clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Seahawks run-heavy vs. spread-out personnel groupings: Being the dictator

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

"I think you have to make a decision as a defense now - do you want to play these guys in base defense? If you do, then you're going to have a linebacker covering those tight ends. If you're going to go the other way, say, we're going to put nickel in the game, then we're going to try to shove the ball down your throat running it. For us, it kind of puts us back into a position of power, where we're going to play off of how they want to substitute and how they want to match up.

If they stay in base, you might see us attack them more and throw the ball more, if they get in nickel, you might see us run it more. Anytime on offense you can kind of dictate a little bit, then you're ahead of the defense. When your'e the punching bag, and you're taking shots from the defense, you're really behind it. And, you know, for seven games, we were really behind it last year. From Week 8 on, I think we really started to be more of a dictator, and tell the defense, 'here's how we're going to play this game.' I think we got better at doing that." - Tom Cable, summer 2012

The never-ending chess match between offensive and defensive coordinators is one of my favorite aspects of the game of football. In particular, I'm always intrigued with personnel grouping variation and formation variation and the evolving usage of hybrid players.

The Seahawks, on one hand, are an 'old-school' team - smashmouth, I-formation running, play-action, ball control etc - but on the other hand, seem cognizant of the direction the league is going on both sides of the ball and have built in versatility at nearly every position.

On defense, the interior linemen can all play at least two positions. The linebackers can all play at least two positions - some can play three, or four in the case of K.J. Wright, who is a legitimate option at all three linebacker spots plus the LEO. Similarly, the LEOs can all play SAM, for the most part, and some DEs can also play inside at 3-technique. Seattle is so multiple on the defensive line that I literally don't know what they expect a guy like Greg Scruggs to play down the line. Is he a three-technique? Yes. Is he a five-technique? Yes. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor alternate roles, and a good amount of Seattle's cornerbacks can play both on the inside and the outside.

Greg Cosell, who studies trends closely, wrote during the offseason that the Seahawks appeared to be on the tip of the spear with the evolutions of both offense and defense. On defense, as Greg explains:

There's a much larger point at work here. It's how you scheme pass rush pressure. With Irvin, a returning Chris Clemons, and newly signed Cliff Avril, the Seahawks have three players who can align anywhere in their nickel sub-package. They all have what we call "Joker" ability, the talent to line up in either 3-point or 2-point stances and rush from different positions and angles.

What you have is an ideal mix of physical athleticism, and multiple schemes. It's the new age pressure concepts in the NFL. It's very difficult to line up with four defensive linemen in conventional positions, and create consistent pressure on the quarterback. Not only is it difficult to find four players who can do that, it's tactically easier for the offense to protect against those more basic fronts. What defenses are trying to accomplish is pass protection indecision based on front alignments, coupled with athletic mismatches. The Seahawks are well positioned to do that with their personnel.

Let's not forget Bennett. In Tampa last season, he played defensive end in the base 4-3, and then moved inside to tackle in the nickel and dime sub-packages. His pass rush quickness was not only a problem for offensive guards, it allowed him to be effective with stunts, another tactic that creates hesitation and confusion in pass protection schemes.

The bottom line is this: the Seahawks have constructed a multi-dimensional combination of talent with speed, athleticism, and position and scheme versatility. That's what's necessary in the NFL of 2013 and beyond.

Let's reiterate that:

"The bottom line is this: the Seahawks have constructed a multi-dimensional combination of talent with speed, athleticism, and position and scheme versatility. That's what's necessary in the NFL of 2013 and beyond."

You can counter the hurry up. The no huddle. Run heavy teams. Pass heavy teams. Without changing personnel.

The same type of thing could be said about offense. Hybrid, scheme-versatile style players, throwbacks from Single Wing days, continue to emerge, and we're seeing more guys that fall into the 'football player' category than fitting into any one position. Part receivers, part running backs (Percy). We've seen hybrid receivers and fullbacks (Seattle is trying to do this with Phil Bates). We've seen hybrid fullback/halfbacks (Spencer Ware). Hybrid fullbacks/tight ends (Konzy, Willson?). Hybrid receivers/tight ends (Helfet).

You can counter nickel defenses. Base looks. You can run. You can pass. Without changing personnel.

