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How to fix the Seahawks’ deep passing attack

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Russell Wilson is at his best running play-action and passing deep. This has always been true. This is true this year. But the Seahawks have stopped running play-action and passing deep. And I’m not sure why. Today we attempt to find out.

First let’s not just assume Seattle has stopped running play action. Let’s prove it. I only have splits for the last two seasons but Seattle has run fewer play-action passes in 2020 than 2019. More importantly, a significantly lower percentage of Seattle’s pass attempts in 2020 have involved play action.

2019: 22.5%

2020: 19.5%

Three percent may not seem like much. But it’s almost 20 more attempts at a very impressive 9.73 AY/A. Here’s my unofficial count of Sunday’s totals.

PA: 7

RPO: 4

I do not know how Pro Football Reference categorizes RPO types plays. Whether they are a subset of play action plays or not, but that changes the calculation. Counting all of Wilson’s runs as scrambles and therefore plays which started as passes, the Seahawks were again wildly unbalanced against San Francisco.

Pass calls: 43

Run calls: 22

This is inexplicable to me, honestly. I’ll leave it at that.

If RPOs are play-action, Seattle ran play-action on 28.9% of all passes. And, if not, Seattle ran play-action on 18.4% of all passes. We’ll look at both because I fricken hate technical distinctions without firm basis in fact. Half the world’s smartest people waste their talents creating and maintaining bewildering systems with no root in logic or fact.

In order to understand Seattle’s reduction in play-action passing, we will look at a play in which it worked, a play in which it did not, a gadgety run-pass option, and a simple run play. Each should provide a piece of the story.

It works!

This was my favorite play of the game for so many reasons. First we’ll look at it from in front of the center to see the mechanics of the play action itself.

I love the fake pitch. God bless the fake pitch. And Wilson does it so well that it does some of the blocking for him.

The gravity created by the fake pitch reduces the defensive forces by half. That’s a crude attempt at a Final Fantasy III joke. The shall we say reduction of forces or best said ratio of offensive players to defensive players in place to make a play is dynamic. But, for instance, right here you can see how beautifully this whole MFer went down.

It’s temporary but Seattle achieves a 4-2 ratio and those 2 are both 15+ yards down field. It’s awesome. It’s wonderful. It circles the square.

Neither Cedric Ogbuehi nor Damien Lewis even land a block.

[Depending on how the next few weeks go, I’m going to have to get down to the bottom of whether Damien Lewis is a good right guard or not. My wager is that nobody outside of Renton actually knows. And my buddy Carl in Renton ain’t telling! (I have no friend named Carl. I live a lonesome mono-friended life in one of the many clusters of dying cities in Washington which intermittently smell of sulfur.)]

This is also the best angle to appreciate the excellent performance by Will Dissly. He tees up Kerry Hyder to be pancaked by Duane Brown. This is Dissly’s super power. He’s naturally big and can pop a defensive lineman well without committing much of his physical bulk into the block. A lot of tight ends try hard as blockers, and when it’s time to release, they’re so tangled with the target of their block that it’s impossible. A lot of tight ends try not at all as blockers. Dissly does it proper.

He flies out of his stance, pushes Hyder into Brown’s wheelhouse, rounds into his route so that he actually sort of kicks through Hyder’s right foot and releases. Dissly doesn’t really trip Hyder. Hyder simply intuitively shifts his feet away from Dissly. But the discoordination of his upper and lower body, his bulk right but his feet left, makes for such an easy block Brown’s body language speaks of surprise.

Dissly ran a 4.71 at the NFL Combine. Tyler Lockett ran a 4.4 flat. A few important years divide the two (and whatever else including all of the innumerable undisclosed injuries but not y’know injuries) but Dissly is not faster than Lockett. But he is! here sorta because Lockett’s route is long and round and angular and disrupted by coverage. Dissly gets a real 260 something going in one direction and it’s badass thoroughly badass.

Mr. 7.07 three cone drill doesn’t lose it all rounding up field either. He shimmies Tarvarius Moore and pirouettes through the tackle of Azeez Al-Shaair for six more.

The other angle doesn’t provide too terribly much new insight. We can see the spacing. That’s something I’ll revisit but I do not want to get too far ahead of myself. Altogether this is a well executed play called at the right time.

It doesn’t!

This one’s a mess.

The play fake works, slowing the pass rush and drawing in the underneath coverage. Seattle’s pass blocking neutralizes the initial pass rush of four, but when neither Dissly nor Jacob Hollister release into routes, Fred Warner dogs it and dogs it well. So!

