognition in Smith.
Just before the snap he backpedals to an intermediate depth.
Play action draws in the linebackers.
Wilson only looks at Swain. Swain never quite gets open and Smith looms. The play is over quickly because Wilson, not quite bootlegging but just sort of drifting right, is exposed to a free pass rusher. Eric Wilson is unblocked. Damien Lewis is left no one to block. Either Wilson should have moved into the pocket, or the line read was incorrect, or both.
1ST & 10 AT MIN 25(10:37)
(10:37) (Shotgun) T.Homer left guard to MIN 19 for 6 yards (I.Odenigbo).
2ND & 4 AT MIN 19(10:00)
(10:00) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep left to W.Dissly for 19 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Travis Homer is in the game. Seattle is in shotgun. Seattle has been pretty dang pass happy up to this point. They also ran the ball three consecutive times to comprise the previous drive. That said, Seattle passed twice to start this drive. Against both passes, the Vikings’ safeties were walked back. Yet against what is (seemingly) likely a pass, Harrison Smith has walked up into the box. That’s how you earn a reputation for being an exceptionally astute player. He’s right. Seattle runs the ball.
It works. The Seahawks seem to win this down through execution alone.
On the next play Anthony Harris is walked way the heck up at the snap.
Dissly runs a wheel route and beats Eric Wilson in one-on-one coverage. Harris actually picks off Wilson a little bit making his job that much harder. Harris, perhaps sensing impending disaster, breaks off coverage of Homer and blitzes Wilson. The very circuitous route of his blitz makes me think he’s freelancing, but Kendricks does pick up Homer in coverage.
Harris’s pre-snap positioning so close to the line of scrimmage is essential to this play working. Score one for run-pass.
1ST & 10 AT MIN 43(01:22)
(1:22) T.Homer left guard to MIN 40 for 3 yards (J.Holmes; A.Watts).
2ND & 7 AT MIN 40(00:39)
(:39) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass incomplete deep left to D.Moore.
Smith is playing shallow but well outside of the tackle box. He seems principally concerned with accounting for David Moore. Moore is faking a sweep. Jeff Gladney initially follows Moore but stops just outside the tackle box. Smith picks up the assignment.
The fake does a really good job of scattering Vikings into disadvantageous positions. The run ends when Homer runs into Ethan Pocic.
Smith is in man coverage of Greg Olsen and playing very tight. Just like the Dissly touchdown, this creates an advantageous one-on-one matchup in the end zone. Moore has position, size and a clear step on Cameron Dantzler. Moore turns around too quickly, slightly misreads the path of the ball and fails to convert a difficult catch.
No hate, but the opportunity was certainly there.
1ST & 10 AT SEA 37(06:32)
(6:32) C.Carson right end to SEA 38 for 1 yard (S.Stephen).
2ND & 9 AT SEA 38(05:56)
(5:56) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep right intended for C.Carson INTERCEPTED by E.Wilson at MIN 43. E.Wilson to 50 for 7 yards (D.Metcalf).
The interception that almost lost the game, how did it happen?
In the first play the safeties are positioned deep.
In an uncharacteristic move, Carson runs madly toward the right edge and it just doesn’t work. It would have been better to cut back, but it’s pretty clear to me why he didn’t. Kendricks is unblocked in what looks to be the most promising seam. Could be a mistaken line read, but I suspect Jordan Simmons failed to properly maintain his zone responsibilities. He doesn’t pass off blocking Jaleel Johnson to Duane Brown until it’s too late. That leads to an unnecessary double team and a free defender—really, the worst free defender possible too. Carson picks his path. It doesn’t work but it’s not indefensible.
So we have a pass following an unsuccessful run. How does that affect Minnesota’s spacing?
At the snap we get another in-between two high/single deep look. Harris is closing. He’s in man coverage of Olsen. Which means what we really have is a disguised single high look.
Coverage is solid. A throwaway is advisable. Wilson attempts to make magic and you know the rest. It’s a bad pass thrown with bad form to a receiver who could not legally catch the pass and did not seem to think he would be targeted. Blech.
Four times following a run play Minnesota went to a single high safety. One time Minnesota appeared to be about to go to a single high safety before Seattle motioned the tight end and Smith retreated into deeper coverage. One time Minnesota did not respond to the previous run at all. Wilson scrambled for 19.
I’ve doomed myself to an oppositional role. 10 years ago I doubt I would have opposed Seattle passing all. the. damn. time. Nothing about the above analysis proves that Seattle should have run more often or should run more often. But it offers a decent reminder why teams alternate runs and passes. Defenses adjust and they adjust reactively. Even unsuccessful runs are capable of encouraging a response.
Allowing a defense to anticipate the pass is probably unwise. Locking into a simplistic pattern is certainly unwise. Here’s what it looked like when Seattle attempted to run on third and one following two straight run plays.
Every deep passer benefits from plays which draw the defense in. Running seems to do that. In a small enough sample, just looking like you could run is enough to reap much of the benefit. Bluffing only works so long. Empty threats lead to diminishing returns. Eventually, to force an opponent to respect the run, a team has to run the ball. Knowing the exact ratio and the right sequence is part of what makes a great play caller a great play caller.