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The intermediate passing game and Russell Wilson's "scatter chart"

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Wilson mentioned this week that against the Titans, he felt really keyed in to everything, was seeing what he wanted to see - the routes, his receivers, the defenders - (and Pete Carroll mentioned this too) and that if he could go back, he'd only change one play, in terms of what he did on the field.

This seemed a little surprising, considering how the game felt, but the more I've gone back and re-watched it (plus the last few weeks as well), the more it becomes apparent that Wilson has been playing at a very high level. As much as I hand-wring over the arrhythmic feel to the offense, without Wilson's dynamism, I'm not sure Seattle wins at Houston and this Titans game could have gone another way.

I've been particularly impressed with Wilson's scrambling - I've said this a few times around here, but from what I've seen, it seems that most of his scrambles have been of the 'necessary' variety. Pete Carroll echoed this in a press conference this week too - that the Seahawks have gone through the tape over the past few weeks with Wilson, and they couldn't find one instance where he started running but should have instead stuck in and climbed the pocket. We may find instances where he's leaving early or holding back on throws, but it would seem Seattle is coaching Wilson to play the way he's playing. I get the feeling that Pete Carroll is completely fed up with the amount of turnovers.

Either way, why is he scrambling so much? First, the protection has been bad - Tom Cable mentioned 11 free rushers against Houston, five against Indy, and I'd say at there were at least a handful against Tennessee.

On several occasions over the past few weeks, Wilson hasn't even finished his drop before the pressure is on and the play, as it was drawn up, is dead. Wilson's ability to extend these 'dead' plays and turn nothing into something is one of the reasons the Hawks are 5-1. How many quarterbacks can do what Wilson's done while missing three starters on the offensive line (including a Pro Bowl LT and an All-Pro C) and a starting TE? That was rhetorical. Not a lot.

It's more than just protection issues, though. Teams have been scheming against Seattle's deeper passing game, against their slower-developing routes, particularly in play-action. This was the Seahawks' bread-and-butter last year, so it makes sense. I had surmised, after the Tennessee game but before getting to see the All-22 tape, that teams were playing deeper than normal to take away the deep bomb, and Carroll confirmed my suspicions of that during his weekly chat with Brock and Danny. Carroll said, that against Tennessee, their deep safety was playing what seemed to be 'miles' deep.

I went to the tape, and he wasn't kidding.

Defenses playing miles deep

Let's take a look at Seattle's first drive of the second half. They trailed 10-7 at this point.

1-10-SEA 23 (14:53) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short right to G.Tate to SEA 28 for 5 yards (J.McCourty).

Play-action. Look at, first, how deep the Titans' secondary is playing. Second, note that the two safeties and two corners are playing with their eyes in the backfield - taking away the 'redline' type of throw that Wilson likes (typically you want trailing coverage for that) and taking away the deep throw down the middle.


Here, much like the Seahawks do to other teams, they're begging Wilson to dump off underneath. He does, and Tate gains five yards.

2-5-SEA 28 (14:14) R.Wilson pass incomplete short right to K.Davis.

On second down, play-action off of a bootleg again. Here, the Titans play single high, and no joke, that deep-middle safety is 30 yards off the LOS. Wilson's deep options are all taken away, and he decides not to throw to Sidney Rice up the middle, though he appears open - maybe he didn't see him at the right time, I'm not sure. The line of sight to Sidney doesn't look ideal.


3-5-SEA 28 (14:06) (Shotgun) R.Wilson scrambles left end to SEA 34 for 6 yards (Z.Brown).

Third down - the Seahawks spread it out. No play action, but they run four routes at the sticks. The Titans are playing one-deep, man under, and just blanket the Hawks.

Wilson scrambles though, for a first down, which is a nice option when you get a defense playing underneath man.

Notice how goddamn deep that safety is playing.


Three plays later (a Lynch run, a failed screen to Tate, and a pass interference call in favor of Sidney Rice), and the Seahawks have a first down, approaching midfield.

1-10-SEA 43 (12:07) R.Wilson pass short right to S.Rice to TEN 44 for 13 yards (M.Fokou). FUMBLES (M.Fokou), RECOVERED by TEN-M.Griffin at TEN

See below - again, deep middle safety is playing 30 yards deep. Wilson hits Rice underneath at the sticks, and Rice gets the first down, then inexplicably lunges forward for an extra yard or two and fumbles.