Wilson has time and an open receiver but only one. Wilson should be able to see that Lockett has free yards. There’s nothing but relatively distant over coverage by Moore and with timing, zip and placement this should be 10 and whatever Lockett can do with the ball in his hands. The darnedest damn thing is Lockett is Wilson’s primary read and the underneath coverage parts for him to target Lockett like the damn Red Sea for Moses.

He looks to Metcalf. Warner closes. He throws it away kinda sorta toward Metcalf/Penny. WTF x 3.

The only other thing really worth discussing is Rashaad Penny. Penny is supposed to release into a route. He doesn’t nor does he chip or do much of anything. This stuff kills me. IF for whatever reason Wilson had a justifiable reason for not targeting Lockett, Penny’s viability as an outlet makes or breaks this play. Metcalf is schematically neutralized. It’s just such a poor effort by Penny. Either poor because he doesn’t know the technique to escape the scrum or poor because he didn’t put in an honest effort to use that technique. But after the play fake Seattle’s playing down a man and that just kills me.

I’ll accept criticism for guessing here but what this looks like is Wilson knowing who to pass to, overestimating how long he has to pass to Lockett, looking at Metcalf because Metcalf and only realizing too late that he no longer has time to pass to Lockett. Both wide receivers run long-developing routes but Wilson has a good three seconds before Warner’s even close.

It’s not bad blocking. It could be better if Lewis didn’t chase a cheapo on an irrelevant defender and Lewis and Ogbuehi could swap so Ogbuehi could pick up Warner, but that’s not why this play doesn’t work. Wilson waits until Lockett’s route has died on the vine. Metcalf is doubled and barely out of his route when Wilson’s throwing it away. And Penny’s just doing whatever.

What is that Jay!?

Seattle loses EPA running this play.

I don’t know what else to say. EPA be damned, I guess. It made for an easily converted third down.

Run the damn ball, please.

Seattle did not make it easy to find a run play. I won’t detail this play too much but to describe the defense. But note the good blocking by Lewis, Ogbuehi, and the cool exchange by Dissly and Hollister. It’s a well executed play.

Robert Saleh schemed to stop the run. He also schemed to stop the deep pass. That’s perfectly evident here. The front seven is tight and aligned in the gaps. Free safety Jimmy Ward walks up to put another defender in or just outside the so-called box. And every coverage defender is playing over.

You’d never scheme Tom Brady this way. It’s almost brazen in its simplicity. Saleh begs Seattle to beat his defense not by running and not by passing deep but by passing underneath. In a way, the Seahawks did. But in another way they didn’t. The Seahawks won but the offense struggled and the passing game barely created any value at all. Wilson was only insignificantly better than John Wolford.

I do not think Saleh provided any sort of blueprint for how to stop the Seahawks offense, but emphasizing run defense while minimizing long gains is doable in many ways. If not blueprint it is certainly a logical basis for a plan. Beating that plan is simple but not necessarily easily done. Seattle needs to attack its opponent underneath. Despite a seeming reluctance to do so, Wilson has not performed poorly when targeting a receiver within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Now that’s self selected, and we don’t know if Wilson could increase his volume of passes to that part of the field and maintain the same level of efficiency. Like I’ve said before, I do not think Wilson is particularly good at throwing short and over the middle. But there are other ways to create free receivers underneath. Boot action in a play designed to create levels, as we see in Dissly’s long reception, works.

Another obvious remedy is to run more hitches and curls. Don’t get me wrong. Darrell Bevell has made me forever hate those routes, but when the defender is over, the open space is under. Openness is achieved by going back.

The LA Rams run quarters coverage at one of highest rates in the NFL. Comeback routes, crossers including crossers which crisscross, options routes to the backs, screens and wheel routes should all work well. Which brings us to our happy conclusion.

Seattle attacks the symmetry of the 49ers zones through grouping receivers into trips on the right. After Carson executes the second really awesome block and release of the post, he’s free in a sea of absent underneath coverage. Yet if not for pressure, Wilson may have never seen Carson. That, I think, is the key to Seattle getting back to running play action and fixing its deep-passing attack. Reorder priority, look shallow first, and take what’s given until defenses are forced to adjust. Probably the LA Rams will scheme to avoid anything like a shootout. Probably the LA Rams will challenge Wilson to beat ‘em like Drew Brees would beat ‘em. Wilson has the accuracy to do it. He just needs to start seeing that read earlier and more reliably. Stop waiting for busted coverages deep. Make the short play the long play. Bill Walsh ‘em until you can Air Coryell again.