I've talked about play-action here, over the past couple of years, a lot. Why? Because it's important. If you were to imagine in your mind's eye the pillars of Seattle's offensive schematic philosophy, you'd see the Zone Blocking Scheme prominently placed right in the middle, flanked on each side by play-action passing to the left (explosive plays), and ball control on the right (don't turn the ball over).
The dedication to the zone blocking scheme (and running the ball a lot, in general) works in harmony with Seattle's desire to throw from play-action and create explosive plays. Seattle ran the ball more than any other team in the NFL in 2012, using 'run-heavy' formations with two tight ends or two running backs with great frequency, and were still very efficient despite the fact teams knew rushes were coming.
As I said, Seattle's 536 regular season rushing attempts led the league, but they also averaged 4.8 yards per carry, good for fifth in the NFL. From all this frequency and all this success comes a natural response by the defense - crowd the box, look to stop them from running. "Not only are they running a ton, they're picking up nearly five yards a carry. Pisses me off."
Now, you don't need to run or even have to be a good running team for play-action to work for you - you only have to sell it well that you are running - but having the identity and swagger of a running team while having Beast-mode in your backfield - the natural reaction from a bunch of alpha males is: "We're going to stop these m*therf*ckers".
"I'm going to blow up Lynch." "I'm going to put these guys in their place; give them a taste of their own medicine."
I mean, I can remember several instances from last year where guys jumped up celebrating and barking in Lynch's face because they hit him hard or knocked him backwards, but only after Lynch had picked up 8-10 yards and a first down. Why are you celebrating, idiot? We just got a first down. Well, he's celebrating because - these guys are humans, they want to be dishing out the punishment, not taking it.
So, we know that Seattle runs the ball a lot and we know that they love using play-action. Thanks to Football Outsiders, we now know just how much they utilized it in 2012. Per FO:
After holding at 19 percent in 2010 and 2011, [teams' use of] play-action jumped to 21 percent [in 2012], thanks largely to the three highest play-action frequencies we've seen since we started charting it in 2005. A year after Houston set the new benchmark with a 33 percent clip, Washington (42 percent), Seattle (35 percent) and Minnesota (35 percent) all eclipsed that, with Carolina also matching Houston's 33 percent mark. Houston, meanwhile regressed to 25 percent, likely due to the fact that T.J. Yates wasn't under center for 150 dropbacks this year.
FO attributes the rise of the use of play-action to young, athletic quarterbacks under center and the advent of the read-option - Robert Griffin and the Redskins doubled their use of play-action, Cam Newton and the Panthers increased their usage of play action from 20% in 2011 to 33% in 2012, and, "Russell Wilson‘s presence had a similar effect in Seattle, creating a nearly 60 percent increase in play-action use."
60% increase. Damn.
Seattle's yards per play out of play-action was an impressive 8.2 clip. Their DVOA was 47.7%, a full 11.2% higher than their DVOA on snaps without play-action. The Hawks picked up an average of 1.8 more yards per play when using play-action. Play-action ain't going away, in other words.
Now, first of all, we know how and why play-action works. If you're still interested in the meat and potatoes on that, read these two posts:
In a nutshell: play action targets both very disciplined defenses (in general) but can also be used to target overly aggressive individual players (specifically). Linebackers are the biggest targets here - and they each have reads and keys to react to when it comes to the offensive line, running backs, or quarterback, and freezing them for even a second or two is enough to get them out of position to make plays in coverage downfield.
Seattle's 60% increase in the use of play-action can probably be mostly attributed to Russell Wilson's strengths as a quarterback - both his willingness to throw the deep ball and his ability to run the read-option.
On regular, ho-hum I-formation plays or two tight end sets, in general, teams brace for the run and almost expect it. Against Seattle specifically, it's nearly a forgone conclusion that it'll be a run, and Seattle faced a lot of 8-man fronts. This meant - and this was by design - that the Hawks got a lot of one-on-one match-ups on the outside with their one- or two-receiver sets, and as we all saw, Russell Wilson is not afraid to challenge cornerbacks in those situations. In an 8-man run-defense front, the deep safety can only go one of two ways. Look him off to the right, throw it up to your guy on the left and let him make a play. CASE IN POINT, HERE.
It's a fairly simple read for Wilson and that was important in his rookie year before he was totally comfortable reading defenses and dissecting them in real-time.
So, this was Seattle's M.O. in 2012. Grind it out on the ground, a lot, throw it up through the air when teams sell out to stop you. "Throw to score, run to win." I don't think that mindset will change much, but the style you see might be a little different. Or a lot .. different.
Toward the end of last season, when Seattle got their read-option attack going, there seemed to be a little bit of a shift to more '11' personnel sets - not drastically, but that was my feel. This may be the case in 2013 as well. Part of this was that the read-option could function so well as a play-action piece that you could still freeze linebackers effectively while running out of 'passing' personnel.
That was before Percy Harvin was acquired too, and you have to think that Seattle has major plans to incorporate Harvin into their offense. This could signal a pretty big change from a focus on two-back sets to more one-back sets with Harvin used as a moveable chess piece.
Kyle Shanahan talked about the read-option's ability to freeze defenders last week:
"The zone read is something - I learned, throughout going through the year - that I think really helped us. It [worked to create] the least [amount of] pass rush I've ever seen as a coordinator. Guys just sitting there scared to death just watching everybody, not moving. I really enjoyed, actually, sometimes being able to drop back and not have four guys just teeing off from the quarterback, all trying to hit him in the pocket."