So. You can see why we now have gotten used to Russell faking the handoff, rolling out, hitching up to throw the deep bomb, then pulling back and scrambling or continuing to roll and roll and roll and roll. The deep stuff is in the back of Defensive Coordinators' minds, and they're scheming for it.


The good news, though, is that Seattle is still getting their explosive pass plays. Carroll cut Brock Huard off when Huard suggested that the Seahawks 'explosive' offense had somewhat disappeared, brusquely telling Brock that he better check his numbers. Per Carroll, the Seahawks were near the league's leaders in explosive plays - what Carroll considers 16+ yard pass plays or 12+ yard run plays.

As Brian Nemhauser pointed out on twitter,

Pete Carroll said the Seahawks are near the top (of the NFL) in explosive plays. I've got Seattle with 53 (29 pass, 24 run) through 6 games. That's an average of 8.8/game.

The Broncos, by comparison, have 52 explosive plays on the year (39 pass, 13 run). That is one less than the Seahawks. The Packers have 44 explosive plays (31 pass, 13 run). That is 9 fewer than the Seahawks.

So, to summarize, the Seahawks offense have more explosive plays (pass 16+ yd, run 12+) than either the Broncos or the Packers offense.

Obviously, the 24 explosive run plays boosts that number, but 29 explosives through the air is nothing to stick your nose up at. Despite teams' scheming to take away the deep bombs, Seattle is still gettin' theirs. This is still an explosive offense, despite what it seems.

The intermediate game:

Regardless, what do you do when teams are scheming to specifically take away the deep stuff, your bread and butter? You don't abandon them, obviously, and Seattle is more stubborn than most, but what you must fall back on at times are what we've called 'constraint' plays. Seattle needs to work on their intermediate passing game. Their quick passing game. Their three-wide looks, their four-wide looks.

Davis Hsu and I were talking about this during the week, and here's what he had to say about that:

The Russell Wilson "scatter chart"

In 2012:

The Seahawks attempted 405 passes, 23% of them were deep (longer than 15 yards), 7% deep left, 7% deep middle and 9% deep right. Wilson threw heavily short right (the NFL is dominated by short passing).

He went short right a whopping 45% of the time, short middle 12% of the time and short left 21% of the time. Wilson's 86 attempts short left and 47 attempts short middle were good for 32nd in the league. Dead last.

Wilson was unusually effective short left and short middle however - finishing in the top-10 in both completion percentage and yardage gain in both areas.

In 2013, thus far:

Wilson has shifted a tad bit in 2013. Of the 163 passes tossed, he is is still throwing 23% deep, but 13% are considered deep left, and 10% are considered deep right, he has thrown zero passes deep middle (he threw 28 passes deep middle in 2012). Is it because of safety play or emphasis on redline throws? possibly a bit of both? Offensive line issues?

He is throwing 22% short left (21% in 2012) and 16% short middle (12% in 2012) and short right is now 39% (45% in 2012) so some improvements on spreading it out are on display.

As a gauge, Drew Brees, Russell's role model, in 2013 - 22% deep,11% deep left, 3% deep middle, 8% deep right, 31% short left, 17% short middle, 30% short right"

With the amount of play action bootlegs the the Seahawks prefer, which usually involves Russell rolling right, I dont suspect we well ever see the "balance" of Brees in his current Saints system of 30% short left, 17% short middle, 31% short right (almost robotic perfection). There may not be anything super magical about attacking short left, Peyton Manning does lead the league in attacking short left, and throws more to the left, but Aaron Rodgers is 29th in attacking short left (and he's pretty good).

Also of interest: Russell is throwing 27.2 times per game this season, up from the 25.3 average from 2012.

As it relates to this article, though, and this is an important part:

The problem Seattle has to overcome is that their offense on 3rd down is much different than their offense on 1st & 2nd down because running and play action are usually not a factor. For most NFL teams, their attack on 3rd down is more closely related to their style of offensive attack on 1st & 2nd down (which for most NFL teams involves a lot of short to intermediate passing).

My solution probably sounds simplistic, but I think they just need to practice more short passing during the week and make it an emphasis. I know they emphasize running the ball, and explosive passing, but I think they need to increase their reps until it becomes as familiar as some of their basic runs.