This versatility allows Seattle to disguise their de facto personnel groupings as they get out of the huddle - that tight end actually is a fullback. That running back is actually a receiver. That receiver is actually a running back. You cannot tell by their formations whether they'll run or whether they'll pass.

As Cable said above, this allows the offense to dictate terms to the defense - if you come out in base defense against our, say, two tight end set, we're going to throw the ball over your head when you match a linebacker up with one of our tight ends. If you come out the next time we run a two tight end set and you're in nickel, we're going to run the ball right at your cute little nickelback and steamroll his ass. (Does not apply to Antoine Winfield though, as a hybrid corner/linebacker, just another example of Seattle's advantages in personnel.)

It's not just the Rob Gronkowski - Aaron Hernandez style two tight end sets that allow you to dictate matchups - similar flow chart thought processes apply to other personnel groupings. Let's explore, shall we?

Two-back looks ('22'/'21' personnel):

Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell ran in two-back looks about 30-35% of the time in 2012 (based on Mike Rob's snap count). Considering most of Seattle's two-back looks will be countered on defense with an 8-man front (the other team will drop a safety into the box for run support), it might be a little surprising the Hawks decided to go this route so often.

In fact, per Football Outsiders' tracking, 52% of Seattle's league-high 536 rushes in 2012 came from two-back sets. Their rush DVOA from two back sets was a solid 4.6% - fifth best in the NFL. However, their DVOA running from one-back sets was much better - 11.8%, which was 2nd only to San Francisco in the entire NFL. They were the 2nd best running team by DVOA in one-back sets.

In other words, Seattle was actually much more successful running the football, per DVOA, in one-back sets than they were in two-back sets. Part of this was probably due to the advent of the read-option in the second half of the year, but another part of it was surely due to the fact that you're more or less telling your opponent that you're planning on running the football when you come out in two-back sets, which means teams are geared up to stop you (you don't always run, of course, but that's what teams expect).

So why did the Hawks run half of the time with a lead-blocking fullback? Why did they consistently run into an 8-man box when running with a one-back formation is more likely to give you a 7-man defensive front? Why make it harder on yourself?

To give Russell Wilson one-on-one passing opportunities on the outside. That's why.

Pete Carroll is obsessed with explosive plays. He believes that they hold a special power. He'll run off right tackle two, three times in a row and gain two aggregate yards just so he can run well-executed play-action from the same formation at a future point and get a one-on-one downfield for a big play. We talk about how Bevell and Carroll slow play the deep bomb a lot around here - and that Sidney Rice game-winning touchdown against the Patriots is a great example of that idea in action.

The Seahawks will continue to do this. They demonstrated this idea on Friday.

1-10-GB 42 (8:58 4th Q) B.Quinn pass deep left to S.Williams for 42 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

The game is tied. The clock is just under 9:00 in the fourth. It's first down. Just past midfield. Most defenses probably wouldn't be expecting a downfield bomb in this situation, especially when Seattle comes out of the huddle in 21 personnel and settle into an off-set I-formation, with tight end in-line right.

Seattle gets that 8-man front they're looking for. As Perez Ashford motions right, the corner shifts to the wing to match him up, the strong safety drops down into the box to pick up TE Darren Fells (or take on the run), and the free safety drops deep to the middle. At this point, because of the defensive shifts, Brady Quinn has a pretty good idea that the Packers are in a single high cover-3 defense with one-on-one matchups on the outside for his two receivers. This is the defense that the Seahawks run. Quinn sees it everyday in practice.

So what happens?


The Hawks run a very old, established cover-3 killer by sending Darren Fells up the seam and Williams up the sideline. This route by Fells is meant to draw the attention of that single high safety long enough to ensure Stephen Williams gets a 50-50 ball. It works beautifully.

This is why Seattle is emphasizing "holding the redline" in training camp.

It's because when they encounter 8-man defensive fronts meant to stifle their stubborn running ways, they want man-to-man on the outside and they want Russell Wilson to throw the ball downfield.

This is chess though, this ain't checkers. There's a shitload of grey area. Let's back up.

Fullbacks can do more than block. Tight ends can do more than catch little dinky dump offs. This makes formational multiplicity on offense extremely hard to defend as a defensive coordinator.

