Running the ball. Controlling the clock. Avoiding turnovers. Smashmouth. These are qualities frequently used to describe the Seahawks' identity, and for good reason - under Marshawn Lynch and a slew of other running backs, the Seattle offense has re-branded itself as an efficient, well-oiled machine capable of beating you physically and schematically.
Lynch's success has naturally drawn consistent attention and has been the center of many game-plans for opposing defenses since 2012, so much so that it has allowed Russell Wilson and the passing game to remain underratedly suspect. As we have seen in rare instances, the Seahawks offense is most dangerous when they can both run and pass the ball effectively. No doubt this is the eventual goal that Pete Carroll wants for his team, and as we've talked about before, he believes in big passing plays downfield as much as he stresses the physical dominance in the running game. Carroll strives in balance and versatility. He wants to keep the defenses on their toes, so that when they decide to cheat he the ability to punish them for guessing wrong. With Lynch and Wilson in tow, he has the tools needed to achieve this.
The harder question is finding the right progressions to do so.
And arguably the most basic way to achieve this kind of success with a run-first mentality is to begin by establishing the ground attack early before following through with deep play-action. It's the oldest strategy in the book, and one almost all teams in the NFL abide to in some way. Yet it's incredibly difficult to legitimize both pieces as threats, and more often than not teams will hedge their bets on one aspect of the offense over another. In the Seahawks' case, the languishing wide receiving corps has encouraged defenses to stack eight in the box and spy on Wilson rather than sacrifice players into coverage.
Whether or not this is effective remains to be determined, but one method Carroll has used to try to beat this is by utilizing two tight end sets, or "12 personnel" groupings. You may remember how in 2011 the Seahawks signed Zach Miller to a long term deal with John Carlson, Anthony McCoy and Cameron Morrah already in tow, or the many times when we began the season with four tight ends in our roster. Just earlier this year Seattle was poised to sign Jermichael Finley when they already had Miller, McCoy, Luke Willson and Cooper Helfet on the roster.
I think Carroll's proclivity for this grouping is a result of their ability to both contribute as a blocker and receiver, as well as Tom Cable's utilization of tight ends in the zone blocking scheme in a H-Back type player. At face value, the offense is churning out the possibility of using seven total blockers at the same time they are threatening with five receivers.
In other words, "12 personnel" formations give the offense the best chance to achieve the best of both worlds. Take for instance, this Ace Pair Twins formation (with special thanks to Danny for all the moving pictures):
Now here's my question: pretend that you are the Cardinals defense for a second. Do the Seahawks look like they are running the ball here? With seven potential blockers on the line, the threat is certainly there. Here's how I would draw up the blocks if the team does decide to run:
Before the snap, Wilson motions his tight end across the field. Watch the defense react:
Let's review what we know now: There are eight (instead of seven) defenders positioned to play the run, which means that one of the two receivers the Seahawks split out left (remember from our initial diagram) will face one-on-one coverage downfield. Provided that Seattle also goes into play-action, their two-tight ends will help sell out the illusion of the run and at the same time leak out into the flat for a easy gain. As you see below, these are great reasons to audible into a pass and take advantage of what the defense is giving us:
But what about the linebacker's blitz? Provided if all eight men rush, then we would only have seven blockers - a mismatch on our part. The best response to that is Wilson can getting the ball out quick enough to counter. A crossing route by the closest receiver could do the trick.
If we are playing the odds however, a fire blitz by the defense would be incredibly risky, if not downright reckless. And don't forget, if we decide the run the ball still, they would only have one defender standing between our running back and the end zone.
Here's another example against New York. Now the Giants did not blitz on this play, but they still counted eight men in the box like Arizona did:
So one should consider employing a more conservative defense like the Eagles, no? Certainly that's what the Giants tried to do after that a 3rd string TE burned them down the field:
Probably not, because then they would just run through you regardless:
Basically, you get burned both ways. And keep in mind that we've limited ourselves here to one formation and two sets of plays. 12 personnel is versatile enough that you can substitute in extra lineman (as we've seen with Gilliam) at the same time you can run the zone read option. Consider the opportunities presented with this personnel, and just imagine what this offense could be if everyone in the group was healthy.
(Writer's note: There is, however, one more thing reason as to why I think this personnel grouping might be effective in our upcoming game against Arizona. Looking all the tape presented, can you find a common trend?)