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Does Seahawks' use of heavy sets vs. Rams signal a change in style going forward?

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Dilip Vishwanat

Apart from the off-field stuff related to Percy Harvin's conflict in the locker room, perhaps part of the reason the Seahawks decided to move on was that in an effort to placate and oblige Harvin on the field, the team was wandering further and further away from their identity. It's not that Seattle stopped running the football when Harvin became more integrated into the Seahawks' offense, but the style, and more specifically, the feel of the offense changed. It was more about misdirection and running away from the defense rather than taking it directly at them.

I go back to something that Pete Carroll said toward the end of last year, when he pretty succinctly summed up how he wants his team to play. "We want to be physical," he said. "We want to be tough, we want to attack you, we want to get after you, we want to make sure you know you've played a very hard football game."

We want to make sure you know you've played a very hard football game. Remember last season when we were talking about the "Seahawks hangover?" At this point in 2013, teams that had played Seattle were 0-6 the following week while being outscored 172-62. "When you play our team, we're going to beat the hell out of you if we can," said Carroll.

This is something that Cowboys fans are talking about now, and take a look at how Dallas is playing football. DeMarco Murray is the first back ever to rush for 100+ yards in the first seven games of a season. He just broke Jim Brown's record for that.

For me, I'm just not sure you can really get that "kick your ass" feel when you're running three-wide the vast majority of the time. Even if you run the football a lot from these spread-out sets - and I'm talking, volume and percentage-wise, it ends up feeling more like the Broncos' offense, or the Packers' offense, more than something like the 49ers' or Panthers' punch-you-in-the-mouth styles.

"As a running offense, we want to have a running back, a fullback, a tight end, and run it down the defense's throat," said Doug Baldwin this week. "That's just how we want to play football."

"I don't really think the three-wide receiver set is what the Seahawks' offense is," he added. "It's more of the running back, the fullback, and pounding it with the run."

I actually agree. That's not to say that the Seahawks should not or will not run three-receiver sets. In fact, "11" personnel, which is three-receivers, one tight end, and one fullback, is Seattle's primary personnel grouping. Last season, according to Football Outsiders' Almanac, Seattle used it 45% of the time and their DVOA from that set was very strong.

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However, personnel groupings with either two backs or two tight ends comprised another 45% of the Seahawks' scheme on offense (the other 10% being 4WR or 3TE stuff), so it's clear that while 11 personnel is a staple, it's augmented and balanced out by heavy use of fullbacks and tight ends.

Going by FO's charting, Seattle ran with a fullback on around 23 percent of their offensive snaps. If you look at snap counts for Mike Robinson and Derek Coleman, that number is as high as 27 percent. This season, Derrick Coleman saw 49 snaps through the first six games before breaking his foot, or about 16 percent of Seattle's snaps. The "heavy" two-back set usage had gone down pretty significantly, it seems. Why use a primarily blocking fullback when you have Harvin standing on the sideline? Especially when he's in your ear about making him a bigger part of the gameplan.

The DVOA in personnel groupings that featured a fullback hovered right around zero last season, but it's not necessarily the efficiency that the Seahawks are looking for. It's about wearing your opponent down and making them feel you. It also sets up deep shots downfield because teams play with 8- and 9-man boxes more frequently.

Importantly, I believe that these heavy sets help create more effective play action, and from under center, Wilson can more easily get to his full-on sprint to bootleg action, which gets him to where he wants to be - in the flats with no one in front of him. Reverse pivot, bootleg at full speed. Fake handoff, bootleg at a sprint. You're making defenders read their keys. They're watching the OL. The bootleg action out of shotgun sets typically mean Wilson is essentially strafing one way or another at half-speed. The deep bootlegs from under center are more suited to Wilson's skillset, in my opinion.

Also, this is the offense that Wilson ran at Wisconsin, and maybe it's just based off of this one game, but it just feels to me like this is Wilson's wheelhouse. This is the type of offense where he feels most comfortable, and starts slinging it. Give him a run game, get the defense flowing, and get him outside the pocket running either direction. It's tougher for defenses to contain Wilson in the pocket when you're running true, under-center bootleg action, at least in theory, because his speed comes into play.

Now, all that said, with Harvin gone, the Seahawks came out against the Rams and ran a very good proportion of their plays with two tight ends or two backs. Per my tracking (I may have missed a play or three, but you get the picture):

11 personnel (3WR, 1RB, 1TE): 32 snaps
21 personnel (2WR, 2RB, 1TE): 10 snaps
12 personnel (2WR, 1RB, 2TE): 7 snaps
22 personnel (1WR, 2RB, 2TE): 5 snaps
10 personnel (4WR, 1RB, 0TE): 4 snaps
20 personnel (3WR, 2RB, 0TE): 3 snaps
13 personnel (1WR, 1RB, 3TE): 3 snaps

So, 11 personnel was the featured grouping (32 snaps). That said, Seattle ran 28 sets featuring two backs or two tight ends. I believe that's a huge increase over the first five weeks of the season, though I haven't tracked it.

Of course, you have to take this game with a grain of salt - Seattle was down several key players and every year they tend to play the Rams this way, so you may see the Hawks go back to more of a 11 personnel look next week, or the week after. You should always expect a slightly different gameplan each week.

But, considering Seattle lost their starting fullback in warmups and still ran 18 snaps with Robert Turbin at that spot (when he's never once even practiced there), I think it signals a desire by the Seahawks to get back to their roots. When your two top tight ends are injured and you still run 15 snaps with at least two tight ends? I think that says something.

Let's take a look at a few examples from St. Louis. I'm not going to breakdown plays, but just show you some of the formations and personnel groupings Seattle had on the gameplan.

1. 12 personnel, balanced, out of a shotgun look. Alvin Bailey out to the right outside of Justin Britt. Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin are the receivers.

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2. 21 personnel, Wilson under center. Baldwin and Kearse, nearly stacked with a reduced split. This stack thing is going to be featured more down the line, I think. Keep an eye out for this.

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3. 13 personnel -- and Kearse is lined up over tight end. This is what you'd call a tight formation -- literally no one out on the wing. Wilson under center.

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4. 12 personnel, unbalanced with two tight ends to the left. Wilson under center - stacked receivers with a reduced split out right.

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5. This was a cool play -- Seahawks in 22 personnel here, and Wilson audibles to a smoke route (a quick pass to the wing based on soft coverage). This is that "Free Money" that Davis was talking about a few weeks ago in regards to taking advantage when teams play with a big cushion. Kearse breaks a tackle on the corner and runs for 17.

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6. 20 personnel -- no tight ends. This split back look could become a bigger thing going down the road now that Derrick Coleman is out and Robert Turbin is the de facto fullback. Using Turbin as an outlet receiver is pretty deadly in something like this. Seattle used this look to run read option stuff.

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7. 21 personnel. Nasty splits on the left by Kearse and Baldwin.

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So - you kind of can get the picture. Seattle's offense, to me anyway, looked more reminiscent of their style last season. Run you over, then throw it over the top. Play smashmouth football, generate explosives. The Hawks didn't get many deep shots in in this game (their major opportunity to do this, Russell threw the ball out of bounds over Kearse's head), but, importantly, they produced 12 explosive plays on offense (passes of 16+ yards, runs of 12+). That's huge.

Bottom line? I don't know if the Seahawks are planning to use "heavy-sets" more frequently the rest of the season, but if the Rams game is an indication, that's more the style that they want to play.

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