The fullback position is starting to evolve, so it's not like the Seahawks are relics because they're running with fullbacks. You don't see many 'true' fullbacks in the NFL and Seattle, though they're one of the last holdouts still using dedicated fullbacks, don't even really even have a true fullback in Michael Robinson. Rob was a quarterback in college and a receiver in the pre-Draft process, so he's more of a 'football player' than anything. This gives Seattle even more flexibility in the play-action game and allows them to do more things in their 'run heavy' looks. I.e., it's not just run the ball or chuck it deep, there are a million options in between.

Background on Seattle's philosophy....

Now, I'm going to include some quotes from Alex Gibbs about a wide range of things, but first let me lay out why I even care what Gibbs has to say.

The Zone Blocking Scheme was revolutionized by Alex Gibbs in Denver during the 1990's and early 2000's. Pete Carroll and Tom Cable both have strong connections to Mike Shanahan and Alex Gibbs and are wholly dedicated to the church of the ZBS.

As a refresher on the connections there, here's what Davis told us recently:

Mike Shanahan started as an assistant in Denver in 1984. Not only was he with John Elway, but he also worked with Gary Kubiak (who now runs another very effective ZBS in Houston), who was the backup QB at the time, and Offensive Line Coach, Alex Gibbs. Shanahan and Gibbs were in Denver through 1987 and then went together to the Raiders, as Shanahan became the Head Coach under Al Davis.

After a falling out - Shanahan went back to Denver, and then went to the 49ers. When he went back to Denver for the third time, to become the Head Coach, he went to assemble a coaching staff. He was unsuccessful in landing Pete Carroll as his Defensive Coordinator (offered him that job), but he was successful in bringing back Alex Gibbs from 1995 to 2003.

Shanahan and Gibbs were able to win two Super Bowls by combining a WCO, zone blocking, play action passing, and an accurate and mobile quarterback. Shanahan's name now embodies that potent combination I just described: Bill Walsh's West Coast passing and Alex Gibbs' deep commitment to zone running, with the mesh point of those two concepts as the play-action pass.


The 2006 Atlanta Falcons were not a good team, but I wonder if there were any tiny seeds that reinforced some offensive concepts of the 2012 Seahawks. The team was coached by Jim Mora and the offensive line was coached by Tom Cable. The team led the NFL in rushing at 183 yards per game, obviously with a running QB, Michael Vick, and a good running back in Warrick Dunn. The "consultant" that year? Alex Gibbs.

Matt Schaub was the backup QB. I am not saying that Russell Wilson is Michael Vick, Russell is a smarter runner and a better passer, but Tom Cable gained some familiarity that year with a strong running game coupled with a QB that was also a threat to run, all behind the foundation of the zone scheme.

This coaching tree stuff is fascinating. Anyway.

Obviously, Pete Carroll later hired Gibbs to coach his offensive line here when he first made it back to the NFL in 2010, and while that was ultimately short-lived, it's crystal clear that Gibbs has been a big influence on both Pete Carroll and Tom Cable. Here's one example:

As per those clinic videos you can find on YouTube, the tenets of Alex Gibbs' zone blocking scheme, and whole philosophy are:

1. No negatives
2. Big, explosive plays

Sound familiar?

Gibbs' obsession with never having a negative run play is directly linked to his philosophy of 'staying on schedule,' something you'll hear Russell Wilson parrot time and time again.

From Gibbs' now-famous coaching seminars, he explains the idea of staying on schedule within a set of downs:

It does not matter on first or second down what personnel we have and whether or not we run or throw. It's irrelevant. It has no meaning.

If the run is a 'no negative', we never create third and long. So, if we throw on first down and it's incomplete, we're gonna take that puppy to third and six, third and five (he assumes that he can subsequently get four or five on second down, per his schedule). We can keep operating, you see. So we don't care.

We don't care what the play is.

I mean, I really don't give a shit.

I really don't care.

Again. What do you hear Russell Wilson constantly saying? We gotta stay away from third and long. We gotta stay on schedule. Gotta be better on 3rd downs. These are long-held tenets of offensive football, but you can see the stamp that Gibbs has apparently left on both Carroll and Cable now espoused by Russell Wilson.

