From Marshall Faulk:
"Well, we've reached the end. Week 17. Our final GMC Playbook of the year. We end the season with some divisional games where familiarity plays a huge role. Innovative strategy will help separate the teams that are truly Professional Grade. How should your team attack your rival this week in an unexpected way?"
"Players, formations, plays."
This is Brock Huard's consistent preamble to his excellent Chalk Talk series, and it's an absolutely integral part of what the Seahawks do on offense. What Huard is alluding to is this: How can Pete Carroll, Darrell Bevell and Tom Cable utilize their players, formations, and plays to exploit mismatches and confound defenses?
It's been fairly well-documented that the Seahawks run a relatively basic passing offense with relatively few plays and relatively simple route combinations. That said, what Seattle does really well is to vary and tweak their core concepts by running them from a smörgåsbord of personnel groupings and formations.
So, in basic terms: The Seahawks' offensive concepts remain the same, while the formations they're being run from, and the players that are running them, change game to game and quarter to quarter. This makes it extremely difficult for opposing defenses, who are taught to look for, you guessed it: Players and formations.
This is, to answer Marshall Faulk's question, how Seattle will attack St. Louis this weekend in an unexpected play. To combat the familiarity between the two teams, I would predict we'll see Seattle run their core set of concepts but come up with different "looks" to run them from, eliminating the ability for Rams' defenders to diagnose and react prior to the snap.
This isn't the first time I've talked about this (in fact, I talk about it fairly incessantly), but as many people pointed out after Luke Willson scored on an 80-yard touchdown catch and run, it was "the same play that Zach Miller got caught from behind on in that Saints game last year!"
Kinda. But not really. It was the same concept, not the same "play," per se. It's run from a different grouping and formation. Let's look:
3-1-SEA 36 (4:02 1st Quarter) R.Wilson pass deep right to Z.Miller to NO 4 for 60 yards (D.Hawthorne) [J.Galette].
You're a defensive back. The first thing you do when an opposing offense breaks their huddle is to determine the personnel grouping. Here, the Seahawks are in a "13" grouping, or three tight ends, one running back, and one receiver. Luke Willson was the motion man on this play, with Zach Miller and Kellen Davis down in a balanced set on each side of the tackles. Jermaine Kearse is the wideout, and he's in tight to the formation.
So, as a defensive back, this reads "RUN" all the way. Lo and behold, the Saints have nine in the "box".
It's not a run, though. This is how it's drawn up, and Russell Wilson will execute a reverse-pivot play action fake to Robert Turbin before bootlegging out to his right (along with Turbin, whose route will take him to the right as well.)
Meanwhile, Kearse and Davis run a "levels" concept, dragging across the field parallel to Russell at different levels of the defense. Zach Miller is also a part of this levels concept, except when he sees that no one picks him up, he deepens his route and just heads for open green.
Watch, and take note of the Saints' defenders first biting on the playaction (they go with the offensive line), then biting on the bootleg (along with the shorter routes). No one picks up Miller as he sneaks out into the third level.
It helps that this is a cover-0 look and the deep safety runs with Luke Willson as he leaks out the backside. This means there's literally no one back deep as a safety.
Russell Wilson does his thang and lobs an accurate pass downfield as he gets hit, and the ball softly floats down and hits his tight end in perfect stride. "Unfortunately for Seattle," as Jacson Bevens wrote so adroitly back on December 3rd, 2013, "Miller runs like he left the parking brake on" and is dragged down from behind at the three yard line.
That's not to take away from what Miller brings to the table, because he's a fantastic run blocking tight end with nearly flawless hands and the kind of reliability that allows the Seahawks to put him on the outside one-on-one with all the top defensive ends. None of the Seahawks' active stable of tight ends is as good as Miller, nor as valuable, individually. However, what Seattle has done in response to losing Miller for the year is to use their different tight ends in the aggregate, to do what Miller did in toto. It takes three or four guys to do what Miller alone could do, but that's what you have to do when you lose a key, core player.
Of course, there are particular things that each individual tight end brings to the table. Tony Moeaki and Cooper Helfet are smooth athletes with amazing body control in the air. Both are "move" tight ends and have soft hands and are natural moving about on the field. Alvin Bailey and Garry Gilliam are the "blocking tight ends" for this team with Miller on IR, and Seattle has used them frequently in "heavy" sets.
Luke Willson is a little bit of a tweener -- he can block, sorta, and Tom Cable has said he likes him on the move in this role. You see him lead-blocking through the hole as an H-back. You see him on the edge blocking for screen plays, pitch outs, and read-option keepers. He's still got a ways to go in both his blocking in-line blocking and his blocking on the move, but Seattle's "primary" tight end does have one defining characteristic: blistering straight-line speed.
You'd expect this of a fifth round pick. There is going to be a development curve, and you can't expect to get a complete player at that point in the draft (as the rule). However, the Seahawks usually do a good job of accentuating their players' unique talents, even if they're specific and limited (think Ricardo Lockette), and as I said, Willson's is blazing fast speed up the seam and over the middle.
That showed up twice vs. the Cardinals as he caught two touchdown passes, but the most obvious use of his unique talents came when he caught a pass in the same concept as I outlined above, then outran a defensive back to paydirt.
2-10-SEA 20 (7:16 2nd Quarter) R.Wilson pass deep right to L.Willson for 80 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Compare and contrast the route concepts (hint: they're the same). However, this time they run it out of their "11" personnel grouping, with three receivers, a tight end, and a running back, and Russell Wilson is in shotgun instead of lining up under center. I'm sure the Seahawks have run this concept a shit-load of times and from a shit-load of different looks since last year's Saints game, but just in terms of comparing the two for our purposes here, there's no way an opposing linebacker or defensive back could look at this formation and think about the play outlined above.
Yet, it's the same thing, essentially.
In the play below, Marshawn Lynch runs the H-back's (Luke Willson's) route, a leak out on the backside. Slot receiver Doug Baldwin runs (with Russell Wilson) what's called a "swap boot" over the top of top of the formation. This takes the place of Robert Turbin's route in the play above. Jermaine Kearse runs the route that in-line tight end Kellen Davis ran above.
Again, different players and different formations, but the same route concepts. The outside route remains unchanged, as does Luke Willson's route.
Bottom line: Even with a deep cover-2 shell prior to the snap, the Cardinals bite on the play-action and bootleg, meaning Tyrann Matheiu (bottom) and Rashad Johnson (top) both let Willson get over the top of them. Watch when the gif below first freezes -- every single defender has his eyes in the backfield. This is the power that Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch bring.
That's when something really pretty remarkable happens: 6'5, 255 pound Luke Willson outruns the 5'11, 204 pound safety, Johnson.
"He ran 4.5s, that's great time for tight ends," said Pete Carroll after the game. "He didn't get a lot of attention in college and that's a great job by John (Schneider) and his guys to find him as a prospect. And to work him out with the thought that he could be the guy he is now. This is the guy we hoped we could get, that's rare speed for a tight end and he's shown it."
I mean, he's not Zach Miller. But that speed, you guys. That speed is special.