In other words, Seattle's identity is based upon running the rock and throwing it deep. These two things don't help you on 3rd and 5. Overall, Seattle needs to develop their short, quick passing game specifically to excel on third down situations of less than five yards or so. Normally, perhaps Seattle's 'five-yard gainer' is a run. They're not going to run much on 3rd and five though, so Wilson, his receivers, and his line, need to get better in this area.

Here's the good news: Russell Wilson and Darrell Bevell showed some signs of life in this regard against Tennessee. Bunch formations, stack formations, four wide, five wide - they showed an ability to change their offense up a bit to adapt to the needs at hand.

3rd Quarter...

To the tape...

1-10-SEA 12 (10:53) R.Wilson pass short right to D.Coleman to SEA 18 for 6 yards (J.McCourty). FUMBLES (J.McCourty), ball out of bounds at SEA 18.

Seattle's drive starts at their own 12. They run the Spider Y Banana play to their fullback on play action, hitting Derek Coleman on the wing for six yards. He fumbles the ball, but thankfully it rolls out of bounds.

2-4-SEA 18 (10:26) (Shotgun) M.Lynch left guard to SEA 31 for 13 yards (M.Griffin).

Seattle's 2nd down play doesn't have anything to do with the narrative of this article, but it's a cool ass play, so let's take a look.


As Davis texted me in describing this play, "Tennessee defense is heavy to strong side (six man box), Seattle in shotgun - 1RB, 3WR. Luke Willson crosses the formation after snap and delivers a Zach Miller style wham block and destroys the DE (ouch) - Lynch has a huge lane, avoids the lunging safety and heads for 13 yards. The Tom Cable special."

1-10-SEA 31 (9:50) M.Lynch right tackle to SEA 35 for 4 yards (B.Pollard).

Lynch picks up four on first down, setting up a 2nd and 6 from the Seahawks' 35.


Darrell Bevell and Pete Carroll mentioned after the game that the Titans played a lot of man-coverage in the first half, which they weren't expecting, and only switched back to more of their 'normal' zone schemes in the 2nd half. Seattle had prepared for this, and were able to go to their zone killers more effectively.

2-6-SEA 35 (9:08) R.Wilson pass short left to L.Willson to SEA 38 for 3 yards (A.Verner).

This is an exceedingly simple scheme, motioning TE Luke Willson to the strong side of the field. With the Titans in zone (note that no one follows Willson), Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin's routes 'flood' the five-yard range toward the sticks, leaving Willson underneath open.


Now, this play only picks up three yards, but we've already seen Willson break tackles on similarly styled plays in the past so it's not necessarily a bad idea. Even though he's tackled short in this case after the DB makes a great play, Seattle is set up for a third and short. It's obvious, but 3rd and 3 is infinitely easier than 3rd and 6.

3-3-SEA 38 (8:30) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short right to D.Baldwin to SEA 42 for 4 yards (J.McCourty).

Here's one of my favorite plays from the game. It's a quick, seemingly innocuous four-yard gain, but this is exactly the type of play Seattle needs to develop and focus on in order to improve on third downs.

Seattle runs "bunch" with Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin, and Luke Willson against what they've identified, likely, as a man-coverage scheme (note Lynch draw man-to-man on the outside as he motions to the left). Willson plays the head of the bunch for a reason - he's going to drag his defender downfield and out of the 'target zone'. The defensive backs playing Rice and Baldwin are forced to play back a bit, because with a bunch like that, press is fairly impossible. This is by design.

At the snap, Rice crosses Baldwin's face, and Willson runs directly at the DB meant to pick up Baldwin. This 'pick' of sorts creates a soft spot underneath the coverage, right at the sticks, and Russell hits Doug for a first down. I strongly suspect that Doug's route is an 'option' route, and he's free to play his stem off of what the coverage dictates. In this case, the best scenario was to just sit down.


It's a simple play, really, but not something that's been much of a staple in Seattle's offensive gameplan. I'm hoping they utilize more of these formations to scheme their guys open instead of relying solely on superior route running.

This play was a success, but importantly, it wasn't even the first time they'd run it in the game.

Flashback to the first quarter...

3-5-TEN 37 (1:45) (Shotgun) R.Wilson scrambles up the middle to TEN 25 for 12 yards.
PENALTY on SEA-J.Carpenter, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at TEN 37 - No Play.