Running out of one-back looks ('11' personnel)

So. Gibbs loved him some explosive plays. However, Gibbs, from what I understand, wasn't as enthusiastic about running I-formation with fullbacks as Pete Carroll and Tom Cable seem to be (oh and Darrell Bevell of course too).

Says Gibbs, in reference to generating explosives:

We'll be better off in one-back, if we can get there. Because, we have more big plays in one back than we have in two back. Because, when we put another (back) in there, what do they do, defensively? It's another guy down in the hole.


More from Gibbs on fullbacks:

Now, we have evolved to this: our fullback is not a fullback. Our fullback is a 2nd or 3rd runner. We no longer play a blunt player. We don't get many. So what we don't understand is why that guy sitting over there on that fucking bench is better than that fullback in the game.

This was a question I had when the Seahawks acquired Percy Harvin. Because Harvin can rush from the backfield and catch from the wing, I had almost sort of wondered if Seattle would more or less abandon the fullback position altogether in order to get Harvin on the field, along with other 'better' (more explosive, versatile) players in Robert Turbin, Christine Michael, or even Spencer Ware. That's obviously not happening at this point, but the thought did cross my mind, particularly with the read-option and Pistol gaining popularity. Get your best players on the field. Get them the ball. Get the ball to a playmaker. You only get so many snaps per game. Make them count.


When you see our fullback, you're not going to see a guy that's going to stab MIKE linebackers in the heart; we're not looking for a fucking 260 pound slug. We're looking for a receiver, and a guy that understands the same reads the runners learn.

That's Mike Rob, Marshawn Lynch's eyes. That's how Seattle ostensibly sees Spencer Ware down the line as they groom him to become a fullback. A receiver. A guy that understands the reads runners learn. That's how you get more talent onto the field at the same time.

Now, again, obviously Pete Carroll and Tom Cable are not Gibbs. They like running two-back I-formation stuff because it gives your quarteraback the one-on-one on the outside, but they also like the versatility that Mike Rob provides as a receiving option. Davis and I worked on this little research project together, and as he wrote to me while we were putting everything together,

This is another reason why Spencer Ware is interesting to Pete Carroll. He is a better runner than Mike Rob, and he can catch the ball at an even higher level. Mike Rob caught the passes he was supposed to catch just fine (wide open in the flat, sometimes off play action), but Ware can catch a contested ball. Ware also has more wiggle after the catch.

Mike Rob can take it for 7 or 17 yards, but as we saw with against Denver, Ware can take the catch for 17 or 27 yards.

Can Ware block like Mike Rob? No, not at this point, but if he can pick up this skill by 2014, the Seahawks can have a triple threat type player at a position that is dying and only sees the field 31% of the time (and that is in the runningest offense in the NFL).

We haven't even seen what the Hawks plan to do in Pistol or split-back shotgun sets. This is another place that Ware can find a niche, assuming he makes the team. Robert Turbin too can probably play this role as well, because he's another great receiving running back.

The Explosive Play:

Gibbs loves the explosive play. Pete Carroll LOVES the explosive play.

Here's what Gibbs said about it:

....The big explosive play.... now that's usually personnel.

If we can get those explosive plays, all that other shit takes care of itself. My offensive coordinator, he's always talking about efficiency, efficiency - I say bullshit - I want no negatives and I want big explosive plays.

So, when I set this trend, I know I can lead the league in explosive plays if I'm in one-back.

But, then you got [to worry about] the no negatives. When I take this guy off the field - this human being (points to the fullback on the chalkboard), who takes his place, in reality?

(Points to the quarterback).

That would be Russell Wilson.

He's got to be smart enough to know who can block which guys. So, you can't put a guy in there that ain't smart. I don't give a fuck how good he is, if he sends us over this way (points to the left side) and they've got more than we've got, how we going to block them fuckers?

Thank god Russell is a film rat. Also I love how Alex Gibbs talks.

Now, if I've got a fullback, I don't care, I've got a system. If he's over here, I've got a system, if he's over there, I've got a system, I don't care what they are (the defense). But, when he goes off the field, this guy (points to quarterback) has to run the show.

Because I've got nobody that can block the 8th guy now. I've got nobody that can block him coming off the edges. So, there's a constant war going on.

Chess, not checkers.