So, it not only freezes linebackers, it eases the pass rush because defensive ends and outside linebackers are nervous about diagnosing a play and keeping containment.
Mike Shanahan and his staff did such an outstanding job with both the Pistol and read option, and all the option elements that derive from them (Washington was the only team that utilized triple option concepts with any regularity) that Griffin had many easy throws (by NFL standards) to open receivers in the middle of the field.
All the backfield action created large voids in the defense. It gave linebackers and safeties an awful lot to process in a very short period of time, and the result was often indecision and uncertainty.
I'd watch tape of the Redskins offense, and sometimes linebackers did not move for two seconds after the ball was snapped trying to decipher all the movement in the backfield. Remember the overriding point: Griffin was a dangerous running threat, and defenses had to account for him with a mix of personnel and scheme.
In other words, using Shanahan's words: Guys just sitting there scared to death just watching everybody, not moving.
In another article from Cosell, in response to Seattle's flurry of moves to pick up Percy Harvin, Cliff Avril, and Michael Bennett, the NFL Films scion had some very interesting theories as to how the Hawks might use Harvin. Cosell brings up an interesting and salient point in framing his theory on Harvin in that Pete Carroll's bane in college was defending Chip Kelly's Oregon offense, an offense predicated on widening the field (hence - spread offense).
Kelly's Ducks' scheme was, as Cosell posits,
An offense whose foundation is the running game despite the spread formations: Manipulating and adding gaps by the use of personnel and formation, and the viability of the quarterback as a running threat. Those who believe otherwise do not understand the conceptual and schematic underpinnings of Kelly's offense. It's an option run game, with the quarterback as the initial decision maker. For those option concepts to be maximized, the quarterback must be a runner. He won't have his quarterback run "power" 10 times a game, but any option offense requires a quarterback who can run.
Importantly, Cosell notes:
"Interestingly enough, [Pete Carroll] spent his last three years [at USC] trying to defend Kelly's offense at Oregon; in Carroll's last game against Kelly, Oregon rolled up 613 yards of total offense, the most allowed in Carroll's tenure at USC."
Think that bugged Carroll much? Think Carroll is influenced by things he learned or went through at USC? Uh, yes.
One tactic that I repeatedly see in college with both the quarterback under center and in the shotgun is a player from outside the formation, usually from a wide receiver position, motioning into the backfield with speed. That places a tremendous pre-snap burden on the defense.
Think about it in the context of the Seahawks. You have Russell Wilson in the shotgun, with Marshawn Lynch next to him or behind him in the Pistol formation. If Lynch is next to Wilson, the defense must be prepared for read option, which presents its own set of tactical issues.
If it's the Pistol, then the defense must be ready for the complete and multiple running game with Lynch, which of course is no easy task to defend.
Of course, you can throw very effectively from these formations as well, with multiple play action and run action principles.
Now add Harvin into the mix, sprinting into the backfield. That gives the Seahawks so many more options, and the defense much more to digest, process and adjust to in a matter of seconds.
It's a very difficult balancing act for even the most experienced defense.
It's a fascinating dynamic. Even though Harvin is motioning tight to the formation, he is really stretching the field horizontally because of the speed with which he is crossing the field. That kind of velocity motion forces the defense to widen. Why? What if Wilson takes the snap, and immediately hands the ball to Harvin racing to the perimeter? That attacks the edge, and puts the defense in a tough predicament.
The result, and I've just scratched the surface of the multiple skill set of Harvin, is the further integration of the college spread game with the NFL game despite the closer hash marks. It's a means of expanding the field, utilizing more space and forcing the defense to defend more area. Harvin gives the Seahawks that dimension.
I'm convinced they made the trade with that in mind. He will not simply be a wide receiver. He will be a movable chess piece that advances the continuing evolution of NFL offense.
So, does this dynamic signal a move from Seattle's 'run-heavy' two-back sets to more three-receiver sets? I don't know, but it's an interesting thought.
Also of interest for this whole line of thinking is that within the zone-blocking scheme - and remember, the ZBS is the foundation of everything the Hawks do on offense - according to Alex Gibbs' philosophy on it (though not necessarily Tom Cable's), you're going to get more explosive plays on the ground of out one-back personnel - i.e., passing personnel.
Gibbs' logic is simple - defenses aren't expecting a run when you come out with three 'receivers' (though one can be a move tight end) so there's likely one less guy in the box that you have to worry about. This equates to, in theory, more explosive plays on the ground.
Seattle has Marshawn Lynch, whose open field speed is vastly underrated in my opinion, and Robert Turbin, whose game is predicated on an almost inhuman explosiveness. Christine Michael - well, we don't know much about him yet, but he appears to have that home-run hitting potential.
Add the Percy Harvin backfield movement factor into the equation, and as Kenny would say, you got yourself a stew goin'. Part of me wonders whether Seattle's offense will continue to be predicated on the run but out of different sets than we're used to. I think the read-option will still be a 'curve ball' that the Hawks can use during games and I also think Seattle will greatly expand their use of the pistol formation. If Washington's offense from last year is any indication, this means Seattle can even increase their use of play action. My point is: It's going to be interesting to see how much things change, or whether they change much at all.
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