From Marshall Faulk this week: When you're Professional Grade, you look to stay ahead of others in your field. Think about what defines your team. Maybe it's a tough defense. Or a commitment to the ground game. What team in the league is most similar to yours in playing style or emphasis? What can your team learn from them that will help you reach the next level?
As coincidence would have it, I would actually say that the Seahawks' opponents this week, the San Francisco 49ers, are the team most similar to Seattle in terms of philosophy and playing style. The ideal equation for both teams would be something along the lines of: A tough, physical defense, combined with a strong run game and an explosive passing offense. It's an old school way to go, but in Pete Carroll's terms, it's "the the most consistent, proven championship formula in the history of this game."
"I think in every season there's an ebb and flow to the focus and attention to the really crucial matters, and it kind of comes and goes. Last year, we got off to a great start, we were 9-1 or whatever, and then we started faltering in the middle there, and we had all kinds of problems. In that, we had to kind of rediscover what kept us connected, what kept us so tuned in and intense like we needed to be. And we were able to find it and so this year was much of the same. It's never just steady all the way throughout. There's ups and downs, and challenges, injuries, and concerns and issues of all sorts. And you have to bounce from those things and make sure you stay true. Sometimes you have to take a step backwards to take a couple steps forward, and that's just the way it is.
So, how do you first identify the issue, then take steps to correct it?
I think everything counts. We have to be great observers, and listeners, and watchers, and communicators, so that we always can stay abreast of what's happening. And sometimes you can't stop it from the way it's going, until you kind of get to a critical juncture.
Was the Seahawks' critical juncture their behind-closed-doors meeting of the core veterans recently? We may never know, but they seem to have figured out what was happening and looked to fix it.
And that's just how it goes. Last year, we were down 21-0 to Tampa Bay at home, and they were 0-8 at the time. And they played like the Green Bay Packers of old, you know, they were killing us. It was a fantastic game for them, and we had to come back from that, and we fortunately did. And we had to regroup after that. This year, we got bounced around some in uncommon fashion. It took us some depths to get to before we could figure out we needed to get back to the right business, and all that. It's not as easy as it sounds. It's like tuning a fine instrument, it's difficult. And so it does take observation, information from the players, a feel, and all kinds of stuff to get it done. And that's why we have a big staff, and all try and take care of our business, and figure it out.
Over the last month or so, Seattle's defense has improved dramatically and their offense does appear to be moving in the right direction. As we go into the final three games of the season, let's take a minute to review where the Seahawks are in terms of recapturing their Championship identity.
The Foundation: A dominant run defense paired with a suffocating, disciplined pass defense
The Seahawks want to stop the run first and foremost, and force you to be one-dimensional. After that, they want to play stingy pass defense and not allow you to throw anything deep.
Their defense last year was historically good, so it's honestly kind of tough to compare anything to it, but I would say that Seattle is on their way to challenging the level of play they achieved last year. In 2013, the Seahawks allowed a league-best 14.4 points per game. This season, that number has jumped to 18.1 points per game, and that's ultimately the most important gauge of a defense's effectiveness. However, over the Seahawks' last seven games (in which they're 6-1), they're giving up an average of 13.4 points per game. The Seahawks cannot match last year's defensive scoring number, but continued defensive dominance over the last week could help them get a little closer to it.
In terms of yardage -- the 2013 Seahawks defense gave up 273.6 yards per game, and this year, they're giving up 274.5 total yards per game through 13. Last year's group gave up 101.6 rushing yards per game at 3.9 yards per carry, and this year they're giving up 84.1 yards per game on the ground at 3.5 yards per rush. Last year's team gave up 172 passing yards per game compared to 190.4 passing yards per game this season. Last year they got 28 interceptions but this season they've only collected ten.
The fact that they're allowing fewer rushing yards per carry and per game this year is pretty remarkable, and has allowed them to further develop their rush packages and nickel personnel groups. Importantly, though, the pass defense hasn't faltered once Seattle makes their opponents go to a pass-heavy approach.
Seahawks corners have allowed a 78.0 passer rating when targeted this season. The lowest such figure in the NFL for the third straight year
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 11, 2014
Seahawks corners have allowed a 78.0 passer rating when targeted this season. The lowest such figure in the NFL for the third straight year— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 11, 2014
Ultimately, the defense is back to playing fast and physical, and they're tackling well. That's really the basis for how they play, because their scheme isn't very complicated or exotic.