After all that Davis and I have just said about the fullback position, the Seahawks find themselves with a sickness-ridden fullback that missed last week's game, will miss this week, and now may miss the opener against Carolina. Pete Carroll was asked about the absence of Michael Robinson recently and the coach had the following to say.

"We ran the ball fine again [against Green Bay]. We're able - we have a lot of flexibility in how we do things in using our personnel and you'll see in the next couple of weeks that we'll continue to do that. We love our tight ends and the way they're playing - Zach's going to come back for the opener - We can move him around, we can move Luke [Willson] around, we've been preparing to do that. Luke has had a fantastic preseason and offseason. He's ready to play for us, so he's done a great job of studying and has adapted well. So, that really gives us the flexibility, so we should be ok."


Davis writes:

The Fullback has to be a threat to catch the ball and run the ball, he can't be a blocker only, or it tips off the defense to what is coming. Luke Willson as a fullback at times is very intriguing. He has the speed to threaten the seam, and when he does, the safeties have to respect it. With focus on Willson, this should leave the outside WR one on one for "redline" type catches. (As seen above)

If you take Luke Willson, with 4.5 speed, and also line him up at times effectively as a fullback - he helps create explosive plays in another way, as the defense is not geared up to stop the run.

Willson reminds me of James Casey in some ways. Casey is an athletic H-back type that had been used in Houston the last couple years as a fullback/tight end hybrid, and he emerged as a legit threat in that role. Importantly though, he wasn't a true lead blocker, but was still very effective in the Texans' zone blocking scheme.

Davis expounds:

Mike Holmgren liked the I-formation in a 3 WR set (20 personnel - two backs, no tight ends). Of course, he had Mack Strong as his fullback.

The Seahawks' twist on this formation is using a TE as a fullback in their 11 personnel (one back, one tight end). This is essentially '20' personnel as the TE becomes a FB.

The defense is usually in nickel when they see three receivers head into the huddle, so they are not geared up to stop the run, especially when the TE moves to play FB. (The cool thing is that the TE could also line up on the LOS and run a route.)

This could be scary for a defense, and moving the TE behind the LOS in the I-formation means that no "strong side" is declared, so the defense may be a man short on the playside - meaning the defense needs a defender to shed the block or a backside defender needs to be awesome in pursuit across trash.

How about some real-life examples?

2-18-GB 43 (9:48 3rd Q) C.Michael right guard for 43 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

I'll let Davis frame it:

I think the run that Michael took for a TD is pretty sweet in that Baldwin motions late away from the run.

I would assume three DBs have to honor the two-receiver side that Baldwin moves to, and perhaps Green Bay felt a little more secure pre-snap that Seattle would not test the near hash side, but the run works well. Russell Okung and Paul McQuistan chop down the backside, the weakside linbacker on the line of scrimmage does not have the speed to make the tackle on the 2nd level and does not factor in the play, Willson controls his man, Breno Giacomini does his job, J.R. Sweezy does his job, and Max Unger moves to second level and seals his man.

This is textbook Tom Cable/Pete Carroll type football - waiting all game to get an explosive play in the run game (especially on a passing down of 2nd and 18).

Put another way, against Green Bay, with Dom Capers' love of pressure, has too many players at the LOS, and not enough behind the ball - and Cable hits them where they are weak.


Before that play finishes with a touchdown, let's break it down.

I have a few favorites about this play. My first favorite is holy shit look at what Russell Okung does on the backside. McQuistan is right there, but if you watch closely, Big Runs With The Bulls Guy takes out two defenders in one fell swoop.

Quick aside:

Cut Blocking on the Backside, by Alex Gibbs:

"We cut block everything behind the ball on the wide zone play. However, some defenders are too good for us to cut them. You may have linemen who play for you that are not good cut blockers. However, we entice our players with added points, which translate to added money in our league. We make charts, give T-shirts, and do anything we can
think of to get people on the ground. We have a cut block film each week of the cut blocks in the game. The head has to be in front, but we want everything that moves behind the ball cut down."

I think you could assume Tom Cable is equally enthusiastic about cut blocks - possibly bribing players like Gibbs - and I remember Max Unger saying his favorite play of the 2012 season was Marshawn's 77-yard jail-break where Okung, Carpenter, Unger, and McQuistan cut blocks were instrumental in springing Lynch.

