When the Seattle Seahawks and the Los Angeles Rams face off on Sunday in Week 16 of the NFL season, first place in the NFC West will be on the line. If Seattle wins, they take the division title, while for the Rams, they need to both defeat the Seahawks and then win again in Week 17 to guarantee themselves the division crown.
That said, in the past two matchups between the Rams and Seahawks, Los Angeles has slowed the Seattle offense, leading to Russell Wilson and company scoring just 22 points in the pair of games. Specifically, the Rams were largely able to take away the deep ball against Seattle in Week 10 through the use of two deep safeties, leading Willson to look for more underneath and intermediate routes.
To point, of the 27 passes Wilson attempted through the first three quarters of the game, just five of them traveled more than 15 yards in the air. Here is what the Rams defense looked like on those plays.
(1) This is a pass to Greg Olsen with 8:19 left in the first quarter (Olsen is the Seahawk on the far side of the field near the 40 yard line).
(2) This is a deep attempt to Tyler Lockett with 1:33 left in the first quarter (Lockett is at the 40 on the near side of the field).
(3) This is an attempt to Lockett in the deep middle with 14:15 left in the second quarter (Lockett is at the far 40, the defender covering him is at the 33 on the far side and the safety on the near side standing between the 34 and the 35 slides over to bracket him as Wilson heaves up a pass under pressure that winds up sailing into triple coverage).
(4) Looking deep to Freddie Swain with 4:27 left in the second quarter (who is in the middle of the field at the 16 yard line).
(5) Deep attempt to Will Dissly with 2:12 left in the second quarter that winds up intercepted in the end zone (Dissly is just inside the 20 on the near side).
And that’s it - those are the five deep passes Wilson attempted through the first three quarters of the game, just five deep shots on 27 dropbacks in that time period.
Digging a bit more into the details, the Hawks had 14 passing plays that they ran between their own 35 and the Rams 40, which is the area of the field in which they like to look for the deep shot. On those 14 plays the Los Angeles defense offense showed two deep safeties initially, and then rotated one of the safeties down or shifted to a single high coverage after Wilson had made his line calls. Here is one example of that, with 14:08 to go in the second quarter at the 45 on the L.A. side of the field, and both safeties are clearly eleven yards off the line of scrimmage.
And then just before the snap of the ball it’s possible to see the safety on the far side of the field creeping closer to the line of scrimmage.
Then, as the play develops, it’s clear that the safety on the near side is dropping into the deep middle, while the safety on the far side is stepping up to take away the seam route a tight end might run, as the corners drop into a form of Cover 3.
So, the Rams used disguised coverages to frustrate the Seattle passing game, but what about the run game? Well, frankly, the Rams were overly inviting of the Seahawks when it comes to wanting Seattle to have used the run game. Specifically, they showed the Hawks very light boxes, which were very inviting to run against. Here is how light the defensive boxes were on the first five offensive plays of the game for Seattle.
And here are a couple more from the second quarter.
And then once the Rams had a double digit lead in the second half, they were basically one step away from emptying the box and just openly inviting the Hawks offense to run wild.
The reasons Los Angeles did this are likely multiple, including the belief that their defensive line is superior to the Seattle offensive line, however, at the end of the day it gets even more simple. Basically, every time Russell Wilson drops back to pass, he’s averaging 6.7 net yards per pass attempt, a figure which includes sacks and incompletions. When Seattle hands the ball off to their best running back, Chris Carson, the Hawks are averaging just under five yards per carry. So, in short, every dropback the Rams can convince the Hawks to turn into a handoff is a net positive for the L.A. defense to the tune of 1.7 yards.
In addition, while Carson, along with Hyde and Penny, certainly represent some sort of danger to score every time they have the football in their hands, the odds are far lower they will create a big play. Carson has 114 rushing attempts so far in the 2020 season, and 16 of those attempts have resulted in a gain of ten or more yards, or 14.04% of his carries. In contrast, Russ has dropped back to pass 579 times this season, and 167 of those dropbacks have resulted in a gain of ten or more yards, which is 28.84%. In short, by inviting Seattle to run the ball, the Rams allow Seattle to voluntarily cut the chances of creating a big play in half.
It’s then possible to take it a step further and look at plays that gain 20 or more yards. Carson has picked up 20 or more yards on just 2.6% of his rushing attempts this year, while Wilson has generated gains of 20 or more yards on 7.94% of his dropbacks.
What it all boils down to is that the Seattle offense for years has been built on ball control and big plays, and by inviting the Hawks to run the ball, the Rams can reduce the probability of giving up a big play drastically. So, on Sunday when the Seahawks run Carson and Hyde over and over and over, the topic to focus on shouldn’t be how well the Hawks are moving the ball on the ground. The topic to focus on should be how much big play potential are the Hawks giving up by moving the ball well on the ground.