The Identity: A dominating, demoralizing rush offense
The Seahawks have the NFL's best run game and it's not close. They're lapping the field, averaging over 20 rushing yards per game (170 YPG) more than the second place team (149 YPG for the Jets) and per Football Outsiders, they are the 9th most efficient run team of all time, nearly three times higher in rush DVOA right now than the second place Chiefs.
This success is owed to the combination of Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson. The Seahawks have an inside-out game where on their base read-option run play, Lynch can go left and Wilson can go right (or visa versa). The threat that Wilson provides opens things up for Lynch and the threat that Lynch provides opens things up for Wilson. It's a symbioticrelationship and the Seahawks have ridden it to a 9-4 record.
Additionally, Wilson's ability to scramble comes into play. I think apart from making the offense more difficult to scheme for, it serves as a demoralizing factor in that just when you think you've got Wilson hemmed up and ready for a take-down, the receivers covered up and taken care of, he escapes and easily scrambles for a first down to move the chains. That has got to be the absolute most frustrating thing in the world to a defense, particularly in that on a majority of occasions, you cannot even hit Wilson to make yourself feel better about it. He slides effortlessly down or runs out of bounds, outstretching the ball for an additional yard or so.
The Seahawks use a combination of basic zone blocking schemes up front with power-o, read option, and man concepts sprinkled in. They actually have a fairly diverse run scheme, thanks to Tom Cable's design.
The Force Multiplier: Surgical deep shots
In addition to a dominating run game, Pete Carroll has always believed in the power of the explosive play. He defines an explosive play as runs of 12+ yards and passes of 16+ yards. I do not have the numbers the Seahawks keep for explosive plays based on that criteria, but this site does track "Big Plays," which they define as rushes of 10+ yards and passes of 25+ yards. This works for our purposes well enough.
And, as they record, the Seahawks lead the NFL in big plays (yahoo!). They have more "big plays" on offense than the Packers! I bet you wouldn't have guessed that! Also, you probably, or maybe? wouldn't have guess where they're getting those big plays.
The Seahawks are actually fifth worst in pass plays over 25 yards with just 18. This means, the vast majority (68) of their "big plays" or "explosive plays," are coming on the ground.
That's fine (fine, not great), ultimately, I think, because Carroll just wants to get explosive plays. He did a study at USC that said if you hit an explosive play, you score 75% of the time. I don't know if that was for the NFL or college, but regardless, it points to a very high correlation between getting a big play and scoring on that drive. In other words, the odds go up that you will score, and they go up exponentially, if you hit an explosive play on any given drive. This is just a numbers game -- it's very difficult to consistently execute 11, 12, 13 or more plays in any given drive and score the football in the NFL. A big play makes your chances of scoring on a particular drive go through the roof.
So, run or pass, explosive plays are a big deal to Carroll, who also believes there's "power" in getting these plays. It gets the players amped up, it gets the crowd alternately into the game or takes it out of the game, depending on where you're playing, and gives a team momentum (whether you believe in that or not).
With that in mind -- because the Seahawks' deep passing game is lacking a little from where they were last season, let's take a look at the Eagles game, where Seattle seemed to finally take a few shots downfield.
2-10-SEA 27 (7:19 2nd Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep right to D.Baldwin to SEA 47 for 20 yards (M.Jenkins).
Watch Baldwin's footwork here. This little jumpy, stutter-step movement he does often precedes a cut outside on a wheel route, coming off of a pick by the outside receiver. His initial steps looks to me like he's setting the nickel defensive back up for Seattle's trusty "switch verticals" concept.
It's their most effective "pick play" -- and the Eagles are surely schemed up to try and stop it. Watch how the DB looks to impede Doug's outside movement, and while he tries to jam Doug up as he goes off the pick to the outside, Doug cuts it up field straight up the numbers. Wilson throws a dart, threading the needle through for a big gain.
Great route, great throw, great concept.
3-13-SEA 30 (1:08 2nd Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep left to D.Baldwin to 50 for 20 yards (C.Williams).
I loved this play, and again, it shows how valuable Doug Baldwin has become as a slot receiver and Russell Wilson's primary go-to guy. In my opinion, Doug is the best route runner on the team. He mixes great speed and explosion with excellent foot and hip work, and if you watch his routes closely, he's connecting one with another to set up defensive backs.
On this play below, he sets up the DB like he's going to be running an out-route to the sideline at the sticks. He may have an inside-outside option on this play, but regardless, he jab-steps outside, which gets the DB to open his hips ("open the gate"), which gives him a ton of separation on the deep dig.