Remember this? Watch the cut blocks on the backside!


These cut blocks on the backside aren't ancillary to the play. Gibbs, and now Cable take them very, very seriously. Why? Because they turn a five or six yard gain into a 77-yard, or, in this case, 43-yard touchdown run.

Watch Okung:


I also really love Kearse's downfield block but that's not as germane to the discussion at hand. (Did you see what I did there).

Later that quarter, more examples of these ideas:

Good news! For analysis' sake, the Seahawks did this a few more times!

From Davis:

When you look at these three plays as a group (one above, two below) you realize that the Seahawks run this play to both the closed (near hash) and open (wide hash) side of the field. They also run to the two-receiver side, and also, run away from the two-receiver side. This is a good thing, you can't have too many tendencies.

Formational versatility!

"We have a lot of flexibility in how we do things in using our personnel and you'll see in the next couple of weeks that we'll continue to do that." -Pete Carroll

1-10-SEA 44 (3:32 3rd Q) C.Michael left end to GB 38 for 18 yards (L.Means).

Davis, set it up:

On the Michael spin move run, I am not sure he is even making the correct read on this run. Carroll has said multiple times in interviews that Michael does not read the system correctly yet on many plays.

He has the lateral agility to make it work anyway, but I don't think this makes Cable feel good about the concept of "no negatives".

If you get too cute trying to improvise, you will get negative plays, no matter how talented Michael is. The whole concept of Gibbs running game is that if you miss your pass on 1st and 10, you can come back on 2nd and 10 and get your 4 yards no matter what. You set up 3rd and 6 and you are still "on schedule".

I'll interject that we've heard Cable say several times that it took Marshawn Lynch a while to buy in to the program they do with this ZBS where you just have to get from Point A to Point B the way they want you to. Once you're to Point B, you can get to Point C however the hell you want. It took Lynch a little while to figure this out and we saw him dancing and juking behind the line a lot really early on.

This is just, in general, likely what Michael has to learn. But this is a very good run below, regardless, as he turns nothing into something. Notice here, we have the same receiver motion from left to right, but Seattle runs to the 'strong' side of the field in this instance. With the tight end in the backfield, you can pretty much run either way and your formation looks the same.


Helfet's not going to win an award for that block, but Michael wasn't going through that gap as it is anyway.

One thing we didn't talk much about yet is that running from 'passing' personnel like the three-receiver sets we've seen here is a good way to beat the blitz. By nature, blitzes are sending players upfield toward the quarterback and are often times skewed to one side or another.

Offensive line coaches love running against a blitz when the opposing defense believes a pass is coming, because there are less people on in the secondary to stop you once you've hit the 2nd level.

Gibbs, on explosives and beating the blitz...

"The beauty of the zone play is the way it handles the blitz. I hope the defense blitzes. I do not pull anybody at anytime. I do not want to run any plays that pull linemen. They are good plays, but not for me. I want to run zone, and that is what my players know how to run. We run zone wide and tight, and that is it. If you want to run something else, do not call me and ask for help. Blitzes do not bother the zone scheme. If the blitz comes toward the zone, it belongs to the blocker behind the blitz. lf it comes away from the zone, it belongs to the player behind. You beg teams to blitz you, because when you pop the seam, the back is in the secondary. That is how you lead the league in long runs."

Explosives. Again.

Here's Christine Michael with another 'explosive' play - Pete Carroll defines an 'explosive' run of 12 or more yards.

2-7-SEA 16 (6:28 3rd Q) C.Michael left end to SEA 28 for 12 yards (C.Banjo).

Notice the Packers send 7 here - including a safety running in on the backside at the last minute, effectively taking himself out of the play nicely.

Michael runs off Michael Bowie and Alvin Bailey.


Why is Green Bay blitzing? Well, for one, Seattle came out in '11' personnel - normally a 'passing' personnel grouping, and the 2nd and 7 down/distance would, for a lot of teams, be a passing situation, because most teams try to avoid 3rd and more than 5 or 6. Seattle DGAF though, as long as they stay on schedule. 3rd and 4, 3rd and 3? That's just fine for Seattle. It's why they have an opportunity here to pick up an explosive play running out of '11' personnel.