In the earlier case of this same play, Seattle used the same formation, same personnel grouping, and same motion with Marshawn Lynch.

The Titans played it slightly differently, and at Doug Baldwin's stem, he saw that the inside was opened up as the defender to the outside played more of a 'contain' angle rather than sitting on top of Willson's 'pick.'

Baldwin ran an angle-route that sort of looks like a backdoor cut off of a screen in basketball. The throw would have been there, except for Tennessee's well-timed and executed blitz on the weakside. James Carpenter failed to pick up the bogey, held, and in the face of the immediate pressure, Wilson was forced to scramble. He picked up yardage (and a first down) on the scramble, but the play was called back.


In this earlier example from the first quarter, after failing to convert the 3rd and 15, Seattle punted.

Instead, here on a second try, during this third quarter drive, Seattle picks up the first down when Doug Baldwin sits down underneath the coverage.

1-10-SEA 42 (7:52) R.Wilson scrambles right end to TEN 35 for 23 yards (B.Pollard).

After two short-target 'constraint' plays by the Seahawks, Seattle goes back to their bread and butter, hoping to have lulled the Titans to sleep. Well, it doesn't really work, per se, as the Titans defend the play-action rollout very well.

This is an interesting play, schematically. Look at Golden Tate's route - it is a double-move that is based on one of the most "Seahawky" route combinations we see this team run. This common combo sends one guy up the middle and another on a rounded-off out-route toward the sideline, looking for a soft spot in coverage. Tate's initial route is one in which you'll often see him catch the ball at the sideline with a Russell Wilson 'deep-out' throw. Here, Tate fakes the out-route then rounds it off upfield. The Titan DB does not bite on it at all though, so Wilson peels off of that read and runs.

It was never really meant to be. Wilson's throw was made tougher in this situation because of how deep the Titans' secondary gets; you can't even see the deep safety in this shot because apparently whoever was filming the "All-22" didn't notice the guy playing 30 or 40-yards downfield. Anyway, the effect of this deep coverage is that Russell finds no room to throw but tons of room to move underneath.

23-yard pickup.


1-10-TEN 35 (6:57) (Shotgun) PENALTY on SEA-J.Carpenter, False Start, 5 yards, enforced at TEN 35 - No Play.

This penalty was actually on LT Paul McQuistan for coming out of his stance a beat early - Carpenter was misidentified by the ref.

1-15-TEN 40 (6:33) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short right to J.Kearse pushed ob at TEN 29 for 11 yards (G.Wilson) [K.Klug].

Figuring that Tennessee is determined to play deep and take away play-action, Seattle goes back to their 'short-game', as they call it in golf.

The Hawks go four-wide with Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and Sidney Rice. In the slot, Kearse's defender gives him a big cushion, and he cuts outside. Wilson hits him for an 'easy' 11 yards. Kearse's dive forward at the end is a great second-effort that picks up an additional three yards.


2-4-TEN 29 (6:07) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short right to J.Kearse to TEN 22 for 7 yards (M.Fokou).

It's now 2nd and 4. Seattle comes out in the same personnel (4 WR), and they align in a balanced, tight-split look. This pre-snap formation is an absolute staple of the New Orleans offense. Go turn on the tape for them, and you'll see them run from this type of look over and over again (not in this personnel grouping, necessarily, because they have Jimmy Graham). I would not be remotely surprised if Seattle studies Drew Brees and Sean Payton's schemes.

Here, Seattle gets a first down with a quick strike to Jermaine Kearse. Kearse makes a great grab on this, by the way.


(Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports)

Seattle's drive would continue and eventually make its way into the redzone.

1-10-TEN 22 (5:34) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass incomplete short right to S.Rice (D.Morgan).
2-10-TEN 22 (5:30) M.Lynch left tackle to TEN 22 for no gain (K.Klug).
3-10-TEN 22 (4:50) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short right to D.Baldwin pushed ob at TEN 13 for 9 yards (B.Pollard)
4-1-TEN 13 (4:31) S.Hauschka 31 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-C.Gresham, Holder-J.Ryan.

However, it stalls, and Seattle would go on to tie the ballgame with a Steven Hauschka field goal.

That said, the momentum seemed to swing back in Seattle's direction after this drive, and I think part of it was because the Hawks had managed to string together a 12-play drive that took over six-and-a-half minutes off the clock. They did so with the use of the intermediate passing game.

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