As Davis pointed out earlier today, the Eagles are running a curiously shallow zone concept here -- probably because they are expecting a screen pass or something of a dumpoff underneath on 3rd and long -- and that allows Doug to get so open behind the linebackers and in front of the deep safety. Wilson hits him in stride.
It's worth noting that the protection is good, and it's good to see Wilson really throw a fastball.
3-15-SEA 45 (:28 2nd Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep left to P.Richardson to PHI 35 for 20 yards (N.Allen).
Russell Wilson's fake rollout is a thing of beauty here, and keeping in mind Fletcher Cox had a brilliant day overall (and easily busted past Justin Britt here), Wilson just jukes him out of his shoes on this particular play. I mean, this is just a sick move.
After rolling out and re-locating his receivers downfield, Wilson sees Paul Richardson working back to the middle of the field and hits him in stride. .
Richardson's play here is excellent as well. He runs a double move before getting to his deep out route. When he sees that Wilson has had to scramble, there's no delay in his transition to "scramble rules." Richardson works to the middle of the field and elevates for the catch, securing it forcefully on the way down.
This was a huge play in the flow of the game, as Seattle got a first down in third and long, and would score a field goal before the half.
1-10-SEA 21 (11:21 3rd Q) R.Wilson pass incomplete deep right to D.Baldwin (B.Fletcher).
There's not a ton to be said about this play other than it sets up the touchdown later in the drive. What I like about it is that when Wilson sees that there's no safety help over the top, he lets it rip down the sideline in that redline throw that we haven't seen a ton of this year. With the winds swirling mercilessly, the pass hangs up in the air and ends up being well behind Doug down the sideline. Bradley Fletcher impedes Doug's ability to get to the ball and interference is called.
It's a bang-bang play, and if you're wondering why the call went against Fletcher, it's because he hugged Baldwin first, before turning his head to find it. That's a no-no.
(head not around)
I suppose I can see why Eagles fans were mad about it, and it's definitely close. However, when you slow it down, it's clear that Doug was looking for the ball first, and that Fletcher reacted to this before getting his head around to find the ball. He goes in to initiate the hug and then turns to find the pass. It's a pretty touching embrace though.
(head is now around)
1-10-PHI 23 (9:06 3rd Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep right to D.Baldwin for 23 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
The Eagles, for some reason, decide to play Cover-0 here. Doug roasts Fletcher this time, and it's not close. Again, you can see Doug's route running on display -- he jab-steps for the slant, the just runs up the numbers. Wilson hits him in stride.
The jab-step is the star of this play, though, as Fletcher opens his hips and has to turn all the way around. Just good route running.
2-10-SEA 22 (2:47 3rd Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep middle to J.Kearse to SEA 42 for 20 yards (M.Jenkins).
This next throw is a beaut. After getting the DB assigned in coverage to widen out a little bit -- you can see Kearse's route at the very beginning -- he cuts it inside for a slant. Wilson guns it in there, and Kearse makes an incredible catch.
I mean, seriously. He palms the nose of the ball with his right hand and secures it with his left.
3-11-PHI 40 (:12 3rd Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass incomplete deep right to P.Richardson (B.Fletcher).
Again, this is something I like to see. Wilson looks left, his option isn't open over there, so he comes back to the right. He's got Richardson streaking down the redline so he lets it fly.
It looks like the ball again hangs up in the wind. There's a chance, of course, that Wilson just short-armed it, but the way the wind was blowing that day I will just give him the benefit of the doubt.
To his credit, Paul does a great job of seeing that it's going to be intercepted, so he breaks up the pass.
Overall, the results aren't what you want -- the Seahawks punt -- but I don't mind them taking that shot. Ultimately I want them to get back to that.
The bottom line is that it seems like Russell Wilson was very cognizant to stick in the pocket this week. The coaches have been asking him to go against his instincts to run, instead wanting him to trust the pocket and let plays develop. This is with a vision for the long-term future. Wilson did this. It also cost him a few sacks. But he did it. It's visible on tape. There will, of course, be some hiccups because of this, but overall I was glad to see that.
I was even more glad to see Wilson let a few deep passes rip down the sidelines. I was glad to see him zip a few passes up the seams. This offense is very strong right now, but it could be infinitely stronger with the element of that deep passing game back in the fold. We'll see what Seattle does this weekend, because the Niners' pass defense this year has been excellent, but it would be very cool to see them take a few shots regardless.